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Journey of Indian fitness

For some time now I have been in an inquisitive frame of mind with an increasing sense of déjàvu. Having been exposed to Indian classical dance since the age of five, tutored in the tradition of the Guru -Shishya Parampara, practicing Yoga and now being part of the modern health and fitness industry for several long years, I feel we need to jostle ourselves hard.
I don’t want this to be a historical discourse nor a black and white piece on East versus West. But given what we have as our cultural heritage and what we have squandered away and allowed to die, it might meander down that road a bit.
At the outset let me clarify my position. Assimilation of knowledge and practices should be free of regional boundaries and embraced as part of a comprehensive growth process. I endorse that and try and practice it as much as I can.
Coming back to my driving sentiment, I will need to necessarily borrow historical facts to point out the (unfortunate) state of the present – the reason I write this. There is so much happening in the health and fitness industry -new techniques, new workouts, new formats – and a lot of it is coming into the country from the Western world. But is it really all that new? Is the human body evolving or stagnating so fast that it warrants such a glut of “new”? Do we get bored so fast or are we panting to catch up? What is the genesis of these apparently different techniques? What is so different for us, especially given our ancient practices, that we blindly get awed? From personal experience I feel that we already have much of the content in our country and that a wider vocabulary exists in our traditional practices than some of the new age fitness programs. Our traditional sports and practices such as Yoga, martial arts and our classical and regional dance forms collectively offer a very large library to borrow from. Unfortunately, we have not kept pace with the changing times. We stopped considering our own treasure of any value worth embellishing which has turned us from ‘givers’ to ‘takers’, from leaders to followers. Irony is, often the stuff we are gladly lapping up is a derivative of our existing practices, of which we know or choose to know little about.
To be fair, some of these imports have been great value additions in terms of explaining the science and making adaptations to cater to growing modern demands. There are research based outcomes that are constantly challenging established paradigms for the collective good. But I suspect that today it is also more about the packaging, marketing and outreach. And that is where I hit the pause button because some of it appears to be a case of glitzy reselling. Out of curiosity I started reading up on ancient and current Indian practices and was dumbstruck to see that there is indeed a sport for most alphabets of the English language in India! Some are now extinct, nearing extinction or exist in an avatar adopted by the western world from the Indian subcontinent and re presented later. It is easy to draw parallels with the newer formats, including several current day Olympic formats, with forms that existed in India from ancient times and originated from here.

Chatur Anga/Shatranj (Chess), Pachisi (Ludo), Moksha Patam (Snakes and Ladders), Kridapatram (Card Games) and Polo were taken from the Indian continent and spread across the world. Sports like Kho Kho and Kabaddi should remind you some of their parallel western forms. Jallikattu (bull taming), Mallakhamba (Pole Gymnastics), Ball Badminton etc are just some ancient sports still played that are strikingly similar to their western versions. Rather, the reverse! Yoga needs no introduction. It has taken the world by storm and has perhaps more versions than any other practice. Kalaripayattu – the ancient Indian martial art from South India, could perhaps stake claim to giving birth to some very well known martial arts of the Eastern world (as indicated by historical texts). This martial art travelled to countries of Far East along with the Buddhist religion, and in all likelihood Sothern India is where martial arts originated and travelled outwards. It includes extensive body movements as well as use of weapons and incorporates moves and flows mimicking the animal kingdom. It ties the offensive with the defensive and the practice draws upon meditative centering to attain complete focus and power.
The concept of physical fitness is truly an ancient one embedded in Hinduism where physical perfection is imperative for full realization of one’s self – ‘dehvada’ – along with the meditative aspect. Today, what the world calls “holistic”. Much like Greek mythology, Indian Gods and Goddesses, royalty and nobility (including women) had to be well trained in the physical disciplines to attain strength and valour. Archery, wrestling, weight lifting, chariot racing, swimming, sword fighting (fencing as we now know it), ball games, equitation (equestrian) etc were common and find ample mention in our ancient texts. Not to mention Yogic practices. Hindu Yogis needed to demonstrate supreme endurance in their practice and not all were emaciated beings. They were often well versed in the art of self defense, given their isolated sojourns far and wide. The Naga sadhus even today are revered for their out of the ordinary self discipline and power.
So if we have such a rich history, why does our present not reflect it? Why has the Indian fitness industry not been able to come into its own and is dependent upon and coloured by western counterparts? Why is fitness not a part and parcel of our lives? What is preventing the rise of Indian practitioners and their growth? Why are we selling ourselves short? Most importantly, why is there no awareness of our legacy? We are willing to look outwards. Why aren’t we first willing to look at home?
I agree, it is very difficult to find Gurus and teachers for some of these sports and art forms. But is the roadblock because there aren’t any? Certainly not. So why aren’t they in the public eye? What do we need to do to prevent our Gurus from languishing in anonymity while we bequeath our all to others? Raising awareness is perhaps one of the most important immediate needs. Then finding ways of bringing these teachers (“coach” just doesn’t cut it) back into mainstream and restructuring their expertise to appeal to today’s generation. Government grants, corporate interventions all follow their own pace and interests. Is there something that can be done at the micro level? The Indian fitness industry needs to get together and take the initiative. We need to actively look at providing a platform for these practices.
We have drifted away, relinquishing our heritage with much ease. We need to work harder at studying our own practices, applying it to our health and fitness goals and encouraging such fabulous forms. As with everything else that has huge cultural ramifications – each one has to do their bit. It’s a slow process, but if we don’t start our powerful legacy is dead. Gone!
We can and should be a force to reckon with.


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