Main content


Adam Curtis

Tagged with:

At first sight the search for peace and stability in Iraq, and the search for physical and mental fitness in the extreme contortions of modern Yoga seem to have absolutely nothing in common.

But curiously they do.

Both the terrible structural problems and distortions that underly Iraqi society today, and the strange, contorted poses that millions of people perform every day in things like Bikram's Hot Yoga, actually come from the fevered imagination of the British ruling class one hundred years ago.

As they felt Britain's power declining they wanted desperately to go back into the past and create a purer and more innocent world, uncorrupted by the messiness of the modern industrial world - a new Eden forged both by strengthening and purifying the human body and by inventing new model countries round the world.

And we are still suffering from the consequences of that terrible nostalgia.

At the end of the nineteenth century a fanatical craze for physical fitness swept through Britain. Millions of men and women took up gymnastics, body building and other physical exercises.

Such a thing had never happened before - and it was given a name - Physical Culture.

The craze had an almost religious intensity because those who promoted it said that it was the only way to prevent the British nation - and its Empire - from collapsing. Behind this was a powerful belief that the modern world of the 1890s - the teeming cities with their slums and giant factories - was leading to a "physical degeneracy" in millions of people.

It was a fear that had started with the elite who ran Britain's public schools. Matthew Arnold warned of "the strange disease of modern life" with its "sick hurry" and "divided aims". Out of that came a movement called "Muscular Christianity" which wanted to recreate the kind of heroic human being that existed before industry and the modern world came along and corroded everything.

It was a vision of a restored physical and moral perfection in the young men who were going to run the empire. And it involved doing lots of exercises in new things called Gymnasiums. Then liberal reformers got worried about the working classes - convinced that the slums were leading to a "physical degeneracy" . So they persuaded lots more people to do exercises.

Then a figure rose up who united all of this dramatically into a mass movement. He was called Eugen Sandow.

Sandow came from Prussia, he started as a circus and music-hall performer. But then in the late 1890s he invented something he called "body-building". It caused a sensation throughout Europe and America - and he became a massive celebrity because he was seen as the leader of a crusade of Physical Culture that was going to stop the degeneracy that was plaguing Britain.

Here is some film shot by Thomas Edison - showing Sandow in action.

Sandow said that building the perfect body was a way of reconnecting with a pre-industrial time of virile physical perfection. He was very good at PR - and he told a story of how he had gone with his father to see the Greek and Roman statues in Italy. He asked his father why there were no more such men?

His father replied that in those days the rule of the survival of the strongest had not yet been corroded by the dangerous, cushioning effects of "civilisation". There and then, Sandow said, he resolved to lift from himself - and the world - "the stigma of weakness".

And to do that you had to "build" your body to look like this

Sandow also started a magazine called Sandow's Magazine of Physical Culture - to promote what he called The Gospel of Strength. It became the centre of a worldwide movement that incorporated bodybuilding with all sorts of physical exercises.

It was the start of the modern idea of fitness - and at its heart was an almost spiritual vision of restoring a lost wholeness to both human beings and to the world. The American promoter of Physical Culture, Bernarr Macfaddden wrote in 1904

"Our ancestors were strong, virile and conquering because they lived close to Nature and so absorbed her inexhaustible vitality. But we are losing our inherited vitality, slowly perhaps, but none the less surely."

In 1905 Sandow set up "The Empire and Muscle Competition", and then went off on a tour of the world. When he arrived in British India he became a sensation - thousands came to see him in his giant tent.

He had arrived in India at a time of rising tension. There were growing protests against Britain's rule, and Sandow's gospel of strength now began to get mixed up with another ideology - Indian nationalism. In the next twenty years, as Britain's hold over India weakened, the culture of physical fitness that Sandow had brought to the country would re-emerge in a strange mutated form as a way of fighting against British rule.

And in a further mutation this would lead to what we now know as modern Power Yoga.

After the First World War the territories of the old Ottoman Empire were divided up amongst the European powers, and Britain got three provinces in Arabia that would become the new country of Iraq.

Britain had created new countries within its Empire before and it had always started by surveying in extraordinary detail the societies they were ruling - compiling censuses and records of property boundaries and a mass of other details. Out of all that they then built a new administrative system.

It wasn't often very fair or democratic - but it bore some relationship to the reality of existing power structures.

But by the 1920s Britain was bankrupt after the war and couldn't afford such elaborate preparations. Instead a small group of elite administrators were allowed to create a new society out of their imaginations.

And their imaginations were influenced by exactly the same yearning for a return to a pre-industrial rural idyll that had created the Physical Culture movement in Britain.

What the British administrators did was take a romantic vision of a long lost Britain run by feudal landlords and project it onto Iraqi society - where the tribal Sheikhs were seen as being like the British landed aristocracy.

A historian called Toby Dodge has written an absolutely brilliant book called Inventing Iraq. It lays out in clear and very persuasive detail how this group of British Civil servants in Iraq built something that looked like a modern nation - but was in fact a facade. Behind it was really a weird nostalgic myth about Britain.

At the heart of this group was the legendary Gertrude Bell. She wrote the key "Review of the Civil Administration in Mesopotamia" in 1920, and Dodge shows how she, like many of the men working with her, completely distrusted the new modern middle class that had grown up in the cities like Baghdad.

This class had helped run the Ottoman Empire and the British believed that they were tainted - that they had been corrupted by the despotic Ottomans, and that if they were given power they could rise up and become despots themselves.

To prevent this, Bell and the other colonial administrators turned instead to the tribes in the countryside and the Sheikhs that controlled the tribes. The Sheikhs would be a far better alternative - powerful "people of influence" who could help the British run Iraq. They were "true" Iraqis, unscathed by Ottoman influence.

Here is a picture of Gertrude Bell.

What made the rural tribes and their leaders so attractive to the British was the fact that they seemed - in their imaginations - to be just like the stable feudal world of Britain with its rural nobility. The British were explicit about this, the Administrative Report for the Basra Division in 1918 said:

"These landlords are men of gentility and pride, occupying a position of influence and status reminiscent of that of the feudal landlords of English history"

Gertrude Bell was full of the romance of the Sheikhs, she said they were "aristocrats" who managed to keep the collectives they headed in a "natural equilibrium".

Some British administrators in Iraq thought this was mad - that you couldn't transmit authority and order through the tribal system, especially because the sheikhs' political and social power had declined long before the British turned up. It was also sidelining the one group who could help create a proper modern society - the middle class in Baghdad.

But, as Toby Dodge shows, the romantic vision of the sheikh as the linchpin of rural society won out. His judgement is blunt:

"This vision had little to do with the historical or social truth of the society. It sprang in large part from the colonial officials own understandings of the evolution of British society.

To the British the noble bedouin, untouched by all that was negative about the modern day, stood in stark contrast to those who peopled the cities - to those who had succumbed to the temptations of modernity."

If Dodge is right - and his evidence is very powerful - what the British did was create Iraq as an expression of their own fears about what was happening to their own country. They took their worries about the rise of the urban mass, and the horrors of industrialisation in Europe and projected this onto the complex societies that were all mixed together in the nascent Iraq.

They then ruthlessly ignored this complexity and gave a lot of power to the noble, virile sheikhs - who were very like the noble heroes that Eugen Sandow wanted to recreate with his bodybuilding.

Here is part of a film that gives a perfect and vivid illustration of this British romantic view of the Arab tribe as pure, uncorrupted society. It is made by the explorer Wilfred Thesiger who spent the 1940s living among the Marsh Arabs in Southern Iraq, and then with the Bedouin nomads who live in what is called The Empty Quarter that straddles Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

But problems emerged right away.

The British supported the sheikhs who were prepared to co-operate, but there were others that the British deemed "unruly" - and because of this division there was growing anger and resentment among some of the tribes. And from 1920 onwards there were rebellions. But there was also a growing economic crisis in Britain - the defence budget had been cut in half and there wasn't enough money to find the troops that were needed to put down the revolts.

So the British invented what they called "Air Control". It was the first use of aerial bombing to put down a civilian uprising - and it was promoted as both a humanitarian and a moral way of keeping control. The bombers would be clean and precise, hitting only the buildings and fuel stores of the unruly tribes.

The first large-scale bombing was in November 1923 in the Samawah district on the Euphrates. It was against defiant tribes from the Bani Huchaim confederation. A British Special Services officer called John Glubb had done a reconnaissance and worked out who he thought were the sheikhs who led the tribes. His operations map showed:

"the location of the villages belonging to the Shaikhs and Headmen whose influence among the tribes rendered them particularly suitable for attack."

In doing this Glubb was following the simplified British vision of Iraqi rural society. In fact the society in Samawah turned out to be more complicated than he imagined. When the identified sheikhs were told to surrender or face bombing two of them came to the British and told them that they didn't have the power to make anyone surrender.

But the British thought they were being evasive - and the bombing went ahead. It was the shock and awe of its time. The RAF planes came in and bombed the villages, the people fled and returned as darkness fell. Then that night the planes came back with incendiary bombs and caught the villagers. An RAF report said that it was:

"to do away with the idea that they (the targets) will ever have any period of peace once an attack has begun."

The RAF's conservative assessment after the attack said that approximately 100 civilians had been killed and six villages destroyed. There was a lot of public concern in Britain about this new tactic, and in the face of this, John Glubb later claimed that only one Iraqi had died.

Glubb was one of the central military figures in Iraq - and his actions showed just how dangerous the simplified British vision of Iraqi society could be.

Here is a photograph of him:

Much later - in 1981- Glubb appeared on a very odd BBC chat show. It was called Friday Night Saturday Morning, and the theme was "The Arab People". It had a very strange collage of guests - first a Saudi prince comes on to defend his regime, then the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland dressed all in pink sits next to him and explains how every woman wants to have sex with an Arab sheikh.

Then John Glubb joins them to describe enthusiastically his bombing campaigns in Iraq in the 1920s. He starts by talking about the origin of "Air Control" but then slips away into a practiced, humorous after-dinner set of anecdotes about how the tribes were like little children who spent their time raiding each other - and had to be bombed to make sure they "played fair" like in cricket.

In an extreme, surreal way the programme illustrates the weird myth of "the noble sheikh" that the British had projected onto Iraq - and the extreme violence needed to sustain that myth.

By the late 1920s there was a craze for Physical Fitness sweeping through India. It was something completely new to Indian society and it was led by a famous body-builder and gymnast called Professor K.V. Iyer. He had been inspired by the western ideas of Eugen Sandow and, like Sandow, he had turned exercise into both a physical and a moral duty.

Iyer modestly described himself as having "a body which Gods covet" and gave himself the title "India's most perfectly developed man"

What made Iyer's vision of a strong body so attractive to many Indians was not just physical. It was also a way of expressing the growing nationalism and hatred of British rule. Indian nationalists were very aware of the way their colonial masters dismissed all Indians as a weak and degenerate people - Baden Powell famously called them "enfeebled". A powerful body was a way of challenging that in dramatic physical terms.

In 1927 the popular journal Vayayam - The Body Builder - said its mission was "to uplift India from the mire of physical decadence."

K.V. Iyer was very aware of the paradox - that Indians were using European ideas of physical exercise to challenge their European colonial masters. And at the end of the 1920s he took his theories of body-building that were based on Western models and fused them with the spiritual ideas of Yoga. The aim was to create what one of Iyer's closest collaborators called "A Physical Culture Religion" which deliberately had roots in India's ancient past. They called it "The Yogic School of Physical Culture".

It was something very new - that had very little to do with traditional Yoga as it had been practiced for centuries. Yet it is the root of almost all the modern Yoga practiced today in Europe and America.

Such an idea is heresy to what are called the "Yoga Fundamentalists" in the west today who portray Yoga as having a special antiquity that goes back thousands of years. But recently a Yoga teacher and academic called Mark Singleton has written a fascinating and gripping book that challenges that idea head on. It is called Yoga Body.

Singleton goes back to the India of the 1920s and 1930s and shows in forensic detail how modern Yoga was constructed out of Western ideas of gymnastics and a modern Indian political nationalism. He points out that traditional Yoga has very few poses - and most of those are variations on the seated meditation posture. For hundreds of years, Singleton says, yoga was not about physical fitness but a system of meditation and philosophical enquiry.

Here is some footage - from BBC news in 1957 - of this new kind of physical yoga being displayed to the new leader of an independent India - Pandjit Nehru.

And in a brilliant piece of detective work Singleton goes on to show how in the 1930s a completely fictitious spiritual history was created for this new kind of Yoga - which then allowed it to be sold back to the west as something ancient and mystical.

It happened in the Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore. The Maharaja was a fitness fanatic, he installed a gymnasium and invited K.V. Iyer to come and teach his body building there. As Singleton shows, in the next door room was an unknown yoga teacher called T. Krishnamacharya who then proceeded to take the yogic physical culture that Iyer had invented - and push it much further.

Here is a picture of the palace.

Out of it came a radically physicalised form of yoga which is the basis for almost all the modern forms of yoga like Power Yoga that have grabbed the western imagination.

What made this so attractive to the west was that Krishnamacharya said that his system was five thousand years old and based on an ancient text called the Yoga Kurunta. He had first heard of the text, he said, when he was taught the system by a guru high up in the mountains in Tibet. He had then returned and "discovered" a copy of the five-thousand year old Yoga Kurunta in a Calcutta library, which he then transcribed.

Strangely no-one has ever seen the original text. Unfortunately when his followers asked to see it Krishnamacharya told them that it had been eaten by ants.

Singleton makes it clear that the real inspiration was far more likely to have been the body-building contortions and gymnastic exercises going on next door in the gym of the Mysore Palace.

Here is some footage of one of Krishnamacharya's followers - who was also his brother-in-law - called B.K.S. Iyenegar who was the person who brought this yoga system to Europe and America and made it famous. The first is an early exhibition he did for the BBC in 1966. It is followed by a wonderful scene of the same Mr Iyenegar on a BBC evening magazine programme from 1981 getting the presenter to do this "ancient spiritual exercise". Iyenegar was by then 63 years old. Obviously this kind of yoga works.

Gertrude Bell died in Iraq in 1926 - having taken an overdose of sleeping pills. Noone knows whether it was suicide or not. But what is known is that she had come to realise that the British attempt to build a nation out of Iraq had failed. In a letter she wrote:

"There's no getting out of the conclusion that we have made an immense failure here. The system must have been far more at fault than anything that I or anyone else suspected. It will have to be fundamentally changed and what that may mean exactly I don't know."

In many ways the story of Gertrude Bell and her family is also the story of the fall of the British Empire. Her grandfather had been a wealthy industrialist who had made his fortune in iron and steel. He then became a powerful Liberal party politician helping to create the global vision of Empire under Disraeli.

Gertrude was one of the generation who then struggled in the 1920s to keep that global vision alive in the face of economic crisis and political and public opposition in Britain - and failed.

Strangely it was Gertrude Bell's half-sister, Mary, who would show the way forward to the next stage of this global vision - a mystical vision of the world in which individuals around the globe were no longer dominated by political power - but instead united by a vague, spiritual force. It was the New Age philosophy - and Yoga was going to play a central role in this new ideology.

Mary Bell's eldest child was Sir George Trevelyan who would become one of the founders of the New Age movement in Britain. The central guiding idea of the movement was that the world was moving towards a new age in which the fragmented and divided societies and nations would die away. It would be a "oneness" - a restored unity with all the people of the earth, with nature and within your own body.

The earliest and most powerful concrete expression of these ideas was the Findhorn Foundation. It was a rural community in Scotland whose aim was to try and create a model for this new kind of unified world. Sir George Trevelyan helped create the Findhorn Foundation - and tirelessly promoted it as a vision of an alternative future for the world.

I want to show a programme that the BBC made in 1973 about Findhorn. It was taped in their community hall where the founders and many of the members of Findhorn were asked to explain their vision, questioned by a very sympathetic presenter called Magnus Magnusson.

It is incredibly funny and wonderfully bonkers, but it is also very touching. I particularly like the middle-aged, very respectable man who says that he often meets "the Great God Pan" on the streets of Edinburgh - and then says that the God Pan is sitting in the audience tonight - "somewhere towards the back".

And the man in charge of the Findhorn garden is just brilliant - both in his fashion choice and his conviction that the vegetables he grows know telepathically what he is thinking and can feel his love for them.

"The vegetables are happy to be eaten because it is an expression of love. It is a wholeness, a oneness. I am at one with the lettuce I eat, especially after I've eaten it."

Here he is - full of vegetables.

Sir George Trevelyan is sitting in the front row next to the two founders of Findhorn - Eileen and Peter Caddy.

What is fascinating is that none of these people are hippies - they are the disillusioned children of the British empire. The Caddys had met in the early 1950s when both were stationed on an RAF base in Iraq - it was RAF Habbaniyah, the airfield from where many of the Air Control raids had taken off. Both were disenchanted with their lives and had come back to Scotland to try and build an alternative kind of world.

Here is a frame grab of Peter and Eileen.

Sir George, the Caddys, and the others sit there describing eloquently and sincerely how they want to telepathically get in touch with nature to create a new Eden and build "a great harmonious oneness that links us all".

Everything they say is suffused with a yearning desire to recapture something that has been lost.

It's as if what they are really doing is creating a fantasy global empire that is run by what Peter Caddy calls "different administrative levels of natural spirits". An empire that is populated by thinking, telepathic, vegetables that are happy to be eaten - just like the happy natives that were content to be ruled by the white men that loved them for their simplicity and innocence.

Behind the New Age movement in Britain was the same belief that had driven the physical culture movement sixty years before - that the modern world and above all industrialisation was corroding both the moral and physical fitness of human beings. The aim was to restore a new unity of mind and body.

But the movement couldn't turn to the old ideas of health and fitness because in the 1930s they had become inextricably linked with nationalism - above all in the Nazi cult of physical fitness and the superman.

And that is where Yoga came in because it offered a system of physical exercise that also promised to create a spiritual oneness with the mind. It was physical exercise cleansed of all political connotations - and based instead on a powerful mystical tradition that went back five thousand years (even if the ants had eaten all the evidence for that).

And Yoga really took off in the New Age movement. It was one of the physical activities at Findhorn - and by the 1970s it had swept through the West. Here is a wonderful bit of film. In 1978 the BBC sent Sir George Trevelyan to report of the Festival For Mind and Body at Olympia in London. And one of the first thing Sir George wants to show you is Yoga.

I wish more reporters were like Sir George - I love his style, especially the way he quotes Wordsworth's pantheistic vision of the world in the middle of Olympia.

In Iraq Britain's failed attempt to create a modern state in the 1920s has haunted the country ever since.

In 1958 there was a military coup which began a period of bloody violence that led to the country being taken over by the Baath party in 1968. When they took power the Baathists deliberately set out to try and dismantle "premodern" tribalism. They did this both to try and finally modernise and strengthen the country - but also because the tribalism was so linked in their minds to collaboration with British imperialism.

The Baathists tried out experiments with the collectivisation of land ownership in 1970 - and then started to nationalise land in 1971.

But in the late 1970s the structure of power began to strangely mutate - and as Toby Dodge argues in his Inventing Iraq - it moved backwards towards a copy of the very same tribal structure of patronage that the British had instituted.

This happened because of the rise to power of Saddam Hussein and the Tikritis within the Baath ruling elite. As power became increasingly personalised around the figure of Saddam, the power of the Baath party came to depend on the al-Bu Nasir tribe - and within that the Beijat clan group.

And in the process Saddam began to do exactly what the British had done in the 1920s. He turned away from the urban political elite (in his case bloodily - by ruthlessly executing scores of senior Baath party members that he thought were threats to him) and moved towards using the tribal system. He set out to co-opt other tribes - and to try and break the power of others

Then - after the Gulf War in 1991 - Saddam went further. He effectively recreated tribal networks and tribal "recognized sheikhs" all across Iraq who were given resources and power in return for loyalty to him. Just like the British.

And as Dodge points out - that structure continued after 2003

"It is these very same "recognized sheikhs" that the British and American forces have begun to look to for the cost-effective provision of order in the post-Saddam era.

If one were able to pick up Iraq like a good piece of china and turn it over, it would bear the legend: 'Made in Whitehall, 1920'."

Here is footage of Saddam from 1981 that shows how he was reinventing this structure. There is footage of him going to rural villages, sitting next to the headman, and promising them stuff in return for their loyalty.

It is followed by a extraordinary description of how he invented himself almost as a super sheikh - his personal telephone number listed in the Baghdad phone book - that anyone could call and talk to - just like going to see the headman.

Meanwhile Yoga conquered the western world.

But the history of Yoga is just as convoluted and contorted as the positions its followers adopt. For much of the ideas behind it were initially born as attempts to morally reinvigorate the minds and bodies of those who ran British Empire. Those ideas then swept through India and became part of a nationalism that challenged Britain's rule. They then were sold back again to the west in a new form - linked to a mysticism that gave a purpose and meaning to a nostalgic post-imperial generation.

Today yoga has morphed once again. Much of the new age mysticism linked to it has fallen away, and in an age of intense individualism where people increasingly feel disempowered, the human body has become the last territory individuals feel they have control over. It is the Empire of One - and Yoga is the administrative system that controls it.

Here is Jerry Hall reporting on the latest fashionable version - Bikram's Hot Yoga - and meeting Bikram himself who claims to have "800 plus" schools across the world. She also then visits an Ashram in India and is puzzled to find that their Yoga isn't really like what goes on in the Hollywood Hills.

Tagged with:

More Posts