Thursday, August 16, 2012

Exercise in Religion

The Men’s Health Home Workout Bible
Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Exercise Bible, for a Leaner, Healthier Body in Just 12 Weeks
The Ultimate Body Shaping Bible

These are just a few of the many book titles connecting exercise with a holy text. In my last post, I briefly touched on the Christian bible in relation to exercise, and seeing The Men’s Health Home Workout Bible on a relative’s bookshelf prompted me to explore the subject of exercise in religion a bit further. This won’t be a comprehensive treatment of the subject, but I’d like to share some of the interesting information I found.  

In ancient Greece, the strongest association between exercise and religion seems to have been with the god Hermes, the patron divinity of athletics and gymnasiums (as well as crafty wiles, dreams of omen, and a host of other things1) .

(Apparently, Hermes’ patronage wasn’t enough to secure him victory in one race at the mythical first Olympic games:  “[Zeus] held the games in honor of his victory over Kronos. The record of victors include Apollon [Apollo], who outran Hermes and beat Ares at boxing.”2

Greek foot race

According to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, “Young members of the gymnasium often officiated in the Hermaia as ‘performers of the sacred rites’ (hieropoioi) . . . thus preparing them for carrying out their religious duties as future citizens of the polis.”3

In prehistoric India, yoga and Hinduism seem to have emerged at around the same time in the Indus Valley Civilization. According to the American Yoga Association, “Stone carvings depicting figures in Yoga positions have been found in archeological sites in the Indus Valley dating back 5,000 years or more.”4 The AMA’s website goes on to claim, “There is a common misconception that Yoga is rooted in Hinduism; on the contrary, Hinduism’s religious structures evolved much later and incorporated some of the practices of Yoga.”5

Indus Valley archeological site
Source: National Geographic

Yet elements of Hinduism have been found in Indus Valley archeological sites as well.6 Prof. Gavin Flood of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies helps explain why it is not so easy to say which came first, yoga or Hinduism:

“Firstly, in a strict sense there was no 'Hinduism' before modern times, although the sources of Hindu traditions are very ancient.
Secondly, Hinduism is not a single religion but embraces many 
Thirdly, Hinduism has no definite starting point. The traditions which flow into Hinduism may go back several thousand years and some practitioners claim that the Hindu revelation is eternal.”7

The American Yoga Association’s disclaimer that yoga is not rooted in Hinduism likely stems from a desire to reassure practitioners of any religion that yoga is compatible with their beliefs. It does seem that many schools of yoga, though probably not all, are compatible with other religions. One person who takes strong issue with this, however, is the Vatican’s chief exorcist, Father Gabriel Amorth. In the UK tabloid Daily Mail’s 2011 feature story on Father Amorth, among other unambiguous remarks appears his statement “Yoga is the Devil's work.”8

Father Gabriel Amorth

In Islam, daily prayer (salah or salat) provides one link to exercise. Although benefitting physically from exercise is not the purpose of prayer, the Muslim writer Aisha Stacey points out, “The daily performance of five prayers is in itself a form of exercise, its prescribed movements involve all the muscles and joints of the body . . . ”9 While this sounds like a bit of an exaggeration (all the muscles?), it does make sense that moving between the various postures required in prayer—including bowing, kneeling, prostrating, sitting, and standing—provides a mini-workout of sorts. These postures, indeed the entire prayers, are performed more or less the same way by all Muslims, though if they are physically unable to pray in the traditional form, they may sit or lie down.10

Muslims Pray on Madison Avenue
Source (including caption):

While researching exercise and prayer in Islam, I found one study that recommends the motions and postures of salat prayer for rehabilitation.11 The authors “postulated that salat, along with its various postures, can play a role in increasing psychological well-being including self-reliance and self-esteem, improving musculo-skeletal fitness, motor behavior and cerebral blood flow . . .” Involving “little effort,” this type of prayer may not be intense or even moderate exercise, but the authors did conclude that it is “beneficial for mental and physical health.”

For further reading on present-day exercise as religion, I recommend Sarah Bernard’s 2005 New York Magazine article “God Is in the Deltoids: A New Wave of Fitness Gurus Is Merging Religion and Exercise.” “It’s like gyms have become the new churches,” one of her sources states.

Despite the examples Bernard’s article cites, I think many religious people would object to this notion. The importance of the body, including the body’s condition before death and the afterlife, varies widely from religion to religion, and from age to age within each religion. Nevertheless, religious thought in general seems to be concerned with the fate of the immortal soul, with the condition of the mortal body a distant second. Slapping the word “bible” on your exercise book may help it sell better, but religion and exercise really occupy two different worlds.

2. Herodotus, Histories, trans. Alfred Denis Godley (London: W. Heinemann, 1920),  5.7.10,
3. Michael Gagarin, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, digital edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1:370.
4. “General Yoga Information,” American Yoga Association, accessed Aug. 11, 2012,
5. Ibid.
6. Gavin Flood, “History of Hinduism,” BBC, last modified Aug. 24, 2001, accessed Aug. 11, 2012,
7. Ibid.
8. Nick Pisa, “Yoga Is the Work of the Devil, Says Vatican's Chief Exorcist (and He Doesn't Like Harry Potter Much Either,” Daily Mail, last modified Nov. 25, 2011, accessed Aug. 11, 2012,
9. Aisha Stacey, “Health in Islam (part 4 of 4): Fitness and Exercise,” last modified Oct. 4, 2009, accessed Aug. 12, 2012,
10. Vardit Rispler-Chaim, Disability in Islamic Law, digital edition (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2006),  24.
11. Mohammed Faruque Reza, Yuji Urakami, and Yukio Mano, “Evaluation of a New Physical Exercise Taken from Salat (Prayer) as a Short-Duration and Frequent Physical Activity in the Rehabilitation of Geriatric and Disabled Patients,” 2002,

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