The human spirit goes beyond the violence and meaninglessness of a fight, when the way of fighting also becomes a beautiful expression and a search for self-realisation. Most people think that Martial Arts are only for wartime effort – but apart from helping its practitioners play a functional role in society, they help them stay fit, and can become a path of personal fulfilment.
Martial arts in India, based on the Samkhya Philosophy, was born around 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. Kalaripayattu in Kerala is called the mother of all martial arts. Ancient martial arts were focused on internal health, which meant the health of the 5 primary organs – the heart, lungs, liver, pancreas and kidneys. There was, therefore, a lot of focus on developing the muscles around the core, with little or no focus on the shoulders and the arms. All the power needed for thrusting and fighting was generated from the core. The movements were modeled on the ‘Big Cats’ with the legs kept well-trained for optimal springiness.
The martial arts give importance to warming up with work on joints, circulation, and most importantly the endocrine system, as this is essential for the experience of wellness. The endocrine system varies according to the environment and the person's mindset – hence meditation also is integrated into the practise of martial arts. Meditation regulates the kind of hormones secreted by a person and keeps them balanced and healthy.
Alignment: The first thing that a martial arts student develops is “alignment”. The feet were always kept parallel and the shoulders and arms were kept close to the body to be able to engage the ‘lats’ (Latissimus dorsi – the muscle on the lateral posterior part of the back), below the shoulder.
Martial arts gradually became more sophisticated – artists realised that practising a strike with full speed right from the beginning was going to cause some misalignment. So they started training their students in basic locomotion. A concept called ‘antagonistic isotonics’ helps to explain the importance of this. Muscles always exist in pairs and function such that when one is compressed, the other relaxes. However, most people are not aware of this basic physics of locomotion and can quite often be seen tensing both muscles while moving, lifting or even walking. Through martial arts, students realise that a muscle needs to be kept tense only 50% of the time. This even helps the person relax emotionally. Bad posture and locomotion are responsible for compressing the 5 main organs - often enough to impair their proper functioning and not release the correct hormones; they can also make a person overweight which causes the joints to become weak. My teacher used to say, “Age is not how much hair you have on your head – it is how much you can run, jump and play”.
Breathing: The next thing a person learns is “how to breathe” – to spend enough time retaining the breath for it to reach the various parts of the body. A slower breathing pattern enhances health, brings down heart rate/blood pressure, and every part of the brain gets oxygenated, helping the thinking to become clearer. You can see how everything is connected and you start thinking in-depth. Breathing is considered important to see beyond what is apparent and form an an appropriate mature response.
Generation of Power: The next step is “generation of power”. There are normal aerobic or glycolic circuits that people use to generate power. Then, there are anaerobic circuits within the body, which do not need oxygen and that can generate power in a flash (called Fajin in Chinese), in the process producing many toxins, which are washed out by a healthy circulatory system. The anaerobic circuits help because they increase immunity. The body is now constantly able to flush out toxins.
Once the student has understood correct muscular alignment and proper movement, the next thing to do is to learn to ‘break out of the illusion’, and to ‘connect with the unchanging or immortal within you’. The changing or evolving part is discarded as unreal by all three schools of thought connected with the martial arts - Daoism, Buddhism and Yoga.
When illusions are destroyed and the martial artist connects with the unchanging reality, he gains strange powers, inspiring students to take up the path, even if their aspirations could take many years to be fulfilled.
Through martial arts, we learn to appreciate life. The most valuable thing that the martial arts can do for a committed student is to eliminate his fear. Fear is replaced with understanding, awareness and compassion. When I understand someone well and I see myself in his shoes, I realise that I would act the same way in that situation. It is not him, it is his conditioning. I don’t hold it against him but if possible try to remove that conditioning.
The Martial arts teach people to align themselves to a wholesome life, get their health back, to learn to breathe properly and invest in inner growth. If they can achieve these things, they can increase their lifespan, have a sense of clarity and self-worth - which will help them make a positive contribution to society.