In my days at the Kaduthuruthy Kalari, I spent 5-6 days a week practicing Kalaripayattu and practiced yoga asanas at least once a week. In Kalaripayattu, prolonged practice or prolonged rest are to be avoided, and two days a week should be dedicated to light exercises.
Thus, regardless of whether it was raining or not (rains could stop the student from attending classes or practice outdoors), regardless of the fact if we were injured or worn out during the training or not, we could not find any reason to not practice yoga asana.
“I bow with my hands together to the eminent sage Patañjali, who removed the impurities of the mind through yoga, of speech through grammar, and of the body through medicine.” Sivarama (18th century)
Yoga today is mostly perceived as a physical practice, and progress on this path is judged by one’s ability to perform acrobatic movements. But Yoga – as taught to us by our Guru, was always perceived as a way of life and remained an integral part of the Advaita teachings we received in the Kalari.
The practice of asana was a small part of it, just as how Sage Patanjali has explained in Yoga Sutras. Perhaps the only description of asana given in the Yoga Sutra is “sthira sukham asanam”, wherein the word asanam – as taught to us, meant ‘seat’ or to take a seat, and the emphasis was not really on the physical posture.
Apart from yoga stretches, we also learned pranayama, chanting and meditation. Yama, niyama, yoga asana, breath awareness and dhyana – were all an integral part of our learning and teaching. I had understood then that there is no escape from Yoga. The biggest advantage with Yoga is that it is meant for everyone. Thus for us – there was no reason to skip Yoga.
Yoga has continued to survive and evolve because it is one of the most versatile practice – it fits in very well even in today’s so called tech world. It is a practice that can be done anywhere, it is ideal for the hyperactive person and for the lazy person, it can be done in a limited space or outdoors, it can be done by the young and the old.
Life as a student
Growing up in a village and spending most of my teenage years (I started learning Kalaripayattu at the age of 13) in the Kalari, learning under the strict vigilance of my Guru, E.P.Vasudevan at Kaduthuruthy, Kerala, I wasn’t exposed to the outer world much. My focus and time was spent mainly on practice, and I spent nearly 10 years training in Northern Style of Kalaripayattu.
I went on to win the District Championships between 1986 and 1991, and the State Championships in 1988 and 1989. I later joined the Dancer-Choreographer Chandralekha upon the instruction of my Gurukkal, and have performed in all her major productions in national and international venues.
Yoga was a part of the regimen during the years with Chandralekha as we practiced Yoga asanas at least once a week to improve flexibility and increase awareness. However, we always revered martial art as a greater practice, because, though practice of Yoga is considered ideal to maintain a healthy body and mind, it is not something that can protect you when you are attacked.
All of Chandralekha’s productions were rife with complex movements that required agility, physical and mental strength, and immense flexibility. We were usually a part of protracted practice sessions wherein Chandralekha evolved her productions. The practice of Yoga helped us maintain focus and physical abilities through the creations.
The link between Kalaripayattu and Yoga
We must remember that both Kalaripayattu and the practice of Yoga have their roots in ancient India, at a time when knowledge had come down in the form of oral tradition and the Guru-Shishya relationship was considered a divine bond, which would lead them both towards (or closer to) spiritual enlightenment.
“Kalari is the body and the disciple of Kalari its soul!” Vasudeva Gurukkal
Thus, Kalaripayattu, like in Yoga, gives importance to the ethical and moral discipline of a student. It is not just a practice of warfare, but is a training that focuses on the development of a holistic personality. The discipline or niyamas are still followed strictly in the Kalari centers.
Both, Kalaripayattu and Yoga were traditionally considered the most effective tools to prolong this life while maintaining a healthy body and mind. However, it was well understood that like in any other sports or even with a Yoga practice that is focussed primarily on learning advanced asanas, the practice of Kalaripayattu also slows down with age.
“Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” –
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
One can not continue to jump and kick for life. Eventually, the focus shifts to maintaining a steady health and a focussed mind. The Gurukkals of Kalari are often inspired by the Bhagavad Gita and stress upon the importance of mental health. Thus meditation or upasana is prescribed for a student of Kalari who is committed to the practice for a length of time. A disciplined mind is equally required to face any situation with power.
As explained in the Vedanta, the body is subject to six fold changes or shadvikara, which is as follow:
It exists as potential form in the mother’s womb
It decays, declines and
The practice of Yoga makes the individual aware of these six fold modifications which makes him accept the body as an abode to experience pleasure and pain and not ‘protest’ against it, including death.
The niyamas or regulations observed by the student of Kalaripayattu are the same as the yamas and niyamas found in the Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali Maharishi. They form the basic foundation of personality development for a Kalari practitioner, such as committing oneself to observance of brahmacharya, avoiding unhealthy habits such as consumption of alcohol, smoking, etc.
Apart from this, not sleeping during the day, taking complete rest during night, avoidance of bad company and adhering to the disciplines as found prescribed in the Sukraniti such as avoidance at the physical, verbal and mental levels the following – violence, non-stealing, indulging in prohibited desires, malignance, untruthfulness, harshness, divulgence of secrets, evil design, atheism, and perverseness.
sukhaduḥkhe same kṛtvā lābhālābhau jayājayau।
tato yuddhāya yujyasva naivaṃ pāpamavāpsyasi॥
“Fight for the sake of duty, treating alike happiness and distress, loss and gain, victory and defeat.
Fulfilling your responsibility in this way, you will never incur sin.” Bhagavad Gita 2.38
An alert living is recommended which can be achieved by avoiding six vices like (excessive) sleep, sluggishness, fear, anger, laziness and procrastination as doubtlessly these are obstacles to any kind of activity. It is prescribed that one should neither repress the senses nor indulge them excessively in the external or internal world of sensory objects as they can take away the mind from the set goal.
“The one who has faith, and is sincere, and has mastery over the senses, gains this knowledge. Having gained this, one at once attains the supreme peace.” Bhagavad Gita
The practice emphasizes on training the individual from a holistic perspective, by developing a person’s intellectual, emotional, social, physical, artistic, creative and spiritual potentials.
Treatment in Kalaripayattu
The system of preparation of medicine in Kalari evolved as a sub-branch of Ayurveda and the Kalari Gurukkal is well known in the villages of Kerala as a vaidya or physician. It is believed that a committed Kalari practitioner who propitiates the Kalari devatas and practiced upasana regularly is believed to develop adrsta or unseen positive qualities, including an intention to cure. It is only on attaining this quality of curing, is he recognised as a Gurukkal (teacher).
Life as a teacher
When you teach Yoga you have to be sensitive and make the student feel comfortable. You have to take care that you teach them in a manner that is most suitable to their physical and mental body and overall demeanor.
“The human Guru whispers the sacred formula (mantra) in the ear; the Divine guru breathes the spirit into the soul.” – Ramakrishna Paramahamsa
Teaching Kalari however is different. I started teaching Kalaripayattu in Chennai around 1998. In the past 20 years, I have taught students of various backgrounds, such as school and college students, housewives and executives, professional yoga trainers and dancers, and have even trained students who are 50 plus years old.
Many people think I am cold / insensitive as a teacher, but we cannot take it easy when it comes to practice of martial arts. If you are attacking or defending, you have to be serious or stern and very alert. I cannot make you feel comfortable when the whole practice is about training you to survive under specific combat conditions.
Kalaripayattu is an aggressive form of practice, and correcting your posture and alignment early on helps students to evolve into expert practitioners. What is also important is an acute sense of martial movement, awareness of the body, and a sense of alertness.
Shaji K John
Kalaripayattu Practitioner and Teacher
Author of ‘Kalaripayattu – The Martial And Healing Art Of Kerala’.