THE IDEA THAT EXERCISE IS A requisite for good health goes back a few thousand years in India, ever since perhaps the advent of the second urbanisation somewhere in the middle of the millennium before Christ when all the new non-Vedic religions like Buddhism and Jainism took root. Probably around the same time, the Charaka Samhita, one of the most ancient Indian treatises on medicine, was also composed. Exercise is recommended in it and its correct features, as listed in a paper titled ‘Science of Exercise: Ancient Indian Origin’ by S Mondal, an associate professor in the Department of Physical Education at Visva-Bharati University, are stated as ‘Perspiration, enhanced respiration, lightness of the body, inhibition of the heart and such other organs of the body are indicative of the exercise being performed correctly.’ It spells out what happens when you do it improperly, in excess leading to fatigue, bleeding, fever, vomiting, cough, etcetera. People who were emaciated by too much sex and lifting of weights, who spoke too much, were prone to anger and fear, were told to stay off exercising. Mondal’s paper adds: ‘The treatise says that summers are not good for heavy work outs. For the autumn it recommends swimming and the beginning of spring is the time to really get into the groove. And the benefits it promises for someone who exercises and has a good body is prevention of diseases, sturdy organs, resilience against the vagaries of nature and also good digestion.’
Likewise, the other parent of Ayurveda, the Susruta Samhita, also dated to the same period, has exercise as a component of health. In an article titled ‘Susruta of India, an unrecognized contributor to the history of exercise physiology’, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Charles M Tipton writes that Susruta, the author of the treatise, defined it as a ‘sense of weariness from bodily labour and it should be taken every day’. Exercise is described in the treatise as referring to movements associated with walking, running, jumping, swimming, diving, or riding and participating in sports such as archery, wrestling, and javelin throws. The article says Susruta prescribed only moderate exercise or up to an intensity where breathing becomes laboured. Tipton adds: ‘However, before exercise was to be prescribed, the age, strength, physique, and diet of the individual was to be considered as well as the season of the year and the terrain of the area. Susruta advocated moderate exercise for ancient Indians because it improved the growth of limbs; enhanced muscle stoutness (mass), strength, endurance, tautness (tone), and development; reduced corpulence; increased digestion; increased the resistance against fatigue; elevated temperatures and thirst while improving appearances and complexions. Moderate exercise was also advocated because it “gives the desirable mental qualities of alertness, retentive memory, and keen intelligence”.’
Why does physical fitness as a deliberate activity become important in a culture? Specialised groups like warriors need to be strong in an age of handheld close combat weapons and there is really no alternative to exercise. But in earlier times there were no standing armies, and only specialised full-time warriors would be interested in it. For the larger population, in a time of food scarcity and daily physical toil, say as farmers or artisans, there is really no need to undertake anything extra. Formal physical exercise is essentially a function of an idle plentiful society. What passes for it today is a post-Industrial Revolution Western idea. As a BBC article by Bryan Lufkin last year following the lockdown, and delving into the evolution of home fitness, has noted: ‘Exercising has been around for a long time; yoga in India, tai chi in China and Olympic training in Greece go back thousands of years, for example. But ‘fitness’ as we know it today is a relatively new construct, not even 200 years old. One of the earliest examples comes from an illustrated guidebook written in 1861 in Victorian England, which shows women in petticoats and men in neckties exercising different muscle groups. The idea for the daily regimen came from Gustav Ernst, an orthopaedic machinist in London who invented the portable home gym, a device made of mahogany boards, cords, weights and pulleys. In those pre-transport days, people had more exercise built organically into their day. Gyms were rare; those that existed were almost exclusively frequented by men and “weren’t places where you’d be proud to be seen”, says Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an associate professor of history at The New School in New York City who is writing a book about the fitness industry. “They were seen as kind of seedy places where lowlifes would hang out.” And while people (mostly men) played sports, getting sweaty on purpose for health or appearance just wasn’t something most people did.’
What exactly were the exercises that Indians did then in the past? Most of them, probably nothing. But an intellectual and elite slice was on it, but in a different manner. Yoga is said to have been in our civilisation ever since its beginning. In an Indus Valley seal, dated to before 2000 BCE, a three-headed figure is sitting in what looks like a cross-legged meditation posture. It has been identified by some to be Shiva or his earlier form of Rudra. But even here, it is just a posture and whether that can be counted as an exercise is as difficult to answer as the identity of the figure itself. That someone sat in that manner in that period of time does not necessarily make it a system of fitness. Even when yoga makes its advent as a formal system in history, physical exercise is not detailed. The Patanjali Yoga Sutra details no asanas at all. And all that we know as yoga now is probably not that ancient either. In an article in Yoga Journal, Anne Cushman, co-author of From Here to Nirvana: The Yoga Journal Guide to Spiritual India, writes about Sritattvanidhi, an early 19th century yoga manual of the Mysore palace found by a scholar, Norman Sjoman, in the mid-1980s in the Maharajah’s private library. It showed how to do 122 asanas with illustrations.
T Krishnamachari, who is recognised as the father of modern yoga, being the tutor of such teachers who took yoga abroad like Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, was from Karnataka and learnt his yoga on his travels to places like Varanasi and the Himalayas. Later, in his job as instructor in the Mysore palace, he came across this booklet and incorporated it into his repertoire. But Cushman says Sjoman made an even more interesting discovery: ‘Along the way, claims Sjoman, Krishnamacharya also seems to have incorporated into the yogic canon specific techniques drawn from British gymnastics. In addition to being a patron of yoga, the Mysore royal family was a great patron of gymnastics. In the early 1900s, they hired a British gymnast to teach the young princes. When Krishnamacharya was brought to the palace to start a yoga school in the 1920s, his schoolroom was the former palace gymnastics hall, complete with wall ropes and other gymnastic aids, which Krishnamacharya used as yoga props. He was also given access to the Western gymnastics manual written by the Mysore Palace gymnasts. This manual—excerpted in Sjoman’s book—gives detailed instructions and illustrations for physical maneuvers that Sjoman argues quickly found their way into Krishnamacharya’s teachings, and passed on to Iyengar and Jois: for example, lolasana, the cross-legged jumpback that helps link together the vinyasa in the Ashtanga series, and Iyengar’s technique of walking the hands backward down a wall into a back arch.’
Take one of the most popular exercises associated with India, the Surya Namaskar. It is only in the first half of the 20th century that it is first recorded into a book, even if the tradition might go back earlier. And even in the very name ‘surya namaskar’, you get an idea of how India viewed exercise differently from the sense it has taken now. It is almost always as part of a larger religious and spiritual construct. Otherwise, why call it the ‘sun salutation’ at all for what is essentially a series of dynamic postures? Likewise, the yoga that is popular today is hatha yoga, the physical aspect of it. In the yoga system that is only one limb of eight which, according to the Patanjali Yoga Sutra, includes, besides postures, ethical living, control of senses, mediation, etcetera. Exercise or fitness in India is a requirement for a larger end, to attain a form of self-realisation.
This is mostly absent in how yoga is taught today, making it mostly a pure physical endeavour. Like many things, it is the impact of Western modernism to see fitness for fitness’ sake. In one sense, it is a lowering of the scale of human ambition to look at fitness in this manner, but if the immediate need is only to bolster immunity, say, to meet a new virus, then it should be enough.