The ancient art of Indian wrestling known as Pehlwani (referring to the act) or Kushti (referring to the dirt pit) still takes place in Indian wrestling gyms or akhara, around the country.
In countries such as India, where the social caste system is rigid and still heavily enforced, the akhara is one of the only places where all Pehlwani wrestlers are considered equal. Their merit is recognized by their performance in the pit.
The akhara is an exercise in minimalist gym design, with dirt floors, crude clubs, dumbells, and gadas (large boulders on a stick).
Most akharas feature their own guru, or Pehlwani master, called a Palawan. The members of the akhara recognize this teacher as a holy man. He and a group of elders train and coach the other wrestlers. Wrestlers are encouraged to start training at a young age with small dumbells.
An Ancient Practice
A primitive form of wrestling brought to us from India, Pehlwani was originally developed during the Mughal Empire and involved combining the native from of grappling known as malla-yuddha with Persian vaszesh-e bastani.
The terms pehlwani and kushti come from the Persian terms pahlavani, meaning wrestling, and kosht, meaning dirt pit.
Originally an ancient subculture, Pehlwani is more than a sport or an art, but a way of life. Wrestlers training together enforce strict rules, maintaining a strictly enforced environment free from alcohol consumption, smoking, or engaging in sex acts. A true Pehlwani wrestler is celibate and not under the influence of any substance.
Famed mixed martial artist Bruce Lee was purportedly a huge fan of the legendary Indian wrestler Gama, who performed Pehlwani and performed many of the training drills used in the discipline.
How to Train the Pehlwani Way
There are many exercises and drills Pehlwani wrestlers use to improve their performance in the pit, including club-training, dumbbell swinging, gada swinging, and the bethak, or Hindu squat. The Dand, or Hindu pushup is one of the nest ways to improve their reflexes, speed, strength, and agility.
How to Perform a Dand (Hindu Pushup)
Step 1: Start in downward dog. Place your hands on the ground on at the sides of your right foot, pressing through your hands, and draw your right foot up and in line with the left foot, easing yourself into downward dog.
Reach toward your thighs, sitz bones reaching for the sky, maintaining a slight bend in the knees.
Step 2: Push forward, keeping your back straight and arms bent at the elbows and leading with your head. Do not let your knees touch the ground as you balance with your toes and propel yourself forward with your arms and shoulders.
Step 3: Come into upward-facing dog. At a full-body extension with elbows bent at 90 degrees, hips up, and balanced on your toes (as in midway through a pushup), spring up on your hands, raising your head and chest. Look straight ahead as you fully extend your arms. Your pelvis should be raised from the floor throughout the movement.
Step 4: Return to the starting position. Lift your body with the hips, carrying it up into a downward dog.
There are many benefits to Pehlwani training exercises, including:
- Enhances shoulder health, strength, and flexibility
- Improves core strength and stability
- Increases physical stamina and endurance
- Improves coordination
- Increases flexibility
- Stabilizes and strengthens joints
- Aides rehab and prehab therapeutic regimens.
Here are some other training drills performed by Pehlwani wrestlers.
- Indian Club Training: A series of Indian club drills help you gain shoulder and arm strength.
- Dumbell Swinging: This more modern take on the Indian club is a more accessible exercise for the gym.
- Gada Swing: Swinging a tool made of clay, cement, or stone with a bamboo pole is a more traditional way to exercise the Pehlwani way.
- Bethak: This exercise is also called the Hindu Squat.
Embrace the Minimalist Approach to Fitness with Pehlwani
Pehlwani gyms are literally earthen pits with crude clubs or gadas and maybe a water pump if you’re lucky. Many will appreciate returning to our ancestral roots by delving into this bare-bones primal way of training.