The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has put out a new edition (dated 2019) of its pamphlet (about 50 pages) about how useful various complementary practices are in helping patients reduce, or cope with, pain. The NCCIH is a center in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that serves as a clearinghouse for information about how alternative and complementary practices perform in treatment of various ailments. While alternative (instead of mainstream medicine) and complementary (in conjunction with mainstream medicine) are quite different, in almost all cases this work herein is reporting on the latter basis. The complementary practices in question include: yoga, taiji, meditation and mindfulness, massage, acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation, relaxation methods, and others.
Complementary approaches to treatment of pain is a particularly salient topic these days as the mainstream medical approach (giving patients pills to gobble down) has resulted in what many have called a “crisis” of opiate addiction. So, if it’s possible to reduce the grip of pain with practices that at best have numerous other health benefits and at worst do no harm, than that’s a pretty good outcome.
Chapters three through eleven form the pamphlet’s core, and all but the last of those look at one complementary practice each, including (in order): acupuncture, massage, meditation, relaxation techniques, spinal manipulation, taiji (a.k.a. tai chi, or tai chi chuan), yoga, and dietary supplements and herbs. Chapter 11 discusses a few additional (less popular) practices. These chapters follow a three-prong approach: 1.) is it safe? 2.) does it help mitigate pain? and 3.) where can I find more information? [Spoiler alert: In almost all cases the answer to #1 is roughly “Yes, for most people, but possibly not for you. Check with your doctor,” and to #2 is usually something like: “there is some preliminary evidence that in certain cases certain people may have benefited.”] The chapters before (ch. 1 & 2) and after (ch. 12 to 14) provide background context and additional information.
On the positive side, it’s great that this information has been gathered together and packaged into a readable format with pictures and easy to read text.
On the down side, this was clearly a document put together by a committee of bureaucrats in consultation with lawyers. It is so laden with qualifiers and spongy speak that it’s impossible to discern how strong the evidence is for the various practices or how one compares to another. I felt that they could have given the same information in a three-column table in which the first column is the practice, the second column is “can’t hurt to try*” [*provided your physician concurs,] and the third column would be “nah, this stuff is fake.” [Spoiler alert: almost everything besides homeopathy would have the first column checked, but the consensus seems to be that homeopathy is pseudo-scientific quackery designed to sell water at medicinal prices.]
This booklet is available on the web for free, so if you’re interested, check it out. But don’t expect to come away with any profound insights. It’s not that kind of booklet.
This book examines how four techniques – movement, massage [specifically, self-applied], breathing exercises, and meditation — can be used to facilitate a robust immune system and to stimulate the body’s innate healing capacities. Jahnke, as a Doctor of Oriental Medicine, specializes in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM,) but he acknowledges that these activities aren’t the exclusive domain of that system. The book is designed to be one-stop shopping for an individual seeking to build their own self-healing practice either as preventive medicine or as a part of one’s treatment regimen for an ailment or infirmity.
The thirteen chapters of the book are divided into five parts. The first two chapters form the book’s first part, and they discuss the body’s innate healing capacity and the literature on the roles of mind and self-applied activities on health outcomes.
Part II forms the heart of the book, and it consists of chapters three through seven. Chapter three offers insight into the process of building a personal practice from the four key activities including guidelines for how to organize disparate parts into a whole and how to fit it into one’s life overall. The other four chapters provide examples and techniques for each of the four components of the system: gentle movement (e.g. qiqong), self-applied massage, breathing exercises, and meditation and deep relaxation techniques.
Part III expands on the issues touched upon in Chapter 3. That is, it explores in greater detail the nature of building and deepening a personal practice.
Part IV, entitled “The Way of Nature,” provides a philosophical context for a global self-healing movement and describes how a community can be built around this endeavor. There are three chapters in this section. The last part consists of only one chapter and it describes a potential future self-healing regime. Throughout the book there is a recognized that, while modern medicine is invaluable, it’s also developed a dysfunction by undervaluing the role of the body’s innate healing factor, while not only removing the patient from of the driver’s seat but also stuffing them in the trunk as a sort of cargo in the health and healing process.
The book has line drawings to help clarify the techniques. There are several pieces of back matter (an appendix, a bibliography, and a resources section) to help make the book more useful. [The appendix is a little strange and unfocused for an Appendix. It’s almost more of a Reader’s Digest Condensed Version for someone who wants to get to brass tacks, but it does offer some interesting insight into how a community built around these ideas has formed.]
I found this book to be informative and believe it offers a great deal of valuable insight into how to not only develop one’s own preventive medicine activities, but also how to situate those activities within a community of like-minded individuals. I thought the author did a good job of presenting scientific evidence for building a self-healing practice while not becoming too bogged down technical detail and offering a way of thinking about it for those who look at such activities in more metaphysical or spiritual terms. I’d recommend this book for anyone who is considered engaging in health enhancing activities.
This is a book about body awareness. It explores the subject by presenting tidbits from a range of movement and posture systems.
The book is divided into three parts. The first is a brief overview of the subject of bodily awareness. This section discusses what it means to be aware of the body, how body and mind / emotion are connected, and it sets up the need for the practices described throughout the rest of the book. The second part deals with a series of solitary activities that one can do to improve one’s quality of posture and movement. It forms the bulk of the book. The nine chapters of this portion of the book can themselves be divided in two. Three of them deal in aspects of bodily awareness: breathing / voice-work, grounding, and sensation. These sections borrow and adapt from established systems in a generic sense (e.g. the section on grounding uses a number of techniques drawn from yoga.) The other six chapters each deal with a system of bodywork, including: self-massage, African dance, Tai Chi, Eutony, Kum Nye, and running.
I’ll describe two of these specifically because they aren’t household names. I suspect most readers can imagine what the following look like: self-massage, African dance (even if it’s from a Paul Simon video), Tai Chi (from old folks in the park), and running. However, it’s probably reasonable to assume that some readers will have no idea what Eutony or Kum Nye are. Eutony is a system developed by a Danish teacher, Gerda Alexander, during the 20th century to use explorative movement to work toward more efficient movement. As far as I can discern, the founder is no relation to F. Matthias Alexander who developed–the more famous–Alexander Technique (AT is mostly well-known among actors, actresses, and would-be entertainers.) However, Eutony might be put in the class of techniques like the Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais that were developed last century and work toward improved use of the human body. However, the approach seems much different from Feldenkrais, which is highly structured, while Eutony is apparently not.
Kum Nye isn’t well-known either, but not because it’s a johnny-come-lately, rather because it’s ancient and obscure. Kum Nye is a Tibetan system of yoga. A lot of the techniques shown seem to be designed to help one gain the suppleness needed for extended sitting in meditation, but there are also “flying” techniques and other standing techniques that will help loosen one up, perhaps to free one up for more meditation.
The third part is shorter: three chapters presenting systems of partner-work. The first chapter is on Aikidō. For those unfamiliar, this is a Japanese martial art founded by Morihei Ueshiba that emphasizes harmony and flow. The chapter features a few basic drills from that martial art. The next chapter is on relating to others in a general sort of way, e.g. body language, emotion, etc. The last chapter is about massage.
Graphics are utilized heavily throughout the book. These include color photographs and drawings. Given what the book tries to do–showing these various approaches to movement–the graphics are essential. In the unlikely event that there are any prudes who read my reviews, you may want to make a note that there is a fair amount of nudity throughout the book. It’s not gratuitous or raunchy, but if you’re one of those people freaked out by nudity, this is probably not the book for you (nor the subject to be studying, for that matter.)
The book’s strengths are its valuable subject, its organization, and its use of graphics. Its weakness is in the number of approaches that it examines. There are too many for one to get any great insight into any particular system, but it’s too few if the goal is to give the reader a menu of movement and bodywork systems from which to find on right for them. I guess I wasn’t really clear what the objective was. If it is to show the reader a variety of paths so they can find the one best for them, the menu is too small. However, if it’s to show the reader one path consisting of all these elements, then it’s muddled. Among Western health and fitness purveyors there’s a tendency to think that if you take anything that’s good and ram it together with anything else that’s good, you’ll get something great. This is clearly not true; sometimes you get a pudding sandwich. This book feels a lot like a pudding sandwich.
If you are looking for a limited survey of movement and body awareness systems, and are okay with the list mentioned, you should check this book out. It also has some good general information about body awareness, though it’s a bit pedestrian for experienced practitioners.
Welcome to a special–not really–Friday the 13th edition Reading Report. Were I one to plan ahead, I might have read something horrifying for this week, but I’m afraid there’s nothing to inspire dread… well, I don’t really know what your dread threshold is, but unless you have phobias about good posture or classic literature, I think you’re safe.
I bought The New Rules of Posture this week, and spent a lot of my reading time with my nose in it. It’s one of those books that has one periodically getting up to try some movement or postural experiment, but I’m about 2/3rds of the way through nonetheless. It’s written by a dancer turned Rolfer, and offers good insights on the subjects of posture and breathing for those of us who are interested in evaluating and improving such things. The line drawings, many anatomical in nature, are helpful and the readability is high for a such a book. I suspect I’ll finish it in the upcoming week and will have a review up within a couple weeks.
I finished only one book this week, Why Do People Get Ill?I’ve mentioned this book in earlier reports, and will soon be doing a review, so I won’t spend much time on it now. It’s essentially about the roles that stress and the inability to articulate one’s feelings about illness play in catching a disease as well as its progression.
As one can see, I’ve been on a body-mind nexus reading kick lately. I’m trying to educate myself about anatomy, physiology, and related biological sciences as a means to improve the operation of body and mind. In addition to the featured titles above, some of the other books I’ve been reading during the past week include: Zen and the Brain (there was a fascinating chapter on indigenous opioids–i.e. morphine-like substances produced within the body–among this week’s chapters), The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, and The Sensual Body.
Moving beyond the body / mind books, I did do some reading that wasn’t research related. I’m about 40% through The Painted Word, having read the entries for the letters D, E, and (part of) F. My favorite word from the week was “dromomania” which means an intense passion for travel or wandering. As in, “I, Bernie Gourley, have a bad case of dromomania.”
The short story collection that I’m currently reading (I try not to neglect this medium) is Meeting the Dog Girls. I read about half-a-dozen stories this week (most of them are short, and a few of them–it could be argued–don’t really constitute stories), and I’m about 20% of the way through. Absurdism is a prevailing theme, though in some stories more than others. So far, I’m enjoying this collection. It’s mostly light and easily digestible reading, but has some intense moments.
With respect to novels, I slipped away from Mo Yan’s Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, and resumed reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables–a book which I started a while back. I’ve got to admit that reading 19th century literature can be a struggle, and–at the risk of offending–Hugo could’ve used a modern-day editor. (I realize that an alternative interpretation is that modern-day people–myself included–could use an attention span.) I’m only about 10% in, but I got through a powerful moment during which the gendarmes bring Jean Valjean before the Bishop. If you’ve read it (or seen one of the movie or theatrical adaptations) you’ll know what I’m talking about.
The only other book I spent any significant time was The Taiheiki, and if–like me–you think reading a translation of 19th century French literature can be a challenge, try reading a translation of 14th century Japanese literature. As I’ve mentioned, this book is research for the novel I’m working on. The challenge is the vast cast of characters. It’s a blend of history and fiction, and if you don’t know who was allied with whom during the war between Emperor Go-Daigo and the Hojo, it’s hard to figure out who you should be rooting for–unless it’s talking about the legendary warrior Kusunoki Masashige or one of the few other really well-known samurai. (Kusunoki was the lord of a small and inconsequential province and his name would likely have been lost to history–despite being a brilliant General–had he not become Japan’s national paragon for the virtue of loyalty.)
This is one of the few books on the Indian martial art of Kalaripayattu–particularly written in English. [There are English and Kannada editions–Kannada being the language spoken in Karnataka, the state where the book was produced.]Kalaripayattu is believed to be one of the world’s oldest martial arts and many believe it to be an ancestor to many popular Asian martial arts.
This will be a quick review because this is a pictorial book–i.e. like a coffee table book. While there is text throughout, the book primarily seeks to convey the feel of the martial art through photographs. In that regard the book succeeds tremendously. The photos, often full-page format, are vivid, engaging, and bring Kalaripayattu to life. The photographer, Arabind Govind, did an excellent job, as did all of the practitioners who served as demonstrators for the photos.There is pleasing use of natural lighting for both the photos taken in the kalari and outdoors. The acrobatics are awe-inspiring.
The text is well-written and concise. There were a couple tiny typos that didn’t detract from the meaning in any way. (It’s a first edition and a photo book, so I don’t grade hard there.) The text is most extensive and useful toward the front of the book in the discussions of history, philosophy, and mythos of the art. Throughout most of the rest of the book the text consists of sparse paragraphs used to give a little additional information on the weapons and techniques–including the massage style.
The book starts with background, then it delves into the physical exercises that are used to build fitness, then the unarmed fighting approach, followed by the arsenal of weapons employed in the art, and it concludes with a discussion of vital point massage.
I’d recommend this book for students of the martial arts who are interested in Indian martial arts, or who are just interested in martial arts generally.
I will say that the book may be difficult to get one’s hands outside of Bangalore because it is self-published by the Kalaripayattu Training and Research Center. I will, therefore, give their address: Kalari Gurukulam, 102 Maple Meadows, Chikkagubbi, Bangalore, India 562149.
One of the sculptures in the Thai Yoga outcrop at Wat Po.
In September I attended the General Thai Massage and Foot Massage courses at Wat Po. The teacher from whom I first learned Thai Massage (a.k.a. Thai Yoga Bodywork or Nuad Bo Rarn) was trained in Chiang Mai by various teachers, and the style he teaches reflects that northern heritage. I was curious to see how the style of massage varied in the south from the northern approach that I had already learned. Would I be in uncharted waters? Or would the Wat Po course merely be a refresher of what I had already learned? These questions were on my mind as I began the course.
The answer turned out to be somewhere in between. The Wat Po approach wasn’t radically different from what I had already learned, but neither was it a carbon copy. One could clearly see the common origin of these styles. For yoga practitioners, a reasonable comparison would be to imagine you studied Bihar yoga, and then you sat in on an Ashtanga Vinyasa class. Most of the postures would be similar if not the exact same—e.g. a downward dog is a downward dog. However, the sequence is a little different, you may run into a posture or two that you hadn’t seen before, and there will be many little differences in points of emphasis and so on. The same could be said of two martial arts that have a recent common ancestor art. (However, I think martial arts evolve more rapidly than other systems of movement because there is a life and death urgency to adapt to local conditions, and so martial arts can diverge rapidly.)
I won’t get into every little difference in this post. For one thing, the first course I took was a 60 hour (10 day) course, and the Wat Po course was only half as long (5 day / 30 hours.) Therefore, some of the apparent differences might have more to do with the need to conform to time limitations than true stylistic differences. The Wat Po course was designed to impart a sequence that could be done in an hour-and-a-half bodywork session. The first course I took taught some material that was redundant in the belief that one could tailor one’s sequence to the recipient’s needs and / or the masseuse’s preferences.
As an example, at Wat Po we didn’t learn any massage of the chest or abdomen, but I was shown (in fact, I was recipient of) the Wat Po approach to abdominal massage and it was pretty much the same as I’d learned previously. In my earlier learning, the approach to energy lines was to stretch (longitudinally) the limb, then apply palm pressure, then work the line (typically with the thumbs), and then one would repeat the palm pressure and finish with a repeat of the stretch. At Wat Po, they went straight for the energy line (sen) and followed that with the palm pressure work. I have no way of knowing whether this difference was more due to timing or style.
Before getting into the differences, I will talk a little about similarities. The general approach was the same (e.g. the recipient is fully clothed in a light, comfortable garment(s)) and the massage is ideally given on a thin, dense mattress/pad on the floor–rather than on a table. The general principles of sequencing were the same. Namely, one began at the feet and worked in the direction of the head. Also, when working on a limb, one began at the distal end, worked toward the torso, and then back toward to the starting point. Also, energy line work was done before the stretches. There were four positions in both styles: supine, side, seated, and prone, and—unlike many other forms of massage—the supine position was at the fore (i.e. neither style emphasized the prone position and back work over the supine in the way other varieties of massage often do.) Both styles of massage (as probably all massage) began with a brief introduction and questioning designed to make sure the individual didn’t have any contraindicated conditions. Both styles of Thai massage began with a moment of prayer or contemplation—this is similar to some styles and different from others and speaks to the traditional nature of Thai massage.
The side and seated sequences were the most similar between the two styles. I learned more in these sequences in the longer (Chiang Mai) course, but what was included in the Wat Po course was largely the same. Where the stretches were of the same type, they tended to be virtually identical. By that I mean to say that both styles had stretches that weren’t taught in the other style, but where that was not the case, the stretches were indistinguishable. For example, the pictured variant on sarpasana / bhujangasana [snake / cobra backbends] was done in the same manner in either style. (I learned more stretches in the first—Chiang Mai–course, because it was longer.) Over all, the energy lines (sen) tended to be identical, but there weren’t always the same number of them, nor were the same ones always emphasized. There were some differences in the feet lines that I’ll get into below.
Now let’s get to the differences. Starting with some small differences, the manner of palm pressure work was different between the two systems. In the Wat Po style, there was always one fixed point that one hand locked in place while the other hand applied palm pressure. I had previously learned to use both hands in a rhythmically alternating series of palm pressure applications.
One little difference that I found interesting involved the technique of closing the little flap over the ears at the end of the face and head massage (both styles close off the ears.) I had been taught to very gently release pressure so as to avoid any kind of popping that might disturb the recipient. However, at Wat Po the instructor taught to vigorously pull the fingers away—resulting in a pop. My guess would be that the idea was to get the recipient’s attention so that one could transition them from the face massage (which notoriously puts people to sleep) to a wakeful state so they could follow instructions for the stretches that followed. (We were taught face massage as part of the seated sequence. Previously, I had learned that this was an option, but that it was easier to do the face massage from supine so you didn’t have to worry about the recipient falling asleep and possibly falling over literally.
A final little difference was how the blood stop was done for the lower extremities. At Wat Po, they did the leg blood stop with both legs straight, whereas I had previously learned this technique with an open groin, i.e. the knee pointed out. (Both ways work about the same, but I think it might be a little less awkward to do it with the groin open as one is not in as close of proximity to the recipient’s privates.) The blood stop for the arm was identical.
The energy lines are one of the most fundamental aspects of Thai massage, and one would expect little variation in them between styles. This proved largely, but not entirely, true. For example, the leg lines were the same (as one might expect because one cannot stray too far from some lines without getting onto bone.) Also the points at the top of the shoulder, around the neck, the base of the skull, and the scapulae were the generally the same–except more or fewer points might be employed from one style to the other.
The arm lines were almost the same. The line on the back of the arm was the same, and the line that goes up the middle of the inner arm was the same. However, there was a second inner line that ran in line with the little finger along the lower edge of the arm (presuming the arm is straight out from the shoulder as it is for massaging the inner arm in both styles.) The lines of the back that were used were different. In my (not very accurate) diagram, the lines 1 and 3 were emphasized in the Chiang Mai style, but 1 and 2 were the lines used in the Wat Po system.
The greatest divergence in lines and points was in the area of the feet. The best example of this can be seen in the lines of the sole. In the Chiang Mai style I’d previously learned there were five lines that radiated from a point where the heel transitioned into the arch about midway across the foot and went toward the base of each toe. The Wat Po style had three lines that were more or less parallel in line with the big toe, middle toe, and the little toe. See diagrams.
The Chiang Mai 5 lines of the sole.
The Wat Po 3 lines of the sole.
In summary, the difference between these two styles wasn’t that great. In many cases the techniques were exactly the same, in most they were marginally different, and only rarely were they completely different. I don’t really have a preference between the two styles. I think which would be a better experience comes entirely down to the skill of the masseuse / masseur.
I’m sure you’ll agree that nothing says relaxation like a massage delivered via a mallet and chisel. Actually, you probably wouldn’t agree with that at all, but I intend to convince you otherwise.
In the beginning of May, I attended a two-day workshop on Tok Sen, which is an age-old Thai system of bodywork that is delivered with a khone (a wooden mallet) and limb (a wooden wedge.) The name “tok sen” can be divided into the onomatopoeia tapping sound “tok” and the word for energy lines “sen.” In the past this method largely found favor with Thai farmers and others who had sinewy bodies. However, today it’s often combined with Thai Yoga Bodywork (TYB) to deliver treatment to people without steel band like muscles.
This art is not particularly well-known. I can guess why. As in the practice of a martial art, when one inserts a tool (weapon) between giver (attacker) and receiver, the comfort level on both sides initially drops a bit. In the martial arts, the armed practitioner becomes concerned about the increased ease with which he might inadvertently injure his training partner. This isn’t only because weapons are designed to compound damage, but because the feedback through the tool is less. Of course, the receiver has good reason to be more concerned as well. This is one reason why many martial arts don’t introduce students to weaponry until they’ve developed considerable skill in unarmed practice. I’m sure it’s why a much longer course in Thai Yoga Bodywork is generally a prerequisite for learning Tok Sen.
Khone and Limb
So the natural question is, why add an element of risk—even if it’s a minimal or imagined risk? Tok Sen adds versatility to one’s practice. One can save one’s thumbs in a way that doesn’t sacrifice precision. The usual way to avoid “thumb fatigue” is to use hands-free methods that use elbows, knees, heels, etc. Those other implements can be ideal. However, none of them hit as narrow a target as does one’s thumbs. With Tok Sen, one can opt for the chisel edge or the round end depending upon the target area, and when one is using the chisel edge one can orient it for best effect.
Also, believe it or not, the “tok” sound of the tamarind or teak wood has a bit of a relaxing timber when done with a practiced rhythm.
For massage recipients, not only is Tok Sen pleasant, but it makes a great story that will impress one’s friends. I mean, let’s face it, a cool story is a part of the reason why some people get moxibustion and acupuncture. And cool stories are all of the reason anybody gets “fish massages” and “snake massages”—neither of which offer therapeutic value beyond exfoliation and goosing the sympathetic nervous system (i.e. inducing temporary terror), respectively. So, cowboy up and give it a try. You can take a selfie and tell everybody how you toughed it out.
For masseuses and masseurs, it’s easier to control the pressure on the limb than one would think, and as long as one has the experience to know where and how the muscle lays it’s unlikely one will injure the recipient.
Here is a video that will show better what it’s like.
Taken Friday the 13th of June in 2014 in Bangalore.
I haven’t been traveling much lately (or even getting far beyond commutes to the yoga studio, kalari, etc.) so I’m resorting to posting pics of what I’m doing in my day-to-day life as Daily Photos. The past few days I’ve been refreshing my training in the side, prone, and seated sequences of Thai Yoga Bodywork (Nuad Bo Rarn) at the Inner Mountain School of Healing Arts.
This photo is taken at the end of the seated sequence as a series of percussive actions are applied to the back.
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?
Answer: Kalaripayattu 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-ryūKarate or ShōtōkanKarate, 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.