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.

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Yoga for Martial Artists

Long before I ever took a yoga class, I was doing a kind of yoga. It may have even had its roots in India, but it also might have blossomed independently. In the Japanese martial art I study, we called it junan taiso, and many of the poses would be recognizable to a yogi. While it didn’t include the complex and balance-challenging poses seen in yoga, stretches like the butterfly (Poorna Titali Asana), straddle stretch (Upavistha Konasana), and the back stretch (Pashchimottanasana) were virtually identical. As with yoga, the manner of breathing was as important as the nature of the stretch.

Butterfly Stretch (Poorna Titali Asana)

Butterfly Stretch (Poorna Titali Asana)

Back Stretch (Paschimottanasana)

Back Stretch (Paschimottanasana)

Straddle Stretch (Upavisthakonasana)

Straddle Stretch (Upavisthakonasana)

Flexibility is key in the martial arts, and not just the ones with high-flying kicks. Even grapplers and practitioners of the less fancy striking systems gain from increased flexibility, but it isn’t only increases in range of motion that yoga offers.

Let’s consider a modest front kick to a target no higher than the solar plexus. One might be inclined to say, “I don’t need yoga to help with that, I do that kick all the time, and have no problem reaching my target.” Do an experiment. Take a full 30 seconds to do the kick, from the time the foot leaves the floor to the time it extends out, and then hold it for 15 seconds, or so. If you succeeded in this without any problem, you may be good to go.

Front kick, slow-motion style.

Front kick, slow-motion style.

However, there are three problems that might plague one, and yoga is tailor-made to fix two of them. First, you may not have adequate range of motion. You may have thought you did because you can kick at speed and reach the target. But, you say, “Why would I need to kick in slow motion?” You wouldn’t, but this exercise shows you that you are having to use inertia to kick through the resistance of your own muscles. Unless you’re a hardcore bodybuilder that resistance might not seem too daunting, but you are essentially having the brakes applied–albeit softly–to your kick and that’s costing you speed and power.  Yoga can help you develop that range of motion. Consider the pose below, which requires the same type of flexibility.

Hand to Big Toe (Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana)

Hand to Big Toe (Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana)

Maybe you can raise your leg, but keeping it cantilevered in place is too much for you. This means you don’t have the strength to support your own leg. Either your leg is  heavy, your strength is lacking, or both. Building this kind of strength isn’t necessarily yoga’s forte. There are styles and approaches that may help you build that strength, but there are other things you can do that may be more efficient for that purpose–not the least of which is doing a whole bunch of kicks one after the other without a break until your leg is burning, and then doing some more.

You may have had the strength and flexibility, but found it hard to stay on balance. The naysayer says, “Yeah, but that imbalance would never be noticeable at speed. That is (as with the lack of flexibility) one can hide weaknesses with speed. While there maybe some truth in this, a lack of balance will cost you in subtle ways, and yoga can help. There are a number of postures that enhance one’s balance, balance on one’s foot, one’s head, or one’s hands (the latter could be useful for the ground grapplers.)

Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III)

Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III)

Headstand (Shirshasana)

Headstand (Shirshasana)

The Crane (Bakasana)

The Crane (Bakasana)

Tree (Vrksasana)

Tree (Vrksasana)

There are a couple of other areas in which yoga can help one’s performance as a martial artist. One is expansion of bodily awareness of issues of alignment and posture. These might not seem so crucial, but if you are in the martial arts for the long-haul, then having the awareness to make small adjustments can be the difference between chronic ailments or a lack thereof. It can be difficult to discover a misalignment in the quasi-combative environment of martial arts training. It’s easier to notice these issues in the slow and controlled practice of yoga.

Postures like Warrior II and the Side Angle Pose and show you where you are holding tension that you might not otherwise be aware of.

Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)

Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)

Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana)

Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana)

It must also be remembered that asana (postures) are only a part of yoga. Another aspect that can be extremely helpful for martial arts is pranayama, or the discipline of breathing.  There’s no substitute for cardio, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t benefit greatly from learning more about how to breath, and the science of breath. This is an area in which yoga excels. The great yogis made extensive study of breath and the effects that are achieved by various types of breathing, and these exercises can expand and strengthen the diaphragm and the muscles of the rib-cage. One tends to see the coup de grace strike and think, “There’s your problem.” However, often it’s fatigue that’s the underlying culprit. Better breathing can reduce fatigue.

Of course, meditation is another critical skill for calming the mind and learning to live in the present. Many martial artists already practice some form of meditation, but this is another option.

There is one more benefit and that is building greater confidence in your ability to exercise control over your body. There are many challenging postures in yoga. I don’t advocate all asana that have been taught historically because there can be such a thing as too much flexibility for a martial artist and some poses exercise joints in ways that were not meant to operate. There needs to be a proper balance of strength and flexibility, a proper tension within /between the skeletal and muscular systems. However, there are many poses that just take a bit of time and effort to develop the skill without putting too much wear on the body.

8-Twists Pose (Astavakrasana)

8-Twists Pose (Astavakrasana)