Over four decades, Avinash Subramanyam has travelled to the world’s greatest senseis and mastered the most difficult of martial arts. He shares with P Radhika his insights into training, body intelligence, everyday life and spirituality.
What is important in budo, the ‘martial path’ or the ‘way of the warrior', is not merely the destination but the journey itself. This is one of the many lessons you come away with after meeting Avinash Subramanyam, one of India’s foremost martial arts practitioners.
Avinash, as he likes to be called, excels in various forms-Karate, Ninjitsu, Tai Chi, Dao Yin, Lian Gong and Qi Gong. The website of his centre (www.seefar.in) lists his achievements, but no list can adequately capture the man who likes to describe himself as ‘ordinary’. Looking at him in jeans and t-shirt, you could mistake him for any other. But there is something to this ‘ordinary man’ that warrants a story.
Thirty-nine years ago, his martial arts journey began in Hyderabad, “perhaps to overcome intimidation by people around me”. Beginning with boxing and judo at 13, he subsequently learnt karate for 15 years. “But there was something lacking,” he recalls. This void set him on a journey that took him all across the world, from China to Japan to Canada, and to teachers in the remotest of places.
Bruce Lee was not a name in India when Avinash started learning martial arts. But in the mid-1970s, he was becoming a phenomenon in India, and as a result Chinese martial arts gained popularity. At 24, Avinash was already teaching karate to about 1,000 people in the Indian army, and a 1,000-photo documentation of his training sent to a karate master in Japan earned him his first travel abroad to learn the art. But the locale was not of the slightest interest to Avinash, who did not even cross a road to see Tokyo or take in any of Japan’s tourist attractions. All his wanderings were limited to the realm of the arts he was learning.
And they were no less exciting. He realised the martial arts were “not about aggression or fighting an opponent but fighting the inadequacy within oneself.” Avinash has trained, over the last four decades, under the greatest teachers, some the very founders of art forms: Tai Chi (Grand Master Feng Zhiqiang), Dao Yin (Grand Master Zuang Guangde) and Lian Gong (Grand Master Zhyuan Yuan Ming).
“It is enough to know each was unique; they had unbelievable knowledge. In comparison, I am nothing. But names are not important, for how can I do justice to the innumerable nameless people who have shown me what budo means-a five-year-old child in Japan who corrected my technique, showing me in a single move what I, as a martial arts teacher, was struggling to grasp, and an 80-year-old teacher who effortlessly sliced through wooden blocks with a katana (a Japanese sword) when I, with all my training, couldn’t even manage to hold the blocks in place?”
Simplicity and humility not only marked the lives of great masters but also their martial arts. One of Avinash’s teachers told him to spend a year each mastering just one punch, one block and one kick, since “one technique is all techniques”. He also got a word of caution to keep his kick simple: “The higher you kick the harder you fall”.
At 14, proud that he could do a hundred push-ups, Avinash asked his teacher how many he could do. The answer left him sceptical: 5,000! The teacher then stood upright and pushed his hands upwards. He smiled and said, “You waste your whole life pushing downwards, but I lift the sky”. The upward movement embodied a way of life measured not by big, strong arms and muscles but by internal freedom and strength.
Training at Seefar focuses on developing internal energy or the life-force called qi, or what is known in India as prana. To put it in the words of Master Shifu of Kung Fu Panda, it helps “harness the flow of the universe” to achieve the impossible. Avinash recounts watching wrinkled 80- year-old Japanese masters, bent with age, who could, without any ado, slice through rolls of mats with a sword.
It is possible qi accounts for the inexplicable events in Avinash’s own life. He once survived an electric shock that ripped through his body when he came into contact with a 11,000-volt live wire. Defying medical logic, he managed to drive himself to the hospital, and then come out unscathed. The point is not to question medical science, he says, but to recognise possibilities beyond reason and logic.
Martial arts training reveals something vastly undermined: body intelligence. Usually, we process our thoughts and actions through our brains. But if we acknowledge the existence and vastness of knowledge that lies beyond analytical reasoning, says Avinash, we begin to understand body intelligence. He cites his experience: “I learnt to kick well when I let my leg kick; I learnt to punch better when I let my hand punch.” That does not mean the mind is not important. “Ultimately”, he observes, “we need to achieve synergy of mind, body, spirit and soul.”
Body intelligence also explains why animals play such a central role in Avinash’s life. Chinese martial arts have drawn on movements of the tiger, snake, crane and monkey in forms such as Qi Gong, Wing Chung and Wushu. But essentially, Avinash says, what we need to learn from the animals is their uninhibited freedom when they fight. When a leopard weighing 60-100 kg attacks a bison weighing 1,000 kg, it goes for the enemy fearlessly. It is not technique or muscle but this freedom, uncontrolled by reason, that is the key to a good punch or kick. The inner force arising from freedom can help one scale ‘impossible’heights, whether in martial combat or in life.
Avinash’s connect with animals is not limited to their fighting ability. He lives with four dogs (only because he can’t have more!) and cares for many around his neighbourhood. You will find him stop his car or pause during his walk to feed stray dogs and cats, or call a doctor to treat their wounds. This love wasn’t acquired by will: “It is just there”. Once, he pulled a stray cat out of the gutter, and when the doctor said it required warmth to survive, he placed it inside his shirt, slept with it without twitching a muscle, and brushed his teeth and ate without disturbing it. This selfless love constitutes the essence of Avinash’s life.
For him, the truth of each person’s life lies underneath all the muck accumulated over the years, and which martial arts training can unveil. And Avinash’s truth lies in his special bond with strays, defenceless against the cruelty inflicted on them.
If this picture of Avinash conjures up images of an austere, robe-wearing philosopher, it is far from the truth. Avinash readily admits he is not a man of intellect or philosophy. He can be the absolute prankster, and falls off his chair sharing a joke or watching Laurel and Hardy. People around him tease him for how slapstick and unserious he can be. He enjoys his Absolute and Glenfiddich, his Marlboros and Dunhill ultra lights. He is an ordinary man, but one living it in an extraordinary manner.
In a freewheeling interview over four sittings, he explains the connection between martial arts and karma, spirituality, and intuition.
You say martial arts training cuts through the identities we are known by, clearing away the muck, and shows what’s the real self. What does this mean in concrete terms?
Largely, we identify ourselves through the experiences of our life and a conscious understanding of those experiences. Training helps us get a glimpse of the internal universe built not consciously but on body intelligence. If you take the film The Bourne Identity, after Jason Bourne is riddled with bullet injuries in his head, he loses consciousness and has no memory of the past. But, when the doctor throws a gun at him, he breaks it into bits and pieces. He can take on seven people in combat. His consciousness doesn’t know that he can open a gun but his body knows it. This is body memory, body intelligence.
When you practise martial arts like Tai Chi, with a focus on internal training, there is a cleansing of the body through the awakening of qi. This happens because martial arts draws largely from animal styles, and helps the body synchronise with nature, which in turn awakens qi. We need to realise that this is a bodily awakening, not that of the mind or the brain. Even in yoga, for example, the awakening in the kundalini is represented with a serpent at the tip of the spine and not in the brain. This awakening creates internal harmony that leads to a realisation of a whole new self.
Management gurus talk about the importance of intuition and gut feeling. Are you saying something different when you talk about body intelligence?
Intuition is part of a higher experience that develops when you confront danger and death. A mountain climber develops intuition because he confronts death at every step. When you practice weapon training, you know even a small mistake can lead to injury. But what experiences of a management person can help build intuition? Intuition is body language honed by real life experience, by long years of training. You cannot teach instinct on a blackboard. You can’t ask 20 questions and decide whether a person has instinct or not. Also, how much can outbound activities like monkey crawl and spider web help develop instinct? Management concepts are right but they need to be accompanied by concrete internal training.
How else does training in the martial arts benefit a person?
It is a mistake to think martial arts is merely for those interested in learning combat. In fact, it’s a way of life. Training builds great body language. It vastly improves your health because you train to react to the world at the level of the skin and not with your heart and mind. This reduces the body-mind damage manifested through illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, cancer and depression. At the level of the psyche, internal training builds tremendous confidence, security and energy. It increases your threshold to bear hunger, thirst, sleep and pain. Negative emotions such as fear, insecurity, jealousy and anger diminish. You feel so internally secure that you need very little externally, in terms of work and relationships, to make you happy. That is true joy.
Though you emphasise internal or spiritual training, you are not a guru in saffron or white. What do spirituality and religion mean to you?
Spirituality is an understanding of self, an acknowledgement of internal changes that occur with training. If you take my own example, when I was young, I did not believe in God. I believed that everything that happened in my life was because of me. But life and training taught me differently. They led me to believe in nature, universe and God beyond the ‘me’, the ego. I have experienced how with training a person becomes less hard and rigid. My greatest teachers were the kindest and gentlest of people. For me the most spiritual people are those who accept their mistakes, come out of the hard and brittle ways of life, and empathise with others. This quest for inner knowledge, to know who you are and what makes you tick, is an expression of spirituality. This is different from a mere practice of religious rituals. Martial arts’ training that focuses on internal freedom sheds you of religious dogma and restriction. You are not bound by anything, and you walk tall, walk free. You learn to accept all paths as having some value. You may say martial arts is a religion with its own discipline. But it does not prescribe dos and don’ts; it doesn’t say that our path is the only path to truth.
During your college going years, you were free and rebellious—a drag-racing, 501 jeans-wearing man. How do you explain your transition?
True, when I was young I was a biker, racer and rebel, but I was also training. I was disciplined. And training changes you. I realised to rebel for the sake of rebelling was not cool. I did not wear torn 501 jeans because it was fashionable. I continue to wear 501s for 40 years because I believe it reflects me. The holes release the tension in the cloth, making it more comfortable. It makes it easier for me to move and kick in an emergency. When I see the holes, I also see it as reflecting my life (smiles): it makes me humble.
(Radhika is a post-doctoral researcher at Nimhans, Bangalore and a student of Avinash Subramanyam)