Flexibility & Power in Kalaripayattu: Confessions of a Gravitationally-Challenged Student

IMG_4269Learning third level material was when Kalaripayattu became daunting. Until then, it was just exhausting.


I’d been doing a lap of the kalari consisting of high kicks flowing into Hanumanasana (a scissors split.) Each split is on the opposite side from the last. By yoga standards, my split alignment was off. My hips weren’t perpendicular to my legs, but I’d allowed them to twist open to make the split easier. However, that was probably the least of my errors, and–unlike in yoga practice during which one might take minutes to ease into this intense split–the cadence in kalari was kick – split – struggle to one’s feet. [Okay, the “struggle” shouldn’t have been, but it’s an accurate description of my rendition.]


This wasn’t the hard part, by the way. I’ll get to that. The structure of the class up to that point was logically arranged to facilitate those splits. The practice started with warm ups of rapid repetitive motions that got the muscles and core warm. Then there were a series of kicking exercises that also served as dynamic stretches. Next, there was a vertical version of the splits done in a static form. With the inner edge of one’s bottom foot posted along the base board, the heel of one’s upper foot is slid up a piece of wood lathe worn smooth that has been tied vertically–perpendicularly to the steel burglar bars that one uses to pull oneself into the stretch. (This is an inner city kalari, and not the traditional version dug into the ground.) Then one revisits a high kick, swinging the leg with greater intensity. Only then does one do the lap of splits.

A traditional kalari looks like this. This is the Kalari Gurukulam in Chikkagubbi (parent school to the one at which I train.)

A traditional kalari looks like this. This is the Kalari Gurukulam in Chikkagubbi (parent school to the one at which I train.)


The next piece is where the third level kicked my butt. One’s hamstrings and quads stretched to the max, feeling more like limp noodles than coiled springs, one is now expected to work through a series of leaping maneuvers. There are seven leaping exercises (besides some basic warm-up leaps): a leaping circle kick, a spinning kick that takes one 360-degrees, a split kick in which one leaps up and kicks out laterally in both directions simultaneously, a split kick in which one leaps up spinning 360 degrees [theoretically] and does the same split kick in the middle, a flip kick in which one kicks up and forward and flips one’s body over in mid-air to come down on one’s hands and feet (in a lunged position with palms down next to the feet), and then there are two versions of leaping/spinning kicks that proceed down the length of the kalari.


IMG_1661Why does one do these plyometric techniques in the wake of such intense stretching? I suspect that experts in exercise science would tell me this isn’t the best way to improve my leaps. One should do the leaps when one’s muscles are more like rubber bands than al dente linguine. Still, I dutifully comply. Maybe there’s an ancient wisdom at work here. Maybe there’s not. There’s no way to find out without giving it a try. I fall down a number of times that first day, and on all subsequent sessions. As I write this, I’m now learning level five material, but I continue to revisit the leaps every session for two reasons. First, I’m not happy with my abilities. Second, I want to find out whether I can improve my balance of flexibility and power, and whether the kalari approach does the trick. (Note: I’m using the word “power” in the specific sense of work performed per unit time. In other words, it’s not synonymous with strength. It’s a function of both speed and strength.) At any rate, I still fall down.


IMG_2278However, looking beyond my own limited capacity to have my cake and eat it too (i.e. retain flexibility as I gain power), I see evidence of the success of this approach. There are a number of advanced people who’ve been using this approach for many years and have a preternatural balance of flexibility and jet propulsion. Said individuals seem to go from deep stretches to phenomenal vertical leaps without difficulty.


If nothing else, I’ve learned a great deal about my muscular composition. While I’m challenged by ballistic movements, my stamina is quite respectable. Type I (slow twitch) musculature seems to be disproportionately common in comparison to type II (fast twitch) in my body. While I’m including more power building training in my workouts, my progress is glacial. If I was smart, I’d take up long-distance running or some other endurance activity. But I tend to find such activities tedious, while I love the martial arts. And so I struggle.




Learning to Leap: Why?

IMG_1631Leaping maneuvers are ever-present in martial arts movies and in some martial arts (e.g. Indian Kalaripayattu and some forms of Kung fu). However, these acrobatic techniques are rarely seen–and are even less often successful–in combative encounters (neither in sport nor in the real world–excepting those sports that highly reward such maneuvers and create rules that make them feasible for entertainment value.)


Why leaping, spinning wildness is popular in movies is easy. We thrill to see extremely demanding action that draws ooohs and ahhhhs. It’s the same reason one wants to watch a parkour runner vault over a car (presuming it’s not one’s car), even when it would be infinitely more practical to walk around it. It’s why we want to see gymnasts tumbling and flipping through the air even though walking across the floor is both easier on the joints and less hazardous.


However, the question of why martial arts that aren’t purely for entertainment practice leaping maneuvers. Even a few of the quintessentially pragmatic Japanese martial arts, which follow the motto “eliminate the extraneous” have some leaping techniques. One of the schools I’ve studied, Kotō-ryū Koppōjutsu has a scroll devoted to leaping techniques, despite the fact that it’s otherwise a grounded system–both literally and figuratively. Muay Thai, which also values tried and true winning basics over snazziness, also has leaping knee strikes in its repertoire, though one doesn’t see them a lot in fights. It’s true that the arts that emphasize practicality but have leaping and spinning techniques tend to have a different approach to them. The Kotō-ryū Hichōjutsu (that school’s leaping techniques) emphasize eliminating big wind-ups, and going straight into the leap from a natural posture. This gives one less air, but is much less obvious. It’s particularly useful if you don’t really want air, but you just want to leap as much as you must.  But why leap at all?

Creating this kind of spring loading of the legs may not fly.

Creating this kind of spring loading of the legs may not fly.

This kind of windup would be anathema to schools.

This kind of windup would be anathema to some schools


There are a number answers to this question. First, while it’s hard to make aerial techniques work, when they work, they can be devastatingly effective. There are few ways to put more power into a strike than to literally put all of one’s body-weight in motion under the force of gravity. There’s understandably something unsatisfying about this explanation. I think it mostly has to do with the dearth of second chances in combative encounters. Few second chances make one want to have the highest likelihood of success on the first go.


Second, while tried-and-true, go-to techniques work because they are hard to defeat and /or they minimize one’s risk of a fight-ending counter, some techniques work because they catch the opponent off-guard. Such techniques work because the opponent can’t believe one is actually trying something so wild on them. However, failing to anticipate the unusual, the opponent hasn’t trained a response into themselves. This answer gets us somewhere in cases where either the situation is dire or one knows something about the opponent.


Third–and I would argue most importantly–these techniques produce explosively powerful legs that are beneficial to a martial artist even when he stays on the ground. In other words, maybe they are more important in the role of capacity building than they are as actual techniques to be emulated.

The split kick allows one to kick two opponents at once--as long as they aren't moving and are  perfectly spaced. However, it does require a multidimensional fitness that's beneficial for martial artists. (Which is why I can't do it well.)

The split kick allows one to kick two opponents at once–as long as they aren’t moving and are perfectly spaced. However, it does require a multidimensional fitness that’s beneficial for martial artists. (Which is why I can’t do it well.)


Finally, there’s one more reason that is important but was last because I didn’t even learn this lesson until I was reviewing the photos for this post, and that’s that these techniques require a whole new level of bodily awareness and control. I would generally be considered to have pretty good bodily awareness. I’ve been doing martial arts a long time, have practiced various kinds of yoga and chi gong, and have done my share of other physical training. Still, when I looked at my photos I found that I often had body parts jutting every which way. While one may argue that one doesn’t need that brand of bodily awareness if one is not using that kind of motion, I think that it probably helps with one’s awareness at high-speed in general and that many arts don’t adequately prepare one for keeping one’s body under control when there are those extra forces (e.g. centripetal & centrifugal, and gravity) acting upon it.

In my mind this looked completely different. I didn't have my arms out to the side like I was on a cross and my heel standing leg heel was still up near my buttock.

In my mind this looked completely different. I didn’t have my arms out to the side like I was on a cross and my heel standing leg heel was still up near my buttock.


One aspect of bodily awareness that is particularly important for these maneuvers is control of the eyes. In the arts I’ve studied, there has always been emphasis on the placement of the eyes. However, given all the little details one had to keep in mind, it was a reality easy aspect to half-ass. However, when one is leaping, and particularly if there is a spinning component, wandering eyes translates to crash and burn.

Entering the spin.

Entering the spin.

Mid spin / mid kick

Mid spin / mid kick. I have no idea why my right index finger is pointed down.


I’m not built for leaping. It’s not so much the leaping, but–in the immortal words of Tom Petty–“Coming down is the hardest thing.” I figured that getting to the level of Kalaripayattu training that involves a lot of leaping would be the end of that art for me. As I mentioned, there are some leaping techniques in the martial art I studied, but I was never particularly good at them. When I was young and had the proper body for it, I didn’t have the right mindset, and when I got older I was lacking the physical capacity for them. However, I’ve learned quite a bit about my body through the practice of these techniques, and I’m interested to see what level I can take it to.




DAILY PHOTO: Kalari Kids

IMG_2572 IMG_2303 IMG_2318 IMG_2591

These are a few more pics from the Kalari Gurukulam‘s demonstration on Sunday night. These are a few of the kids from the youth classes.

Yesterday, I posted a few of the adult senior students here.

Animals Forms and Poses in Martial Arts



Part of the most basic of basics that I’m learning in Kalaripayattu class are 8 animal poses (Wild Boar, Elephant, Cat, Lion, Snake, Rooster, Peacock, and Horse.) While animal forms and postures are common enough in martial arts, this is an entirely new concept to me and one that I’m trying to wrap my head around.

Animal forms are most commonly associated with Chinese Kungfu. There are entire styles devoted to five animals (i.e. tiger, leopard, crane, snake, and dragon [yes, I realize dragons aren’t really animals.] Of course, from Kungfu Panda we know there are also Monkey style and Mantis style, but that’s only just the beginning.  There are many different animals that play a role in martial arts, some–like tigers–are not unexpected and others–like peacocks–are harder to imagine.

As I’ve mentioned before, old style Japanese martial arts–at least the one’s I’ve studied–invoke nature commonly, but in a more subtle form. In Japanese budō one does not imitate animal movement or positioning–except in a very limited and general sort of way.

I’m interested in why one should imitate the postures or movement of animals. After all, it’s hard to argue that a human being can move more efficiently or effectively imitating a [non-human] animal. We are uniquely bipedal mammals, and to imitate–for example–a legless reptile (for example) doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

One explanation I’ve heard is that these animals are natural fighters, and are, therefore, to be emulated. I don’t put a lot of stock in this explanation. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that humans are less naturally capable of close-quarters fighting than pretty much any other animal. But it’s got nothing to do with the nature of our bodies and everything to do with the condition of our minds. Humans are emotional beasts and have trouble living in the moment. That’s why we aren’t natural fighters compared to a tiger–which doesn’t get paralyzed by fear, doesn’t get plagued by guilt, and never walks through dangerous territory with iPod earbuds in its ear, thinking about how it needs to update its Facebook page. Humans excel at making weapons that allow us to stay as far away from the enemy as possible–preferably on another continent. But close-quarters combat is an uphill struggle all the way.

Wild Boar

Wild Boar

There is an explanation that I find to be more sound, and that’s that these postures are meant to facilitate a certain mindset. Just as people condition themselves to associate certain hand mudra with certain states of mind (I know that’s not necessarily how they see it), one may use these postures to invoke a certain state of mind. This is somewhat related to what I was discussing in the preceding paragraph. Human’s are challenged to get into the right frame of mind for combat, and animal forms and postures might be one way to hasten that state. For humans there are two aspects of the problem. First, people are naturally scared of being injured or killed, and for many this becomes debilitating. Second, except some psychopaths, humans really don’t like to kill. This is true of other species by the way, we are genetically hardwired against killing our own kind. However, other animals can’t worry about it like us. (Here I mean worry in the sense that W.R. Inge described, “Worry is interest paid on trouble before it comes due.”)

Another explanation that I think has some merit is that some of these poses and forms are more about the exercise than combat effectiveness. In essence, they are like yoga; they build range of motion and strength in core muscles. One can certainly see this in the exceedingly low animal stances that require a great deal of flexibility.

The only other reason that’s popped to mind is that animal imitation is used to try to create a feeling (e.g. fear) in one’s opponent. This is closely related to the first point. One wants to create a perception of ferocity (or otherwise) in the eyes of the opponent as well as internally.



BOOK REVIEW: Vajramushti by Christopher Fernandes

Vajramushti; Martial Arts of IndiaVajramushti; Martial Arts of India by Christopher Fernandes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

There aren’t many English language books on Indian martial arts, and most that do exist address a single style (most commonly Kalaripayattu.) Christopher Fernandes’s book, therefore, fills a void by providing an overview of martial arts on the subcontinent, and for the most part the book does an admirable job. I do have a couple of criticisms of the book that I’ll get into further down in the review.

The 350 pages of this book are arranged into 17 chapters, with the front and back matter of a scholarly work (i.e. in addition to an introduction and epilogue there are appendices and a bibliography.) The first few chapters set the historical background, and the last few chapters address topics that are related to—or interconnected with—the martial arts, e.g. pranayama (breathing), Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine), dance, and games of martial relevance. Chapters 6 through 11 form the core of the book, and this is where one gets the book one expected. These core chapters are organized by region, and each gives an overview of one of India’s martial arts in great detail. The arts covered include: Thang ta (northeast), Gatka (author classifies as Central, but it’s commonly associated with the Sikhs [i.e. Punjab, in the Northwest]), Yudhkaushalya che Talim (Central), Silambam (south, Tamil Nadu), Kalaripayattu (south, Kerela), and Marma Adi (South). It’s not all-inclusive, but that might not be possible in a single volume. It does hit the major arts and covers a range of weapons and unarmed skills, and I suspect offers a fair representation of Indian martial arts past and present.

I have two major criticisms, and a third mild criticism. The first is purely technical and likely only applies to the Kindle edition (that’s the only edition I’ve seen), and you can probably guess my gripe. The formatting on the e-version of the book is poor. While this book isn’t as graphics-intensive as a typical martial arts book (i.e. there aren’t long sequences of technique photos) there are many graphics—and necessarily so. It would be hard to convey all the information in textual form for this type of book (e.g. consider the value of a picture of a complex weapon over a description.) What happens in Vajramusthi where the graphics are inserted is that the captions get kicked in among text. At least they italicized the captions so one can get used to this oddity, but it’s a bit hard on readability when one is reading along and there is a fractional caption randomly inserted mid-sentence. The photos also cause odd white space and very narrow columns here and there.

The second major criticism is that the book often forgets its theme. By that I mean that the author goes into far too much depth on topics that are tangential to the subject at hand and sometimes fails to indicate how the subject at hand is relevant. I’m not saying that historical background and discussions of breathing and Ayurveda shouldn’t be included, they are both quite pertinent, as are the other chapters that are more tangential. However, at one point the author provides a mini-herbal field guide that seems a bit too much information for those specific herbs, but, because it’s not an Ayurveda herbal field guide, he only covers a few. This creates a book that sometimes doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be or who its intended audience is. It’s most confusing in the early chapters that begin with the dawn of humanity. Obviously, the development of martial arts is inextricably tied into the rise of societies and states, but the author doesn’t consistently do a good job at connecting these dots so the book can maintain a consistent theme. I should point out that history buffs, dance enthusiasts, or physical education nerds may find the bonus material fascinating—and it is; it just belongs in different books. It does indicate that the author has done his research. While I’m a neophyte on the subjects covered, I believe that the quality of the information is quite good. (Although myth and fact are sometimes equated as with the discussion of Bodhidharma—a myth that many historians now believe false.)

The third criticism is classified minor both because it only comes into play in the epilogue and because if I was going to criticize every martial arts book author for this sin, I’d rarely have anything nice to say about a martial arts book. At the tail end of the book the author suggests that all the other martial arts of the world are just superficial competitive endeavors and only the Indian martial arts have depth that can lead to bettering oneself in a broad sense. This is a complete oversimplification, and especially odd for someone (like the author) who has apparently trained in other systems. (At one point there is a photo of Bruce Lee, captioned “Epitome of a Warrior,” and I can only assume from his commentary in the epilogue that the author is mocking the founder of Jeet Kune Do.) I do understand the passion that inflames the author’s sentiments, which is sadness that young Indians who study martial arts overwhelmingly look to the East—just as those in Europe and the Americas do. In Bangalore, where I live, there are two places that I know of that teach Indian arts (both Kalari) and at least eight places one can learn Muay Thai—not counting the fitness centers that have no one qualified to teach MT but do so anyway. Still, one need not take cheap shots at other martial arts in attempting to encourage people to study the indigenous arts.

While my review may come across as critical, there’s really not much wrong that a skilled editor and formatter couldn’t fix. (For example, one could get blitzed playing a drinking game whereby everyone takes a shot whenever they read the exact words “Vajramushti the classical Kshatriya Lion’s skill.”) The book’s virtues tend to outweigh its vices. If there were as many books out on the Indian martial arts as there are about those of China, Japan, or Korea, I don’t know that this one would get my recommendation in its present state, but there aren’t and so I do recommended it. It’s well-researched, contains useful graphics, and it provides insight into how the martial arts fit into the history, yogic science, and movement arts of India—if sometimes a bit too much insight.

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