Our obsession with external appearance diminishes our ability to participate in truly intimate, loving relationships. – Kushal Magar
As a child, I was utterly entranced by Classical Greece. I taught myself its history and myths, its alphabet and geography. I pinned pictures of its pantheon across my bedroom walls and raised Doric temples from artfully deconstructed cereal boxes. I dressed my brother’s Action Men in handkerchief chitoniskos and declared them my very own Sacred Band of Thebes.
I soon learnt how the Ancient Greeks had equated external physical excellence with internal ‘spiritual’ development. They famously coined the term kalos kagathos (καλὸς κἀγαθός) – ‘Handsome and Honourable’ – in reference to the perfected harmony of body and mind for which all young men were expected to strive.
This cultural ideal had expressed itself in a preference for naked male exercise (gymnasion) and athletic competition. This had found its zenith in over a thousand years of naked Panhellenic Olympic Games (until the Christian Emperor Theodosius banned them in 394 C.E.), the Greeks believing themselves superior to ‘barbarian’ nations whose physiques were insufficiently beautiful to be so publicly displayed.
This Hellenic divinising of the human body, with their elevating of its image to the dizzying heights of a cultural idealism to which we continue to aspire, could not have had a greater impact on the impressionable and sensitive child that I had been. When I first walked through the sculpture gallery of Chatsworth House to be confronted by the Greek-inspired body of the Wounded Achilles, for example, I lost my breath and found my skinny, ten-year-old legs buckling beneath me.
For years thereafter, I remained convinced that upon reaching adolescence all men developed comparable symmetry, musculature and proportion beneath the cover of their clothes. When at the age of fourteen I presented myself before a full-length mirror to consider my progress towards what I had interpreted as a wholly inherent ephebic perfection, I was not so much disappointed as aghast. The shock of this single self-inflicted injury to my confidence took unnecessarily long to overcome and inspired a long-secret, bedroom-based, Spartan-worthy regime of push-ups, crunches and weighted limb-swings.
Body culture had been reborn by the discovery of this ancient Hellenic standard during the European Renaissance of the 15th-century, as expressed through the stupendous craft of the likes of Da Vinci and Michelangelo. By the turn of 19th-century, women were dressing in simple, body-revealing ‘Classical’ dresses, whilst men were wearing tight, pale waistcoats and breeches to emulate the appearance of marble statues beneath the dark, cut-away frock-coats worn to emphasise their physiques.
Not until later in the 19th-century, however, did a new taste for athleticism and physical fitness arise in Europe, predominantly as a means by which to reform the ‘wanting moral fibre’ of the working class. This new pursuit of what in Britain was termed Muscular Christianity resulted in the world’s first body-building display in 1893. Three years later, the Olympic Games were reinstated, opening in Athens.
By the early 20th-century, exercise routines to advance the renewed appeal of Classical proportion had become all the rage. Accordingly, various idiosyncratic systems of so-called Greek Movement appeared, all promising to transform modern man’s “dead weight into a living force”; to correct his sitting posture “as an aid to deep thought”; even to afford him a “splendid build and perfect aliveness”, a “moral sense of well-being”, and thus “a new power of control”. [See for example The Renaissance of the Greek Ideal – Diana Watts: William Heineman, London, 1914].
However, it was during the rise of Germany’s Weimar Republic after the First World War that body-culture, with all its eugenicist ‘super-man’ connotations, reached an apogee. This new physical idealism of Freikörperkultur, which combined the aesthetics of nudity with athletic movement, was embraced by the politics of the day as a method by which to “restore national physical superiority”. However, within a generation this had been perverted into a means by which to justify a programme of euthanasia that led to the inconceivable inhumanity from which the world still reels. The term ‘body-fascism’ had been born.
Stirred, perhaps, by the macho post-war posturing of its politicians and the bare-chested bravado of Hollywood’s new generation of gym-buffed heroes – Charlton Heston, Yul Bryner, Rock Hudson and their ilk – North America was soon reinventing, and inevitably commercialising, the quest for physical perfection. Gymnasia (with clothes), fitness clubs, aerobics, and every imaginable form of bodywork were incorporated into the obsessive quest for the body beautiful.
It was at this point that yogic asana – which had commanded a brief flurry of interest in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, largely courtesy of the Beatles’ dalliance with hippydom – were enthusiastically adopted by the fitness industry. A new ‘health-club yoga’ flourished, and with it magazines, books, videos, clothing lines and a breath-taking array of superfluous paraphernalia. By the mid-1990s, the addition of a thin veneer of highly selective, conservative, Vedantic philosophy had afforded the industry a new commercial edge in a demanding and fickle fitness market. Yoga – with its tantalising promise of bendy legs, flat abs, cannonball buttocks and cellulite-free thighs – had become big business.
And yet, this highly profitable pursuit for some Ancient Greek ideal of physical perfection through yoga is a total distortion and trivialisation of its origins. The mountain peoples amongst whom the yogic tradition arose have never had a comparable body-culture.
If any idealism could be said to exist amongst the indigenous population of the Himalayan foothills, it is not for any outward appearance, but only for a way of being – for the inner beauty of honesty, empathy, compassion and wisdom.
[Part Eight follows soon]
You’ll find much more about the mountain culture in which the ancient yogic tradition originated in Limitless Sky