The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Systematic Exercise

By Miss Vera McCord
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 961-965

[Lecture delivered by Miss Vera McCord, before the Parents' National Educational Union Branch, at Winchester]

We have gathered here this afternoon to discuss the value of systematic exercise to health. All exercise in the fresh air is good, but the morning practice of systematic exercise prepares one for the day's work as nothing else will.

The Emerson System of Physical Culture consists of a series of Scientific Exercises based upon Psychological and Physiological laws, the practice of which aims to bring about the highest condition of health and beauty possible in the human form.

The first object to be sought for in the practice of these exercises is to restore the entire body to the natural standing position -- chest raised, chin back, head high, back broad and strong, and all the vital organs raised to their normal position.

All true education is from within and any system that considers the extremities -- muscles and external parts of the body first -- is sure to lead one into difficulty and bring on weakness and disease. The life-giving organs are the markets supplying the body with food, oxygen, nerve force, &c. So all exercise should aim first to strengthen the life-giving organs; from within to without.

Having restored the body to its natural standing position, the second object is to exercise the different parts, keeping the body always elastic.

When we came to England we were blown about for five days in a terrific gale. One morning I was quite frightened to see the deck-roof above my head giving -- giving at each swell of the ocean. Upon questioning the captain I found that the vessel was contracted so as to allow of contraction and expansion -- that therein lay the strength of this particular steamer. This principle was discovered and applied by the shipbuilder, and it is worthy of note, for it is one that is true throughout nature. Straight lies in elasticity. The one power of the muscle is expansion and contraction -- any rigidity retards circulation and interferes with the natural growth and working of the muscles. Therefore throughout physical exercise the entire body should be kept light and elastic. Again no restriction should be brought to bear upon any part of the body. The skeleton is so constructed that the life-giving organs are hung lightly in place. Any pressure brought to bear on these organs, forcing them down and out of position, is bound to result in weakness and disease. The women of each nation have some particular custom through which their vanity is revealed. The Chinese women suffer untold torture to secure small feet; our American-Indian women bind the foreheads of their children, thinking the sloping forehead a feature of beauty; the women of our civilized countries aim at a small waist. This is the worst form of vanity and the most barbarous of the three. Show me the size of a girl's waist, and I'll tell you the size of her brain.

Chronic disease cannot exist in organs held in their natural position. The dress now commonly worn presses the life-giving organs down and out of place, and much of the disease to-day is due to our unnatural way of dressing. High heels are an abomination, and tight collars are also most injurious and should never be worn.

Having removed all restriction in the way of tight clothing, and restored the body to its natural standing position, we may now turn our attention to the parts and exercise the hips, sides, chest, and neck separately. The Chest Exercise is of great value as it expands the chest, raises it to the normal position, and enlarges the lung cavity. The Rotary Exercise of the Torso brings into action an articulation at the base of the sternum, rarely discoverable now except as suggest in Greek statues. This exercise aids digestion and removes the rigid stiffness of the torso which is both unhealthful and ungraceful. The Neck Exercise increases the circulation of the blood to and from the brain, and relieves tired, over-wrought nerves. From an aesthetic standpoint it poises the head on the shoulders in an alert and upright position.

After the parts of the body have been thoroughly exercised the organs of respiration should be considered, and these are best exercised and gained control of through the Breathing Exercises. Every man, woman, and child on arising in the morning should go to the open window and take at least three deep diaphragmatic breaths. The diaphragmatic breath is taken by allowing the air to rush in, filling the lungs from the diaphragm up until every air-cell is full; then hold this breath while the arm describes as large a circle as possible, after which slowly expel the breath, controlling the expiration with the diaphragm and making a hissing noise with the lips. This vocalization of the breath forces it into the apexes of the lungs which are the first to give way in consumption, because these air cells, never being exercised or filled with breath in ordinary breathing, become weakened so that the germs of disease readily take root. After taking this exercise with the right arm repeat with the left and then with both arms as described. These three exercises, if faithfully practised, will strengthen all the organs of respiration, especially the lungs and diaphragm. The diaphragm is the strongest muscle of respiration and forms the floor upon which the lungs and heart rest, and a roof covering the stomach, liver, &c. During inspiration the diaphragm flattens, enlarging the lung cavity above and pressing the stomach and liver downward; during expiration it recovers its normal position, the other organs also regaining their natural position. So that in proper diaphragmatic breathing, not only are the lungs and diaphragm strengthen and the blood purified, but digestion is aided, the peristaltic way quickened and the liver aided in its secretion of bile.

There are only three hundred exercises in this entire system, and it takes but twenty minutes to practise them all thoroughly; but each exercise is so wonderfully arranged that it accomplishes in result some twenty-five or thirty commonly practised. Many people exercise hours a day and when they have finished the live-giving organs are weakened, digestion impaired, and the entire system is in a state of pitiable exhaustion. You may be sure that unless exercise renews, strengthens, and arouses the individual to fresh endeavor and higher purpose, that he is on the wrong road, not only wasting time, but storing up trouble for the future.

The Greeks attained to the highest culture in physical and mental development known in history. Why was this so? They understood that physical and mental development depended one upon the other, and attached great importance both to systematic exercise and to the study of works of art of the highest character and merit. Their wonderful accomplishment in athletic sports furnished the foundation for the mental growth which was the outcome. Phidias still lives as the greatest of all sculptors, because he introduced grand and sublime character into his statues, so that you might say they breathe and live. He did this by making a careful study of Nature, and infusing the spirit of noble thought into his art. All art is or should be representative of life, and no matter how perfectly formed a limb or figure might be, if the artist has failed to breathe into it the central spirit of life, it is valueless. Phidias' statues are not merely piles of beautifully carved marble, but they are alive with thought and power, because he carved into them sublime thoughts that lived first in his mind; and, as we look on them, the highest and noblest emotions are aroused in us.

The material body is but the inner life externalized in form, so concentration of thought during systematic exercise is most necessary to perfect physical development; and, as the child's mind expands and grows as influenced by the objects placed before it, in like manner would the mind of the student expand, were statues of real worth, such as the Minerva of Phidias, placed before it during physical exercise to arouse to activity the higher qualities and emotions; for proper physical exercise should stimulate the mental faculties to a new activity. It is of the greatest importance that right ideals should be held before the growing student during daily practice, so that his exercise may save this double purpose of creating new physical energy, and at the same time of arousing the highest and noblest emotions of which he is capable.

The last series of exercises in the Emerson system provide for this development. They conserve the energy created by the stronger exercises and arouse in the mind nobler aspirations. This is known as a fact, for there is a sudden and noticeable improvement both in the physical condition and the mental activity of the students attending schools in America into which this system has been introduced. Continued study and practice of the Emerson system and obedience to the underlying principles bring about a condition of perfect physical health, arouse higher ideals in the student's mind, lead him into the realm of art, and help him to understand the laws of Nature.

We should study the highest and best in art to discover the underlying principles, because these are the guiding and controlling principles of all life, as they are take from and founded on Nature's laws. Obedience to these is necessary to the growth of the rounded individual. The perfect physical condition aids the mental, and the mental aids and controls the physical.

All illness and disease comes from the violation of one or other of Nature's laws. So, in Ruskin's words, "Go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thought but how best to penetrate her meaning, rejecting nothing, neglecting nothing, and scorning noting."

Typed by Colleen B. January 2022