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Traditional Workouts of India: Kalaripayattu, Mallakhamb and Kushti

When it comes to staying fit or stretching the limits of their muscles, Indians have been at it for many years. Stories about babas pulling trucks with bare hands and other such quirky urban legends exist because India has a rich history of workouts. While you may not be able to master mysticism, a figurative journey back in time would let you pick up some amazing training routines keeping Indians fit for centuries. 
 
The most widely known among these is of course yoga, but for the sake of novelty, we will focus on three that might not have caught your eye yet. 
 
Kalaripayattu
Considered one of the oldest martial arts in the world, Kalaripayattu is said to have been practiced as early as the 3rd century BC in the present-day state of Kerala. Previously confined to pockets of the state, this fitness routine has steadily gained popularity among enthusiasts and spread wide now. 
 
Kalaripayattu draws its inspiration from the raw power and instinctive fighting techniques found in wildlife and nature. It usually results in increased agility, suppleness, apart from the ability to twist or turn the body quickly and with meaning. 
 
Practicing Kalari energizes both your mind and body. It increases your capacity to handle stress, anxiety and physical exhaustion. The peculiar movements engage your core and help improve coordination, flexibility and agility. It also enhances blood circulation within your body thus increasing aerobic capacity.
 
Practicing Kalari stretches your entire body, including your chest, back, arms, shoulders and legs. This is often useful in removing stress knots, and kinks and pain embedded deep in the tissues. Kalaripayattu makes you more energetic, alert and confident. It improves concentration and focus and enhances your ability to do any activity with skill and precision.
 
Mallakhamb
Before pole dancing sauntered its way to India through the west to become a fitness trend, Indians had mastered the art of mallakhamb. The exercise originated in Maharashtra in the 19th century, so it’s not particularly ancient, but it’s simplistic in nature, yet highly challenging! The word mallakhamb is a Marathi portmanteau of ‘malla’ (gymnast) and ‘khamb’ (a post). The objective is simply to balance oneself on a wooden pole -slightly oblong and tapering at the top - erected in the ground. A variation is to use a rope fixed on a ceiling, which acts as the khamb. 
 
Usually, the pole is made out of teak and is well-oiled before the performer uses it, which helpfully prevents skin chafes, but does make the entire exercise a lot more challenging! 
 
It is not just about climbing a pole and balancing on it. It takes every ounce of strength and concentration to perform the simplest of poses – and there are several of these, some at the very top of the pole – a flat-top that you may rest one foot on when at the summit. 
 
Even the staunchest supporter of modern equipment will agree that climbing up a pole against gravity, with no hooks or grapples, or holding one’s body shape on a flagging piece of rope requires immense strength and core mobility. That’s what the practice of mallakhamb endows you with. 
 
Kushti
Kushti came into the limelight recently with the Salman Khan starrer Sultan, but it’s an ancient technique for strength training and muscle building along with mud wrestling. You will find these workouts at an Akhara, which are local Indian gymnasiums run by ex-wrestlers. 
 
The Gada or mace is a weight-lifting workout, made to mimic the battle maces of ancient warriors. Nowadays, it’s a hardened globe made out of clay, cement, or stone with a bamboo pole inserted into its center. This is a great tool for developing grip, back, and shoulder power, and is similar to a large hammer in its effectiveness. When employed in the right form, it fully engages the core musculature. 
 
The flagship movement of the Gada is the Rumali, which roughly translates to waving a handkerchief over your head. Of course lifting the Gada to similar effect requires extreme strength, something only few experienced practitioners can do. 
 
Jori are alternatives to the Gada, and are a pair of clubs – immense body with a short handle. The idea is to use the Jori in a similar Rumali movement and again it takes great skill and coordination to balance both Joris in your hands and on the shoulders. Each Jori is swung over and away from the shoulder in a large semi-circular arc over one shoulder. Once the arc is completed, the jori is pulled down along the shoulders in the front, finally resting on the upper chest and shoulder area. Again, it’s a great workout to improve grip, add strength to your shoulders, upper back, upper chest, and overall torso. It is a full-body exercise that requires timing and good reflexes as well. 
 
Explore others
Of course there are plenty of other workouts that originated long ago in India – from the Sikh Gatka to Huyen langlon to Mardani khel to Silambam from Tamil Nadu. Then there’s Musti-yuddha, a variation of boxing, and Malla-yuddha, a form of wrestling. 
 
Feel free to explore all of these and figure out which one suits your needs the best. You will be thankful to your ancestors who brought this into existence all those years ago.