YOU MAY BE ONE OF THE MILLIONS of people returning to recently reopened gyms in an attempt to shed a few pounds of pandemic weight. Or, to give yourself a moment of respite between loading the dishwasher and putting the kids to bed, perhaps you have started meditating. Alternatively, you might put on noise-canceling headphones to take in ambient sounds of lakes or jungles through an app on your phone. If so, you are participating in a widespread commitment to wellness, taking part in activities meant to promote and achieve personal well-being.
Peoples of the ancient world practiced self-care, too, with a range of behaviors and rituals that nurtured mind, body, and soul. For instance, around a.d. 60, at Aquae Sulis, the site of natural hot springs in what is now Bath, England, the Romans built a huge temple and spa complex that became a center for both pilgrimage and health. There, Romans and local Britons socialized and bathed, hoping to heal a host of ailments such as rheumatism, arthritis, and gout. They also worshipped the Romano-Celtic healing goddess Sulis Minerva. The Aquae Sulis springs had already been host to centuries—and possibly millennia—of ceremonies held by Bronze and Iron Age communities. Even after the destruction of the Roman baths in the sixth-century a.d., Aquae Sulis’ legacy continued. The health-giving properties of the springs were well known in Britain throughout the Middle Ages, and by the seventeenth century, Bath was the place to see and be seen. It became common for visitors to drink the sulfurous thermal waters, a practice known as “taking the cure.” Some still engage in this activity, seeking its purported health benefits.
In fact, many wellness pursuits enjoyed today were developed in the ancient world. There were Egyptian foot massages, Maya communal sweat baths, and expensive Roman face creams. And not only would a group of ancient Indian practitioners of yoga recognize some of your positions, but they might also even give you a few pointers.
The earliest textual and sculptural evidence of yoga, which came to be practiced in northern and northwestern India and what is today Pakistan, dates to the last few centuries b.c. For at least a millennium afterward, yoga generally involved meditation in the cross-legged lotus position. It was largely practiced by ascetics who saw the body as something to be controlled and subdued, or even mortified, through extreme activities such as standing or holding their arms above their heads for years on end. “It’s quite different from what we understand as yoga nowadays,” says James Mallinson, a scholar of the history of yoga at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
Around 1,000 years ago, yoga practices that aimed to develop, rather than punish, the body began to appear. Known as hatha yoga, or yoga by means of force, this novel form incorporated new balancing postures that involved standing on one’s head or holding one’s legs up in the air while sitting. “Suddenly, the texts start teaching these physical methods of cultivating the body to make it strong, fit, supple, and lean, but also to harness its vital energies,” says Mallinson.
An early sculptural representation of hatha positions can be found on a gate dating to around a.d. 1230 in the town of Dabhoi in the northwestern Indian state of Gujarat. Hindu deities, yogis, and yoginis are depicted bending their limbs in ways that wouldn’t be out of place at a modern yoga studio. “This is the beginnings of yoga as a wellness tradition,” says Mallinson. “The notion of doing yoga to improve your body and stay healthy seems to appear about a thousand years ago, and from then on, there is a continuum to what we find today.”
Among the Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the seventeenth century, drunkenness, excessive tobacco consumption, and conspicuous displays of prosperity such as extravagant dress were strictly forbidden. In a society not given to self-indulgence, wellness could take paradoxical forms. Harvard University archaeologist Diana DiPaolo Loren says that Puritans may have genuinely felt at their best under conditions of self-imposed privation, which were intended to earn them eternal salvation. “In Puritanism, to be healthy means to be right with God,” she says. “The threat of uncleanliness and of the devil would have been omnipresent, so people would have taken great care with their dress, with their comportment, and with their surroundings.” Seventeenth-century Harvard College students, for instance, may have been most comfortable in the scholar robes that they wore over plain woolen clothing, which presented a suitably humble appearance before God.
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