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Tuesday 27 March , 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. 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. 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.
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 s - 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.