Many people ask if kalarippayattu is like yoga. Some use the name kalari yoga to describe the part of the kalari practice which includes exercises or movement sequences that are compared to yoga asanas. Perhaps this is due to the fact that kalarippayattu is a little-known martial art and its complexity is not easy to explain quickly, while yoga is a globally recognized reference point.
Yoga or a martial art?
For some, positions in kalari training resemble yoga, while for others, sequences resemble dance. So it may seem that this is just another set of stretching exercises that requires advanced skills from the beginning. On the other hand, kalarippayattu can be associated with photos and videos of well-trained adepts, performing complex systems, e.g. fights with weapons, which at first glance are far from the practice of non-violent communication or meditation in motion. So how can the image of „yoga in dance” be connected with swords dueling?
First, let’s precise what we mean by „yoga”. Today, there are many types of yoga that focus primarily on physical or health practice and lose the dimension of spiritual discipline. Of course, a lot depends on schools and teachers – many of them do take care of the spiritual aspect, but very often yoga classes are a combination of gymnastics and meditation/acrobatics/rehabilitation. In this article, we refer to yoga as one of the methods of work on oneself, self-observation and self-improvement. It was perceived in this way both in classical Patanjali yoga (2nd century AD) and hatha yoga developed in the 15th AD century. The first system emphasized the importance of meditation in the process of liberation from the limits of one’s own consciousness, while in the second one, the vehicle to achieve this goal is the body, and techniques of physical and breathing exercises (asanas and pranayamas).
Soul and form
Also, the practice of kalari in its depth can be a discipline of spiritual development in which the body is just a tool. As in various types of yoga, some kalari masters focus more on the technical or even the performance aspect of training, because they are mostly interested in them (kalarippayattu shows are a common element of celebrations and festivals in Kerala), but there are also those who emphasize the value of the learning process and the internal transformation resulting from it.
Three levels of kalari training
Kalarippayattu is not only a martial art understood as a set of techniques used for defense and attack (as it has been used for centuries by Kerala warriors), but also a rich and complex system consisting of many stages of development.
On the physical level, it includes:
- learning about your body and understanding how it works,
- learning your own limitations and predispositions,
- developing and deepening technical skills.
On the mental level:
struggling with internal blockades, limitations and fears,
- observing and controlling your emotions and reactions,
- developing and deepening understanding of awareness processes,
- developing discipline, mindfulness, balance, calmness, determination and inner strength.
On the spiritual level:
- opening up to energy communication,
- increased awareness and a sense of metaphysical connection with the kalari tradition, the ancestors of the masters and the surrounding world,
- and – for religious people – with the divine sphere.
In the old days, training was preceded by practice of dhyanam – a kind of prayer and meditation, thanks to which the students focused on training without thinking about daily matters.
What connects yoga and kalari
Many of the above aspects also apply to yoga practice. Other similarities between yoga and kalari in their traditional form are:
- ancient Indian origin,
- similar rules for body postures,
- some similar positions: warrior position (Virabhadrasana) present in many kalari sequences, animal positions (including paw, lion, cat) – present in different versions in both systems,
- coordination of breathing and movement,
- old, traditional model of transferring knowledge from master to student,
- knowledge of anatomy and physiology,
- knowledge of practices that ensure health, often derived from the ancient Indian holistic medicine, Ayurveda,
- keeping three components of doshas (body constitutions) in harmony thanks to regular practice,
- healthy lifestyle, including diet, exercise and sleep,
- development of holistic personality,
- the spiritual aspect of practice.
Therefore, if we view yoga and kalari as different paths leading to the same goal – spiritual enlightenment – we can think that they are similar. In India, such a path is called sadhana and it can be represented by various other arts or areas of human activity – dance, music, fine arts, but also crafts. It all depends on the approach – whether we work by vocation, a deeper internal need, or just focus on technical aspects.
Differences between kalari and yoga
However, while in the practice of yoga, the adept focuses on calming down, withdrawing from the outside world and observing his own processes, the attention of a person exercising kalarippayattu is focused outwards, because one acts in relation to what is happening around. The purpose of physical practice is to train the body in such a way that it becomes „all eyes” (meyyu kannakkuka is a well-known term in the Malayalam language in Kerala). It is important not only to know your body, train it and control so that it does not resist the implementation of specific actions, but also the ability to observe and read signals coming from the environment, the ability to instinctively apply specific techniques depending on the situation or the ability to work with a partner during sequences of empty hand or weapon combat. In practice, kalari movements in many exercises and most individual movement sequences, as well as all empty hand and weapon systems have specific defensive or offensive meanings and are directed to specific parts of the body and vital points, or marmas, located on them (you can read more about marma points and connection between kalari and ayurveda in the previous article).
Training process in kalari
Typical kalari training is characterized by high dynamics and considerably strenuous effort, although its level is adapted to the individual skills of students and their level of advancement. Traditionally, beginners only perform basic exercises for many weeks and gradually increase the level of difficulty. Complete training includes many conditioning and stretching exercises that make the body strong, but also agile, flexible and fast. Exercises prepare for performing movement sequences, and these in turn prepare for combat sequences which have a specific structure. Adepts practise in pairs, alternately, attacking or defending. Here, it is also important to observe our partner and his way of movement, harmonize the rhythm and develop a common dynamics, which will not only be a mechanical repetition of sequences, but also an energy-filled dialogue.
Less body, more soul
Many kalarippayattu masters emphasize that the initial focus on the physical aspect of the practice – attractive and effective, but also giving great fulfillment and satisfaction – over the years moves to the spiritual sphere. It is naturally associated with both aging of the body and the awareness and mindfulness developed over the years, as well as the ability to focus and direct attention, energy and power. At a certain age, masters devote more and more attention to the medical aspect of practice (kalari chikitsa), herbal medicine and physiotherapy, as well as meditation and spiritual practices.
The article features among others photographs taken by Sebastian Góra who visited our Indian seat in Trivandrum during the winter practice in February 2020.