A photograph in our collections inspired Isobel Routledge to find out more about the intriguingly posed woman in the picture.
My desk is covered in postcards from Wellcome Images. One photograph in particular has always stood out for me. It’s a sepia-toned photograph from the Library’s Art Collection and depicts a serene looking woman with a faint smile and strings of beads hanging from her neck, sitting in a meditative pose. The back of the postcard only gave a name: Marguerite Agniel. I decided to find out who she was.
A quick search of the Library catalogue reveals a series of photographs of her held by the Library. All taken circa 1929, they show Marguerite in a variety of yoga and meditative poses. Marguerite also wrote a book called The Art of the Body: Rhythmic exercises for health and beauty. Published in 1931, the book feels very dated at points and shockingly modern at others. In some excerpts she is discussing the “natural characteristics” of particular races, before discussing the difficulties of balancing work and exercise.
Marguerite seems well versed in Eastern approaches to well-being, citing practices of the “Yogis of India” and teachings of the Buddha. She says, “What I really aim at above all is to awaken in the reader an awareness of the beauty and aesthetic possibilities in his or her own body… fostering that outward, mystical satisfaction which may be said to form the spiritual goal of all who love right thinking and right living”.
She advocates that the reader
concentrate on what you are doing. Not with a sense of powerful effort but with steady endeavour to control the attention.
Despite being written over eighty years ago, what she advocates sounds very similar to mindfulness, a concept that has become popular in the West over recent years. Mindfulness in its present form was developed in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who began a programme called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Yoga, mindfulness and meditation have become familiar practices in much of the Western world. More recently attempts have been made to establish an evidence base for the effects of mindfulness practices. Randomised control trials were carried out to investigate the effectiveness of these exercises on a range of conditions, from depression to post traumatic stress disorder. Whilst by no means a miracle cure, mindfulness has been implemented successfully in treating depression and anxiety especially.
What was known 85 years ago? Am I justified in my surprise when reading Marguerite’s work, or simply unaware of an earlier movement in the West?
One name that came up in my inquiries was Edmund Jacobson, a contemporary of Marguerite. Dr Jacobson developed a method called Progress Muscle Relaxation, which attempted to reduce anxiety through sequential tensing and relaxing of muscles – however this was developed in the mid-1930s, after Marguerite wrote Art of the Body. It was secular, Western, and not based in the Buddhist tradition. There may have been others advocating the same practices as Marguerite, but I have found little evidence of any established movement.
Whether Marguerite was a pioneer or just picking up on a new way of thinking, I think her advice still rings true:
“Be natural with yourself and other people. Remember that you are a human being, and that so is everyone else.”
Author: Isobel Routledge is a Graduate Trainee at the Wellcome Trust.
This article was amended on 5 January 2015 to remove some unattributable comments about Buddhism in early 20th century America.