FITNESS ROUTINES – THEN AND NOW (Read the first part here)
- Have you heard of Tower running?
- Are you a regular Marathoner?
- Do you fast regularly to detoxify as part of your fitness routine?
- Do you like following extreme sports and body feats?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the questions above, there is a good chance that you are unconsciously following health and exercise routines prescribed by our ancestors in all their wisdom.
‘Oh come on! Don’t tell me our ancestors ran Marathons and did tower running,’ you say? Ok, so they didn’t actually run marathons and do tower running, but they did a lot of very similar activities. In fact, they had incorporated a whole lot of simple exercises and health routines into our daily lives by making them part of religious rituals – the rationale being that when religion and God are involved, people would adhere to them with a sense of reverence and fear of divine retribution, remaining healthy in the bargain!
But today, in our hurry to discard anything traditional as being blind faith and superstition at best and religious frenzy at worst, we don’t even blink before adopting the very same things in the guise of exercise and sport. Who are we kidding?
Before someone turns around and accuses me of selling religion, let me assure them that all I am trying to do is bring forth the wisdom behind age-old customs, not peddling religion!
It was this quest that made me research into many of the so-called regressive customs to find out why our ancestors had instituted them in the first place. This updated post from my archives aims to draw parallels between the ‘then’ and ‘now’ health and fitness routines. I have enumerated some of them here. Feel free to add more to the list as it is in no way exhaustive.
Note: Please do click the links to get a better idea of the subject. I have gone to a lot of trouble getting all the info!
Temples on mountains:
Mountains and religion are inextricably linked, with mountains getting spiritual and celestial sanctity in all religions. For instance, many famous Hindu temples are on mountaintops — Vaishno Devi, Tirupati, Sabarimalai, the Char Dhams, Mt.Kailash and countless others. Not just Hinduism but other religions sanctify them too. Mt. Sinai is where Moses is supposed to have received the Ten Commandments and is sacred to the Jews. Prophet Mohammed is supposed to have had the first revelation on Mount Hira; Mount Koyas-san on Japan is home to one of the holiest of Buddhist shrines and Mount Fujiyama is another sacred mountain, which is climbed by thousands every year for both religious reasons and for sport.
To reach these holy mountaintops and the shrines therein, one had to climb hundreds of steps and sometimes trek through jungles. If that is not exercise, what is? Not just the climbing, but carrying water or milk on the shoulders for the abhishek added to the endurance factor. Of course, even today many climb up mountains to temples but most do it as a dare or to broadcast it over the social media. Many avoid temples altogether! It is another matter that modern means of transport and cable cars are being pressed into service to help pilgrims. For the devout though, going by foot to a mountaintop temple is still considered a form of penance, or should we say, a form of exercise? Thousands of pilgrims still climb the hills of Tirupati, Sabarimala, Vindhyagiri at Sravanabelagola and Vaishno Devi, among others.
So you think that it is blind faith and superstition to climb hundreds of steps to visit a temple? No worries: you can always do Tower Running, which is hailed as the latest in endurance sports. The participants run up the stairs of a skyscraper – the taller the better. Some of the world’s tallest buildings including the Empire State Building, the CN Tower and the Sears Tower are all part of this modern ‘pilgrimage!’ And when you don’t want to run up towers, you can always climb stairs in your own building – either empty-handed or with dumbbells for that extra exercise for your muscles. Up and down, up and down……
Kanwarias, varkaris and other foot pilgrims:
Our ancestors of all faiths walked for miles on their pilgrimages — the varkaris of Mahrasahtra; the kanwarias who travel for months on foot to reach Haridwar to bring back water from the Ganga on kawads slung on their shoulders; the devotees who do the Narmada parikrama — all 2600 kms of it — circumambulating the river from its origin to where it meets the sea and back — roughing it out on foot; those who do giri pradakshinam of sacred mountains like Mt.Kailash, Annamalai and Triambakeshwar. Observing strict physical discipline and diet restrictions were prerequisites of these pilgrimages. These and many more such ‘treks’ and ‘marathons’ involving other mountains and religions were all part of our religious roots. And oh, for that added ‘thrill’: kanwarias are not supposed to put the container of ganga jal on the ground for the entire journey back!
Marathoners and trekkers:
Today we have marathons. Everyone and their grandmother is a marathoner. Exercise regimen and diet restrictions are strictly followed to become fit for the run. And people of all ages and sizes run – some for a lark, some for a cause and others to share on social media. Treks on mountains rank a close second in this pursuit of sport.
Vrats and fasting:
Vrats were meant for cleansing the system and the day set aside for meditating on God. There are weekly fasts dedicated to a particular God, when often just fruits and milk are consumed. My mother had only tulsi water on Ekadashi day. Usually meat is avoided on vrat days by Hindus. Muslims fast during the whole month of Ramzan and Catholics fast for 40 days during Lent – which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter; Jews observe Shabbat every Saturday, when all work including lighting the fire is forbidden. (Was it meant to encourage eating only raw food to detox the body?) More about fasting in other religions can be read here. By linking fasting to religion and spirituality, our forebears ensured that people remained healthy. Today religious fasting has become more of a fad and a farce which makes a mockery both of religion and the reasons behind it.
Fasting for Detoxification:
Fitness regimens advocate cleansing fasts and weekly fasts to rest the digestive system which loads up on junk food and snacks through the week. There are raw diets, fruit diets, milk diets and so on. There are also some weird diets that people follow to lose weight, including one where the dieter is supposed to give up everything except sunlight, air and water. (Didn’t our rishis do just that while doing penance for years?) There are vegetarian and vegan diets too. Bit make sure you broadcast that you are dieting for detox, lest someone assume you are doing it for religious reasons, God forbid! The best thing about being vegetarian is that it is trendy and what’s more, it comes with endorsement of western celebrities! Being a vegan is trendier still!
Exercises during prayers:
It is customary to go to a temple in the morning or evening, do a parikrama (the larger the temple, the better), prostrate before the deity, do sit-ups holding the ears in front of Ganesha, sit cross-legged while doing jaap or chanting while breathing rhythmically. Surya Namaskar is a composite health regimen that brings the early morning sunrays to energise the body and soul. Wonder how it got the fundamentalist tag!
Buddhists chant and meditate and do parikrama too. Christians kneel down, as also alternately stand up and sit down, ever so often while praying. Muslims sit in the vajrasana pose, prostrate, stand and sit during their prayers. Prabhat pheri is part of Hindu and Sikh worship, when devotees go on the streets singing bhajans and shabads before sunrise, especially during the winter months as the air is supposed to be ionically supercharged at that time.
Morning walks in the park:
Oh, but we do that even today! Most of us aimlessly walk around a jogging track in the early mornings and evenings, chatting with friends or a companion, or with music plugged into our ears to firmly to shut out all natural sounds. We sometimes stop to do yoga or stretching exercises and even a spot of meditation or indulge in bursts of artificial laughter. Did you say something about holding one’s ears in Ganesha temples? Pooh! We do brain yoga, no less! Why, I paid several thousands to learn it from the American teacher who is now in Delhi! If you don’t want to spend money, there are YouTube videos teaching you all about it!
My dear sir! If you were to go to a village school, any teacher will teach you how to do brain yoga – only it is called uthak-baithak – a form of punishment for minor transgressions!!
Walking barefoot and washing up:
Eastern religions require one to take off the shoes while going into the temple or during a religious pilgrimage. The soles of the feet have nerve endings, which get stimulated while walking barefoot as it is a form of acupressure. Acupressure corrects the energies flowing in various body channels by applying pressure on particular spots on the soles and palms.
Not just this, but washing one’s face, hands and feet before prayers is mandatory in mosques, temples and Gurudwars, though the latter two are not too strict about it. Washing one’s feet not only cleans them, but has the effect of cooling the body instantly. It was also customary to wash one’s feet before entering the house. Today, do we even take off our shoes/sandals after entering the house, leave alone wash our feet? Please do it, and see how refreshed you feel. Just washing one’s face is not enough.
I have seen many of those who go for morning walks take off their shoes and walk barefoot on the grass and mud tracks. The dew and the springy texture of the grass are supposed to be refreshing and the small stones and rough surface of the mud tracks do the work of acupressure on the soles of the feet.
Walking on fire and piercing the body:
During the famous Tamil festival of Thaipoosam, dedicated to Lord Kartikeya, devotees pierce their cheeks and tongue with tiny vels (javelin like ritualistic objects) while they carry the kavadi filled with milk or flowers on their shoulders up the mountain to the temple. It is a big celebration in Singapore and Malaysia, where even foreigners take part in this ritual as can be seen in the picture below. This practice is based on acupuncture, which acts as an anesthetic and prevents pain and bleeding. Many temple festivals in the south have the fire-walking ritual when devotees walk barefoot on a bed of burning coal. These are variously dubbed as ‘psychotic’ and masochistic practices by skeptics. Perhaps if they did it for records, they would be heroes!
Extreme sports and Feats:
The Guinness Book has a section where records involving bodily feats are featured. I read of a man who got 1015 metal rings inserted into his body, including on his tongue — in a span of 8 odd hours. Another one did 50 marathons in 50 cities in 50 days. Others eat fire, glass, nuts and bolts and even entire cars — nothing masochistic about these, naturally. It is part of ‘extreme sports,’ for heaven’s sake!
All I am saying is that go running up the Sears Towers, pierce your body with anything you fancy and eat a railway coach if you want – but don’t go ridiculing traditional customs as superstition and fundamentalism. I completely agree that most such customs are nor practicable in today’s world nor is it my intention that they be followed merely because that is the tradition. My plea merely is for people to acknowledge that these customs had a lot of merit health wise and try to benefit by them before junking them.
Have you read the first part?