To understand the nature of physical exercise in the context of wrestling it is necessary to begin with the general concept of yoga. Broadly defined, yoga informs the underlying principles of the wrestler’s vyayam (physical exercise) regimen. Yoga is a vast topic of great complexity, and I make no pretense of discussing it in its entirety.
Technical designations aside, yoga has come to mean a particular type of physical training which serves to relax and develop the mind/body. In the classical literature yoga is classified in various ways. The most salient distinction is between Raja Yoga or meditation-oriented training, and Hatha Yoga, which focuses on kinesthetic movement. Even this distinction is, however, more schematic than real. After carefully delineating types of yoga, Atreya makes the following point:
In philosophy, yoga refers to the ontology of a particular system. In the Yoga Sutra yoga means the progressive control of the whole body. In the Tantras it refers to the symbiosis of the individual self with the universal soul. In Vedanta, yoga is the discipline through which one realizes oneself as part of the absolute Brahman.
Here it is to be remembered that there is actually one Yoga, and not many yogas which are exclusively different from one another. The one purpose of all the yogas is to bring the body, the prana [vital breath], the unconscious and the sub-conscious strata of the mind, the mind and the forces of individuation, under one’s control; and to be conscious of one’s identity with the supreme reality which is within us as our very Self (1973d: 48).
The most complete dissertation on yoga is given in the Bhagavad Gita. While many definitions of the term are offered in this classic text, the most common and general is that yoga is the expert performance of one’s duties (Atreya 1973d: 45). Drawing primarily on the Bhagavad Gita, Atreya provides the following outline definition of yoga as a moral, ethical, and physical discipline.
Building up to a definition of yoga which includes wrestling, Atreya argues that one of the main objectives of yoga is to harmonize the whole body. By this he means the perfect functional interdependence of all of the body systems: digestive, respiratory, circulatory, nervous, and so forth. Overlying this functional harmony of the gross body is the control which must be exercised in order to channel physical energies to achieve disciplined goals.
The word Yoga, therefore, now stands for the methods of a) realizing the potentialities of man; b) hastening the spiritual evolution of man; c) becoming one with the Divine Being who is immanent in all creatures; d) uniting the individual soul with God; e) realizing the highest ideal of man; f) becoming conscious of one’s unconscious powers and making use of them; and, g) attaining perfect health, peace, happiness, will, immortality, omniscience, power, freedom and mastery over everything in the world (ibid: 47).
The natural state of the mind/body is regarded in Hindu philosophy as basically flawed. Yoga is designed to compensate for the natural irregularities of the mind/body through the application of physical and mental control. Although one may practice yogic control and achieve a high degree of harmony, one is not completely healthy, Atreya argues, until one has achieved self-realization. Self-realization requires jivanmukti (release from the world; lit., having left life). In this condition ignorance is banished and replaced by spiritual consciousness and wisdom. Having achieved perfect health, a person is not plagued by emotions of any sort. One is simply no longer concerned with the sensory world of pain, pleasure, suffering, and greed.
Given such a broad definition of yoga, Atreya includes the art of wrestling within the general framework of yogic practices. Wrestlers do not necessarily perform the formal asans (postures) of Hatha Yoga, but they subscribe to the tenets of the more general yogic philosophy of a disciplined life. Narayan Singh, a teacher of yoga, wrestling, and physical education at Banaras Hindu University, agrees with Atreya’s point. In an interview he stated that yoga and vyayam are formally different but philosophically basically the same. Wrestling is a form of yoga because it requires that one transcend one’s natural physical aptitude and apply principles of sensory and nervous control to one’s own body. Wrestling is a subdiscipline of yoga since yoga is defined as a system of physical health, ethical fitness and spiritual achievement.
Pranayama (controlled breathing) is a primary aspect of yogic exercise and is also integral to wrestling. Atreya distinguishes eight types of pranayama (1965: 13). Only one of these, kumbhak, is employed in wrestling since it enables one to achieve great strength and stamina. The formal methods of pranayama that are refined in Hatha Yoga are not practiced by wrestlers to any great extent. However, wrestlers do recognize the general efficacy of breath control. It purifies the body and unfetters the mind. It helps cut through the maze of sensory images which obstruct the path to enlightenment. Breath control is a prerequisite for performing exercises of any kind. It is not enough just to breathe; that alone only satisfies the needs of the gross body. To breathe properly harmonizes the body with the mind: the spiritual with the physical.
A wrestler must breathe through his nose while expanding his diaphragm. A great deal of emphasis is placed on this point. If one gasps for air with an open mouth and heaving chest, it is likened to the agency of an inanimate bellows. Breathing in this fashion performs the function of putting air into the body and taking it out, but as such it is purely mechanical. Breathing through the nose—with conviction, concentration, and rhythm—transforms a mundane act into a ritual of health.
As a system of physical exercise, wrestling is integrated into the philosophy of yoga through the application of two principles: yam and niyam. As Atreya (1965: 11) explained in an interview, yam and niyam are the root principles of moral, intellectual, and emotional fitness. Yam has five aspects: ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truthfulness), asatya (“non-stealing”), brahmacharya (continence/celibacy), and aparigraha (self-sufficiency and independence). Niyam also comprises five aspects: shauch (internal and external purification), santosh (contentment), tap (mortification and sensory control), swadhyaya (study), and ishvar-pranidhan (closeness to god through worship).
Development as a wrestler depends on the degree to which one is able to apply oneself to the realization of these principles. Wrestlers do not dwell on the philosophical complexities of yam and niyam. Nonviolence, for instance, is not considered problematic on an epistemological level. Neither do wrestlers seek to explain, or even understand, the metaphysical tenets of aparigraha, for example, or the distinction made between the external body (sthula sharir) and the subtle body (sukshama sharir). For them the intuitive application of these principles to their lives is the primary order of business. To be passive and even-tempered is in accordance with a lifestyle of ahimsa and santosh; to go to a Hanuman temple every Saturday is to be close to god. Exercise is a form of tap, and going to the akhara every morning is an act of internal and external purification. All of this is not to say that wrestlers are yogis in any strict sense of the term. They are not concerned with the metaphysics of their way of life or with spirituality as an esoteric endeavor. For them the goal is practical in both a physical and a social sense. Yam and niyam develop the wrestler’s body/mind and also define for him the basic moral principles of life as health.