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RenjithPhotography Kuba Ryniewicz

Get zen with Kalari, the 2000-year-old martial arts practice from India


TextGünseli YalcinkayaPhotographyKuba RyniewiczInterviewDevashish Gaur

Men and women are using the ancient art to promote their physical and mental wellbeing in a gym in Kerala

Welcome to Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity, a campaign dedicated to exploring what ‘masculinity’ means in 2019. With photo stories shot in Tokyo, India, New York, and London and in-depth features exploring mental health, older bodybuilders, and myths around masculinity – we present all the ways people around the world are redefining traditional tropes.

Often dubbed as the ‘mother of martial arts’, Kalari (also known as kalaripayattu) is a 2000-year-old practice from India’s Kerala region. Despite being outlawed by colonial Britain in the 1800s, the ancient art is said to predate kung fu (in fact, it was introduced to the Shaolin monks by an Indian prince named Bodhidharma), and it is a core part of Kerala’s culture today.

Said to promote both physical and mental wellbeing, the practice teaches you self-defence by way of high-speed body movements that are choreographed with slick precision. It’s meant to improve your agility, core strength and headspace, a bit like yoga – all while giving you ways to protect yourself from potential attackers. “We believe that gave us Kalari and this gives us good health, both physically and mentally,” the guru of Kaloorika Asramam in north Kerala tells us about the ancient practice, while another student describes it as “a way of practising spirituality through yoga”. 

While the sport has long been preserved for men – it’s common for women to believe that practising Kalari will give them a manly physique – the art is becoming more widespread, with increasing numbers of women walking through the Kaloorika Asramam’s doors. 

Here, we speak to some of the Kalari students on their experiences, with accompanying photos by British photographer Kuba Ryniewicz. 

What are the benefits of practising Kalari?

Master/Guru: It’s a form of spiritual martial arts that gives us good health both physically and mentally, meaning that it gives people an opportunity to learn about self-protection, both from harassers and diseases.

Nisanth: It’s really beneficial for our generation because it teaches us both about the body and the soul. It also teaches about flexibility, strength and endurance collectively.

Sudheesh: You become more flexible and gain strength that stays with you for life.

Lakshmikanth: I think that practising martial arts is the best way to find out who you really are. Kalari specifically makes my body feel fit and gives me a healthy mind.

Keerthi: The main benefits for me is that you sleep well every night and your body becomes more flexible. Also, you don’t need to feel afraid of people on the street because the practice includes self-defence. 

Ajay: I am more confident and physically stronger than I used to be. 

Ninal Kumar: It’s super beneficial for fitness, both mentally and physically. I feel more energetic throughout the day afterwards.

Shiyoj: It impacts positively on my physical and mental health. It changed my lifestyle and I’ve gained confidence from it. 

Midhun: I had a lot of breathing-related health problems, which I tried to improve by going to the gym, but running has always been difficult for me because of it. One year ago, a friend told me about Kalari so I gave it a go. Now, my breathing issues are gone and I feel so much better for it. 

How often do you practice?

Master/Guru: I started practising Kalari at the age of 14 and now I am 32 years old, so I have been practising this for almost 18 years now.

Ajay: I’ve been practising every day for the last year. Before this, I used to be a regular at the gym, but Kalari makes me feel so much stronger and more confident in myself that I don’t need it anymore. 

Lakshmikanth: I started Kalari two years ago and I practice it five days a week.

Aneesh Nath: I have been practising it for two years now, although I took a little break in between. But now it’s been six months of continuous learning, seven days a week.

Midhun: I do it every day, seven days a week. Everyone is supposed to do it for at least five days a week. On the weekend, we have special classes taught by our seniors who have been practising for five years minimum.

Ninal Kumar: I have been doing Kalari for five years now, which I practice every day along with yoga.

Keerthi: I started two years ago but with girl issues, it’s difficult to practise every day like the boys do. Still, I aim for five to six days a week. 

Shiyoj: I’ve been practising every day for the last year and a half. 

Nisanth: Five days a week, at least.

What have you learned so far?

Keerthi: I wasn’t that self-confident to begin with, but now I find that I can walk freely, talk freely and it’s not something that’s difficult anymore – in fact, I’m the most confident I’ve ever been, so overall, it’s been such a positive change in my life. I used to be into aerobics but I don’t think I need it anymore as Kalari includes everything.

Nisanth: Right now, I am in the first stage, so I have learned about controlling my body in various ways.

Sudheesh: Currently, I am at the third stage that means I’m practising with various sorts of weapons like wooden sticks and swords, to name a few.

Renjith: I joined Kalari a week ago so I’m a newcomer.
 Since it’s only the beginning, I am working on my body flexibility and focusing on my mind too. 

Aneesh Nath: It’s a complete workout for my body and it’s improved my stamina. 

Midhun: Since I started Kalari, I’ve lost 17 kilograms, so definitely the weight loss. 

Ninal Kumar: With Kalari, I have felt my body improve and my stamina increase.

Are there levels to Kalari?

Master/Guru: There aren’t levels as such, but stages. The first stage includes body flexibility and exercises; the second stage is learning about wood weapon fighting; the third stage focuses on metal weapon fighting like sharp swords, knives and shields; but then the fourth stage is when we learn to attack without weapons, while the fifth and final stage is strictly spiritual – we chant mantras, there’s no fighting.

Do women practise this as well? Why mostly men? 

Master/Guru: Here, we have girls of various ages who are eager to learn the practice, but it’s mostly men. In Indian culture, it’s common that women aren’t seen doing physical activities but Kalari gives them an opportunity to be more engaged in exercise – saying this, the ratio is still very big. 

Keerthi: I think there’s this misconception that Kalari will make you develop muscles, which is something that even my parents believe. Girls are also less confident when it comes to physical exercise, but compared to the old days, more girls are showing up.

How does this art form differ from your father’s generation?

Nisanth: It’s a very traditional art form so there aren’t any changes per se. It is nice to see that people of any age can join these days – it accepts everyone.

Sudheesh: I’m not sure if my father practised Kalari but I think it must’ve been the same. It’s a traditional form so it stays consistent throughout.

Read more from Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity here.

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