Some time ago, I was looking through books on the history of the gym to read and fell upon a book called The Temple of Perfection. There were several parts to the history of the gym that made the idea of going to this temple so visceral, that I don’t think I’ll ever not appreciate the chance to be able to train. However, there was one account that really struck me.
The story was of fitness in the west meeting fitness in the east. Exercise and training was a big part of the Ancient Greek’s culture. In fact, even the grand thinkers of western philosophy (Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato) regularly incorporated exercise into their philosophical writings.
Socrates is noted as incorporating concepts of physical exercise into his writings of government because of how proactive it was.
He stated that it was through good laws that society would prosper, and not the enthusiasm of the judiciary to exercise their reprimanding powers.
Regardless, there was an overarching view in the minds of the Greek masses that physical fitness and philosophical thought were intertwined in their nature.
You could not have one without the other. This view would make for an interesting twist, when under the conquests of Alexander of Macedon, that the Greek people would venture across the Bosporus and into Asia during the 4th century B.C.E.
Now in order to understand the successes of Alexander in Asia, we have to understand the kind of person he was.
First of all, he was incredibly young, starting this reckless campaign in his early twenties. Moreover, he was known to have great leadership potential even further back, during his teenage years, helping his father lead armies of men many years older than him.
Most important however, was his view of non-Greeks.
You see, Alexander lived in a world where many saw the peoples of Asia as ‘barbarians.’ Even Alexander’s own tutor, Aristotle, would share this similar view of those across the Bosporus.
Regardless of Alexander’s goals of conquest, he was not beneath the idea of incorporating other cultures. This was a point of great friction between him and the rest of his men as they progressed through their conquests.
By the time Alexander had pushed through to the Indus River in India, his army and himself had morphed into a Greco-Asian hybrid. From dress, to soldiers, to creating families of Greeks and Persians, Alexander had chosen to take on a perspective of accepting exposure to other cultures.
Alexander’s army would carve out an immense empire going westward, conquering all of the then-known Persian Empire and kissing the Indus River, where they would be halted.
It was at this destination, in India, that we’ll focus on.
Enter the Naked Philosophers
While the Greek soldiers were in India, they observed naked Indian men performing slow movements with meditation.
Some historians believe that what the Greeks observed was the early signs of a movement system that would eventually be consolidated into yoga.
Interestingly, when the Greeks observed these naked men, they coined the term ‘gymnosophists’ to describe them.
The name ‘gymnosophists’ (apart from having the word ‘gym’ in it; if you weren’t paying attention already) meant ‘naked philosophers’.
As mentioned earlier, fitness and philosophy were grossly intertwined in Greek culture. To separate the two would be incredibly ‘un-Greek’.
For that reason, the spectacle that the Greek’s saw in those naked, Indian men couldn’t have been anything other than a depiction of philosophical exercise.
Exploring New Movements
When reading through this story, the first thing that popped into my mind was how much of an impact that having new exposure has, especially in my own physical training.
But after a while, I felt bored as well as felt that I was missing out on something.
He talked about how even going on a rower (typically considered cardio work) was considered volume work for your upper body and how biking and running needed to be treated as being just as impactful on hypertrophy as on cardiovascular adaptation.
Ultimately, following the principles outlined in his book (applying them to long distance races and a powerlifting meet), I feel more aware of all the changes that I input into my training and to the daily physical activity that I do.
On that note, I feel more concerned with trying new movements and activities to fill in holes in training that could impact my specific adaptations.
Sure, I’ll do mobility work, smashing tissue, pretending to know how to mobilize joint capsules, or doing dynamic stretches.
But what about the weird?
Or the unfamiliar?
What about yoga?
Here’s where curiosity meets example. The gymnosophists were doing early forms of yoga for their fitness.
Their actions were on par with what the Greeks did with wrestling, martial arts, running, and the variety of sports and physical activities that they engaged in.
Both were forms that related to the deeper activity of philosophical thinking.
Both these groups utilized different forms of physical training to work towards the same goal.
More so, their stories felt a lot like what was being said by Alex Viada, and even power-lifters following the famous Westside Barbell Conjugate training method: You set a goal and you decide on a handful of skills that directly relate to improving in that area.
Then you find ways or exercises that can develop those skills, which ultimately give you tools to reach the supreme goal.
With that, I started doing yoga once a week. I popped open a Rodney Yee video and did an hour session of his Yoga for Athletes.
Incorporating yoga felt pretty awesome after a few sessions. It was like doing active rest (doing restorative work by actively moving).
In fact, I got so into it that I started looking at books such as Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews which illustrated postures, movements, and breathing techniques of various yoga poses.
Now the reason why I got so into yoga and was able to stay consistent with it was due to the benefits I was feeling. Greater stability during weight-bearing, squats was probably the first benefit I was able to experience, especially while practising single leg poses.
Most important, going through yoga poses helped me focus on breathing. After a month of weekly yoga, I’ve felt a lot more stable when I attempt to breathe while still bracing under load.
Ultimately, exploring yoga has helped to improve my abilities in weightlifting by opening my mind to other forms of movement practise.
Now, after experiencing the Indian philosophers and their yoga, Alexander went on to take some of them on as his advisors for future campaigns into India.
Some historians have theorized that Alexander would have continued to have been successful through this adaptive policy of cultural diffusion, and would have eventually reached the Pacific Ocean.
Unfortunately for him, at the young age of 32 he was forced to return home. His men were unwilling to take any more of their leader’s open-mindedness and missed their homes.
In a greater case of misfortune, Alexander would die along the way back to his home in Greece, leading to the fracture of his empire. However, this would not occur without leaving a legacy.
Alexander left the imprint of Greek Hellenistic culture in Asia, carving out one of the largest empires of the ancient world. His actions would even lead to the introduction of a Greco-Buddhism, an influence of Asian culture on the West.
Alexander’s successes through his open-mindedness is a great reminder to pursue a similar viewpoint when going about my own physical training by trying new movements.