Kalarippayattu: The Martial Art of South India

8d3a8b87ed08779233fa385fc93e49f4-2While India is home to many martial art styles, kalarippayattu, which hails from the state of Kerala, is particularly comprehensive and vivid in expression. In Kerala’s mother tongue, Malayalam, kalari means place, gymnasium, battlefield; payattu means martial exercise. Acknowledged to be one of the world’s oldest martial arts, kalarippayattu elicits a similar psycho-spiritual experience in its practitioners as hatha yoga. Practitioners of the martial art focus on attaining a transformative state where they become doubtless and fearless, often described as that moment when “the body is all eyes.”

The practice of the art form is grounded in the doshic concepts of ayurveda and involves four progressive stages of training: body control exercises (meyppayattu), wooden weapons (kolthari), metal weapons (ankathari), and empty-handed combat (verumkai).

Body control exercises are complex flowing sequences that develop balance, psychological insight, physical strength, and flexibility. The “male” Shiva forms teach intense focus and stability. These are balanced with the practice of “female” Shakti forms emphasizing circularity and flow. Advanced stages of practice focus on marma (vital pressure points) and empty-handed combat.

The kalarippayattu system of medicine is based on the principles of ayurveda and marma, and incorporates the application of medicinal oils in its unique system of massage. In addition, the body exercises continuously stretch and purify the nadis (the subtle nerve channels) so that prana can flow freely through them, resulting in superior mental and physical health.

On the cultural side, kalarippayattu has influenced many classical dance forms of India, especially kathakali. The beauty of the body preparatory movements, the rhythms, postures, and psycho-physical techniques of the martial art make it viable for use and interpretation by artists in theater and dance.

The teaching of kalarippayattu emphasizes inner development. By practicing the physical forms, students learn to value and actualize their inner strength and apply it in daily life. Just as in hatha yoga, the physical forms affect the vayus (vital energies), which form the bridge between the gross body (sthula-sharira) and the subtle (sukshma-sharira) body. Ultimately, kalarippayattu is about resolving conflict and developing a way of being where the participant learns to neutralize the negative energies within before they take control of one’s actions.

—Parag Mody

Parag Mody (paragmody@gmail.com) has studied and taught Iyengar yoga and various Japanese and Chinese martial arts for almost 20 years. He has been focusing exclusively on kalarippayattu for the last four years. He will teach a workshop this month: Introduction to Kalarippayattu, the South Indian Martial Art Form. Learn the basic body control exercises of this ancient art form emphasizing physical health, emotional well being, and healing. Bija Yoga, 1348 9th Ave., San Francisco. Four Saturdays, Sept. 9-30, 9:30-10:30 a.m. (415) 572-8921. www.bijayoga.com/workshops.htm

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