Martial art of life and health, or what connects kalari and ayurveda

Ancient India is a unique cradle of the art of life, culture and philosophy. Indian civilization has created, among others, systems such as ayurveda, yoga and kalarippayattu. It can be said that Ayurveda – nomen omen knowledge of life (from Sanskrit: ayus – life, veda – knowledge) – lays the foundations for various areas of human activity and is present within them in various ways. Although at first glance dance, music, yoga or martial arts are areas distant from each other, requiring different skills, characterized by different dynamics and focusing on different aspects of life, deeply in their foundations they have a lot in common.

Temper, energy and direction. Phot. Sebastian Góra

The relationship between kalarippayattu and ayurveda is evident primarily in the form of kalari chikitsa, the medical system used by practitioners of this martial art, but philosophy and approach to training are equally important. In the practice of kalarippayattu, it is important to understand your body’s functioning, recognize your temperament and energy, and then focus it on specific actions. This article is devoted to these two aspects – medical and philosophical – of the art.

Holistic medicine

Ayurveda is an ancient system of natural Indian medicine that views human life and health as a whole. Health means the harmonious functioning of the body, mind and spirit in accordance with its natural biorhythm. At the root of Ayurveda is the observation and understanding of life processes, both in the sphere of the body and the spirit, and their interdependence with the environment in which they occur.

Proper diet is a compulsory element of health. Phot. Sebastian Góra

This means that our condition is affected by many factors, such as: physical structure and predisposition, diet, lifestyle, movement, genetic conditions, temper and environment. Ayurveda combines anatomy, physiology and psychology with philosophy and metaphysics, dealing with the prevention and treatment of both the gross (material) and subtle (energetic) bodies. Of the many elements of ayurvedic medicine, the science of marmas is especially important for martial arts.

Marmas are vital points of the body, lying on the confluence of muscles, blood vessels, bones, tendons and joints. Depending on the location, pressure on certain marmas can cause severe pain and numbness, loss of consciousness, and even death. Knowledge of marmas was found in various Indian medical texts, including one of the most famous treatises by Sushruta entitled Suhruta Samhita. Various numbers of marmas, their location and influence are mentioned in different texts and in different local healing traditions. However, 108 most important points are mentioned most often.

Ayurveda and marma chikitsa

An illustration from Phillip Zarrilli’s book When the Body Becomes All Eyes.

Although knowledge of marmas is common, many ayurvedic practitioners rarely use it. It is different in the case of kalarippayattu adepts and related systems (especially the Tamil martial art varma ati or varma kalai), for whom knowledge of marmas was crucial, because someone’s life or health could depend on the effectiveness of the blow to them.

In the distant past, Keralite and Tamil warriors used knowledge of marmas both to attack and defend in battles with enemy troops, as well as to dress wounds and to heal their comrades in arms. In addition, the military training they underwent was supported by massages and treatments that further strengthened the body and prepared for the hardships of fights. This medical part of the kalarippayattu system is called kalari chikitsa or marma chikitsa (or chikilsa) and is currently primarily associated with sports prevention and injury management.

Master Raja Gopalan Asan and Sankar.

In modern Kerala (and partly Tamil Nadu), many kalarippayattu masters also deal with medical or physiotherapeutic practice and admit patients in their homes or offices located at kalaris (training buildings). They often make oils and other natural medicines themselves. The traditional lifestyle of their life in harmony with nature (although threatened by the progressive technology and dependence on synthetic materials) and its observation, knowledge of the properties of herbs as well as anatomy and physiology makes the theory and practice of kalari chikitsa still alive. Masters most often pass on knowledge and skills on health care from generation to generation to family members or the most trusted students. Not every kalari student is interested in this aspect of practice and not everyone has the appropriate predispositions and character. This is very important because such a person later affects the health and lives of their patients.

Collection of herbs used in therapies.

Study of kalari chikitsa includes, among others, learning about plants, collecting them, making oils or medicines, learning anatomy and physiology, assisting the master during visits of patients and their treatments, and finally independent practice. It is a very long process that requires great patience, inquisitiveness and true calling.

Sankar is a person who, among other things, directly gained knowledge and experience in the field of kalari chikitsa and ayurveda. His family has been continuing both traditions for generations: kalarippayattu (on the father’s side) and ayurveda (on the mother’s side), but his teachers also include masters from outside the family.

Massages and treatments

Preparation of herbal poultices, kizhi, for treatment. Phot. Sebastian Góra.

In therapies and massages, marma chikitsa uses, as in ayurveda, natural oils, herbal mixtures and powders, which are selected individually for each person. The repertoire of treatments includes, among others, hand and foot massages, kizhi (poultices filled with natural medicines and immersed in oil), taking herbal medications and using a diet, but often they are also accompanied by recommendations regarding changes in lifestyle or performing specific exercises.

Massages and therapies have been used by warriors in the past, but nowadays they also bring many similar benefits in general health prevention:

  • they improve the overall psychophysical condition
  • improve flexibility and strength
  • prepare the body for effort
  • ensure harmonious functioning of the body
  • cleanse and add energy
  • reduce the risk of injury

They can also be used to treat various types of ailments, such as:

  • sports injuries: fractures, sprains, strains, bruises
  • chronic pain
  • muscle and tendon stiffness
  • past and recurring injuries
Feet massage. Phot. Sebastian Góra
After part of the massage done by feet, time for hand massage. Phot. Sebastian Góra

One of the best-known massages is cavitti uzhiccil (or cavitti tirummu), in which the first, strong part of the massage is performed with the feet (the person performing the massage holds a rope suspended to the ceiling, thanks to which he regulates the pressure on the body), and the second, lighter – with the hands. The movements are sliding, and the pressure is strong, thanks to which the body warms up, cleanses and is toned, the massage breaks tense muscles and regulates blood and lymph circulation, stretches muscles and joints, as well as strengthens and tones the whole body. Massages take place in sessions of several days and require compliance with various rules (e.g. avoiding exposure to the sun, limiting physical activity, following an appropriate diet, sexual abstinence). Regular massages restore the body’s balance, improve its efficiency and prepare for the next effort. Such massage is especially recommended to martial arts students, athletes, dancers and other people intensively exploiting their body. In Kerala, traditionally such massage is performed also by dancers of the classical kathakali dance theater (the first dancers in the 17th century were kalari warriors who had enough strength and endurance to dance all night in heavy costumes).

Putting oil before training. Phot. Sebastian Góra

The daily version of the mini-massage for kalarippayattu adepts in Kerala is self-lubrication with body oil before each training, which warms, tones and strengthens muscles, joints and tendons, and prepares the body for effort. Not only the massage is important, but also the oil (sesame or sesame and herbal oil: pinda thailam), which penetrates through the pores of the skin and nourishes the tissues.

Holistic martial art

In addition to the directly medical aspect of kalari, practice also influences three areas: body, mind and spirit. Physical training develops the body, while constantly challenges the mind. Struggling with the limitations of both, we shape the spirit.

The holistic nature of kalari practice is manifested by:

  • Conditioning and stretching exercises. Phot. Sebastian Góra

    exercises and sequences comprehensively strengthen and stretch the whole body – to properly perform individual elements of training, you need both muscle strength as well as flexibility of the whole body. Exercises are not, however, a mechanical repetition of certain movements;

  • Precise body postures. Phot. Sebastian Góra

    the correct execution of exercises and sequences depends on the correct positions of the body and transitions in sequences. For example, it is important to maintain the right distance between your feet, set your knees or work your spine properly. Incorrect setting may result in injury;

  • at the initial stage of practice, we focus on observing our movement habits, understanding where our limitations come from, what comes easier and what is more difficult, what our predispositions are. In this way, we prepare the body for more advanced elements of training;
  • Focus on the aim of action and not the form. Phot. Sebastian Góra

    during regular practice, we develop and deepen our skills so that our condition and technical aspect of the practice (memorizing movements, understanding the meaning of individual movements), which is also a challenge to the mind, are no longer an obstacle. When the body does not block us and the mind is focused on a specific action, there is a physical, mental and spiritual transformation, and the forms or sequences can be filled with specific energy;

  • the pace and scope of exercises should be adapted to the fitness and level of the practitioner. Training should increase energy and bring satisfaction, and not destroy and lower the mood. Thanks to regular practice, we increase our endurance and strength, so there’s time to gradually increase the intensity and pace;
  • Regular practice brings results. Phot. Sebastian Góra

    the training, although it’s demanding, is not about shaping muscles or figure, nor about showing off one’s technical skills. We develop the body’s natural, individual functions and predispositions, without bringing it to extremes. It is also natural that, despite the common basics, different students can specialize in specific aspects of the art, depending on their predispositions and inclinations, e.g. one person will feel best in movement sequences and another in long stick fights, etc .;

  • in regular practice, healthy discipline, regularity, observation and understanding of various processes, proper diet and energetical hygiene (what activities I choose; what I engage in, what supports me) are important. All this contributes to our balance.

The article features among others photographs taken by Sebastian Góra who visited our Indian seat in Trivandrum during the winter practice in February 2020.  

Sankar runs an ayurvedic practice in Wrocław, he collaborates among others with Integrative Medical Center, as well as Clinic and School of Therapists Odnowa in Gdańsk, Poland, where from autumn 2020 he will be one of teachers of the professional course in ayurvedic therapies.