by Simon Borg-Olivier
Many people in Australia and around the world are now practicing postures and movements, similar to those seen in hatha yoga, on poles in ‘Pole dance’ studios and on hanging circus silks and rope inversion swings. I was fortunate enough to learn how to do yoga on poles and ropes two decades ago in India in the traditional Indian training system called Mallakhamb.
Lessons I learnt from practicing yoga postures on poles and ropes in India:
1. Move your spine actively from your core.
2. Use your inner thigh muscles more in your ground based exercise.
3. Use the muscles at the back of your knees more in your ground based exercise.
4. Learn to move slowly when it is easy to go quickly into a posture and learn to move fast when it is easy to go slowly.
5. Do not be dependant on the external force of gravity to move your body into positions
6. Strengthen your back muscles by practicing bending backwards using your back muscles.
7. Release and relax your back muscles by using your bending forward muscles and breathing into your abdomen
Mallakhamb is a traditional Indian sport in which the practitioner practices yoga-like postures and movements on a vertical wooden pole or a rope. The name Mallakhamb is derived from the terms malla which means a wrestler and khamb which means a pole. Mallakhamb can therefore be translated to English as “the wrestler’s pole”.
I was inspired to write this blog after the amazing experiences I had learning with the wonderful teachers and students of the ‘Maharashtra Mandel’ in Tilak Road, Pune, India. I had the honour of training with these guys every afternoon on all the 8 x one month long trips I had in Pune to study with Sri BKS Iyengar from 1986 to 1997. I would usually do practice or class with Guruji (Mr Iyengar) or his amazing son Prashant ji or brilliant daughter Geeta ji in the morning and then practice pole or rope Mallakhamb in the afternoon.
Types of Mallakhamb:
There are about 25 types of Mallakhamb available but for the competitions that take place throughout India there are three main variations of Mallakhamb. These are fixed pole Mallakhamb, hanging pole Mallakhamb and rope Mallakhamb. Other exotic variations include Mallakhamb balancing on glass bottles.
Fixed Pole or fixed Mallakhamb:
In this variation, a vertical wooden pole is fixed in the ground and the participant performs various acrobatic postures and movements while hanging on the pole. Mallakhamb, which is a type of physical yoga on a pole, gave me such insight into ground-based yoga. I had to learn to use the inner thigh muscles, as well as the muscles at the back of my knees, and the pulling muscles of my arms to hold the pole, and this I then really put into my ground-based yoga practice and teaching. Just before starting this practice in 1986 I had completely torn the ACL ligament in my knee and damaged my lower back in accidents and it was this pole practice and the understanding it gave me about bandha, floor yoga and really moving from the core that helped me understand what many of my teachers including Sri BKS Iyengar and Sri K Pattabhi Jois were trying to teach me, and also helped me heal my injured knees and spine. The amazing Shandor Remete was my mentor and teacher in Australia at that time and he managed to get some traditional poles into our school in Sydney so we could also practice there (Thanks to our friends Sean and Suzi for making these for us). We had these poles at Yoga Synergy in Sydney for quite some time (photos coming) and I would so love to now get some more for my kids to use (and myself too maybe!). However, while I used to only climb the pole, my incredible teachers and fellow students in Pune used to do crazy things (watch the videos below) like run for the pole and do an aerial backwards flip and catch the pole with one leg and then spiral to the top of the pole and do a one arm handstand! Actually I first learnt the one arm balance (Eka hasta mayurasana) on a pole in Pune in 1986 and managed to even chip my front tooth on my first attempt when I fell from the top of the pole! Exhilarating stuff for sure!
One thing that really gave me an idea of how challenging this ‘sport’ is and how amazing the practitioners in India are was when I was invited to be part of the Dasaran competition where you have to see how many times you can complete a round of Dasaran on the pole without getting off. One round of Dasaran involves grabbing the pole with your arms above your head and briefly holding postures such as the boat pose (navasana), then holding the pole with your thighs in sort of twisted plough pose (halasana), then releasing your arms and coming to the locust pose (salabhasana) where you are squeezing the pole between your legs and supporting yourself horizontally in a backward-bending (spinal extension) posture, the grabbing the pole again with your hands (and still your thighs) in a type of bow posture (padangustha dhanurasana) and then completing the round by releasing your legs back to the boat pose (navasana) so you can start again. I having already done many years of teaching and pyracticing yoga and thinking I was reasonably fit managed to do 3 rounds Dasaran. The other competitors (boys and girls aged between 7 and 30 years old) all egged me on (I only wanted to do two rounds actually) and they politely and enthusiastically clapped as I dropped to the ground. I felt elated for a few moments, but then the next competitor (age 12) got on the pole and did 256 Dasaran without getting off the pole once! I think I shrunk about 50 cm that day!
In this video you see some highlights of some recent Mallakhamb experts performing. It is quite amazing.
Here is a beautiful video of a young boy practicing his mallakhamb routine for a competition.
In rope Mallakhamb, the practitioner performs postures and movements while hanging from a rope suspended from the roof or a support. This variation is the only Mallakhamb that is generally practiced by girls. Boys also practice on the rope but girls rarely go on the poles in India. Often adepts will gracefully ‘fall’ from one advanced yoga posture tied into the rope to another equally challenging posture two or three metres further down the pole.
While practicing on a rope I had to learn to work against the flow of gravity, using the muscles at the back of my knees, the muscles of my toes, and the pulling muscles of my arms to hold onto the harsh hemp rope, and this I then I really put into my ground-based yoga practice and teaching.
The very first time I saw rope Mallakhamb was in the same room shown in the photo here but a few years earlier. It was night time and so much darker than shown here. I was talking to the gentleman on the right about pole yoga and at the time but I didnt know that they had rope yoga too. Then suddenly the young girl on the left of the photo (who was a few years younger than shown here) leaped up into the air wobbled around a bit, went higher and higher and was suddenly floating near the ceiling in perfect Jnana mudra padmasana (lotus posture with each thumb and first finger touching). My eyes only see one tenth of normal without my glasses and so not only did i not see any rope that she had in fact very quickly climbed and wrapped her feet around. I was simply convinced, for at least ten mesmerising seconds, that this amazing young girl had the power of levitation and had just leapt up into the and was floating in lotus posture near the ceiling.
Now you can see many years later, in Australia and elsewhere, people doing similar exercises to those done with rope mallakhamb with long hanging silk cloths. I tried the silk cloths some time ago at Circus Arts In Byron Bay and they are such an accessible delight that I really recommend if you can find them. The old ropes we used in India were so rough that if you didn’t really hold on tightly with your knees you would for sure get rope burn. Each day I got rope burn between my big and second toe, and also on the back of my knees. I thus also walked very strange, like a cowboy, after these practices, but it was so much fun doing it!
At home we have a rope swing (inversion swing). I regularly practice many of the rope yoga exercises on this swing. Our children also use it a lot. Rope swings, hanging circus silks and rope Mallakhamb can be excellent training for your core because you need to move your spine actively with your core muscles. Therefore, you end up getting a very strong that can also be easily relaxed, a very flexible spine and good health in your internal organs.
Many modern books suggest that modern yoga postures come from Western gymnastics brought to India in the last century; but when Bianca Machliss and I studied here we were shown books with drawings of what essentially are yoga postures on poles and ropes that they told us were around 1000 years old. Although the Mallakhamb is thought of as martial arts not so much yoga. To me the physical form of the postures looks the same in both, so whenever I hear someone suggest that Indian yoga postures come from the gymnastics of the West, I simply laugh.
Similar to the fixed pole Mallakhamb, the hanging Mallakhamb is a wooden pole that is shorter in length than the standard pole Mallakhamb and is hung from a chain with hooks. There is a gap between the ground and the bottom of the Mallakhamb, which means there is the added difficultly here that whole pole can swing and is therefore moving while you try to jump on it and get in and out of postures. I tried this once but it was much too difficult for me to get anywhere really.
TO MY DEAR MALLAKHAMB TEACHERS:
I feel so privileged and honoured to have trained a bit with the teachers and students of Maharashtra Mandel, Pune, who have helped me grow so much in my yoga. My Mallakhamb teachers included Indian national champions such as Amar Peth, Yogesh Yeole, Sunil Roti and Aparna Dighe. Thank you so much to all of you and also all the others who’s names have temporarily slipped from my memory but taught me and trained along side me. Please contact me if you read this, as I would love to acknowledge you properly here and make contact again.
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