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Mallakhamb: What I learnt from Practicing Yoga Postures on Poles and Ropes in India

by Simon Borg-Olivier

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing Vrshikasana on a short fixed pole Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing Vrshikasana on a short fixed pole Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988;

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:

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!

 

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing kapotasana on a short fixed pole Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing kapotasana on a short fixed pole Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988; In this photo I am on a short ‘practice’ pole. It is quite similar to what Sri BKS Iyengar would teach us. This can be great to relive some types of back pain.

 

 

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.

 

 

Rope Mallakhamb

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.

 

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing eka pada viparita dandasaana on rope Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing eka pada viparita dandasaana on rope Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988

 

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.

 

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing Niralamba eka pada sirsasana on rope Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing Niralamba eka pada sirsasana on rope Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988

 

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.

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing Urdhva mukha pascimotanasa on rope Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988

Simon Borg-Olivier practicing Urdhva mukha pascimotanasa on rope Mallakhamb in Pune, India, 1988

 

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.

 

Hanging Mallakhamb

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.

 

Back in my pole yoga days in Australia after learning a bit in Pune, India. I just found these dusty old photos yesterday and I will put them with my recent blog on mallakhamb (pole yoga). I learnt so much about ground based yoga from this old Indian sport. Even at my fittest I was never a match for the amazing Indian children between the ages of 6 and 26 who did this every evening during the week and both mornings on the weekend. In fact there were some monkeys where I was living in Pune who used to climb everywhere but the kids that taught me this did more incredible things on poles than the monkeys. It is interesting to see how popular #poledancing , with its similar movements, is in the west these days and how in the west it is mainly girls that do it but in India yoga on poles is only for the boys and the girls do yoga on ropes.

Back in my pole yoga days in Australia after learning a bit in Pune, India. I just found these dusty old photos yesterday and I will put them with my recent blog on mallakhamb (pole yoga). I learnt so much about ground based yoga from this old Indian sport. Even at my fittest I was never a match for the amazing Indian children between the ages of 6 and 26 who did this every evening during the week and both mornings on the weekend. In fact there were some monkeys where I was living in Pune who used to climb everywhere but the kids that taught me this did more incredible things on poles than the monkeys. It is interesting to see how popular #poledancing , with its similar movements, is in the west these days and how in the west it is mainly girls that do it but in India yoga on poles is only for the boys and the girls do yoga on ropes.

 

A. Pole Mallakhamb design; B. 18th Century Mallakhamb exponent and resurger; CDE.12th century Mallakhamb references in the classic Manasollasa (1135 AD) by Somesvara Chalukya

A. Pole Mallakhamb design; B. 18th Century Mallakhamb exponent and resurger; CDE.12th century Mallakhamb references in the classic Manasollasa (1135 AD) by Somesvara Chalukya

Indian boys practicing Mallakhamb by the beach in Mumbai, 1990

Indian boys practicing Mallakhamb by the beach in Mumbai, 1990

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How to Monitor and Reduce Your Stress Levels

In this blog I will be discussing how to monitor and reduce your stress levels by using your heart rate, some simple berthing exercises and some other ‘tricks’. You can very simply improve you overall internal health, especially that of your nervous system and your immune system by increasing your heart rate variability (HRV). This can be most easily done if you can learn to inhale for 6 seconds and exhale for 6 seconds . The heart appears to work in a 12 second cycle when you are resting or doing simple tasks. You can synchronise your breathing to your heart rate by inhaling for 6 seconds as your heart rate increases, and your exhale for 6 seconds as your heart rate decreases.

 

Heart rate variability by Simon Borg-Olivier

Figure 1: Heart rate variability in an adult with controlled slow breathing: horizontal axis is time, vertical axis is heart rate, ascending lines correspond to slow controlled inhalation, descending lines correspond to  slow controlled exhalation; by Simon Borg-Olivier (click on this image for full photo)

 

This photo shows a graph of my heart rate variability (HRV) over 5 smooth breaths in a simple seated posture. Notice how on inhalation (line going up) my heart rate goes up to as high as 72 beats per minute. Then when I exhale (line going down) my heart rate goes down to as low as 42 beats per minute. Increased HRV is one the best indicators of internal health. Good yoga can easily teach this. For adults HRV is generally very poor without something like good yoga in your life. Much of the yoga practices I see around the world actually causes more stress (and worse HRV) than good health. Yoga is ideally the art of doing stressful things while being relaxed yet getting stronger and fitter. My nine year old daughter Amaliah did this exercise and her HRV went back and forth between 38 to 115 beats per minute on each breath while just sitting relaxed for a few minutes. Now that’s the healthy state most kids have! Adults have to work for it!

 

IMG_3556

Figure 2: Heart rate variability in a normal adult with natural breathing; no obvious correlation with breath is seen here; horizontal axis is time, vertical axis is heart rate, by Simon Borg-Olivier (click on this image for full photo)

 

I took these photos using the App called Stress Doctor. More about this App and HRV below …

Stress Doctor is a great mobile app that helps you reduce your stress level in just 5 minutes.

Stress Doctor relies on proven biofeedback techniques to help sync your breathing with your autonomous nervous system (ANS). This synchronization increases your Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which in turn lowers your heart rate, reduces your stress and anxiety levels and controls your blood flow.

HRV and Stress

HRV is the variation in interval between heartbeats. High HRV is achieved when a person is relaxed and breathing slowly.

Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA) is a naturally occurring variation in heart rate that occurs during a breathing cycle and is directly proportional to HRV. Higher RSA (higher HRV) is indicative of a nervous system that is more equipped to handle stress.

HRV biofeedback training includes monitoring RSA and adjusting breathing patterns to increase HRV. This training is an effective tool to moderate stress and anxiety levels and depressed mood.

Effect of Breathing

Your heart rate varies naturally, increasing during inhalation and decreasing during exhalation. Breathing influences the transmission of sympathetic and vagus impulses to control your heart rate. The vagus nerve reduces heart rate and the force of contraction, and is primarily responsible for controlling the heart’s rhythm. When we inhale, the vagus nerve activity is reduced and the heart rate increases. On exhale, activity is increased and heart rate decreases.

Because the breathing pattern required to stimulate your optimum level of vagus impulses is unique to each individual, biofeedback is necessary to determine the breathing pattern that best aligns with your nervous system. A long exhale for instance is usually considered good for relaxation, however exhaling too long can be ineffective.

Stress Doctor measures your RSA, determines the optimum level of vagal activity to maximize HRV, and paces you through your ideal breathing pattern to achieve a higher HRV, which in turn reduces stress and anxiety levels and improves overall mood. You can download the Stress Doctor App from iTunes for free if you have an iPhone – unfortunately I cant seem to find an android version of this app yet but I will keep looking.

HRV and Your Vagus Nerve

Heart rate variability decreases with stress and also with age. Increasing your heart rate variability is thus very important and it can be controlled by the vagus nerve. Learning how to relax and increasing vagal activity is essential for good health. Stimulating the vagus nerve can:
* Increase your heart rate variability
* Increases stomach acid (essential for digestive health)
* Lowers blood pressure
* Help regenerate your organs and cells by activating stem cells
* Increase brain size
* Reduce inflammation
* Increase immune function
* Regulate your nervous system
* Help reduce stress and depression
* Helps to decrease migraines
* Enhance quality of life
* Improve performance ability

Simple ways to stimulate vagal nerve activity include:
* Practice slow rhythmic breathing (I have a simple online course on this soon to be released)
* Practice gentle yoga or exercise in manner that is ‘firm but calm
* Practice doing some simple meditation (you can even do the washing or do your driving in a focused meditative way)
* Practice humming
* Exercise your jaw by calming talking more
* Regularly washing your face in cold water

Kundalini, Chakras, Prana and Two Real Intertwining Snakes

Figure 1: (a) Top: Chakras and how to activate them; 
Bottom Left: (b) Intertwining snake snakes in my house; 
Bottom Right: (c) Nadis and cakras from http://edgeba.webs.com/thekundaliniserpent.htm
(Please click on the photo to get full enlarged version)

by Simon Borg-Olivier

In this blog I want to discuss some points about Kundalini energy and Chakras. Much of the information available on the subject of Kundalini is esoteric and so not easy to justify with rational conventional science. I think the best explanation of the science of kundalini comes from Jana Dixon and her excellent book ‘The Biology of Kundalini”. The main purpose of this blog is to elucidate a few simple points that relate to the physical locations of the chakras and how controlling these can help you to improve the health of your spine, your internal organs and your circulation.

In Figure 1b and the in the attached video below are two beautiful 3 metre pythons that live in our house (mostly in the roof). My herpetologist mentor Professor Rick Shine says that they are either making love or wrestling for dominance for mating. Actually seeing them do this is very rare and special and so reminds me of many amazing things including the double stranded helix of the DNA molecule that holds the blueprints of our genetics. They also remind me of the mystery of kundalini, the coiled serpent-like energy lying mostly dormant at the base of our spines.

The inter-coiling of two snakes is such a common symbol in our mythology that is represented most obviously in the Caduceus, which is the staff carried by Hermes in Greek mythology. One myth suggests that Hermes saw two serpents entwined in mortal combat. He separated them with a wand and thus brought about peace between them. As a result the wand with two serpents came to be seen as a sign of love and peace. This is related to the seemingly combatant sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems coiling up the spinal cord. Mostly the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are seen to have opposing functions, the sympathetic is for ‘flight, fight or freeze’ while the parasympathetic is for ‘relaxation, recovery and rejuvenation’. In many situations one will dominate and subdue the other, but in some situations such as in heightened sexual arousal both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work together in harmony to hopefully create love and peace.

In hatha yoga the two spiralling snakes are referred to as the nadis (subtle channels) Ida and Pingala and the spinal cord contains the sushumna nadi. When viewed from above the head the spiralling of these channels looks like the yin yang symbol or even the ancient swastika symbol . The places where the snake-like spiral nadis crossover up the trunk is the supposed location of the main chakras (energy centres) of the body. Each of these main chakras corresponds to and seemingly has relationships with main endocrine glands and also major nerve plexi. The ‘opening’ or ‘unlocking’ of, and the voluntary control of the chakras is a major aim in hatha yoga and can in fact be the tool that allows yoga and yoga therapy to be effective. In order to heal any part of the body especially the internal organs or body systems the only thing we can actually control is our mind, which can control muscles, which can affect posture movement and breathing.

A common belief in yoga circles is that a key step to allowing the kundalini energy to rise up the spine is to open up or unblock the chakras. The question is …‘What does this mean on a scientific level? In this blog I want to describe prana (energy or life energy) and, what can be thought of as its more subtle form, chitta (information or consciousness), then describe a few key points related to the regions associated with the main spinal chakras and their associated nerves plexi and endocrine glands. These are the points that the mind can focus on while regulating posture, movement and breathing. These points can make any physical yoga practice as well as any physical exercise or therapy safer and more effective to give health and longevity as the main aim and strength, flexibility and endurance as by-products.

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Exercises for the Healthy Development of Babies and Children

by Simon Borg-Olivier

In this 9 minute video I am using my understanding as a physiotherapist and yoga teacher to give exercises to my 9 month old son Eric. This training takes advantage of the natural spinal reflexes that are most prevalent in babies. These spinal reflexes help to facilitate the  exercises that I am getting him to practice. I think it beneficial to gently and intelligently introduce the first stages of these exercises from as early as one day old. At the end of the video you can see some photos of how Eric and his sister (who was given a similar program as a baby) have developed up to about 7 years old.

Babies and children can be exercised from a very early age. I believe it is important to play with your children and also to massage them. I would like to also emphasise that you have to be careful with what you do of course, and always monitor your child’s reactions (for example smiling or crying). Many people tend to be overcautious with young children when actually even babies are quite resilient and really thrive with physical stimulation. As in the case of adults it is important to build up to each new exercise in a slow, gentle and progressive manner. Also for children it is important to not pull them unexpectedly by their arms or legs as this may damage their joints, but with gentle training even babies can use their own strength to hold their entire body weight.

The main spinal reflex that I take advantage of is the ‘stretch reflex’ (myotatic reflex). The ‘stretch reflex’ causes the reflex activation (tensing or ‘switching on’ of any muscle that is unexpectedly lengthened by a force that is external body (such as gravity or the use of another persons limbs). I use this reflex with Eric, for example, by having him sit up cross-legged and then while holding his thighs I (an external force) gently try to push him backwards (spinal extension and hip extension). The sudden lengthening of his abdominal muscles (spinal flexors) and the front of his hips (hip flexors) makes his abdominal muscles and  the muscles at the front of his hips (hip flexors) active (tense or ‘switched on’) and thus helps him to practice doing ‘sit up’ exercises. Similarly, when I hold him in the air by the hips facing down and let his upper body fall towards the floor, the back of his trunk and back of his hips get a sudden lengthening (stretch) and this cause the ‘stretch reflex’ activation of the his back muscles (spinal extensors) and the muscles at the back of his hips (hip extensors). In another exercise I balance Eric on my shoulders and then I move suddenly causing Eric’s legs to move away from my shoulders and causing his inner thighs to unexpectedly lengthen. The sudden lengthening of his inner thighs initiates a ‘stretch reflex’ activation of his inner thigh muscles, which enable him to squeeze his thighs against my shoulders so as to not lose his grip. The same principle allows Eric to stand on my hand. Although his balance is not yet developed, so he can not stand by himself (and would not encourage standing at his age anyway) he nevertheless has no problems standing on my hand because as soon as his knees want to bend with gravity the muscles in front of the knee (knee extensors) become lengthened by the (external) force of gravity and cause a ‘stretch reflex’ activation of these muscles to keep him standing. All of this work can be also applied to adults in similar ways.

This video and lot of related information for adults is taught in the Yoga Synergy online course ‘Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga’ as well as the live 200 hour ‘Yoga Synergy Teacher Training’ Courses.

 

The Sad Passing of Guruji Sri BKS Iyengar

 By Simon Borg-Olivier, 20th August 2014

Today was the passing of our beloved Guruji. For those of us who were privileged enough to have met him and study under his guidance it is a sad day. We send our love to him and his beautiful family, especially to his two children Geetaji and Prashantji from whom we have also learnt so much. I think that the world of modern yoga owes a debt of gratitude to Mr Iyengar. We are all lucky to have been living in the same time as him. Very few people who practice yoga today have not been affected by his brilliant teachings.

Sri BKS Iyengar, Our first meeting, January, 1986; One month Australian and American Intensive Course; Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, Pune, India

 

I have so many great memories of Guruji as I am sure so many people have as well. On this special but sad day I just wanted to share a few of his sayings and some old photos that me and Bianca Machliss have from our studies with him in the 1980′ and 1990’s.

I had the honour and privilege of meeting and studying with Sri BKS Iyengar 8 times from 1986 to 1997.
To me he was the wisest of the wise, the strictest of the strict and one of the most playful and often childlike people I have ever had the pleasure to meet.
In January 1986 Guruji told us words about yoga that have resonated with me every since. He said that …
.
”Yoga is when every cell of the body sings the song of the soul.”
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— B.K.S. Iyengar January, 1986; One month Australian and American Intensive Course; Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute.
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