yoga horizons

The Diversity of Indian Physical Culture – An Encyclopedia of Indian Physical Culture

Jori or Heavy Club Swinging

Over the years I’ve had more than one yoga teacher discourage students from activities like -running, lifting weights, gymnastics or… the list goes on. In fact even to the point that other forms of yoga are also discouraged.

On one hand, it is true when learning a new activity, one needs to devote sufficient time to it to become proficient. The more proficient one wants to be, the more time required.

But, at least when speaking of yoga asana, a primarily physical practice, teachers often justify their claims that one only need to do ‘their’ yoga, on the basis that, their systems are complete and well rounded.

This I have to take issue with. Physical training has various aspects, Strength, Conditioning, Flexibility, Skill, Restoration being the five major focuses of physical training. Most systems focus on one or two of these aspects, but the truth is it is very difficult for any system to completely balance all five. For this reason, there have been countless systems, and practices created  which address these needs in their own special way.

For years I naively thought that yoga (asana practice) was India’s only contribution to the world of physical culture. I was mis-informed by my teachers. India has a rich a deep history of physical culture encompassing the gamut of human movement potential. Many of these practices are uniquely Indian, such as Malakhamb (pole gymnastics), others are amongst the oldest practices we know of, such as heavy club swinging.

Nal - Stone Doughnut

Indians also had their own unique forms of weight lifting. Lifting round doughnut shaped stones called Nal and carved logs know as Sumtola are but a couple of India’s weightlifting tools of old. Though in recently times barbells and dumbbells are more often weightlifters’, wrestlers’ or bodybuilders’ tools of choice, the old implements are still known and can be found. Though sadly they are becoming less and less common.

Now I don’t mean to say everyone should be a bodybuilder but I do believe the yoga community as a whole has forgotten the traditions it was born from, and in many ways I believe this to be a mistake. Yoga is a wonderful restorative art, wonderful for building suppleness, but it lacks in building strength and particularly pulling strength, yet Indian culture is rich with pulling practices, rope climbing, pole gymnastics etc, where has this gone in yoga?

It was rich in steady state cardio-vascular conditioning, Hindu Squats and Hindu Push Ups for example and though some systems retain aspects of this, the steady state aerobic variety of cardio is largely gone.

Sumtola - Log Barbell

For an in-depth look at some of the old traditions view the attached pdf file – An Encyclopedia of Indian Physical Culture.  There is a great diversity of exercises included, some well known and others less so. For example, you can see several more uncommon variations of Sun Salutations and related movements. There are even sections on swimming and horseback riding. How’s that for diversity?

Also note the relative importance given to asana. Asana has it’s place to be sure, I’ve just begun to believe in some cases it has come at the expense of other equally if not more important aspects of health and fitness.

My thanks again goes to Fat Cat who led me to the pdf on Ross Enamait’s excellent site.

An Encyclopedia of Indian Physical Culture – (PDF)

Note – the pdf is a large file it may load slowly, feel free to download it.