By Roohi Saluja
Training for martial arts involves the balancing of energies within the body, and cultivation of the no-mind state in action. Based on similar principles as meditation, martial arts evoke natural grace, fluidity and deep concentration in motion. Healing is a natural spin-off.
Listen to the pulse of a vibrant flower, a chirping bird, the churning ocean, a tempestuous storm, or the breathing human being—and you can heed the unanimous cry—‘I am alive!’ To be alive is to be animated by the Supreme Force—the vital energy, the prana, or what the Chinese call the ‘chi’ or ‘qi’, that infuses life in the entire cosmos. A living being is filled with it. The dead has none. And till the time you breathe life, the chi not only needs to be expanded and cultivated, but also its flow and toxicity ought to be regulated. This is the cornerstone of traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts.
In his book Qigong For Healing, Dr Choo Cheng Ngiap explains the chi as, “the life force that governs growth and health… It circulates in the body in a closed circuit running from organ to organ in a definite network of channels, which are placed in the connective tissues called fascia (located in the vicinity of the main blood vessels and nerves). In a recent scientific study, the qi was found to be composed of infrared radiations… Qi is the leader of blood. Where qi goes, blood is always let to flow. If the flow of the qi is stagnant, blood circulation will be obstructed, and the person will fall sick.”
Kanishka Sharma, martial arts exponent, who claims to be the first Indian to have trained in the fifth century Shaolin Temple in China, says, “Martial arts helps to boost your chi, which further enhances your body immunity, and consequently you feel more relaxed, renewed and healthy.” He continues, “Unlike the almost static postures in yoga, and the brisk body movements in modern-day exercises, martial arts are a combination of both stillness and movement, regulated by the flow of the breath. And then, the scope for body toning, increased concentration, longevity, and enhancing the self-healing power is tremendous.”
The play of Polarities
Kanishka relates a story about his master. Once a monk came to my master and said, “Master, I try hard to meditate, but can’t seem to concentrate enough.” The master replied, “This will pass.” After six months, the monk returned, and said with great delight, “Master, I can concentrate so much better now. I feel so good about myself.” The master smiled and replied, “This will also pass.”
This is the quintessence of polarities. And so the process continues—always asking, checking, verifying, and being unattached, aware, arriving—watching for the rocks on the road.
Martial art is then not just a part of life, but a way of life. Practice, practice, and practice, till it becomes your second nature, is the first and the last command for a martial artist.
Martial arts combine yin and yang, night and day, hard and soft, combat and healing. According to Chinese medicine, the yin and the yang are the reciprocal states of cyclic changes in the cosmos, whose interaction is relative, not absolute. That is, they counteract each other and seek to strike the most stable balance.
Dr Ngiap attributes their healing potential to the ionized chi. Like the positive and negative charges of electricity, the chi has both yin and yang phases. When this polarity is disturbed or its force is weakened, the chi stagnates and causes sickness. Initial imbalance can cause fever, digestive disorders, headache, high blood pressure, etc. If this discrepancy is not checked in time, it can lead to further degeneration, even death.
Cultivating the chi is not a one-time technique, but an ongoing practice, which the Chinese harnessed through various martial art forms like kung fu, tai chi, qigong, etc. Here’s a sneak peek into the healing science of two of the most popular Chinese martial art techniques.
The qigong system was devised by the Chinese centuries ago, and is till date practised to cultivate the chi, and thus achieve physical well-being and vitality. Kanishka points out, “Qi means ‘chi’ and ‘gong’ implies ‘a set of exercises’. The qigong is an integral part of kung fu. There are two types of qigong—hard and soft. The former enables you to perform physically impossible feats like breaking iron rods, withstanding tremendous blows without injury and other exploits. The wild goose and ba duan jin (or the Eight Golden Treasure Brocade) are softer versions of qigong. Based on traditional Chinese medicine, the latter is a set of eight movements that strengthen the bones and muscles, regulate respiration and circulation of the chi. Furthermore, each of these eight movements is related to different internal organs such as the liver, stomach, spleen and heart may be practiced, in whole or part, to focus on the prevention or treatment of specific medical problems.”
The pioneering principle of tai chi is harmony—not only with the natural forces but also within oneself, harmonizing the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of life. In order to perform tai chi, the body must move as a unit, contrasting most basically with modern- day calisthenics.
Kiran Sawhney, a fitness trainer, who also practices the yin-yang style of tai chi, elucidates, “While performing tai chi, you work internally. As you concentrate on a graceful set of choreographed moves, the mind fixes its gaze inwards, regulated by the flow of the breath. Drifting slowly and gradually with your body, the mind gets calmer, and the spirit, centered. The focus all this while, is on maintaining an erect posture, proper alignment and deep relaxation.” According to Kiran, its health benefits include curing arthritis, spondilitis, Parkinson’s disease, cervical, carpal tunnel syndrome (a compression of the body’s peripheral nerves), etc.
The area just below the navel—‘tan tien’ in Chinese and ‘hara’ in Japanese—is called the ‘sea of chi.’ Kanishka explains, “Where the mind flows, the chi flows.” As the body and breath flow gracefully and neatly regulated, so does the mind, clearing itself of energy blocks that normally lock us into fixed emotional and psychological patterns.
Working with your body is to listen to your body. Going slowly through the body movements is like undergoing an internal scan to clear and release any obstruction where the body is holding tension; the stagnated chi is flushed out, and replenished with fresh, oxygenated chi. And then, by learning to ‘let go’ we create more room for love, light, abundance, and good health.
Tai chi is a philosophy in which the physical, mental and spiritual are all rolled into one. Working the way it works, tai chi is popularly known as ‘meditation in motion’. Kanishka, who practices the tai chi chuan style says, “To exercise slowly, you need to be calm, and to be calm you need to concentrate, for without concentration there is no coordination, and without coordination, there is no harmony.”
Tapping the Healer Within You
Apart from the Taoist influence, Zen principles also find application in martial arts, partly in terms of building the mindset and martial attitude, and partly as a creative stimulus, an analogy for technique and strategy.
In Simple Zen, C. Alexander Simpkins and Annellen Simpkins explain, “One of the crucial concerns in martial arts is to reduce the gap between attack and defense, stimulus and response. If the opponent throws a kick or punch, the defender must react quickly or be hit. An ‘opening’ is that moment, that gap, which corresponds to a hesitation between thought and action. Zen aims at this point… If an opponent throws a punch, the martial artist must simply react…No concepts are necessary outside this. If you accept what is taking place, you can relate to it as it is.”
Developing this gap is what Kanishka identifies as developing an “unconscious state of awareness.” He continues, “Martial arts train you to develop an empty state of mind. For when thoughts are allowed to flow naturally, wherever they need to go, the mind generates a creative response that is at once spontaneous and measured. Concepts no more tie you down, and you’re far more equipped to make conscious decisions, than an average person.”
Simple Zen further documents, “Being aware and conscious of movement directs us to the center, where the spirit can be felt and expressed in motion as well as stillness, coordinating hand and foot as in coordinating mind and body.”
Art becomes artless; form becomes formless. The duality between inside and outside ceases; what remains is oneness—of thought and action. And when this happens, you open yourself to receive the spiritual healer within, who ultimately heals and liberates you.
Indian Martial Art Forms
India has several martial art forms, of which Kerala’s kalaripayattu is the most popular. The highest phase of kalaripayattu is marma adi, based on the knowledge of the body’s vital (marma) points. The human body is believed to have 26 meridians through which the prana or chi flows. Marma points are located on these meridians. When pressure is applied on a marma point, the prana flow alters. While a forceful blow on a marma point might lead to paralysis or even death, less pressure applied in a particular way on the same point will induce healing by correcting the prana flow.
Yet another traditional martial art form is Tamil Nadu’s silambam, where staff and fencing techniques were evolved as a combative mechanism. Today, even though silambam is faced with near annihilation, it continues to be deployed as a form of exercise that also bears healing potential. Pondicherry-based Jothi Senthil Kannan who has been practicing silambam since the age of seven, explains, “When using a long stick the silambam exponent rotates it in every possible direction. Consequently, the stick crosses the body to a total of 32 times. In times of battle, the warrior was thus protected from all directions. But as a form of exercise it works every tendon and muscle of the practitioner.”
Clearly, the technique involves immense speed and control, backed by acute concentration and focus. Jothi elaborates, “A silambam expert can perform up to speeds of 100 kilometres per hour! However, to be effectively fast one must also be effectively controlled, for the supreme skill lies in this sound balance.”
Before graduating to the use of weapons, a student of silambam must learn kuthuvarisai (the art of using bare hands) for the first six months. Physical perfection is intended initially through the practice of Tharai Padam (floor lesson), and other such exercises that work on building stamina, toning muscles, strengthening the nerves, and regulating breath.
If marma adi is an offshoot of kalaripayattu, varmakalai is the art of attacking vital points learnt in the course of practising silambam. An expert can determine the body type of the opponent by touching one’s five fingers, each equated to the five elements namely, the thumb (earth), little finger (sky), index finger (wind), middle finger (fire), and ring finger (water). Once this is determined, the silambam practitioner can either use it to advantage in combative mechanism or employ it for healing purposes. However, Jothi observes, “Healing is more an extension of the art of silambam, a consequence rather than a purpose learnt for its own sake. And yet, this is only possible under the guidance of the guru, followed by many years of devout practice.”
And then, the body is not the only gainer. Silambam trains the mind and the spirit at many subtle levels. Jothi notes, “Through arduous practice, the practitioner learns to work in sync with the body, mind and spirit. What one then experiences is a heightened state of awareness, of being able to observe even the subtlest movement both within yourself and outside.”
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