I am at the Tata Padukone Badminton Academy in Bangalore. It is 10.30am and I am watching 15 badminton players—champions all—play at a level that most badminton buffs fantasize about. Ahead of me, Ashwini Ponnappa—feline, focused and ferocious—lobs and thrashes the shuttlecock with two male players. Prakash Padukone and Vimal Kumar walk amid the five brightly-lit courts like benign angels, giving soft instructions and demonstrating hand positions. I am not here to watch these national-level players though. I am here to meet a man named Avinash Subramanyam who has come to train these strapping young people using Chinese martial art techniques.
Mind game: Avinash Subramanyam demonstrates a Lian Gong pose. Hemant Mishra / Mint
With the Beijing Olympics, China proved to the world that it could manufacture world-class athletes within a relatively short span of time. Much has been written about the talent scouts who fan out across rural China to identify raw talent. Also well known are China’s sports facilities where raw young athletes are trained pretty much to the exclusion of everything else. Less known, however, are the traditional martial art practices still in vogue in China today, especially in sports training. Subramanyam trained under several Chinese masters and this is why I, and Prakash Padukone it seems, are interested in him.
Subramanyam opens by asking the biggest player to come forward. He assumes a Hanuman-like pose—one foot forward and one back—and crouches slightly. “Push me as hard as you can,” he tells the 6ft-4-inches-tall lad. “Topple me.”
With a slight smirk, the young athlete pushes; and pushes; and finally gives up.
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The players who, earlier, were looking slightly bored, now stand upright and gaze at their new trainer with narrowed eyes. “In any sport there are three aspects,” Padukone tells me. “The technical, the physical and the mental. In India, we don’t pay much attention to preparing sportspersons mentally even though it is as important as the other two.”
Films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, as well as legions of martial art films, show that incredible physical feats can be accomplished through mental discipline; by channelling and taming human energy to accomplish what we wish. We Indians call this prana; the Chinese call this chi; and the Japanese call it acting from the hara. Kalaripayattu, which is still practised in Kerala, is said to be the mother of many such martial art disciplines. Kalari practitioners spend years learning breathing techniques such as pranayama and yoga poses to increase their skills as warriors. In Japan, the greatest sensei (masters) say that the physical is only the tip of the iceberg. True excellence in martial arts comes through control of the mind.
Subramanyam calls this connectivity —between mind and body, and between different channels within the body. In other words, badminton players can hit the shuttlecock, not just using the power from their arms and wrists but drawing on the energy from their entire body. “Imagine your impact then?” Subramanyam asks the players.
“Connectivity” and “softness” are terms he uses often. Connecting various energy centres within our body and the softness to take a blow and bounce back. Both these concepts play out in—don’t be put off by the long name—Dao Yin Yang Sheng Gong (Dao Yin for short), one of the things that Subramanyam is an expert at. He also has 14 black belts and a slew of other martial art qualifications.
Invented by Zhang Guangde, Dao Yin is a series of poses based on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Zhang suffered from lung cancer and was given three months to live. That was over 40 years ago. Today, at 88, he leads entire stadiums full of Dao Yin students through a series of poses that help improve health and longevity. Some call it the elixir of life. Others swear that it reverses ageing. The Master is a testament to its efficacy, they say. Dao Yin has spread to Australia, Europe, the US and UK. But the source is still Beijing, where the man who invented it still lives and works.
A few hundred miles away in Shanghai is another living legend—Zhuang Yuan Ming—who invented a series of 18 movements based on Tai Chi and martial arts. They are called Lian Gong Shi Ba Fa, or Lian Gong for short. Zhuang is 90 years old but to watch him execute the poses he created is to watch a spritely 40-year-old in action. Operating under the auspices of the Shanghai municipal corporation, Zhuang and his students teach his techniques to athletes and senior citizens, students and doctors. Hugely popular in Japan, Lian Gong has also spread to the US and all over the world.
Both Dao Yin and Lian Gong are virtually unknown in India. And both can be relevant in sports training. Still, I wonder, when we have ancient techniques such as pranayama, yoga, and Kalaripayattu, why should we look at Chinese systems? My own answer is that one does not negate the other. Indian athletes should be offered training in yoga and breathing techniques, and also Dao Yin and Tai Chi. What works for one sport and one sportsperson may not work for the other. Tai Chi may be more useful for badminton players while yoga may suit wrestlers. Meditation may help improve the concentration of our chess champions, while Japanese techniques to concentrate the hara-energy may help rifle shooters.
Bottom line: Give our players something...anything to improve their odds of winning. How about world-class training in their sport itself, says my cynical friend. They don’t even have that. Maybe these ancient systems will more than make up for that fundamental handicap.
Shoba Narayan has a lurking ambition to be a sumo wrestler. In preparation, she has taken to shadow-boxing at dusk. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org