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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BOOK REVIEW: Becoming Batman by E. Paul Zehr

Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a SuperheroBecoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero by E. Paul Zehr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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[Note: This book is about sport and exercise science, particularly as they pertain to the martial arts. If you’re a martial artist or are interested in fitness and movement arts at the extremes of human capacity, you’re in the right place. If you’re interested in the comics and an overview of topics including how many billions Bruce Wayne needs and what technologies Batman must master, those aren’t questions addressed in this book. Such readers may find the book delving into depths they aren’t interested in on biological science. There are articles on the web that deal with topics like the “Cost of being Batman.”]

Next summer an eagerly awaited movie entitled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hits theaters. Who knows how much screen time will involve the fight between the titular characters, but the same battle has played out a number of times in the comics, and its appeal is clear. What are the limits of human capability given training, technology, and sufficient smarts? Can a man really defeat an alien that’s faster than a bullet and more powerful than a locomotive? A popular fanboy mantra is, “I like Batman, because I could be Batman. Batman has no superpowers.” So, yes, if you were a billionaire, genius, with the physique of a Greek god, and knew 127 martial arts, you too could be Batman. Or could you? That question is at the heart of Zehr’s book.

Becoming Batman is arranged into sixteen chapters divided among five parts. It begins logically with the question of whether Bruce Wayne needs to begin at any particular point to achieve success in transforming himself into Batman? (At the extreme, one probably can’t imagine Bruce Wayne becoming Batman if he was born with one leg a foot longer than the other and with a Quasimodo hump, but given a Bruce who is starting out “average,” what are his limitations.) In other words, how much does genetics come into play. In the first part, Zehr introduces a character, Bob Wayne, who doesn’t appear in the comics. Bob is Bruce’s twin, and is used throughout the book for comparison purposes, i.e. to convey what Bruce Wayne would look like if he didn’t train fanatically to be Batman. The question of how much of Batman is innate and how much is painstaking built by exercise and training is critical to determining how many of those fanboys really could be Batman.

There a series of chapters explaining the mechanism by which stressors result in a stronger, faster, more powerful, and more resilient Batman. The idea is that Mother Nature doesn’t over-engineer. The only way one gets stronger muscles is by overloading them, which triggers a process of rebuilding them bigger and better than before. Wolff’s Law defines the same concept for bones, i.e. bone density increases in response to increased loading. (Incidentally, the same is true of the mind. A more agile mind is achieved only by working it, and zoning out in front of the television results in a dumbening.)

The next section shifts from generic exercise science to questions of Batman’s martial arts training. What kind of martial arts (or arts) would Batman practice? There is an often quoted statement in the comics to the effect that Batman had mastered 127 martial arts. (This is ridiculous, but it does spur the intriguing question of how many systems does Batman need to learn to have a well-rounded skill-base without being a dabbler? Many will say one art—the right one–is enough, others will say that–given the varied cast of villains he must defeat–Batman needs a broader skill-set than any existing art provides.) More to the point, how many hours does one need to practice a technique to ingrain the movements into one (e.g. neurologically it takes repetition to optimize efficiency.) This is among the questions discussed in this book.

The fourth section deals with the ravages of being Batman, and how much any human could be expected to endure. In this section, one will learn about the cumulative toll of concussions, the likelihood of Batman avoiding broken bones and other injuries that would necessarily sideline his crime fighting, and the effect that working the night shift would have. (The latter might seem trivial in comparison to the former two topics, but—in fact—it’s not. It’s well established that night workers have higher incidence of some cancers and other ailments. Furthermore, as Bruce Wayne has to keep appearances up, it means not only fighting circadian rhythm issues, but also frequent sleep deprivation—the hazards of which are even clearer and occur in short order.)

There are a number of interesting topic that aren’t don’t pertain to the core question per se, but which are interesting for fans of the Batman canon and the character’s mythos. Famously, Batman doesn’t use guns or lethal force. This raises the question of how realistic it is to regularly fight hardened knaves and miscreants without killing them. One can only knock out so many of Gotham’s baddies before one doesn’t get up.

There’s a chapter about what a fight between Batman and Batgirl would be like. While strength would definitely be to Batman’s advantage, there are advantages that an equally skilled female fighter might bring to the fight? How would Batgirl (or Catwoman) need to fight to put those advantages to use? Finally, for those of us who are no longer spring chicks, there are chapters about how Batman could expect to age, and how long he could keep performing at a level at which he could defeat his enemies.

I enjoyed this book and found it both educational and interesting. It should be clear that Batman is just a teaching tool used to explore the limitations of the human body and its ability to endure a life of fighting. That said, references to the Batman comic books and movies makes for a readable text. Perhaps what I like most about this book is that most of the books that address these subjects are textbooks that are sold on the textbook pricing model (i.e. we have a limited but captive audience so let’s make them pay top dollar.) This is one of the few books that takes on these topics at the readability and pricing model of a popular science book.

I recommend it for those interested in the science of performance, martial arts, and injury.

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BOOK REVIEW: Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes by Deepak Chopra

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes: Harnessing Our Power to Change the WorldThe Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes: Harnessing Our Power to Change the World by Deepak Chopra

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is Deepak Chopra’s attempt to capitalize on society’s fascination with superheroes. By “capitalize” I’m not necessarily saying to “make money off of,” but perhaps to “use to his advantage in conveying his lessons.” [I’ll leave it to the reader to make judgments about the former.] There are books on the physics of superheroes, the philosophy of superheroes, and the mythology of superheroes, so why shouldn’t there be a book on the spiritual life of superheroes?

The book uses both the superheroes of mythology—i.e. Indian, Greek, Judeo-Christian, Muslim, and others—as well as the superheroes of comic books. While Chopra’s knowledge of the former is considerable, he enlists the co-authorship of his son Gotham (not named after Bruce Wayne’s hometown) to offer insight into the latter.

This book is also intended to capitalize (again, take that as you see fit) upon Chopra’s best-selling book, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, but without rehashing the same laws. The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes format is as straightforward as its title. There are seven chapters, each corresponding to one of Chopra’s laws. Said laws address balance, transformation, power, love, creativity, intention, and transcendence.

As I read the book, there was something that rubbed me the wrong way about the writing. It wasn’t that I had major disagreement with Chopra’s ideas, but rather the way he was stating them. At first I thought this was the use of gratuitous assertion. He often began chapters with detailed statements about what superheroes are, do, believe, and understand without much—if any–substantiation of these claims. However, as I got into the first chapter I noticed that he would put one section in each chapter that discussed an example in-depth, offering at least anecdotal support for his claims.

This still left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. It was because he used general statements like “superheroes know…” and “superheroes understand…,” and then provided a solitary example that fit his statement well, but leaving a vast cast of heroes that didn’t. It seemed a low form of inductive reasoning. In other words, he was attributing an enlightened way of thinking and acting to characters like Hulk and Wolverine.

Chopra and his supporters might make the claim that saying, “The Hulk understands X [insert any of the laws here]” doesn’t necessarily mean he understands them as an intellectual exercise, but rather that he shows this understanding through his behavior. Let me give a story that may make my meaning clearer.

An economist is giving a lecture on consumer behavior. Someone in the audience says, “Professor, how could consumers possibly behave in the way you suggest? Your theory requires complex Lagrangian optimization mathematics, which very few of them understand?”

The Professor replies, “Most of them don’t understand Newton’s work either, but they obey the Law of Gravity without fail.”

I thought about Chopra’s statements from this perspective, but concluded that his point was probably something entirely different. As an author of self-help books about the mind, when Chopra says “Superheroes understand X,” he’s not saying “Each and every superhero understands X,” but instead he’s saying, “If you want to be a superhero, you need to understand X.”

Accepting that that’s what Chopra meant, only one more qualm with the book remained. Laws can be clearly stated (OK, perhaps not tax law, but laws of physics—which seem to be more the kind of law he seeks to emulate), but Chopra’s discussion of his “laws” is vague and ill-defined. Each chapter begins with a large-font italics statement. I don’t know if this is supposed to be “the law” or not. It usually begins with a definition (some vaguely stated) and then statements that superheroes comport themselves in accordance with said definition. Maybe the unstated laws are supposed to be, “Superheroes live a life of balance,” and so on for the other chapters. As one trained as an economist, I’m well-aware of the wide-spread overuse of the term “law,” and maybe the ill-defined nature of Chopra’s laws is a recognition of this.

This book is written for Chopra’s usual audience of seekers of enlightenment. I don’t know that it’ll do well with hard-core science fiction or comic fans, and I don’t know that the Venn intersect of “spiritual self-help readers” and “comic book fans” is as big as Chopra would like. (But, I could be wrong.) Some of Chopra’s ideas about the potential spiritual ramifications of “quantum entanglement” are quite popular with sci-fi fans, but I’m not sure that that offers this book a clear audience. (It might. Chopra is a trained physician, and has some scientific bona fides—unlike many who share shelf space with him and who exist in a spiritual plane entirely unrelated to the world as we know it.)

All this being said, there are some thought-provoking ideas in this book, and the superhero and mythological examples help entertain and—in doing so—become the spoon of sugar that makes the medicine go down. Another testimonial is that I read most of this book in a single sitting, and I tend to jump from a chapter in one book to another book unless something really holds my interest.

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