How did physical exercise (stretching) originate in the Western world?

This is a list of mentions I found with my short googling:

The yoga exercise technics were well-known in Asia as a both physical and mental health cure for a long time.

According to Wikipedia, Cicero said:

It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keeps the mind in vigor

I know about youth movements such as Sokol in the second half of the 19. century. Namely Sokol originated in the Bohemia under the inspiration of the antic athlets and the club was combining the psychological and the physical advantages of exercise.

Eastern psycho-somatic thoughts got to the Western world at the end of the 19th century with the rise of esoterism etc.

But when did physical exercise such as regular stretching technics actually get into the Western world - when it became to be "normal" to stretch?

(I don't ask about the exercise in sense of physical training - that seems to be rooted much deeper in our culture like in the training for hunt, I ask about stretching we do before physically exhausting sport today and I wonder especially, wheter it's rooted rather in science than in culture or philosophy)

A History of Manipulative Therapy

Manipulative therapy has known a parallel development throughout many parts of the world. The earliest historical reference to the practice of manipulative therapy in Europe dates back to 400 BCE. Over the centuries, manipulative interventions have fallen in and out of favor with the medical profession. Manipulative therapy also was initially the mainstay of the two leading alternative health care systems, osteopathy and chiropractic, both founded in the latter part of the 19th century in response to shortcomings in allopathic medicine. With medical and osteopathic physicians initially instrumental in introducing manipulative therapy to the profession of physical therapy, physical therapists have since then provided strong contributions to the field, thereby solidifying the profession's claim to have manipulative therapy within in its legally regulated scope of practice.

Historically, manipulation can trace its origins from parallel developments in many parts of the world where it was used to treat a variety of musculoskeletal conditions, including spinal disorders1. It is acknowledged that spinal manipulation is and was widely practised in many cultures and often in remote world communities such as by the Balinese 2 of Indonesia, the Lomi-Lomi of Hawaii 3 – 5 , in areas of Japan, China and India 3 , by the shamans of Central Asia 6 , by sabodors in Mexico 7 , by bone setters of Nepal 8 , 9 as well as by bone setters in Russia and Norway 10 .

With respect to manipulation in ancient Western civilizations, those areas around the Mediterranean provide the most logical basis for the practice to exist. However, there is no direct evidence of such practice in any documents of communities such as Babylon, Mesopotamia, Assyria, and even Egypt 11 . Historical reference to Greece provides the first direct evidence of the practice of spinal manipulation. The detail in which this is described suggests that the practice of manipulation was well established and predated the 400 BCE reference 11 .

In his books on joints, Hippocrates (460� BCE), who is often referred to as the father of medicine, was the first physician to describe spinal manipulative techniques using gravity, for the treatment of scoliosis. In this case, the patient was tied to a ladder and inverted 12 . The second technique he described involved the use of a table with various straps, wheels, and axles enabling traction to be applied. The hand, foot, seated body weight, or a wooden lever could then be used to impart spinal pressure or thrust to treat a “gibbus” or prominent vertebra. Hippocrates noted that this treatment should be followed by exercises.

Claudius Galen (131� CE), a noted Roman surgeon, provided evidence of manipulation including the acts of standing or walking on the dysfunctional spinal region 1 . In 18 of his 97 surviving treatises, Galen commented on the works of Hippocrates, with many illustrations of his manipulative techniques, which, even today, are frequently seen in medical texts 13 . The design of the treatment table used by Hippocrates and his methods of manipulation survived for more than 1600 years.

Avicenna (also known as the doctor of doctors) from Baghdad (980� CE) included descriptions of Hippocrates' techniques in his medical text The Book of Healing. A Latin translation of this book was published in Europe influencing future scholars such as Leonardo Da Vinci and contributing greatly to the emergence of Western medicine at the end of the Middle Ages 14 .

While nobody questions these early origins of manipulative therapy, it is from the 19th century onwards that manipulative therapy has at times become an area of contention between the various professions involved in its practice. To truly understand the role manipulative interventions play within the professions of medicine, chiropractic, osteopathy, and most notably physical therapy, knowledge of the history of manipulative therapy within these various professions is required. Therefore, the goal of this paper is to introduce the reader to the history of manipulative therapy within the various professions with the intent of fostering increased inter-professional understanding and hopefully decreasing the current controversy as to which professions can justifiably lay claim to the practice of manipulative therapy based on historical arguments.

Early history

Early instances of physical culture are found in records of exercise and weightlifting from the Zhou dynasty of China (1046–256 bce ) and the Old Kingdom of Egypt (2575–2130 bce ). But its real beginning, as a sustained activity, dates from the ancient Greeks. Homer’s epic poem the Iliad depicts discus throwing and stone hoisting, and the Olympic Games, originating in 776 bce , featured a wide variety of physical contests, applicable to both sport and war. The foremost warriors were the Spartans of Laconia, who endured harsh physical discipline to ensure that the finest physical specimens were produced. Spartans, in their efforts to toughen and exhibit their bodies, were also enthusiastic nudists. The greatest Greek athlete, however, was Milo of Croton, who popularized progressive resistance training by purportedly carrying a calf daily from its birth until it became full-size. In the late 6th century bce he won wrestling championships at the Pythian Games seven times and at the Olympics six times. The classical embodiment of physical development was the mythical Heracles (the Roman Hercules), son of Zeus, whose laborious feats and matchless physique served as a model for all subsequent physical culturists. The Greek, and especially Athenian, ideal of a sound mind and sound body (often expressed as arete, or “virtue”) was cultivated in the gymnasiums, where young men exercised, bathed, socialized, and discussed philosophy. Finally, the Greeks employed physical culture as a form of preventive medicine and as a means of recuperating from illnesses and weaknesses. Hippocrates (c. 460–377 bce ) believed that diet and exercise would unleash natural forces to promote harmonious bodily functions. Physical culture became firmly and permanently implanted in Western civilization in part because of the many works of sculpture glorifying the body that the ancient Greeks left to posterity. Lysippus’s 4th-century- bce bronze sculpture of Heracles is lost, but a Roman marble copy known as the Farnese Hercules was found about 1546 ce and demonstrates the ancient ideal of physical development. The ideal of physical beauty has remained an important thread through the history of the physical culture movement.

The humanistic tradition continued with the Romans but with more-elaborate facilities and greater emphasis on training for warfare and gladiatorial combat. Baths replaced gymnasiums as venues for public exercise, and the philosophic component waned. During the latter stages of the Roman Empire, with the widespread acceptance of Christianity, a spiritual (even ascetic) ideal came to prevail. Physical culture was relegated to the trash heap of civilization’s pagan past. For about a thousand years after Rome’s fall (476 ce ), the body, following Augustinian orthodoxy, was rejected as sinful. Exercise, no longer pursued for health and fitness, was chiefly a by-product of medieval combat or hard work in manors and monasteries. Eastern civilizations—Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist, Shintō—seemed even more consumed by spiritual concerns. Human representations in artworks of the Middle Ages were abstract and otherworldly.

Yoga in the 1920s

Paramahansa Yogananda wrote the first modern spiritual classic

In 1920, Paramahansa Yogananda addressed a conference of religious liberals in Boston. He was sent by his guru, the ageless Babaji, to “spread the message of kriya yoga to the West.”

Although his early works had unpromising titles like Recharging Your Business Battery out of the Cosmos, his 1946 Autobiography of a Yogi remains a spiritual classic.

America Imposed an Immigration Banned on India

In 1924, the United States immigration service imposed a quota on Indian immigration, making it impossible for Easterners to travel to America. Westerners were forced to travel to the East if they sought after yogic teachings.

What Exercise Looked Like The Year You Were Born

You don't need help knowing what fitness looks like today, with all the boutique fitness, online trainers, and apps out there&mdashI mean, this decade loves fitness so much that athleisure's become an acceptable form of dress. And while women have been taking their fitness seriously for awhile, it took some time to get there.

Since we'd be nowhere without the fitness pioneers who shaped exercise for women, here's a taste of how the '20s through the '90s were working it when it came to a good sweat sesh.

By the early 1920s, stationary bicycles had been around for a while (they were even on the Titanic) and since, they've only grown in popularity. Though, here, we're still a ways away from SoulCycle&mdashthe woman's dressed in her regular clothes, after all. That was the norm!

And if you didn't have a stationary bike to use, bodyweight exercises were the move.

This woman is running on an indoor machine. Though treadmills for exercise wouldn't make an appearance until the 1960s and 1970s, this was a start.

Lifting weights looks a little different now, but the idea of building strength using a barbell and dumbbells was going strong in the Roaring Twenties.

Joan Crawford, seen here sparring in heels, once described boxing as "a means of keeping that schoolgirl figure"&mdashthough she probably benefitted from the overall health benefits, too.

Workout classes became a major craze this decade when "cosmetics pioneers (and fierce rivals) Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein opened salons that sold women on a then-novel concept: their physical appearance was in their control," according to Harper's Bazaar.

Keep-fit groups like this one even paraded for it.

As much as fitness was praised at this time, women were still encouraged to not sweat in public, per Harper's Bazaar. So, machines that fit in the home, like this one, were ideal.

Dancing along the beach, these women at Jaywick Sands resort got their low-impact calisthenics in while wearing unitards and Mary Janes.

Using her own neck as an anchor, this woman works out using this spring device which adds resistance when she lowers her legs.

This group gets physical by body surfing.

In the decade when the first American women competed in gymnastics at the Olympics, these two are caught mid-air during practice.

Here, Beth Milton uses an Electric Vibrator meant to encourage muscle development. Apparently, quick fixes have had great appeal since the thirties.

Recognizing the importance of fitness, these Red Cross nurses kept active during their break by leaping over hurdles on the hospital lawn. Exercises at this time were still typically low-impact, per Harper's Bazaar, in an effort to be slim rather than muscular. (Of course, we know now that this common myth about weightlifting isn't true!)

In the same year that the United States entered World War II, the Civilian Defense Protective Services were launched and these women trained for their duties as members.

Here, women holding jump ropes gather for a physical training course at their local recreation center.

As sweating in public became slightly more acceptable, women took to the gym&mdashor, as they were sometimes called, "reducing salons." Yep, really. Being thin was very much the goal here, and these machines promised fat loss and feminine strength.

This decade, yoga was gaining major popularity among women looking for both relaxation and exercise. Here, Indra Devi teaches a class to students in Hollywood, California&mdashmany of her classes here were frequented by movie stars and entertainers. Devi also taught at Elizabeth Arden spas, which had been especially popular in women's fitness since the 1920s.

This "slimming suit" was another way for women to literally turn up the heat on their workouts. The plastic getup trapped warmth and forced you to sweat A TON, which was thought to promote weight loss. While it certainly reduced water weight, suits like these could never promise you'd burn fat or calories&mdash though the exercises done in them might have.

Moving on from exercising in skirts and daytime clothing, these women dressed in leggings and leotards and did their leg lifts in style as the popularity of exercise classes grew. This one was hosted at the Institute of Physical Fitness in White Plains, New York.

As physical fitness evolved, so did the equipment. Here, a model is demonstrating the use of "Las Picas," a device made of poles and a nonslip block.

While we're still not quite at SoulCycle level just yet, these women are training on stationary bikes.

This woman is at a beauty salon using a vibrating slimming machine during a time when being as thin as possible was considered "beautiful."

. but not for everyone. As the '60s progressed, people began to embrace working out for reasons other than weight loss. In this decade, the term "aerobics" was coined by Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, an exercise physiologist who developed a system of exercises intended to prevent coronary artery sickness.

This new regard for exercise meant more women would show up to classes like this one hosted at the YMCA by Mrs. Tullah Hanley.

It also meant they'd seek trainers like this one, who had her client wrapped up before a trampoline workout.

Women got even more active in the '70s, so much so that this was the decade when the sports bra was invented! Jogging actually gained popularity&mdashmostly for men&mdashthe decade before, but these women are finally discovering the joys on the carpeted track of their local YMCA.

Exercise classes got more inventive with the rise of Jazzercise, which started in 1969, and ones like this, where ballet and roller skating combined to create a fun workout.

Some classes began allowing moms to bring their babies, which meant parents didn't have to find childcare during their workouts.

And the popularity of aerobics, which started in the '60s, stayed strong all through the '70s.

In the '80s, television personalities including Jane Fonda and Mike Douglas embraced a good sweat in a ballet class at Jane's studio: The Workout. These were the years when she became a fitness icon with the release of her book, Jane Fonda's Exercise Book, and a workout video.

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But, if you’ve come this far with me — about a third — it’s obvious this is a super deep dive into the topic of stretching, like a small ebook that I could easily be selling to Kindle users (and maybe I should be, but I’m not for now). Certainly it’s more than a mere “article”: it’s an actively maintained resource, heavily referenced, and ad-free for millions of readers over the years, providing useful information that is nearly impossible to find anywhere else. Please help it exist.

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Cramp first aid: at least one undeniable stretching benefit

Stretching may not have much of a role in treating or preventing sports injuries, but it is the only way to respond to an acute cramp — which can be injurious. The cramps encountered by most people in a fitness context are exertional or exercise-induced cramps, which is just one of many other kinds of unwanted muscle contractions. We can see how complex muscle physiology is just from the number of ways that it can glitch!

Exercise-induced cramps are intense, painful contractions that usually strike when fatigued and/or overheated. They are most common in the legs, especially the calves and hamstrings, more rarely the quadriceps. Fatigue and heat are major factors, but not dehydration and electrolyte shortage (that’s a myth).53 What actually does cause them is still unclear (shocker), along with much else about them.

Regardless of how cramps work, we have to stretch (or be stretched) when they strike: the urge to pull the other way is irresistible, like jerking your hand away from fire. It feels like we have no choice. Stretching isn’t a “treatment” for cramps per se — it’s more like urgent first aid. The only way to cope with an acute exertional muscle cramp is to directly fight the contraction with stretch.

It’s a benefit of stretching in the same sense that not bleeding is a benefit of bandaids. But why? Does a stretch actually “stop” a cramp? Or does it just make it more tolerable while we wait for it to ease? I don’t think anyone knows the answer to these questions.

Cramp first aid is a legitimate use for stretching, even if it doesn’t actually have anything to do with why people normally stretch.

Last word: Stretching is not a ‘pillar’ of fitness

A lot of stretching happens in an athletic context for the reasons discussed above, but they all have something in common. The underlying general assumption, almost always unstated, goes like this:

Stretching is a major component of fitness, on par with strength and endurance.

That idea breaks down into specific claims that don’t hold up under scrutiny, but no matter how effective that debunking, almost everyone who likes stretching will continue to assume that it’s different for “serious” athletes or athletes who seem to need more flexibility: gymnastics, dance, martial arts, circus arts, and so on. And yet it’s likely that even for those functional goals stretching is not actually anywhere near as important as we have believed, and maybe not even important at all. If all this information is taken to heart, it should be clear that a “serious” athlete might actually want to avoid stretching. They have a lot of other training to do that is definitely more important — and which will also achieve flexibility.

Until fairly recently, there were few major examples of elite athletes rejecting stretching, but that’s changing. The best recent example I know of is that the Australian Ballet has purged stretching instead, it’s all about training for strength training throughout the full joint range. The Australian Ballet has written about their experience with this: same or better performance, fewer injuries. Wow.

Dogma is powerful. When there’s a long tradition of doing things a certain way, it can be extremely difficult for people to accept that it might not be necessary. For years, I have been getting cranky email from martial artists, sneering smugly about how I obviously know nothing because, clearly, elite martial artists know that they have to stretch. Maybe. I doubt it, and I think that doubt will be confirmed in time, but it’s officially unknown.

I do know the power of dogma. I know how many times in sports history traditional practices have been overturned and replaced by updated beliefs that were required to break new records.

And in fact I do have some personal experience with martial arts, and I know that not every martial artist is flexible or thinks they need to be. My most memorable example was a grizzled old practitioner of Aikido — the most formidable martial artist I ever met, and also the least flexible. He seemed flexible, but it was all in how he used the rather stunted range of motion he had. He worked within his limitations like an artist — a martial artist — and you would never even have guessed he was so stiff unless you spent time with him in training.54 We never stretched much in that dojo, and an MMA club — with some very competitive members — also never did any stretching.

As the years tick by, I predict that there will be more and more stories about elite athletes who no longer stretch — but still kick ass.

Why is it that many Kenyans don’t stretch? Why was legendary coach Arthur Lydiard not a fan of stretching? Why does Galloway say, “In my experience runners who stretch are injured more often, and when they stop stretching, the injuries often go away”?

Bob Cooper, Runner’s World Magazine55

I am a soccer referee, and mostly by happy accident began substituting what you call “mobilizing” for various stretches prior to my matches, and I find this does an excellent job of stimulating the muscles, whereas after only stretching I still seem to be tight for the first several minutes. Then I read this article, which corroborates what I have found in practice!

Carlos Di Stefano, soccer referee (reader feedback)

In the face of so much discouraging evidence, it makes sense to assume that sport itself provides all the “stretching” one needs. The late Mel Siff:

It is almost heretical to question this stretching doctrine, yet it is important to disclose that there is no research which proves categorically that there is any need for separate stretching sessions, phases or exercises to be conducted to improve performance and safety. To appreciate this fact, it is useful to return to one of the clinical definitions of flexibility, namely that flexibility refers to the range of movement of a specific joint or group of anatomical tissues. Moreover, flexibility cannot be considered separate from other fitness factors such as strength and stamina. There is no real need to prescribe separate stretching exercises or sessions, since logically structured training should take every joint progressively through its full range of static and dynamic movement. In other words every movement should be performed to enhance flexibility, strength, speed, local muscular endurance and skill, so that separate stretching sessions then become largely redundant.

Facts and fallacies of fitness, by Mel Siff, p. 123

Siff’s sensible minimalism — from 1988 — stands in stark contrast to a much more common and marketable “flexibility first” approach, an approach that just happens (coincidence, I’m sure!) to give coaches, trainers and therapists something to be expert about: the idea that athletes must make a point of increasing flexibility first (by whatever stretching method), and then train for the strength and coordination to exploit this marvelous new range of motion. That picture is quite likely to be exactly backwards.

More reading related to athletic stretching

    — Maybe your range of motion is actually limited, or maybe it just feels that way — The biology & treatment of “muscle fever,” the deep muscle soreness that surges 24-48 hours after an unfamiliar workout intensity — Do you really need to try them? How much do they matter for recovery from conditions like low back pain? — Why building muscle is easier, better, and more important than you thought, and its role in recovering from injuries and chronic pain

Injuries where stretching might play some role in rehab… or where its role particularly needs debunking:

Why It Was Easier to Be Skinny in the 1980s

A new study finds that people today who eat and exercise the same amount as people 20 years ago are still fatter.

There’s a meme aimed at Millennial catharsis called “Old Economy Steve.” It’s a series of pictures of a late-’70s teenager, who presumably is now a middle-aged man, that mocks some of the messages Millennials say they hear from older generations—and shows why they’re deeply janky. Old Economy Steve graduates and gets a job right away. Old Economy Steve “worked his way through college” because tuition was $400. And so forth.

We can now add another one to that list: Old Economy Steve ate at McDonald’s almost every day, and he still somehow had a 32-inch waist.

A study published recently in the journal Obesity Research & Clinical Practice found that it’s harder for adults today to maintain the same weight as those 20 to 30 years ago did, even at the same levels of food intake and exercise.

The authors examined the dietary data of 36,400 Americans from 1971 to 2008 and the physical-activity data of 14,419 people from 1988 to 2006. They grouped the data sets together by the amount of food and activity, age, and BMI.

They found a very surprising correlation: A given person, in 2006, eating the same amount of calories, taking in the same quantities of macronutrients like protein and fat, and exercising the same amount as a person of the same age did in 1988 would have a BMI that was about 2.3 points higher. In other words, people today are about 10 percent heavier than people were in the 1980s, even if they follow the exact same diet and exercise plans.

“Our study results suggest that if you are 25, you’d have to eat even less and exercise more than those older, to prevent gaining weight,” Jennifer Kuk, a professor of kinesiology and health science at Toronto’s York University, said in a statement. “However, it also indicates there may be other specific changes contributing to the rise in obesity beyond just diet and exercise.”

Just what those other changes might be, though, are still a matter of hypothesis. In an interview, Kuk proffered three different factors that might be making harder for adults today to stay thin.

First, people are exposed to more chemicals that might be weight-gain inducing. Pesticides, flame retardants, and the substances in food packaging might all be altering our hormonal processes and tweaking the way our bodies put on and maintain weight.

Second, the use of prescription drugs has risen dramatically since the 1970s and ’80s. Prozac, the first blockbuster SSRI, came out in 1988. Antidepressants are now one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S., and many of them have been linked to weight gain.

Read Follow-Up Notes

Finally, Kuk and the other study authors think that the microbiomes of Americans might have somehow changed between the 1980s and now. It’s well known that some types of gut bacteria make a person more prone to weight gain and obesity. Americans are eating more meat than they were a few decades ago, and many animal products are treated with hormones and antibiotics in order to promote growth. All that meat might be changing gut bacteria in ways that are subtle, at first, but add up over time. Kuk believes that the proliferation of artificial sweeteners could also be playing a role.

The fact that the body weight of Americans today is influenced by factors beyond their control is a sign, Kuk says, that society should be kinder to people of all body types.

“There’s a huge weight bias against people with obesity,” she said. “They’re judged as lazy and self-indulgent. That’s really not the case. If our research is correct, you need to eat even less and exercise even more” just to be same weight as your parents were at your age.

The exercise part is perhaps one area where Old Economy Steve doesn’t have an edge. A membership at one of the newfangled fitness centers of 1987 would go for about $2,800 per year in today’s dollars, and that’s still what it costs today.

The 70 Million-Year-Old History of the Mississippi River

In 1758, the French ethnographer Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz published The History of Louisiana, in which he wrote that the Mississippi River’s name meant “the ancient father of rivers.” Though his etymology was off—the Ojibwe words that gave us Mississippi (Misi-ziibi) actually mean “long river”—the idea has proven durable. “Ol’ Man River” buoyed Show Boat, the 1927 musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. During the 1937 flood, Raymond Daniell wrote in the New York Times about frantic efforts to raise barriers “faster than old man river could rise.”

Related Content

Now it appears that the Mississippi is far older than Le Page thought, and it used to be far bigger than the Ojibwe could have imagined. And it might even become that big again in the future.

These are the extraordinary new findings unearthed by geologists including Sally Potter-McIntyre at Southern Illinois University, Michael Blum at the University of Kansas and Randel Cox at the University of Memphis, whose work is helping us better understand the monumental events, beginning in late Cretaceous North America, that gave rise to the Mississippi, swelling it to gargantuan proportions.

An 1832 expedition led by Henry Schoolcraft identified the Mississippi’s source as Lake Itasca in Minnesota. (Courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art)

In the late Cretaceous, around 80 million years ago, a mountain chain spanned the southern portion of the continent, blocking southbound water flows, so most North American rivers flowed to the Western Interior Sea or north to Canada’s Hudson Bay. Eventually, a gap in those mountains formed, opening a path for the river we now know as the Mississippi to flow to the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists call that gap the Mississippi Embayment, but the rest of us know it as the Mississippi Delta, the vast flood plain that stretches from southern Missouri to northern Louisiana. As recently as 2014, geological consensus held that the Mississippi began flowing through the embayment around 20 million years ago. But in 2018, Potter-McIntyre and her team concluded, based on the age of zircon fragments they excavated from sandstone in southern Illinois, that the river began flowing much earlier—some 70 million years ago. The Mississippi was thus born when dinosaurs still roamed the planet one can almost picture an alamosaurus bending its prodigious neck to drink from its waters. By contrast, the Missouri River, in its current form, dates back a mere two million years. Old Man River, indeed.

Still, 70 million years ago the Mississippi was nowhere near as large as it would become. Blum has detailed how the waterway grew as it added tributaries: the Platte, Arkansas and Tennessee rivers by the late Paleocene, then the Red River by the Oligocene. Around 60 million years ago, the Mississippi was collecting water from the Rockies to the Appalachians by four million years ago, its watershed had extended into Canada, and the Mississippi had grown to an enormous size, carrying four to eight times as much water as it does today, Cox and colleagues have found. “This was a giant river, on the order of the Amazon,” said Cox.

So the river’s larger-than-life role in culture was perhaps inevitable. Until the early 19th century, the Mississippi marked the western border between Spanish and American territory, and it continues to give life to the cities that sprang up along its route. After Union forces captured Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln saw the emancipated river as a symbol of a nation unified: “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” he wrote. Mark Twain, the best publicist a river ever had, inspired 150 years’ worth of dreams about floating away from our troubles. And among members of the Ojibwe, Dakota and Chitimacha tribes, who still live on portions of ancestral lands in the Mississippi Valley, a spiritual connection to the river remains strong. In 2013, Nibi Walk, a group of Indigenous women walked 1,500 miles along the Mississippi to advocate for clean water—an issue of vital importance to the 18 million Americans who get their drinking water from the river.

The river’s famed fluctuations have shaped American urbanization, too. The Great Flood of 1927 accelerated the Great Migration, as African Americans, disproportionately displaced, sought economic opportunity in cities such as Chicago and Detroit. “Old Mississippi River, what a fix you left me in,” Bessie Smith sings in “Homeless Blues,” one of many songs about the 1927 flood. That disaster also ushered in an era of unprecedented public works, as the federal government sought to remake the river into a predictable route for moving bulk necessities like corn and coal.

The mighty river has inspired more than a thousand songs since 1900, including “Big River” by Johnny Cash and “Proud Mary,” in which John Fogerty (echoed later by Tina Turner) observes that “people on the river are happy to give.” That truism is confirmed every year, when people who live along the Mississippi offer a meal and a shower to the dozens of strangers who test themselves against Old Man River by paddling small boats from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

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This article is a selection from the September issue of Smithsonian magazine

Darius I

Darius I (l. c. 550-486 BCE, r. 522-486 BCE), also known as Darius the Great, was the third Persian King of the Achaemenid Empire. His reign lasted 36 years, from 522 to 486 BCE during this time the Persian Empire reached its peak. Darius led military campaigns in Europe, Greece, and even in the Indus valley, conquering lands and expanding his empire. Not only resuming to military prowess, Darius also improved the legal and economic system and conducted impressive construction projects across the Persian Empire.

Rise to Power

The most important primary sources, that tell us about his life and reign, are his inscriptions, the most famous example being the trilingual inscription, in Akkadian or Babylonian, Elamite, and old Persian, carved on the Bisitun (Behistun) rock relief from the village of the same name and from his palace at Persepolis. Also, accounts about his reign were chronicled by the Greek historian Herodotus.


Darius was born in c. 550 BCE, the oldest son of Hystapes and Rhodugune. The Behistun Inscription mentions that his father occupied the position of satrap (Persian governor) of Bactria and Persis during the reign of Cyrus the Great (559-530 BCE) and his son, Cambyses (530-522 BCE). During the reign of Cambyses, Darius held the position of spearman (doryphoros) and accompanied the king in his campaign to Egypt between 528 and 525 BCE. Before leaving for Egypt, Cambyses named Patizithes as custodian of the royal palace in his absence. Patizithes saw this situation as an opportunity to gain power. He set up his own brother, Gaumata, as a false king under the name of Bardiya or Smerdis, Cambyses' brother, becoming the new ruler in 522 BCE. Cambyses II returned to his country seven months later only to find that he could not take his throne back. Some historical sources say he took his own life as he was unable to defeat the impostor king and his supporters, while other tell us he fell during the marches through Syrian Ecbatana or through Damascus.

The false king's reign did not last long. Herodotus tells us that Phaedymia, the daughter of Cambyses' uncle, Otanes, found out that the ruler is not Cambyses' brother. Her father, after learning the truth, quickly assembled a group of conspirators which included Hydarnes, Intaphrenes, Megabyzus, and Darius, who at the time was still the king's lancer. Gaumata was finally assassinated, leaving the Persian empire without a leader the conspirators had to decide the future of the empire. Otanes opted out, wanting only special privileges for his family, oligarchy was suggested by Megabyzus, while Darius voted for a monarchy. Being unable to settle the matter at hand, all of them agreed on a contest, where the winner would take the throne. All of them would meet the next morning, each on his horse, and the first horse to neigh at the sunrise would be named the new king. Herodotus tells us that Darius cheated supposedly it was his servant, Oebares, who made the horse neigh by letting the animal smell his hand that he had previously rubbed over the genitals of a mare. In any case, the horse's neigh accompanied by lightning and thunder from a storm convinced the others to accept Darius as the new king in 522 BCE.


Even though Gaumata was a false ruler, only a portion of satrapies recognised Darius as their king, after his coronation, in 522 BCE, such as Bactria and Arachosia. Others saw the false king's death as a chance for independence. Revolts broke out across many regions of the empire, including Persis, Media, Parthia, Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt, and only with aid of his army and personal entourage did Darius manage to quell these conflicts. These events are chronicled in great detail in his inscriptions, translated by Herbert Cushing, which also serve as a warning for future kings:

Says Darius the king: O thou who shalt be king in
the future, protect thyself strongly from Deceit
whatever man shall be a deceiver, him who deserves
to be punished, punish, if thus thou shalt think " may
my country be secure." (30)

[. ]
Says Darius the king: O thou who shalt be
king in the future, whatever man shall be a deceiver
or a wrong-doer (be) not a friend to these punish
(them) with severe punishment. (33)

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Military Campaigns

Darius' rule was marked by vast military expeditions. After consolidating his power at home, he set off to secure the lands of Egypt, which had been conquered before by Cambyses, and in 519 BCE he incorporated a large part of Egypt into his empire. The following year, in 518 BCE, he conquered parts of India, namely northern Punjab as his inscriptions testify. Herodotus adds that India was the 20th satrapy of the empire and also that parts of the Indus valley also fell victim to Persian warfare.

The next significant campaign was in European Scythia in 513 BCE. Historians have proposed several theories in an attempt to clarify the objective of this campaign. They range from simple military conquest to a more propagandistic motive, revenge for a previous conflict during the reign of Cyrus where the Scythians had attacked Medes. Another possible reason is that Darius wanted to conquer the western Greek lands and the Scythian campaign was supposed to threaten the Greeks into surrender.


However, Darius faced unforeseen difficulties. The Scythians evaded the Persian army, using feints and retreating eastwards, all the while laying waste to the countryside. The king's army chased the enemy deep into Scythian lands, where he sent word to their ruler, urging Idanthyrsus to fight or surrender. As Idanthyrsus refused to do either, the chase resumed. In the end, the campaign halted after a few weeks when sickness and deprivation had taken its toll on the Persian army. The march halted around the banks of the Volga river and then headed towards Thrace, where Darius ordered his general Megabyzus to subjugate the region.

Besides bringing Thrace under Persian influence, Megabyzus also conquered the neighbouring Greek cities. He sent envoys to Macedonia where Amyntas, the king of Macedonia, became a vassal of the empire. Meanwhile, Darius solidified his hold in Ionia and the Aegean Islands through appointments of Greek natives as city rulers or tyrants.


Greco-Persian Wars

In 499 BCE, Aristagoras, the tyrant of Miletus, convinced the satrap Artaphernes to sponsor a campaign against Naxos. Darius gave his consent and named Megabates, Artaphemes's cousin, as commander of the Persian army. They were supposed to be supported and supplied by Aristagoras, but a quarrel between Megabates and Aristagoras resulted in the former betraying them and informing the Naxians of their plans, sabotaging the campaign. Finding himself without help, Aristagoras decided to revolt against the Persians. Seeking other allies, although he failed to acquire the support of Sparta, he managed to secure the aid of Athens and Eretria, both providing troops and ships.

After six years of conflict, during which Sardis, Cyprus, and the Hellespont were attacked, the Persian army defeated the rebels at the Battle of Lade in 494 BCE where most of the Athenian fleet was destroyed. Undeterred, Darius gathered his army, planning to conquer Athens. His army consisted of infantry and cavalry, led by the general Datis. They marched from Susa to Cilicia, where ships carried them across the Aegean Sea to the island of Samos. Here they joined up with an armed force from Ionia and sailed north, to Athens.

Meanwhile, the Athenians started to prepare for war. Envoys were sent to Sparta, but after gathering allies, the Greek force was still only 10,000 strong, facing 100,000 Persians. Outnumbered, the Greek generals needed a brilliant strategy. Two of them advised facing the enemy from within the safety of the city gates, but Miltiades convinced them that a direct attack would be a better choice. They agreed, on the condition that Miltiades would lead the army into the battle.


The two opposing armies met on the fields of Marathon in 490 BCE. The Persian army, though heavily outnumbering the Greek army, was slow and overconfident. The Greeks took advantage of this situation as the two armies approached each other at a casual pace, the Greeks suddenly broke into a sprint. This caught the Persians off guard, and before they knew it they were forced to battle in full hand-to-hand combat. After a few hours of battle, the Persian ranks broke, many of them running towards the safety of the ships or to the nearby mountains. 6,000 Persians fell, while the Greek army lost only 200 men. The marble blocks which the Persians intended to use for the monument they were going to erect after the battle, was instead used by the victorious Greeks to build a monument for their fallen comrades. This blow was seen as an insult by Darius, who chose to fight on and prepared for another invasion. This plan, however, never came to fruition due to his death in 486 BCE.


The Persian Empire witnessed many improvements during Darius' reign. He established 20 provinces or satrapies, with an archon or satrap assigned to each. Neighbouring regions paid a fixed tribute a fair amount was stipulated by a commission of Darius' trusted officials.

He also improved the legal system of the Persian government, using the Babylonian Hammurabi as a model and copying some of his laws completely. The laws were enforced by the judges of the empire, who needed to be incorruptible. Darius removed the previous native officials, replacing them with new people loyal to him. While the punishments may seem brutal today, ranging from mutilation to blinding, fairness was not omitted as punishment depended on the nature and severity of the crime. The new system proved to be popular, even after Darius's death, some laws were still in use in 218 BCE.

In the matters of religion, it is well known that Darius was an adherent of Zoroastrianism or at least a firm believer of Ahura Mazda. This we can see in his inscriptions, where he attributes his success to Ahura Mazda, and in his legal system where all laws were created in the name of the Zoroastrian god. In the lands that were under Persian control, all other religions were tolerated as long as they remained submissive and peaceful.

Economy & Building Projects

During his reign, Darius undertook impressive construction projects across the empire. In Susa, he built a palace complex in the northern part of the city, which became his favourite residence. A grand project in Persepolis followed the palace complex included a military quarter, treasury, the king's quarters and guest house. Besides the palaces, Darius also finished previously incomplete construction projects of Cyrus in Pasargadae. In Egypt, he built many temples and restored those that had previously been destroyed.

Darius introduced a new universal currency, the darayaka, sometime before 500 BCE. This innovation made it easier to collect taxes on land, livestock, and marketplaces, which led to improved revenues for the empire. To further improve the economy and help traders, a new standardised system of weights and measures was introduced.

Death & Legacy

After the defeat at Marathon, Darius did not want to give up on his dream to conquer Greece. He vowed to gather an even larger army, this time leading it personally, to fight the Greeks. After three years of preparing, during which he became ill, a revolt broke out in Egypt that only worsened his condition. Darius died in October 486 BCE his body was interred at Naqsh-e Rustam in a tomb prepared by him beforehand, a custom of Persian kings. After his death, the throne was inherited by his eldest son from his marriage with Atossa, Xerxes.

Darius's reign was one of the most important episodes in the history of the Persian Empire. His military conquest expanded the boundaries of Persia, and internally, his reforms improved the vitality of the empire. Some of his improvements have survived even to this day such as his laws as the basis for the current Iranian law.

The history of yoga

The term yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’ meaning to unite the union of the individual self with the supreme self. According to the classical definition by Patanjali, yoga means controlling the modifications of mind. There are several styles of yoga, but the core idea of every style is controlling the mind.

This concept of yoga (along with various physical postures or asanas) that has got recent attention globally, can be traced back to the Indus valley civilization. Since then, it has undergone various modifications and what we know as yoga today is vastly different from the way yoga was originally practiced.

Here is a brief look at the evolution of yoga:

Pre-vedic period (Before 3000 BC)

Until recently, Western scholars believed that yoga originated around 500 BC, the period when Buddhism came into existence. However, depictions of yoga postures were found in the recent excavations at Harappa and Mohenjodaro. This indicates that yoga may have been practiced as early as 5000 years ago. However, there are no written records to prove this conclusively.

Vedic period (3000 BC to 800 BC)

During the vedic period, yoga was practiced ritually, to develop concentration, and to transcend the mundane. The rituals practiced during this period are quite differing from the present practices of yoga. The rituals of the vedic period are close to the definition of yoga: union of the individual self with the supreme self.

Preclassical (Upanishad) period (800 BC to 250 BC)

The Upanishads, Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita contain several references to yoga. The Bhagavad Gita mentions may forms of yoga: Jnana yoga, Bhakti yoga, Karma yoga and Raja yoga. Krishna, during the Gitopadesha, explains that if a person seeks reality with humility and reverence, they can attain a higher state of consciousness. In this period, yoga was more of lifestyle rather than breathing or a posture-related practice.

Classical period(184 BC to 148 BC)

During the classical period, Patanjali compiled 195 sutras (aphorisms) of yoga into a more concise form. Patanjali’s view on yoga is known as Raja Yoga. It has the classical eight limbs: Yama (social conduct), Niyama (personal conduct), Asana (physical postures), Pranayama (breathing regulation), Prathyahara (withdrawal of senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (transcendence). Though Patanjali added physical postures and breathing regulation to yoga, they were used only as practices secondary to Dhyana and Samadhi. Patanjali’s sutras do not name any asanas or pranayama.

Post classical period (800 AD to 1700 AD)

During this age, followers of Patanjaliyoga gave yoga a new outlook by giving greater importance to the asanas, kriyas and pranayama, for cleansing of the body and mind. The purification of body and mind helped practitioners reach higher levels of practice, like Samadhi. This form of yoga is called hatha yoga.

Modern period (From 1863 AD onwards)

Yoga was introduced to the rest of the world by Swami Vivekananda when he mentioned it in his historic speech at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Many yogis like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Paramahamsa Yogananda, Ramana Maharishi, etc., influenced the western world profoundly through their spiritual accomplishments and gradually yoga was accepted throughout the world as a secular spiritual practice rather than a ritual-based religious doctrine.

In recent times, T.Krishnamacharya trained three disciples, BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and TVK Desikachar. These yoga masters popularized yoga globally.

The form of yoga we practice today, may be different from the original form of yoga, but is based on the same classical concepts propounded by Patanjali. The only difference seems to be that today, we work on our bodies before we begin working on our minds.

Dr Ramajayam G is a PhD scholar of yoga at NIMHANS

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