India and the International Physical Culture Movement

You were meant to have a fine looking strong and super healthy body. God cannot be pleased with the ugly, unhealthy, weak and flabby bodies. It is a sacrilege not to possess a fine, shapely, healthy body. It is a crime against oneself and against our country to be weak and ailing. Our own future and that of your Nation depend upon good health and enough strength. – (Mujumdar, Encyclopedia of Indian Physical Culture, 1950: ii).

To a large extent, popular postural yoga came into being in the first half of the twentieth century as a hybridized product of colonial India’s dialogical encounter with the worldwide physical culture movement. The forms of physical practice that predominate in popular international yoga today were developed in a climate of intense experimentation and research around a suitable regimen for Indian bodies and minds. “Yoga,” fore grounded in certain quarters as the epitome of Hindu physical culture, became one of the names of this new national physical culture. The launching of the popular physical culture self-instruction genre and the staging of the first modern Olympics coincide chronologically with the appearance of Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga (1896), which ushered in a new phase of yoga’s long history. Moreover, the first ever modern bodybuilding display took place on August 1, 1893, the very day that Vivekananda himself arrived on Western soil. Transnational Anglophone yoga was born at the peak of an unprecedented enthusiasm for physical culture, and the meaning of yoga itself would not remain unaltered by the encounter.

As a vital contextual prelude to our examination of modern postural yoga, I now offer an overview of physical culture in India from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s. An unprecedented enthusiasm for athletic and gymnastic disciplines swept Britain and Europe during the nineteenth century. These disciplines—and the values that underpinned them—found their way to British India, where they at once reinforced stereotypes of Indian effeminacy and at the same time offered methods to rebut that image. Several key types of Western gymnastics and body culture radically impacted Indian physical consciousness during this period (Ling, Sandow, YMCA), leading to the creation or revival of “indigenous” exercise forms distinct (though often borrowing) from these imported systems. The swell of Indian physical culture was to some extent nationalistically motivated, and highly organized campaigns of militant physical resistance to colonial rule were commonly run out of local gymnasia and physical culture clubs. Often, nativized exercise such as this was also referred to as “yoga.”

The Dawn of Nationalist Physical Culture in Britain and Europe

But as one looks back now from the vantage of the turn of the century, one can appreciate how speedily and successfully somatic nationalism became an unquestioned feature of a shared global grammar of modernity manifested through many local varieties.  – (Uberoi 2006).

We should strive to develop our youthful Indians physically as well as mentally, morally and religiously. We should endeavor to introduce something of our public-school manliness of tone into Indian seminaries. – (Monier Williams 1879 : 329).

The nineteenth century saw an eruption of European interest in the cultivation of the body as a means of regenerating the moral and physical mettle of the nation. J. F. C. Gutsmuth’s Gymnastik fur Jugend of 1793 was to become the basic text of this physical revivalism in Germany, followed by the work of his influential younger contemporary F. L. “Turnvater” Jahn. Their gymnastic exercises “were not only meant to form healthy and beautiful bodies that would express a proper morality, but were designed in fact to create new Germans.” During the century to come, nationalistic “man-making” gymnastics building on Germany’s example burgeoned throughout Europe, with the most enduringly influential forms issuing from France, Prussia, and Scandinavia. During the 1830s and 1840s Britain also began to assimilate a variety of continental gymnastics and to place a similar emphasis on the cultivation of national brawn through exercise. Donald Walker’s British Manly Exercises of 1834 is one of the earliest examples of this trend. Walker’s book includes a treatment of the new sports of rowing, sailing, riding, and driving “as well as the usual subjects of walking, balancing, wrestling, running, scating [sic], boxing, leaping, climbing, training, vaulting [and] swimming.” The enthusiasm for strength-building exercise and sport grew exponentially from this time onward, and by about 1860, a “New Athleticism” with a “society-wide organization of games and sports” was becoming well established in Britain. This zeal for physical fitness was economically as well as patriotically motivated: to survive and earn a livelihood in the new industrial world one could not afford a weak constitution.

It was not until the end of the century, however, that these various fitness and exercise regimens were “beginning to be known by the catchphrase ‘physical culture.’” The appearance of a new pan-European genre of health and fitness magazine, starting with Edmond Desbonnet’s L’Athlete in 1896, consolidated physical culture’s populist status and extolled the benefits of bodily cultivation through gymnastics and weight resistance exercises. The same year saw the first large-scale gymnastics competition at the first modern Olympics in Athens.

The beginning of the twentieth century saw an “efflorescence of periodicals,” which provoked an unparalleled concern for the health of the body among British middle-class men and “a surge of support for building and disciplining the body” among the working classes (125). The doctrine of mens sana in corpore sano (“a sound mind in a sound body”) underpinned a wide range of physical innovations in British society, in particular the 1830s reformation of English public schools to include more games and sports and the ongoing modification of military training in the British army and navy under the influence of continental gymnastics (notably the Ling system). Physical culture in the nineteenth century bound together a cluster of ideological items, including manliness, morality, patriotism, fair play, and faith, and it was “a means for molding the perfect Englishman.”

Nurtured largely within the English public schools and Oxbridge, these values came to be together known as Muscular Christianity. The term was first used in a review of Charles Kingsley’s 1857 novel Two Years Ago and was reprised shortly afterward by Kingsley’s friend Thomas Hughes in his Tom Brown at Oxford (1860) to denote the subjection of the body for the advancement of just, godly causes. Proponents of Muscular Christianity took the mens sana principle and turned it into an article of faith, “a battle cry against all sinfulness, and against those who stood in the way of England’s greatness.”

This new ethos of athleticism was not confined to the public school system, however, but spread far and wide into the populace through organizations such as the Salvation Army and, most significantly for this study, the YMCA. The body, with its cultivated capacity for moral engagement in the world, housed a somatic imperative for all who belonged to nation, religion, and empire and was negatively defined in contrast to those races and lands that did not share this common ideology of purpose.

In the late nineteenth century (and throughout the twentieth), individuals, like states, became “transfixed with the idea of improving their own bodies and were often equally obsessed with the vision of improving the collective national or racial body.” This eugenic compulsion often grew from a perceived imbalance of “body-mind-soul” that had occurred from an over-development of the intellect at the expense of the spiritual and physical aspects of man. Like modern yoga today, early physical culture was often based on a pronounced anti-intellectualism, and a (re-)valorization of the neglected parts of the triadic human model. It was not conceived as a merely mechanical pursuit of strength but as a project to restore wholeness to individual and collective life. By the dawn of the twentieth century, the body had become a source of amazement and pride, a symbol of human strength, ability and endurance. Culminating with the invention of the Modern Olympics in the 1890s, the growth of sport culture in the nineteenth century made the body the main attraction in the great age of athletic competition and exhibitions, a position it continues to hold.

This foregrounding of the body in modern times as the locus of individual and nationalist nostalgia for wholeness is an essential indicator of the conditions underlying the haṭha yoga renaissance. New forms of haṭha yoga came into being during this period in response to these same longings and aspirations, and promised a similar dream of self-fulfillment (or rather “self- realization”) to many forms of Western nationalist physical culture.

Scandinavian Gymnastics

Perhaps more than any other single system of physical culture, the Swedish gymnastics built on the pioneering work of Ling (1766–1839) has oriented the development of modern physical culture in the West and postural yoga in its modern, export forms. Ling’s method, following in the “medical gymnastics” tradition developed by C. J. Tissot and others, was primarily therapeutic, aiming at the conquest of disease through movement, and for this reason it was commonly known as “movement cure.” Ling’s successor, L. G. Branting, “brought medical gymnastics to a high level of efficiency and worked out a terminology for gymnastics which persisted well into the twentieth century.” Ling-based training was concerned with the development of the “whole person” in a way that prefigures the “mind, body, and spirit” emphasis of yoga-associated practices in the New Age and in the YMCA. One early English apostle of the system considered that “the oneness of the human organism, and the harmony between mind and body, and between the various parts of the same body, constitute the great principle of Ling’s gymnastics.”

These and similar free-standing holistic exercise systems grew in popularity and spread rapidly. In the early years of the twentieth century, Swedish exercises based on Ling’s method, as well as more aerobic forms of Danish gymnastics, displaced the apparatus-based system of Oxford’s Archibald Maclaren as the official physical training program of the British army and navy and became the basis for physical education in schools and colleges in Britain. As G. V. Sibley, director of physical education at Loughborough College, notes in 1939, “Physical education in England has been built up, in the main, on Swedish gymnastics, except that they have been greatly modified to suit English conditions.” The Swedish pedagogical regimen also attained prominence in late nineteenth-century America, influencing the development of YMCA physical education programs and the “harmonial gymnastic” work of Genevieve Stebbins (which we will consider separately later), both of which had a significant effect on the shaping of postural modern yoga.

Via an anglicized schooling system and military service, Ling and its offshoots became extremely widespread in Indian education establishments where, as in Britain, they eventually prevailed over the previously dominant Maclaren system because they did not require costly apparatus and purpose-built gymnasia. Maclaren gymnastics had been promoted as part of the “muscular Christian” reforms of George Campbell, lieutenant-governor of Bengal in 1871–1874; but in spite of its great popularity it eventually proved economically unviable in India. Indeed, one of the major selling points of the “free movements” of Ling—as for the new haṭha yoga—had always been that “the expense of the apparatus and machines is saved.” Maclaren’s system lost out to Ling gymnastics, which Maclaren himself had once scornfully rated as a “system of bodily exercise in its main characteristic suitable to invalids only.”

Physical education drillmasters in Indian schools were largely low-ranking ex-military men, “ordinarily chosen from among ‘vastads’ or super-annuated army gymnasts who knew a little of modified Swedish gymnastics” and who had a reputation for brutality and ignorance. The Indian physical culture luminary, Professor K. Ramamurthy, writing in 1923, paints a similar picture of “the ill-paid and meagerly clad (mostly in the relics of bygone military glory) Drill teacher or Gymnastic instructor, often a pensioned, half-famished and weather-beaten sepoy [i.e., an Indian soldier serving under British command].” Indian YMCA physical culture director H. C. Buck and physical culture historian Van Dalen give further evidence that the Indian gymnastic instructor was in the main a reviled and pitiable figure. It was nevertheless his forms of mass-drill Western gymnastics that prevailed as the default form of physical culture for Indian youth well into the twentieth century. Unsurprisingly, such forms would influence the pedagogical structure of modernized haṭha yoga, as we shall see, with regard to Kuvalayananda and Krishnamacharya.

Ling and Yoga

From its earliest stages, modern āsana was perceived as a health and hygiene regime for body and mind based on posture and “free” movement (free as it is performed with the body only, without the constraints of equipment, and also as it doesn’t require any expenditure on apparatus). This situation owes much to the establishment of Ling as the paradigm of postural exercise in India. As far back as the middle of the nineteenth century, indeed, therapeutic gymnastics were being compared with what were perceived as “oriental” methods of movement cure. George Taylor in An Exposition of the Swedish Movement Cure of 1860 compares Chinese “Cong Fou”—in which the patient assumes certain postures and breathes in particular ways according to the disease to be treated—with Ling, and he also credits the “many bodily exercises” of India with therapeutic effects similar to those achieved by the movement cure method. Although he admits these systems may appear superstitious to the European, he insists that they are not only effective in the treatment of disease but are susceptible to scientific examination like Ling itself: “All that was required was a larger amount of the science of physiology with which to direct and extend the application, to render this resource legitimate and complete.” It is clear to see that well before the “medicalization” of haṭha yoga as therapeutic gymnastics by Kuvalayananda and Yogendra, the assumption that āsana was an Asian version of the Swedish movement cure was already gaining currency.

Taylor’s book was published by Fowler and Wells (New York) who, throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, produced many paperback editions on yoga, “alternative” health, and New Thought. At this time, then, Ling gymnastics filled a niche in the book market that would later be filled by yoga. Other examples of āsana presented as curative gymnastics are not hard to find: S. C. Vasu, in his 1895 translation of the Gheraṇda Saṃhitā, for instance, asserts that the various āsanas in the book “are gymnastic exercises, good for general health, and peace of mind” (xxv), in what is a fairly standard assimilation of haṭha postures into a post-Lingian model of physical and mental therapeutics. Similarly, an early American dilettante of Asian esoterica, William Flagg, describes the haṭha yoga procedures of nauli (abdominal “churning”) and uḍḍiyāna bandha (diaphragmatic vacuum) as Swedish gymnastics. Gymnastics in the Lingian and post-Lingian paradigm provided a convenient and intelligible explanation of the function and form of āsana, which to some extent circumvented the need to engage with the complexities of haṭha yoga theory. Instead, yogā asanas were reconfigured as ancient forms of movement cure, with individual postures prescribed for specific diseases.

An unattributed article of 1927 in the Maharastrian physical culture magazine Vyāyam, entitled “Athletic and Gymnastic Exercise,” asserts, for example, that:

formerly gymnastics (such as Asans i.e. particular postures of the bodily limbs etc.) formed a part of medicine, for the purpose of counteracting the sad and injurious effects of luxury and indolence . . . particular movements of the limbs of the body are antidotes against particular diseases which are declared incurable by means of any medicine. (1927: 146)

This widespread understanding that āsanas were essentially medical and curative in function had the effect of relegating the esoteric specifics of haṭha yoga to a subsidiary position. While my primary concern here is with physical culture, we should also note in this regard the close historical links that postural yoga has with modern Nature Cure. The integration of āsana into Nature Cure, especially during the 1930s and 1940s was, as Joseph Alter has shown, an important factor in yoga’s secularization and demystification, and was crucial in terms of the production of a theory of why and how āsana were of physiological benefit.

Norman Sjoman argues, “the therapeutic cause-effect relation [of āsana] is a later superimposition on what was originally a spiritual discipline only.” While we might well take issue with Sjoman’s notion of “spiritual only” here, it is true that in the twentieth century individual yoga postures came to be explicitly associated with the cure of particular conditions. The rigorous and elaborate development of this relationship in the 1920s by the pioneering modern haṭha yogins Shri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda only consolidated an earlier, generalized acceptance of yoga as an Indian system of therapeutic movement cure. An early student of Kuvalayananda recalls how, prior to meeting his teacher, yoga had been for him “medical and chamber gymnastics pure and Simple,” indicating that this was one standard paradigm during the 1920s for the physical practices of yoga. Twelve years earlier, Muzumdar had in fact argued that the very source of Swedish gymnastics is ultimately yoga itself. The similarities between yoga and Ling, he claims, can be explained in terms of a westward knowledge transmission from India to Europe which is thousands of years old. “Swedish exercises are not original,” we learn, but derive from ancient therapeutic techniques of Indian yoga.

When Mircea Eliade protests that haṭha yoga “is neither athletic nor hygienic perfection” and that it “cannot and must not be confused with gymnastics,” he is responding to what had, even by the 1930s, become a standard equation of the physiological exercises of haṭha yoga and gymnastics. The appeal of postural yoga lay to a great extent precisely in this reputation as an accessible Indian alternative to the Western systems that dominated physical education in India from the last third of the nineteenth century. The very authors who were synthesizing modern gymnastic technique and theory with haṭha yoga nevertheless tended to present Western gymnastics as impoverished with regard to the “spiritual” and the “holistic.” But while these allegations may have been true for the gymnastic drills that were the standard in Indian schools at the turn of the century, they are not (as we will continue to see) an accurate depiction of much modern physical culture, which presented itself as an inherently spiritual pursuit.

This kind of negative comparison endures in practical yoga primers well into the twentieth century. In the most influential do-it-yourself yoga book of all time, Iyengar’s Light on Yoga , we read for example that “Āsanas are not merely gymnastic exercises; they are postures” (1966: 10). Iyengar then goes on to present āsana as essentially a health and fitness regime comparable to gymnastics but without the need for costly equipment. In essence, Iyengar’s message is the same as those of his predecessors from the 1930s. Even when they are at pains to demonstrate that yoga is not gymnastics, modern English-medium authors rarely draw a qualitative distinction between gymnastic exercise and āsana. The pervasive message is that āsana is an indigenous, democratic form of Indian gymnastics, requiring no apparatus and essentially comparable in function and goal to Western physical culture—but with more and better to offer.

Sandow and Bodybuilding

The term bodybuilding was first coined in 1881 by YMCA physical culturalist Robert J. Roberts. However, it was the great Eugene Sandow (1867–1925), who must be credited with initiating a worldwide revolution in bodybuilding through the many  demonstrations and lecture tours that he undertook at the beginning of the twentieth century as well as through his popular periodical, Sandows Magazine of Physical Culture, first published in 1898. His advice on health and fitness helped to make “physical culture” a household phrase. Sandow left an indelible mark not only on the European and American exercise regimes but also in India, where he had a wide and enthusiastic following within the nascent physical culture movement. By the time of his trip to the Far East in 1905, Sandow was already a cultural hero in India, and his successful tour of the subcontinent served to further disseminate his system. Many of the popular physical culture authors of the next decades (e.g., Ramamurthy 1923 ; Ghose 1925 ; Gupta 1925 ) recall this tour as a defining moment in their own, or their countrymen’s, physical culture history. Bodybuilding, under the influence of Sandow and others—such as the American physical culturalist Bernarr Macfadden—enjoyed an unparalleled vogue in India from the turn of the century. In combination with home-grown health and fitness regimes, it was instrumental in shaping the “indigenous” exercise revival from which modern postural yoga would issue. We might recall here Joseph Alter’s “heretical,” though undeveloped, statement that it was Sandow, rather than Vivekananda or Aurobindo, who exerted the greatest influence on popular modern yoga. In the hands of many, yoga was conceived as a form of bodybuilding, and vice versa, although it is worth remembering that during the early years of the century the latter term had a much greater semantic breadth than it does today, connoting a whole range of health and fitness activities that included, but were not confined to, the genre of weight-resistance body sculpting.

Eugene Sandow (courtesy of Roger Fillary)

Sandow’s trip to India “indicated the politically subversive potential of physical culture as well as its inherent malleability” in that his methods were transformed into tools for independence. In the hands of nationalist leaders such as Sarala Debi, physical culture such as that popularized by Sandow, “was not considered inherently or uniquely Western, but as separated from its user, and capable of serving any master.” It could be used, in other words, both as a symbolic rebuttal of colonial degeneracy narratives and—at times—as an underpinning for violent, forcible resistance. Sandow’s rhetoric was shot through with notions of exercise as religious practice, which made it all the more compatible with Indian nationalistic fusions of religion and bodybuilding, such as the heady blends of patriotic Hinduism and physical culture in the Bengali samitis considered. For Sandow, “the moral strictures of religion and mortification of the flesh were to be replaced by the physical regimen of exercise and the body’s liberation,” and techniques of physical self-improvement became “quasi-religious substitutes.” The re-sacralization of the body through ritualized techniques of physical culture was of course also an extremely important element in the creation of a postural modern yoga. We will consider several key examples of modern bodybuilding yogins in the next chapter, but for the moment we may simply note that “spiritual” discourses of physical culture such as Sandow’s found a natural place within the Indian movement. The new, or revived, yogāsana systems—with their supposed millennia-long pedigree in the orthodox darśanas of Hinduism and their apparent parallels with holistic European gymnastics and bodybuilding—inevitably lent themselves to expression by way of these same discourses.

Young Men’s Christian Association

There is no single “system” or “brand” of Physical Training, Culture or Education that can adequately or satisfactorily meet India’s need. What then is India to do? Clearly she should and must be eclectic and fall back on a group of essentially fundamental principles and on them build her own programme. – (“India’s Physical Education, What Shall It Be?” Gray 1930:8).

No organization had a greater influence on the international diffusion of physical culture than the YMCA. Indeed, it was in the creation of a hybridized but distinctly Indian culture of sport and exercise that the YMCA offered its most significant contribution “to the making of modern India.” Its physical culture programs were explicitly intended to function as a somatic tool of moral reform, whose core values were those of the Christian West, and in particular Christian America. The emphasis was on “wholesome living” and on the power of “physical education [as] a socializing agency.” Physical culture, as conceived by the Indian YMCA, was education through the body, not of the body and was intended to contribute to the even development of the three-fold nature of man—mind, body, and spirit—as symbolized by the famous inverted red triangle logo devised by the influential YMCA thinker Luther Halsey Gulick (1865–1918), head of the YMCA training school in Springfield, Massachusetts. As such, it was of a piece with the holistic preoccupations of much of early European gymnastics. It was meant, furthermore, in no uncertain terms “to inculcate in young people the ideals, value structures and behavioral patterns implicit in the Christian way of life.”

If, prior to the 1920s, “physical education was a term unknown to this country [i.e., India] and its educational system,” by 1930 the national physical director of the organization, J. H. Gray, could confidently declare that with regard to physical education, “India is perhaps the ‘hotspot’ of all the nations in the world.” In Gray’s assessment of the relative popularity of physical training systems in India at the time, Ling ranks first, followed by the “primary gymnastics” of Niels Bukh (1880–1950) which, as I shall argue later with regard to T. Krishnamacharya and Swami Kuvalayananda, exercised considerable influence on the modern “power yoga” movement. Significantly, even at this relatively late date, neither “yoga” nor “āsana” appears in Gray’s catalogue of physical culture, indicating that the semantic and practical merger of “exercise” and “yoga” was yet to become pervasive, as it would in the next two decades.

The “Physical awakening of India” initiated by Gray was greatly furthered by H. C. Buck, who set up the first school for Indian physical directors in 1919 and trained the first Indian national athletics team for the Paris Olympics of 1924. He also helped launch a popular sports and exercise quarterly, Vyāyam, in the summer of 1929 and served as its editor for the next twenty-three years. (Buck’s journal should not be confused with the Maharastrian journal Vyāyam, the Bodybuilder, discussed below, edited by Katdare.) Broad-ranging and adaptable in his choice of fitness regimes, Buck “devised  programs and courses which combined both Indian and Western physical exercise so that the YMCA college offered the best of the East and the West.” In the hands of the YMCA, physical culture was eventually elevated to a position of social and moral respectability, a status that it had not previously enjoyed in India.

Education in Chennai(photo by author)” src=”” width=”430″ height=”809″ /> Bust of H. C. Buck at the
YMCA College of Physical
Education in Chennai
(photo by author)

Buck and his organization were “constantly searching for attractive indigenous activities which are suitable for physical education,” and the eclectic and wide-ranging syllabi they devised largely became the face of Indian physical education in the early to mid-twentieth century. Buck made postural yoga “an integral part of the YMCA physical education program,” promoting āsana as a component of the overarching ethos of Christian piety and service at the heart of the “Y” ideology. N. Vasudeva Bhat, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Buck and is now an officer at the YMCA College of Physical Education in Bangalore, learned his āsanas in the early 1960s from one Shri Kallesha, who received them directly from Buck in Madras during the 1930s. However, it was, according to Bhat, Buck’s successor, P. M. Joseph, who finally made āsana a part of the Y’s national syllabus.

While there is evidence to suggest that Buck had misgivings about the ultimate value of āsanas (he sometimes complained, for instance, that they are too “subjective” and therefore inferior to group games and sports; there is little doubt that his efforts to meld indigenous Indian exercises with YMCA philosophical principles (alongside the efforts of other physical fitness directors like A. G. Noehren) did much to create an environment favorable to the emergence of athletic postural yoga conceived as a system for the holistic development of the individual. That is to say, the enormous and pervasive influence of YMCA physical education in India altered not only the cultural status of exercise but brought its ontological function into line with “Y” policy. Partially as a result of this, international postural yoga became (and remains) perceived as a system for the holistic development of the “mind, body, and spirit” of the individual—a feature it has in common with a whole gamut of gymnastic systems (including Ling) that developed within and outside India in the first half of the twentieth century.

It is worth reiterating, furthermore, that J. H. Gray’s explicitly eclectic vision for physical education in India is mirrored in the spirit of radical experimentalism embraced by the pioneers of modern postural yoga. Their endeavor was self-conscious and possibly conceived as a Hindu rival to the YMCA itself. Indeed, Bhat claims that the world-renowned spokesman of modern haṭha yoga, Swami Kuvalayananda, developed his system of rigorous posture work at least partially to refute Buck’s assertion of the inadequacy of āsana as a complete physical culture program. Whatever the case, the creation of modern postural yoga was an admixture of rejection and assimilation with regard to foreign modes of exercise. At the time—as Gray declares of physical education in general— there simply was no “system” or “brand” of physicalized yoga that could satisfactorily meet Indias need. This had to be created out of what was available, including a large number of exercises that had not hitherto been considered part of yoga (most significantly, nature cure, therapeutic gymnastics, calisthenics, and bodybuilding). When India built “her own program” of physical culture, one of the names she gave it was “yoga.”

Reference:Singleton, Mark. Yoga-Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford University Press, NY, 2010.