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Why Henry David Thoreau was drawn to yoga
The famed author headed to the pond thanks to Indian philosophy.
- The famed author was heavily influenced by Indian literature, informing his decision to self-exile on Walden Pond.
- He was introduced to these texts by his good friend's father, William Emerson.
- Yoga philosophy was in America a century before any physical practices were introduced.
Though yoga today is associated with expensive leggings and an infestation of Instagram selfies, the philosophical underpinnings have long predated the physical asana practice. In fact, the first century of yoga in America had little to do with postures, but the cognitive and emotional flexibility needed to criticize one's society and try to make it better through ancient philosophical ideology.
Such was the case of Henry David Thoreau, as a colleague and friend of mine, Natalia Petrzela, recently wrote about in the Washington Post. While her piece focused on the longstanding political aspects of yoga, one of my editors here at Big Think raised an eyebrow at this sentence:
Nineteenth-century transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau was drawn to yoga and Hinduism as forms of resistance to mainstream market capitalism.
We all know about his self-imposed exile on Walden Pond (even though it was walking distance back to town). Still, resistance to the growing market economy of nineteenth century New England was part of Thoreau's philosophical bedrock. Credit his friend's father, William Emerson, whose early fascination with the literature of India led to his published translations of Sanskrit texts in 1805. As Thoreau stated after reading the text, Manusmirti,
I cannot read a single word of the Hindoos without being elevated.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau shared a love for the ideas behind works like the Bhagavad Gita, incorporating symbols and metaphors into their own transcendental and nature-based writings—and leading to his time on Walden Pond. They were witnessing a widening rift between technology and the soil and trees around them, and used Indian mythologies as guiding principles informing their own form of revolt.
Yoga continued to influence thinkers, such as Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, who integrated Hindu and Buddhist texts with Christian mysticism, Kabbalah and Sufi philosophies. In works such as Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine she speculated on the yogic underpinnings of men like Jesus and Mohammed, showing how various forms of mysticism from any culture could be related on a common ground—similar to the work of Evelyn Underhill, who was born the year the foundation was founded.
The first citing of a more physical yoga in the West, however, is due to Swami Vivekananda, who at the World's Parliament of Religions in 1893 gave a lecture and demonstration that made him a conference highlight. During the talk he spoke of the easy distractions of the Western world, and how the inability to focus on one thing at a time, as well as a disconnection from the body has created excess amounts of anxiety not only in the people themselves, but also in the rest of the world. Ironically, Vivekananda was considered a vagrant in the city, adorned in a simple robe and sandals and begging for money, which was how he funded his trip to America.
Twenty-five years later an Englishman who had been living in India since 1890 produced what would become the first comprehensive yoga book for Westerners. Sir John Woodroffe published all of his works on Indology under the pseudonym Arthur Avalon, and with the dispersion of The Serpent Power: The Secrets of Tantric and Shaktic Yoga, audiences in Europe and America were exposed to the foundation of this "ancient" practice. He too was enraptured by the transcendental teachings, writing:
Yogis are not concerned with the 'heaven world,' but seek to surpass it; otherwise they are not Yogis at all.
Today we treat yoga as we do other New Age fodder, but at the turn of the twentieth century it was being attacked in the media and at churches. Perhaps not strangely, it had to do with immigration. Between 1870 and 1900, a million immigrants came America; the following decade saw another one million gain entry annually. Brightly clad, long-bearded men with matted hair and dark complexions speaking about the inherent unity of all creatures were dangerous to the Victorian ideologies in vogue.
A statue of Henry David Thoreau in front of a reproduction of his cabin at the Walden Pond Reservation in Concord, Mass., on Jan. 20, 2016. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
The American media, proficient at creating controversies where none exist, concocted tales about "white slavery" as daughters were being abducted by these sage-demons in disguise. Congress jumped aboard in 1910 by passing the Mann Act (aka the White Slavery Act), which dissuaded would-be abductors. By 1912 the government was promising the public that they were doing everything possible to stop the spread of these "Orientalist religions." Not surprisingly, some of the many targets of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst were yogis.
Following the Great Depression things started easing up, especially as it found a poster boy in Theos Barnard. He was introduced to yoga after a near-fatal illness had sent him to a family friend who happened to be an Indian sage. After returning from an overseas trip in 1937, he published two books, Heaven Lies Within Us and Penthouse of the Gods, dedicating the rest of his life to the path of yoga and philosophy. His uncle, Pierre Bernard, had already founded the New York Sanskrit College in Manhattan, and these two men, while occasionally hassled by the police, gained a loyal following.
Yoga has kept evolving with the times. In the nineteen-fifties India's Prime Minister, Jawarharlal Nehru, denied accusations that his nation was supplying yogis to Russia to help instruct astronauts in how to breathe more easily in outer space. This was the same decade that famed teacher BKS Iyengar embarked on his first overseas trip and journalists like Hartford Courant columnist Jack Zaiman exposed the beneficial aspects of yoga to the public. Yoga pivoted from the love-cult stigma into YMCAs and YWCAs.
Though yoga is today fully under the spell of capitalism, with many instructors more concerned with Instagram followers and monetizing the workout, it remains, for some, an honest investigation of oneself and their place in the world. In a society dominated by the distraction created in the attention economy, yoga offers a pause in an otherwise relentless world. Two centuries ago, Thoreau recognized its benefits when writing of his yoga practice,
This was not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals meant by contemplation and the forsaking of works.
A new study finds that dogs fed fresh human-grade food don't need to eat—or do their business—as much.
- Most dogs eat a diet that's primarily kibble.
- When fed a fresh-food diet, however, they don't need to consume as much.
- Dogs on fresh-food diets have healthier gut biomes.
Four diets were tested<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTU5ODI1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjY0NjIxMn0._w0k-qFOC86AqmtPHJBK_i-9F5oVyVYsYtUrdvfUxWQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="1b1e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="87937436a81c700a8ab3b1d763354843" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="960" />
Credit: AntonioDiaz/Adobe Stock<p>The researchers tested refrigerated and fresh human-grade foods against kibble, the food most dogs live on. The <a href="https://frontierpets.com.au/blogs/news/how-kibble-or-dry-dog-food-is-made" target="_blank">ingredients</a> of kibble are mashed into a dough and then extruded, forced through a die of some kind into the desired shape — think a <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_extrusion" target="_blank">pasta maker</a>. The resulting pellets are sprayed with additional flavor and color.</p><p>For four weeks, researchers fed 12 beagles one of four diets:</p><ol><li>a extruded diet — Blue Buffalo Chicken and Brown Rice Recipe</li><li>a fresh refrigerated diet — Freshpet Roasted Meals Tender Chicken Recipe</li><li>a fresh diet — JustFoodforDogs Beef & Russet Potato Recipe</li><li>another fresh diet — JustFoodforDogs Chicken & White Rice Recipe.</li></ol><p>The two fresh diets contained minimally processed beef, chicken, broccoli, rice, carrots, and various food chunks in a canine casserole of sorts. </p><p>(One can't help but think how hard it would be to get finicky cats to test new diets. As if.)</p><p>Senior author <a href="https://ansc.illinois.edu/directory/ksswanso" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Kelly S. Swanson</a> of U of I's Department of Animal Sciences and the Division of Nutritional Sciences, was a bit surprised at how much better dogs did on people food than even refrigerated dog chow. "Based on past research we've conducted I'm not surprised with the results when feeding human-grade compared to an extruded dry diet," he <a href="https://aces.illinois.edu/news/feed-fido-fresh-human-grade-dog-food-scoop-less-poop" target="_blank">says</a>, adding, "However, I did not expect to see how well the human-grade fresh food performed, even compared to a fresh commercial processed brand."</p>
Tracking the effect of each diet<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTU5ODI1OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NjY1NTgyOX0.AdyMb8OEcjCD6iWYnXjToDmcnjfTSn-0-dfG96SIpUA/img.jpg?width=980" id="da892" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="880d952420679aeccd1eaf32b5339810" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="960" />
Credit: Patryk Kosmider/Adobe Stock<p>The researchers tracked the dogs' weights and analyzed the microbiota in their fecal matter.</p><p>It turned out that the dogs on kibble had to eat more to maintain their body weight. This resulted in their producing 1.5 to 2.9 times the amount of poop produced by dogs on the fresh diets.</p><p>Says Swanson, "This is consistent with a 2019 National Institute of Health study in humans that found people eating a fresh whole food diet consumed on average 500 less calories per day, and reported being more satisfied, than people eating a more processed diet."</p><p>Maybe even more interesting was the effect of fresh food on the gut biome. Though there remains much we don't yet know about microbiota, it was nonetheless the case that the microbial communities found in fresh-food poo was different.</p><p>"Because a healthy gut means a healthy mutt," says Swanson, "fecal microbial and metabolite profiles are important readouts of diet assessment. As we have shown in <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jas/article/92/9/3781/4702209#110855647" target="_blank">previous studies</a>, the fecal microbial communities of healthy dogs fed fresh diets were different than those fed kibble. These unique microbial profiles were likely due to differences in diet processing, ingredient source, and the concentration and type of dietary fibers, proteins, and fats that are known to influence what is digested by the dog and what reaches the colon for fermentation."</p>
How did kibble take over canine diets?<p>Historically, dogs ate scraps left over by humans. It has only been <a href="https://www.thefarmersdog.com/digest/the-history-of-commercial-pet-food-a-great-american-marketing-story/" target="_blank">since 1870</a>, with the arrival of the luxe Spratt's Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes—made from "the dried unsalted gelatinous parts of Prairie Beef", mmm—that commercial dog food began to take hold. Dog bone-shaped biscuits first appeared in 1907. Ken-L Ration dates from 1922. Kibble was first extruded in 1956. Pet food had become a great way to turn <a href="https://www.dogfoodadvisor.com/choosing-dog-food/animal-by-products/" target="_blank">human-food waste</a> into profit.</p><p>Commercial dog food became the norm for most household canines only after a massive marketing campaign led by a group of dog-food industry lobbyists called the Pet Food Institute in 1964. Over time, for most households, dog food was what dogs ate — what else? Human food? These days more than half of U.S. dogs are <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/magazine/who-made-that-dog-biscuit.html" target="_blank">overweight or obese</a>, and certainly their diet is a factor.<span></span></p><p>We're not so special among animals after all. If something's healthy for us to eat—we're <em>not</em> looking at you, chocolate—maybe we should remember to share with our canine compatriots. Not from the table, though.</p>
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Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.
- A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
- The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
- Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.