“Focus, Yukiko!” I hear senior teacher Ramesh’s
voice calling out as I leap forward in the softening
afternoon light, momentarily blinded by the slanting
shaft of sunlight. My breath sounds rough and ragged
and sweat is pouring down my face; with my gaze fixed
straight ahead, I stamp my right foot on the red clay
floor of the kalari (the room where this art is practiced).
Crouching low I cut the air with my right hand, step out
with my left foot and stretch both arms forward.
His command confuses me. “But I am focused! Can’t
he see how my eyes are so concentrated?” The thought
moves through me, creating a ripple. We are in the heat
of practicing the Kalarippayattu Shakti Form One. I
feel how tired I am as I kick, leap, and turn following
the instructions coming in rapid succession.
I was first introduced to Kalarippayattu, a South Indian martial art, at a Yoga studio in Los Angeles when
two German practitioners, Gerhard Schmid and Kai
Hitzer, led an afternoon workshop. I was mesmerized.
They moved through the warm ups and sun salutations with the smooth grace of tigers. The freedom,
power, and balance of the leg swings were exhilarating
But it was the short stick practice they demonstrated
that really captured my imagination. It was beautiful to
watch the rapid movement and staccato rhythm of the
sticks hitting each other as the two warriors listened to
each other’s movements and responded with their entire bodies. There was an elasticity and fluidity in their
powerful and rapid changes in direction and the variations of their movements. Watching them evoked in
me the feeling of how water flows, fire leaps, and air
breathes. It was as if the two bodies became one in the
flow of energy between them. It was beautiful with an
undercurrent of danger – the promise of something that
could be lethal.
Kalarippayattu’s origins reach back into the mists
of time. The kalari or practice arena was traditionally
made by digging a large, rectangular hollow into the
Earth along an East/West axis, lining it with red clay,
and protecting it from the elements by covering it with
a thatched roof.
Similar to many martial arts, Kalarippayattu includes
physical routines, known as body forms that are practiced alone along with weapon forms that are taught
with a partner. Many of the forms and movements
have animal names, such as the elephant pose, cat pose,
horse, and others. These suggest a close observation
and understanding of the various currents of energy
that flow through nature and the adaptation of these
energies to human form and movement.
In the practice, there exists a sense of being very
close to Earth and her primal energies, and moving
with liquid fluidity, becoming those energies. The
form used in Kalarippayattu serves as an entry point
to be able to access these currents of energy that flow
Three years after my initial introduction to Kalarippayattu, and after hours of solo practice of some of the
basic forms, I finally made my way to Gurukal Sherifka’s school, Kerala Kalarippayat Academy in Kannur,
Kerala, to practice for five weeks. My inquiry into connection and truth led me to this place at this time. I am
a novice practitioner in this art.
In the practice, there exists a
sense of being very close to Earth
and her primal energies...
Sherifka’s senior teacher, Ramesh, talks to me after
the practice in the traditional kalari space that after-
noon. “Yukiko, your form is good, but your body is not
steady. You need to focus more.”
As I reflected on my practice, his simple observation
suddenly made sense. I have learned how to catch the
not-so-subtle fluctuations of my mind through observa-
tion. But the oh-so-subtle fluctuations of which I am
not aware, these the body knows. And it shows as I
The body does not lie.
The body, does not lie…….
I am blown away by this simple realization, and suddenly, I see Kalarippayattu as more than merely an
outer physical training, but as also a path of the inner
warrior. The movements on this path are honest reflections of the practitioner’s state of being.
In life, it is so easy to make subtle or gross alterations
to truth of the moment, and not be completely present.
I observe how that happens in the middle of my meditation or Yoga asana practice. But in kalari practice,
when you are not completely present, the body will lag
and waiver, and no matter how much your mind insists
otherwise, you are not really focused. There is no fudging the reality and truth of being in the moment. If the
practitioner is open to listen, the feedback is immediate
and precise: You lose your balance, the body teeters,
you do not land from the leap with your feet solidly
planted, your body and your feet start heading in different directions, your stick does not hit the other stick,
and on and on.
This, for me, was an invaluable mirror to gaze into on
the path of Consciousness.
The next morning, I return to the kalari. It is hard as
I feel my energy dispersed and sluggish. A part of me
observes this state and is curious to see how or if it will
shift as I warm up and practice. I feel into each body
part and observe the awakening of the body. I notice
how the breath comes naturally, and become aware of
how the parts of the body are activated through warm-