BOOK REVIEW: Sound Medicine by Kulreet Chaudhary

Sound Medicine: How to Harness the Power of Sound to Heal the Mind and BodySound Medicine: How to Harness the Power of Sound to Heal the Mind and Body by Kulreet Chaudhary
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Longfellow poem “There Was a Little Girl” has a line that says, “…When she was good, She was very good indeed, But when she was bad she was horrid.” That’s kind of how I felt about this book. At its best, it reports findings about how practices involving sound (i.e. mantra chanting) effect health and well-being, and lends insight into why sound sooths. At its worst, it tries to sledgehammer the square peg religious / spiritual practices into the round hole of quantum physics and foundational physics, often engaging in leaps that are at best wildly speculative, while presenting them as though they are as likely as not.

My favorite professor from undergraduate studies was a folksy Religious Studies Professor who cautioned against two opposing fallacies. The first he called “the outhouse fallacy.” This is assuming that because people of the past didn’t have indoor plumbing that they were complete idiots. Let me first say that, until recently, yoga (and other complementary health practices) suffered its fair share from this fallacy among doctors and the scientific community who felt that it couldn’t possibly help with health and well-being because it wasn’t rooted in the latest scientific findings. However, there is an opposing fallacy that my teacher called the “firstest-is-bestest” fallacy, which assumes the ancients figured it all out and we are just bumbling around in the dark hoping to stumble back into what they once knew. Scientists are prone to the first fallacy and the second is rife among religious folk. As a medical doctor who turned to siddha yoga (a form that puts a great deal of belief in superpowers and magic), Chaudhary had a rough road to not fall into one of these fallacies and, in my opinion, she falls more into the second — sounding at times like the ancient yogis knew more about the subatomic world and consciousness than science ever will. Most of the time, she words statements so that a careful reader can recognize what is well-supported and what is speculative, but she’s rarely explicit about the degree to which speculations are such, and I don’t remember an instance in which she presented an alternative that would undermine her argument. (i.e. The unstated argument seems to be that mantra is special among practices, that its usefulness is embedded in the fundamental physical laws of the universe, and, therefore, that it works by mechanisms unlike other meditative / complementary health practices [i.e. by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system so the body can make repairs using established biological mechanisms.])

In a nutshell, there is a “god in the gaps” approach to the book that says, look we don’t understand consciousness or all the “whys” of quantum mechanics, ergo there must be supernatural explanations. I don’t think that because we’ve used EEG since the 1920’s and fMRIs since the 1990’s and still haven’t yet unraveled the hard problem of consciousness that we need to say that god / supernatural forces are where we must look for explanation. The gap is ever closing, slowly but surely, and there’s no reason to believe it’s reasonable or useful to cram commentary from Vedas (or any other scriptures) to fill the gap.

It’s not only the science where Chaudhary presents a belief as though it is established truth without alternative explanations. Early on, she states that colonization is the reason for the decline of meditation in India. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as accepting that colonization resulted in a great number of evils as anyone, but it’s a leap to say that – therefore – every negative a society faces is because of its colonizer. I would point to Thailand, a society that was never colonized (except a brief period by the Burmese) and which is primarily made up of Theravadan Buddhists (a system for which meditative practice is considered central,) most of whom also do not meditate regularly today. I suspect a more logical explanation for the fact that most Indians don’t meditate today is that: a.) it’s hard work and time consuming (as a productive endeavor it’s not bread-winning and as a leisure time activity it’s laborious,) and b.) the majority of Indians (like the majority of Thais) probably never mediated. (When we look back in time, we often want to create this wholesome and uniform image that what we have writings about was how everyone lived, and that probably never reflects the truth.)

So now that my rant is over, I should say that I didn’t think this book was horrible, by any means. It has a lot of good information, and some of the speculative bits offer interesting food for thought. As long as one reads it carefully and with a healthy dose of skepticism, it’s a beneficial consideration of sound and vibration in health and well-being. It’s just that when I compare it to, say, Davidson and Goleman’s “The Science of Meditation” (which I reviewed recently) this book is far less careful about presenting the science, eliminating pseudo-science, and letting the reader know what is controversial and speculative versus what is well-supported by sound and rigorous investigation.

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BOOK REVIEW: Kalaripayat by Patrick Denaud

Kalaripayat: The Martial Arts Tradition of IndiaKalaripayat: The Martial Arts Tradition of India by Patrick Denaud
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There’s a dearth of books on Indian martial arts, in general, and Kalaripayattu, specifically. The few books that do exist, such as Ranjan Mullaratt’s “Kalari Margam” (a fine book which I’ve previously reviewed), focus heavily on the techniques of the martial art. Denaud builds a niche by writing perhaps the only English-language book yet that turns its focus on other aspects of the art, including the art’s history, philosophy, customs, psychology, and its influence on–and interaction with–other systems both in India and abroad (e.g. yoga, Kathakali, Ayurvedic massage, and Tai Chi.)

After three forwards by luminaries and an introduction, the book consists of seven chapters. The chapters cover the history and mythology of the art, Kalaripayattu as a martial art (weapons and techniques in general terms), the psychological aspects of the art, the art’s relationship with Ayurvedic practices—particularly massage, its relationship to other elements of Keralan culture, the results of interviews with modern-day masters, and the influence of India and Kalaripayattu on foreign martial arts.

When I picked this book up, I was somewhat expecting that it would contain little in the way of intriguing and relevant information, and that it would be stuffed with generally known background information. I’ve come across far too many books on topics for which there’s little information, and have become well-acquainted with the many methods by which authors pad out a pamphlet’s worth of information into a book. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much information on Kalaripayattu this book contained, and how relevant the background seemed. While there’s a fair amount of background, the book doesn’t feel padded. Granted, I can’t be certain how much of this information is accurate. I know common myths are repeated that are now believed to be false (e.g. Bodhidharma spreading Kalaripayattu to Shaolin), but I saw nothing that seemed like pure fabrication (though I’d be unlikely to recognize such a thing.) Denaud does cite his sources (not in bibliographic format, just by attribution of authors and texts) on most occasions and it certainly wrings authoritatively.

I’d recommend this book for individuals interested in martial arts, and the history of martial arts. It’s a rare glimpse into various aspects of Kalaripayattu. Also, some people who are interested in south Indian culture more than martial arts may also find it worthwhile.

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BOOK REVIEW: Yogic Management of Common Diseases by Dr. Swami Karmananda

Yogic Management Of Common DiseasesYogic Management Of Common Diseases by Satyananda Saraswati

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The title of this book gives one a nutshell description. It’s a book that discusses what yoga practices are beneficial for various common ailments. These practices include not only asana (postures), but also pranayama (breathing exercises), shatkarma (cleansing practices), yoganidra (a relaxation technique), meditational practices, and dietary and other yogic lifestyle practices. The book also discusses both the medical and yogic explanations of various diseases, and provides enough background on the relevant anatomy and physiology to give a layperson an understanding of the basic causes of each disease (if known.)

The book covers about 37 classes of disease, and is arranged into seven parts by bodily system (head and neck, cardiovascular system, respiratory system, gastro-intestinal tract, joints and musculo-skeletal system, urogenital system, and a miscellaneous ailments section that deals with skin diseases and varicose veins.) Some chapters deal specifically with one disease, while others cover two or more related ailments (e.g. Bronchitis and Eosinophilia, Sinusitis and Hay Fever, or skin diseases.)

This book has a number of strengths. First, it’s grounded in a scientific view of these ailments and isn’t selling yoga as a panacea. As suggested above, the title was carefully chosen. It’s “Yogic Management of Common Diseases.” The word “Management” is a critical one. If you’re looking for a book about how yoga can single-handedly cure your Stage IV lung cancer, this isn’t the book for you. If you’re looking for a book on how yoga can help you live a better life if you have arthritis, diabetes, or are hernia prone—possibly in conjunction with medication or other medical treatments—this may be the book for you.

Second, the diseases covered seem to have been carefully chosen. The selection of common ailments is not just to appeal to a broad audience. Many of these ailments are caused by common lifestyle problems that offer relatively easy fixes. Other diseases may not offer any fix per se, and, therefore, the ability to live a high quality of life with the affliction may be valuable. Also, I know a number of the diseases covered are particularly promising candidates for a yogic solution / mitigation.

Having given the strong points, I will say there are a couple of weaknesses to the book as well. First, it’s not illustrated in any way. Given that there is a lot of discussion of biology and anatomy, there are places where a picture might be worth a thousand words. I will note that this isn’t a book for a yoga newbie. It uses Sanskrit names for practices without so much as a glossary. That said, yoga teachers and intermediate/advanced students will probably not find this much of a problem because they will have built an appropriate vocabulary or have the necessary reference close at hand. I didn’t deduct for the lack of explanation, because the book is clearly intended for established practitioners (the Introduction warns as much.)

The second weakness is that there’s no explanation of why the listed practices should work particularly well for the given disease. I think the book does a great job of explaining the nature of the disease for a non-expert reader. However, then it just lists practices by type (asana, pranayama, relaxation, diet, etc.) In some cases, the reader can easily make the connection, but in others it’s not so clear why one should do practice “X” for disease “Y.” I do realize that drawing these connections could be space-intensive and technical. The book is a nice slim 245 pages, and it could rapidly grow to an untenable length. However, I’m concerned that some of the recommendations might not be rooted in experience and observation.

I would recommend this book for yoga teachers and intermediate / advanced practitioners who are interested in yoga as a component of building a healthy body. If you are new to yoga, you will probably want to first familiarize yourself with many of the classic asana, pranayama, and shatkarma practices of yoga—otherwise you’ll have to look up terminology constantly.

It should be noted that this book is put out by the Bihar School (of Swami Satyananda Saraswati fame), and the same publisher has put out a number of books that delve much more deeply into specific ailments. (At least some of these are written by the same author, Dr. Swami Karmananda.) Also, let me say that while the school self-publishes through its Yoga Publications Trust, it puts out books on a large-scale, of high-quality, and they appear to be available globally through Amazon and the like. (Swami Satyananda Saraswati alone was extremely prolific and wrote the APMB, which is one of the seminal reference works on yoga.)

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Kalaripayattu FAQ

Source: The Kerala Tourist Office

Source: The Kerala Tourist Office

Outside of India, Kalaripayattu isn’t a household name like karate, kung fu, or judō. However, within India, this homegrown martial art is a source of great pride. It’s said to be one of the few indigenous martial arts that survived into modernity (with unbroken transmission, i.e. without a period in which no one was diligently practicing it.) Some consider it to be the mother of Asian martial arts (for reasons I both address and critique in an earlier post.) It’s a mainstay of Bollywood (and non-Bollywood Indian cinema—yes, there is such a thing) and makes frequent appearance in dance performances and plays.

 

I’ve been attending Kalaripayattu classes for the past 4 or 5 months. While this hardly makes me an expert on the subject, it does give me some insight into the art beyond reading or watching videos. I’m also able to make comparisons to other martial arts–one in which I have an extensive background, and others with which I also have limited experience.  I’ve, therefore, put together a collection of answers to questions I’ve been asked as well as others that I can imagine being asked.

 

Pre-Question Question: “Kalaripayattu” is a long name, can I call it by something shorter?

AnswerKalaripayattu is often just called “Kalari.” Note: “Kalari” also refers to the place where the martial art is practiced (i.e. not unlike the words “dōjō” or “training hall”.) If someone refers to “the kalari” or “a kalari” they’re probably talking about a physical location, whereas if they say “Kalari”– without an article—they’re likely talking about the martial art.

As an aside, a kalari, historically speaking, has a precise design approach and dimensions. It’s dug into the ground so that from the outside the building can look like it’s for Hobbits, but inside its ceilings are adequate even for the long weapons used in the art. This method presumably began in an attempt to reduce the effect of the south Indian sun.  Of course, in modern times, kalari take many forms (e.g. the kalari I attend is on the 3rd or 4th floor of a building.)

 

Q1: The most common question is, “Kalari? So, what’s that like?” [In this case, the questioner wants to know what classes are like.]

 

Answer: My stock answer to what classes are like is that if one imagines a class which includes yoga, modern dance, and a hard style of Okinawan Karate, one wouldn’t be far off.

 

Of course, most people have a tough time imagining such disparate elements in a coherent class, so I’ll describe what a typical class (at least at the beginner level) is like. Each hour-and-a-half class can be divided into five parts. The first is warm-ups, which consist mostly of joint articulations, dynamic yoga poses, and—lastly—leaping drills. Warm-ups may also include those old martial arts mainstays, running laps and side-to-sides (facing one direction and moving to the side without crossing one’s feet.)

 

The second section is a series of leg exercises, which are mostly kicks done on alternate legs in laps up and down the kalari. These get more challenging as one progresses. The highest level that I currently practice involves going into scissors splits (Hanumanasana) as one does these laps.

 

The third section is animal poses or movements (depending on one’s level.) One does animal poses in the first level. Now that I’m in the second level, I’m doing animal movements, which involve movement repeated up and down the length of the kalari. I believe there are more challenging versions of the animal movements in the subsequent level(s.) There are eight postures and eight basic movements that are designed to emulate animal behavior.

 

The fourth section is stretching. This involves a series of yogasana (yoga poses) and core work common to yoga.

 

The final section involves what in Japanese arts might be called kata (memorized forms–or set sequences of strikes and kicks) and striking drills.

 

Q2: The second most common question is, “Kalari?  So, what’s that like?” This sounds like the exact same question, but in this case the inquisitor is asking what the martial art is like, more generally. [I blame the modern educational system and Twitter for this lack of clarity in language.]

 

Answer: The answer to the first question gives one a little insight into this question as well, but I’ll expand upon it. First, Kalari is a comprehensive combative system. That mouthful just means that it involves unarmed striking, grappling, and a range of weapons. This should come as no surprise as any martial art that predates sport martial arts is likely to be comprehensive. (In combat, one has to be well-rounded because one can’t plan on a combatant sticking to protocol.)  Oddly, we think of “mixed martial arts” as the latest craze, but arts that specialize in either striking or grappling are the new kids on the block.

 

Second, I have read that the warriors in the area of present-day Kerala (i.e. where Kalari developed) didn’t use armor, and—in a related fact—tended to use weapons that were faster and were employed with greater agility than in other parts of India where armor was more common–as well as, the heavier weapons needed to be lethal against armored opponents .

 

Third, besides including wide-ranging unarmed and weaponry techniques, Kalari has a massage and medicinal component that has been handed down along with it. Readers familiar with either the Japanese and Chinese forms of acupressure massage (Shiatsu or Tui Na, respectively) and either Kobudō or Kung fu, will not be surprised to learn that the same vital points that are manipulated in massage in one way are exploited in martial arts in another. In Kalari, these points are called marma.

 

Q3: Who practices Kalari, and for what purpose?

 

Answer:  At the risk of angering some readers, Kalari has little value for either self-defense or for preparing for combative sports (beyond the choreographed competitions that are Kalari-specific.) Because these two objectives are among the most common reasons for learning a martial art, it’s often asked what type of person practices Kalari and what do they hope to get out of it?

 

It looks to me like practitioners fall into three categories. First, there are those who want to get fit. Kalari succeeds tremendously in this regard. If one practices diligently, one will likely see growth in flexibility, cardio-vascular stamina, agility, and both core and extremity strength. (To be frank, this fitness building is why I said that Kalari has “little value for self-defense” rather than saying that its techniques are “of less value than randomly thrashing about in a fight.” One’s physical capacities rise considerably, and that might serve one even if the motions that are drilled into one’s body have no pragmatic value in fighting a skilled opponent—except in surprising them with one’s flamboyantly acrobatic but excessively expansive and vulnerable motions. I’ll also note that there’s a degree of fearlessness that results from training with metal weapons—even choreographed movement with unsharpened metal weapons—that shouldn’t be ignored as a potent benefit if one were ever to have to fight an advanced Kalari practitioner.)

 

[For those who haven’t seen Kalari and think I’m being excessively douche about its combat ineffectiveness. Below is a video of a couple of very athletic and skilled Kalari performers, and you can ask yourself–in your heart of hearts–if these moves seem likely to be effective against a focused and experienced opponent who has done a lot of free-form sparring.]

 

 

Second, there are dancers and performers who want to impress with the martial moves of Kalari. Hopefully, I can make amends to those who I’ve offended in the preceding paragraphs. While someone employing Kalari techniques would likely be thrashed to within an inch of his or her life if they employed them against someone using Krav Maga, Systema, or even Muay Thai, on stage Kalari moves are far and away more impressive to watch than any of the aforementioned systems. Kalari makes for a great show. The things superheroes do in movies aren’t very realistic either, but we “oooh” and “aahh” when we see them.

 

Third, there are people like me who are interested in the art in a scholarly sort of way from a historical, cultural and /or movement interest. I want to see what this system has in common with other martial arts, and to think about how it might have evolved.  I should point out that I suspect that Kalari was at some point much more pragmatic as a combat system (and correspondingly much less thrilling to watch), and that it evolved to a new purpose over time. This same thing could be said of many arts that evolved into sports or entertainment enterprises (e.g. many forms of Kung fu are also unlikely to gain one success in a fight, but are nonetheless beautiful to watch. Also, I don’t know whether Capoeira evolved away from combat effectiveness or was born that way, but it certainly got there somehow.)  One can also learn about movement in a generic way that might be applied in ways that can be useful.

 

Q4: Is Kalari a unified art or an umbrella term? (To make this clear, consider the word “karate.” If someone says that she studies “karate,” one really knows very little about the art that person studies. However, if one says he studies Isshin-ryū Karate or Shōtōkan Karate, then one might know what that person’s training really looks like.)

 

Answer: As I understand it, there are two different styles encompassed in Kalari. The northern style is called Tulumanadan, and the southern style is Vadakanadan.  By “northern” and “southern” we’re talking about the northern and southern parts of the southwest tip of India, i.e. what is present-day Kerala, but which includes parts of other states–such as Karnataka. I don’t know how much variation is contained in each of those two styles.

 

Q5: How fit do I have to be to join Kalari training?

 

Answer:  Like any physical activity, you certainly don’t need to be able to do what you see the advanced practitioners doing when you start. There’s a gradual build up from simple movements to ones that are more challenging. There is also, some allowance for one’s (temporary and permanent) physical limitations–because we are all different and have our own unique set of strengths and weaknesses.

 

Having said that, if someone apparently non-athletic asked if they should sign up, I’d probably suggest they first take a few yoga classes of a challenging nature (e.g. Power yoga, Hatha Vinyasa, or Ashtanga Vinyasa.) The Kalari classes will ask every bit the same of one’s flexibility and core strength, and substantially more of one’s extremity strength and stamina.