My Mallakhamb Experience

I was 18 years old, and I had just finished school in the UK. I was eager to explore my Indian roots and heritage, so I decided to travel to India and stay with my grandparents in Mumbai. I was naive and expected to eat some lovely food and maybe visit some temples.

I was 18 years old, and I had just finished school in the UK. I was eager to explore my Indian roots and heritage, so I decided to travel to India and stay with my grandparents in Mumbai. I was naive and expected to eat some lovely food and maybe visit some temples. Instead, I learned so much more about myself, what my true values are, whilst also discovering a community of amazing people with talent and happiness that I have never witnessed before.

I landed in Mumbai in early February 2019. I was completely clueless as to how to fit in with society, how people lived their lives and to be honest, how to consider the vast number of religions when speaking to the locals and getting involved in their day to day lives. I was almost like another world. The world I live in teaches us to study hard and get rewarded, there is no emphasis on community and certainly not religion or beliefs.

The next morning after being taken to my grandparents’ home, I was woken up at 5:30am by a loud bell. I was incredibly confused and irritable being jetlagged and decided to investigate. To my surprise, my grandfather, Aajoba, was stretching whilst praying to his gods which he had bathed. Instead of being irritable and annoyed, I stood there watching him in awe whilst he performed his routine, paying his respects. Once he had finished, he told me he was going to go his morning yoga class with his friends and asked if I wanted to come, I reluctantly said yes as it was so early and I was not feeling great from the flight, however, looking back, it was one of the best decisions I could have made…

I put on my sports clothes and walked with him to Shivaji park, I had a vague memory of playing cricket there with some children at the age of 8 years old and I remember a person named Uday making me feel welcome despite being a nervous child from England unable to speak the language. Little did I know I was going to meet him again. As I was walking there, I noticed businesses and social groups thriving. At 6am! How different to the UK! Where I am from, people would be commuting to work with a very unhappy look on their face, speaking to nobody. Here, everyone was socialising, everyone was happy.

I arrived at Shivaji park, a huge public park in the heart of Mumbai. There was an outdoor gym, over 30 separate games of cricket being played as well as volleyball and yoga. I made my way to a building in the corner of the park where I noticed some interesting-looking poles. I thought maybe they were ornaments or some sort of decoration. If I was told two weeks later that I’d be performing on them on international television in nothing but my swimming trunks I’d have laughed with disbelief.

I entered the building where I was greeted by my grandfather’s friends. Their ages ranged from 80-95 years old and yet, every morning, they without fail met up for their yoga class. Half the exercises they were doing I struggled with, and I am a British national athlete in many sports! This already showed me the difference in culture and routine. Lots of these elderly men were more mobile than me! I was amazed.

After completing the very strenuous yoga class, I noticed people arriving, climbing and balancing on poles and ropes. It looked like they were gymnasts of some sort. As I was watching in awe, Mr. Uday Deshpande approached me, and we had a lovely conversation about the past. I also asked what those people were doing climbing on the poles, he told me it was an Indian sport called Mallakhamb which is a mixture of yoga and gymnastics on poles and ropes. He then mentioned that there was a competition in two weeks’ time and that if I was available, I could do a bit of training and perform. I said yes as I assumed it was a local competition and wanted to experience this sport and thought it would be a lovely experience to look back on, performing in front of my grandfather, his friends and a small group of people in this small training area. I was not aware of his role at this place or how much he had done and is doing for Indian sport or Mallakhamb in general.

I began my training. I was given something called a langot which essentially protects my male private parts whilst performing this sport. I remember getting help from almost every male member of the community trying to put it on in embarrassment. Once I had put it on, I whipped on my swimming trunks over the top and I was good to go! Every morning instead of yoga with my grandfather, I started attempting to climb the wooden poles. These poles are approximately 8ft in height and I could barely get up to the top despite being an athlete. It is fair to say I was immediately put in my place, and I knew I had to train hard to be able to perform anything at all! The simplest move one can perform on the pole is sitting on the top in a prayer pose. This did not look too difficult, but I remember the pain I felt from my weight pushing down onto this thin pole through my pelvis, it was almost excruciating, and I had to take a break. Meanwhile, I noticed a local smiling at me attempting this, so I decided to chat to them. He looked like a teenager, maybe 15 years old in my eyes and we had a lovely conversation about the sport and how much it means to him and how he respects me for trying it out. It turns out he was in his late 20s and he assumed I was almost 30! This again demonstrated the difference in culture and routine aging different populations more quickly! After I mentioned his name to other people (Manik Paul) it turns out that he won India’s got talent 2015 performing mallakhamb. I was speaking to a celebrity and professional athlete. I had absolutely no idea.

After a week of vigorous training, I was able to construct some sport of basic routine on the pole. I was proud of myself but also thought I would be much better at the sport than I was by now. To my surprise, a lovely woman and future friend named Philippa Frisby from the UK with her film crew entered the building. I was confused as to why they were there in a small yoga centre in Mumbai. She told me that she was shooting a documentary following Uday Deshpande and the effects of Mallakhamb on society alongside its training, values and beliefs. At this point I thought it was simply yoga on a pole, however, I was soon to see within minutes how much more it is to the people of India. A few minutes later, a group of blind children entered the building holding hands. I assumed they might have arrived for a yoga class. I turned my back for one second and heard some commands in marathi. I immediately turned around and 4 of them were upside down on a rope completing flips and catching one another in beautiful synchronisation. I was speechless. They were surely also professional athletes. There was no possibility they were all blind. Surely? I watched, mesmerised until they finished their routine. Suddenly they all held hands again and moved to the side of the building to rest. Many questions were rushing through my head. I was confused, astonished, emotional, I didn’t know what to feel. How on earth could they do that without vision? To me it was like running a marathon without legs. Surely impossible? Something special was happening here. Something I was not aware of. In England if you have a disability, you are told what you can and can’t do and you get the help you need to go about your everyday lives. In India it is not so simple, there aren’t the same services available for those with impairments. However, in the UK I have never witnessed nor even heard of people with disabilities doing the extraordinary. This showed me that it was possible and that it was because of the sport Mallakhamb. This is where I started to truly appreciate how this sport can transform lives and change the way people think and live. Even writing this, today, reliving my experience, I am tearing up with inspiration and happiness. As a future doctor, those 2 minutes witnessing those people perform has changed my beliefs and way of thinking. After they performed, I was invited by my Philippa to speak on camera to the group of blind athletes. I explained that despite their impairments, how inspiring and beautiful it was to witness them perform.

At the end of the discussion, I was asked how I was feeling regarding competing in the first international Mallakhamb competition… International? Was I competing for the United Kingdom? Yes, yes, I was. I was completely flabbergasted.

Leading up to the competition, the press began interviewing everyone, I was fascinated that I was experiencing all of this, and I felt ready for the competition despite my serious lack of Mallakhamb skills. Once the day of the competition came, I was nervous and met all the athletes from many different countries. It wasn’t like anything I had ever experienced before; everyone was so kind and willing to speak to their competition (although I wouldn’t say I was much competition for anyone). The competition was underway. Athletes were performing backflips, catching themselves with their legs on the pole, spinning from heights of 10 metres down ropes. Meanwhile, I was struggling to climb to the top. I decided to play to my strengths and simply do some strength poses rather than attempt anything skillful. The enormous crowd seemed to enjoy it. I knew they were applauding me because of my willingness to attempt the most difficult sport I have every experienced rather than my actual skill and that was perfect for me. Here are a few photos from my routine:

My overall experience was more incredible than I could have ever imagined. Meeting amazing and talented people throughout my training was the most valuable part of my experience. I learned that Mallakhamb is not just yoga on a pole which I initially thought. It is a way of life. It taught me what my true values are, that almost anything, no matter how extraordinary is possible, and that we are all the same no matter who you are or where you come from. It is a community. One that I will cherish being part of for the rest of my life. The lessons I have learned from my experience will be shared. I know I am a better person after discovering this sport. None of this would have been possible without Sir Uday Deshpande, the man who put Mallakhamb on the map, the man tirelessly promoting, teaching the sport every day, being an inspiration to all. I also want to thank Philippa Frisby for giving this sport a platform. It is important that people learn the true value of Mallakhamb and how it can transform lives.

My Mallakhamb Experience