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Mumbai-based Kapil Mattoo always knew that exercise is the key to a healthy lifestyle. He just couldn’t muster enthusiasm for the gym, where he had been going regularly for a year, as the workouts had begun to feel mechanical and repetitive. “I wanted something more rigorous and started with hot yoga," says the 42-year-old producer and director. Three years ago, he was introduced to Kalaripayattu, an ancient martial arts form originating in Kerala. Today, Mattoo swears by its benefits. “It shaped my life, not just helping me stay healthy and fit, but also helping me become more disciplined," he says.

Incorporating traditional Indian martial arts such as Kalarippayattu, Raibenshe and Silambam into your daily fitness regime helps break the monotony associated with workouts; they add variety and help build stamina and strength.

When Aishwarya Manivannan went on a backpacking trip to Italy a few months back, she carried with her a folding staff to practise Silambam—a 3,000-year-old bamboo-wielding martial arts form with roots in Tamil Nadu. “Silambam had become such an integral part of my life that it was natural for me to carry the staff. I would practise at campsites and hostels," says the 29-year-old who won three gold medals at the first South Asian Silambam championship held in Sri Lanka in October. Manivannan, who practices Silambam for three hours a day, says it is a full body activity that requires concentration to perform. “It’s holistic because it helps develop mental orientation as well."

Apart from being a welcome change from the repetition of gym exercises, traditional martial arts also provide a challenging workout. “Martial art forms are high-intensity work-outs, and even 2 minutes of rigourous practice will leave you sweaty. The constant activity—mixing of various movements at a fast pace—without a break is great for cardio and muscle building," says Kolkata-based fitness trainer Biswajit Basak. These workouts are especially useful for those who are aiming for a lean physique. “Martial art is a good option for the people who want a fit, toned body without bulging muscles. If you want to look good without worrying about over-bulking, try picking one of these," says Basak.

Manivannan, an artist, designer and teacher by profession, says she took to Silambam because it is a perfect fitness programme for the urban setting. “I have been into various forms of fitness—from tennis, cycling and trekking to Bharatanatyam and gym training. Ever since I started Silambam, I realized that it is a very effective urban workout. The way the activity unfolds, it takes care of everything: muscle strengthening, agility, flexibility, core strengthening, footwork, balance and breathing. You don’t need a special area, court or equipment to train. Once you pick up the basics, you can easily practise in your backyard or on the terrace, even without the staff," she says.

Building core strength and stamina are the basis of martial arts. It takes a high level of fitness, rigorous training and discipline of the body, involving constant feet and body movement. Take for instance, squats, a technique that is quite common in martial arts. Students are trained to hold this stance longer, even while moving. Balance, for performing jumps and lunges, and building stamina also comes into play here, which benefits many in pursuing other activities, like running marathons. “Martial forms not only push students to achieve a higher level of fitness, but also build inner strength, which is an aspect that is often overlooked. It builds discipline and mental fortitude, and can help people in their personal as well as professional lives, and also deal with everyday stressors," says Mumbai-based Kalaripayattu trainer Vipin Kazhipurath.

Chirantan Bhaduri, a co-ordinator at Apeejay School in Salt Lake, Kolkata, is a choreographer, dance teacher and practitioner of various classical forms, including Raibenshe, a vigorous, military-inspired folk dance-cum-martial art. For the last five years, he has been training the inmates of Kolkata’s Dum Dum Central Correctional Home in Raibenshe and believes it has played a key role in improving both their physical fitness and general outlook towards life. “Training in martial dance forms is obviously for muscle development, cardio, stamina and balance—especially in Raibenshe where an individual may carry the weight of two or three more performers—but it also helps to develop awareness and a keen mind, which one will not achieve in a gym session," says Bhaduri.

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