Thursday, July 25, 2013


Come to think of it, last week’s Ki story, though a powerful personal experience, isn’t the most dramatic demonstration of internal power that I’ve ever witnessed.

I think it was Ripley’s Believe it or Not or some similar show on AXN.. An old man with a wispy fu man chu was introduced to the audience as a martial arts master from one of the temples in Korea’s mountains... I can’t quite remember if the venerable master’s martial path of choice was Hapkido, Hwa Rangdo or Taekwondo.. but if you’d chain my hands and put a gun to my head to my head and ask me to bet on one of the three, I’d have to go with Hapkido, since it shares the same root with Aikido...

Anyway, this master looked more like a chef than a fighter, for instead of bricks to break and slaps of ice to smash, the man was standing behind a table which had a metal pot of some sort with some kind of a rather ominous looking heater under it. The host announced that the container the master was peering into right now contained a molten metal of some sort and both the container and the long handled spoon that the master was holding were made of special reinforced materials that could withstand the intense heat that had turned cold metal to boiling liquid.

The old master then took his knob-headed spoon, stirred the liquid furnace with it and then, just to prove his point, dipped a regular spoon into the magma and saw it literally wilt, wither and melt in the heat. And then, as jaws dropped, gasps escaped and involuntary screams jumped out of shocked mouths, the Korean master took a spoonful and poured that liquid death into his mouth.

With far greater ease than lava burning furrows through the earth, that burning brook would have burnt holes through a normal man’s insides. But the great grand master just nonchalantly swirled the liquid in his mouth, as if trying out a new brand of mouthwash and then spat out two marble sized metallic spheres onto the table. I can’t seem to remember what the table was made of but I do remember one of the spheres melting a neat hole through the table and bouncing on the floor below.

I wish I remembered the specifics which would have added credibility to this fantastic little fairy tale, but as much as I can remember, this is what I saw on the telly nearly a decade ago and was impressed enough to have remembered it all through all these years, and I’m pretty sure my mind isn’t playing tricks.

Then, on a cold winter evening in Beijing, I walked into a bright red theatre and saw magic unfold. Bald headed super humans smashed iron bars on their heads, and balanced their bodies on two fingered handstands. But the icing on the cake was this finale in which these Shaolin monks balanced their bodies on the sharp point of a spear while others lay down on a row of sabers so sharp that when a melon was dropped on one, it sliced straight through the fruit.

This mystical power that lets a man rinse his mouth with molten metal and withstand an assault by iron bars or edged weapons is known in martial arts circles as the steel jacket or iron shirt.

Steel jacket training is advanced qigong. (Incidentally, qigong is a form of standing or sitting yoga that travelled to China from India through a Buddhist monk named Damo)

It is a rather advanced form of mind boy and breath training that both heals as well as strengthens the body. Practitioners believe, and demonstrate, that steel jacket training creates this layer of energy underneath the skin that insulates the body from any kind of blow or assault. If you go to Youtube, you’ll find lots of videos of qigong masters being clubbed by baseball bats and these guys just stand there and smile while thick wooden clubs get smashed to smithereens on their strong as steel bodies.

A Discovery channel documentary featuring the Shaolin Temple in Henan, China showed these steel jacket masters chopping rocks with their hands and attacks with meat cleavers failing to penetrate the skin. The abilities of these qigong masters defy science, and yet science must admit that even though it can’t explain this phenomenon, it exists.

The reason why I shared these astounding facts with you is because I intend to meet my old Aikido teacher and ask him to reveal the secrets of ki. It is this cosmic force that Japanese call ki, the Chinese qi and in India we know it as prana, that is the source of these miraculous feats.

In most martial arts, the discovery ki or qi is an incidental process – something one encounters almost by chance during the course of one’s practice. But there was one man, Sensei Koichi Tohei, Morihei Ueshiba’s dearest and highest ranking student who founded the Ki Society, an institution dedicated to the study and pursuit of ki.

Sensei Tohei (January 20, 1920 – 19 may 2011) and his students trained to unify the body and the mind and routinely demonstrated the power of ki through the unbendable arm and other such demonstrations.

Next week, in the concluding part of this three part series, hopefully, with a little help from Sensei Sethi, we will embark on a journey, seeking the ki within and seek answers to that most important question of all – why bother with ki? Will it make my life any better?

Until then, keep the faith…


Thursday, July 18, 2013


Remember Sensei Sethi, the man who taught me Aikido? No? Doesn’t ring a bell?

Let me jog your memory a bit.

About a decade ago, while strolling through a park in south Delhi, I happened to see a portly figure engaging in a graceful dance-like tussle with two others. Their moves were elegant and one might even say gentle, and yet the martial quality of their actions was undeniable. Eventually, the burly gent whirled around and held his opponent’s arms, wrenching them with a degree of controlled fury that ended with his opponents writhing on the ground, their faces a twisted mask of agony and appreciation.

I went up to the group while it was engaged in the process of finding its feet again and asked what they were doing. I had read a bit about Tai Chi Chuan at the time though I hadn’t seen much of it. But the graceful expression of power in the master’s moves reminded me of the internal power that surreptitiously courses through the limbs of a true Tai Chi practitioner.

“No, this isn’t Tai Chi. We are practicing Aikido, a Japanese martial art that is as gentle as it is firm. However, Aikido draws influences from Baguazhang, an internal Chinese martial art, much like Tai Chi”, said the master. He wasnt a very big man. About 5’8”, but heavily built, and from a distance, with his heavy paunch and chubby arms, looked decidedly fat, but on closer inspection, all that chubbiness had this unshakeable dense quality about, much like a sumo wrestler’s, but on a far smaller scale. Since they were all wearing a ‘gi’, I should have realized that the art had Japanese origins. The master also wore a black skirt like wrap-around called a hakama. Only black-belts were allowed the wear them, I was told.

But let’s not linger here for too long. After that intriguing introduction, I signed up for a few classes and was drawn to the art’s philosophy - created in the wake of World War II in a Japan that stood shamed, bruised and battered. Though potentially lethal, the techniques however allowed a practitioner to control the degree of punishment meted out to one’s opponent. Minimum force, maximum compassion seemed to be the aikidoka’s credo, which makes this art unique in the reasonably violent world of self-defense with its flying kicks and hammer punches.

One of the most interesting aspects of aikido is ‘ki’ training. A rough translation of the word ki would be ‘universal energy’. Aikidokas do a lot of breathwork at the end of every training session to try and align with the universal force and try and harness this energy and channel it though their bodies.

Legends and a few grainy videos would have you believe that ki training enabled the man who created Aikido, the venerable Morihei Ueshiba (1883 - 1969), to walk on the rim of tiny tea cups filled to the brim, without dropping a drop of tea. During the same demonstration, Morihei invited a few men from the audience to come up on stage and try and lift him up. Lift ing or at least pushing the great master’s then frail 80 year old body, not many inches above five feet, should have been child’s play for most average sized men. For five of the biggest and burliest men in the audience, it would be easier than snapping a match-stick in two. But neither individually nor as a team could these men lift or even budge the little old Japanese master from his stance. It was an astonishing spectacle. Many other miraculous abilities are attributed to this great martial artist

They said he dodged a hail of bullets from border guards in Mongolia because he could see the trajectory of the bullets even as they were fired. Morihei’s miracles inspired my early practice but I guess I needed tangible evidence of this ki force.

I guess I had been pestering my teacher for a while. So on a balmy summer evening, Sensei Sethi decided that it was time for his students to sample the incredible force of ki.

By now, the class had shift ed from the park to a gymnasium where we shared the floor with a muay thai group. We had finished our class and were wrapping up the evening with some ‘kokyoho’ – ki breath work, a bit like pranayama. The muay thai students were also done with their sparring and were sitting around their ‘ring’ and rolling glass bottles filled with sand all along their shins to toughen skin and bone so it could both deliver and take punishment.

In the idyll of the late evening, akidokas and nak muays were winding down after a tough workout, but our tired happiness was zapped out of its reverie when Sensei announced that it was time for us to feel the power of ki

Sensei declared that he would demonstrate the difference between muscular strength and the strength of the universal life force but for that we would need to test our muscular strength first. We arm wrestled each other to settle who was the strongest amongst us. My modest arms didn’t take me very far from the middle of the pack but who won the mini-tournament was the son of a local weight-lift ing federation president and had been schooled well on the nuances of the iron game. The guy who came in second best was big and muscular and had beaten a hall full of well conditioned kickboxers and aikidokas but this beast beat his knuckles to pulp within mere seconds.

After the champ had rested, Sensei said that Aikido’s code of honour forbade him from trying to beat a competitor in a test of strength but he would hold us in the neutral position for as long as we wanted.

Anybody who has engaged in an arm-wrestling match would know that it is far tougher for an athlete to control the flow of strength and momentum and hold the neutral position against an opponent than it is to try and beat him. But one by one, we all pulled and pushed and wrestled and struggled but we couldn’t move his arm an inch. Nay, not even the beast.

While we gasped with awe and congratulated Sensei, he just nodded and without a trace of emotion, sat down in ‘seiza’ – on his knees and haunches, much like vajrasana. He extended his arms and asked three people to grab his right arm and three others to grab his left . He instructed us to push and pull as much as we could till he was thrown to the ground. We knew what we had already witnessed was pretty special but just in case he was just way too strong physically than the rest of us, this test, should Sensei succeed should put our doubts to rest.

Sensei had also announced that if he was truly using ki, even after we have all failed to dislodge him, he would still be breathing at a slow and easy pace and wouldn’t even have broken a sweat. We got into a huddle and agreed to push and pull with all our might.

The six of us heaved and hauled, pulled and pushed but all to no avail. We couldn’t move the man an inch. We were huffing and puffing and sweating buckets while Sensei just smiled beatifically. Then Sensei waved his arms, almost unmindful of the weight of three grown men on each arm, folded them and then extended them with a fair degree of force. Like ants on a branch swaying in a storm, we were flung one way and the other. Like cows caught in a tornado, we felt this force literally lift and push us trough our core and we went sprawling to the floor.

Stunned and exhausted, we lay on the floor for a while, struggling with the implications of our experience. “All ok, boys?”, boomed Sensei’s voice. I turned to look at him, as he towered over us, with a smile adorning his face and not a bead of sweat could I catch glistening on his temples. Sensei’s ki had truly made its point.

After a week or two from then, Sensei moved to Dehradun. He taught Aikido to some of the schools on the Doon-Mussourie circuit. He even stared a career as a performing ghazal singer and I lost touch with Aikido and him.

I missed the camaraderie of the classes and the joy of learning an art from an exceptional teacher and expressing myself through it. The strength and compassion that Aikido demanded was making me into a better person and I missed the person I was beginning to become. But most of all I missed that touch of the near divine – the pursuit of ki.

Dulled with the dust of time, I had forgotten all about Aikido until a recent call reignited that once bright flame. Sensei Sethi is back in town, I was told, and all the memories, and the montage from that evening stood out the boldest, came flooding back to me. This time, I will pursue and explore the elusive yet potent ‘ki’ with all the physical, spiritual, intellectual and emotional energy that I can muster. And like always, I will keep you updated on the adventures on the Aikido mat. Try on a class for size at a dojo near you meanwhile, for an Aikido class is one of those rare experiences that makes you both stronger and kinder in the same long breath…


Thursday, July 11, 2013


No offense intended here but ever since the Indians shook up the then invincible Aussies in Sydney in 2008, I have been heralding the rise of the ‘Third Reich’ in modern day cricket. Kerry Packer, ODI cricket, day and night games with coloured clothing, teams with ‘physios’ and of course the advent of the now ubiquitous helmets rang in a new era in the gentleman’s game in the 1970s.

The first cricketing empire of this era was built by a bunch of all-conquering athletes from the West Indies. Clive Lloyd, Vivian Richards, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Gordon Greenidge, Dessie Haynes, Richie Richardson, Curtley Ambrose and Courtney Walsh had made the islanders an invincible force for nearly two decades. Then in the mid-90s, Stephen Waugh’s Australians out muscled the ageing champions from the West indies and made the crown their own. Steve Waugh’s grit and vision, the ruthless power of Mathew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist, the menace of McGrath and the sheer brilliance of Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne translated into three World Cups, Test series wins against every country both away and at home and multiple ODI championships all over the globe. This second wave, some would say, was even more dominant than the first reich. The Australians were ruthless, often toying with even high quality opposition and winning tournaments without dropping a game or breaking a sweat. The quality of their cricket and their bench strength was so good that in the mid-90s, Australia fielded their A team (the Australian second XI consisting of promising fringe players and the odd veteran) in a four nation tournament. The A team edged out full strength English and Zimbabwean teams to face the Australian team in the finals.

Then, in the Australian summer of 2008, in Sydney, India knocked the reigning world champions down for the count. A long count by Steve Bucknor allowed the champs to survive the challenge but the Indians had thrown down the gauntlet. Perhaps betraying more patriotic myopia than cricketing common sense, I began announcing the advent of the third great cricketing empire under the Indian tricolour ever since.

Admittedly, in Test cricket, the boys in blue haven’t really danced like champions, especially on those seaming and bouncy green tops in England, Australia and South Africa. But in limited overs cricket, from the T20 World Cup in 2007 onwards, India has built the nucleus of a team that has now announced itself as the greatest team in the short game over the last half decade. If tri-nation trophies, a World Cup, and ODI victories in a bunch of bilateral rubbers reiterated their greatness in the shorter versions of the game, then their dramatic triumph in the ICC championship put the pyjama cricket crown firmly on their heads.

There have been occasions in the past when an Indian team has been as dominant through a tournament. In the magical 80s, the Indian team not only won the World Cup but also the Benson & Hedges World Championship of Cricket. And they won both without dropping a game. But between these championships, they were often beaten rather comprehensively. One had the feeling that the Indians didn’t really stride forward and take their crown by right. In those days it was more like they were smart opportunists who took advantage of their opponent’s hubris. But this Indian team, emerging from the shadow of greats, the fab four and Sehwag, Zaheer and Kumble, has taken its trophies by right. It has won matches and tournaments, often dominating and at times snatching victory from the gnashing jaws of defeat. It is a team that refused to capitulate in the face of unfair decisions, biased weather gods, ugly controversies and a nosy media that thought nothing of pestering the team and the captain with a smear campaign even as it prepared for one of the biggest battles of the year. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that the issues raised were not pertinent or relevant, but is it fair to bully and worry a team in the middle of tournament as big as the Champion’s Trophy?

Sure, Indian teams of the past have also won tournaments of similar stature but what is different this time is this team’s hunger for not just the big prize but its hunger for total domination in every battle. In the past, the after-glow of victory would often become an excuse for mediocrity and capitulation. The West Indies for instance travelled to India in the wake of the 1983 World Cup loss and thrashed the champions at home. And this is why no one raised an eyebrow when the Indians got walloped in Jamaica. After the rigours of the IPL and the euphoria of the ICC triumph, even the fans were a little fatigued. But the Indians, hungry for domination bounced back to top the table and enter the final. It doesn’t matter who wins the final tomorrow, for the Indians have already shown both hunger and character. And supremacy in the limited overs game is now theirs by right.

But the more important question, if this Indian juggernaut is truly to be the third great empire in the modern game, is can this team translate their ODI success in the longer version of the game too? This question will be answered once and for all when the Indians set out for South Africa this winter. But does India have the firepower to overcome the current No. 1 ranked Test team in their own backyard?

With the willow, they definitely have the pedigree. No run mountain is too high for a line-up that boasts of names like Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar. And with the rise and rise of Shikhar Dhawan and Cheteshwar Pujara and the grim determination with which Rohit Sharma and Murali Vijay are keeping their inner demons at bay, the batting holds both promise and power. As long as they have the heart for battle, these boys surely have the potential to dominate any attack on any wicket. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a man with Midas’ golden touch and the blistering helicopter shot, and is arguably amongst the greatest keeper-batsmen and captains in the history of the game.

So it is the bowlers that are a worry. Do we have the firepower to bowl out quality oppositions on foreign pitches? I can’t remember the last time an Indian seamer who consistently ran through batting line ups as often as Bhuvaneshwar Kumar has done. This lad from UP has troubled the best in the world on all sorts of surfaces with his movement in the air and off the wicket. And he bowls with a maturity that belies the fact that this is only his first season in international cricket.

R. Ashwin’s intelligence is more potent than his spin and he will surely become one of the premier tweakers of his time. But would these two have enough in their armoury to dominate sides as comprehensively in Tests as they have in shorter formats? Of course not! They would need either the pacy Umesh Yadav or the injury prone but even quicker Varun Aaron to be the battering ram. And the team would need a stock bowler who hits the seam to keep things tight when neither swing nor pace seems to work. Here, though Ishant Sharma seems to be Dhoni’s go-to man for the job, on the basis of the little that we have seen of him, Shami Ahmed seems the better bet in the long run. Bowlers like Joel Garner, Courtney Walsh and Jason Gillespie are the benchmarks in this role and either Ishant or Shami would have to really lift their game to fill in this role if India is to touch the greatness that now seems within reach.

And last but not the least, Ravindra Jadeja’s evolution from an itsy bitsy allrounder to being a genuine match winner in games of all lengths augurs well for this November and the seasons to come. And if you still have doubts about India’s impending greatness, just check out these tigers when they take the field and stride on it like they own it.

As Indian cricket fans, it is a rare privilege for us to see our team on the cusp of immortal greatness. As for the boys in blue, their hour has come, let’s just hope they believe it too.