The term Kalarippayattu comes from Kalari which means open space, battle field, threshing floor and Payattu which means accustomed, fencing exercise, trick.
Kalarippayattu training is traditionally understood as an ongoing discipline of practice in which the student will gradually be transformed, both physically and mentally. Kalarippayattu recognizes three different bodies of practice:
- The fluid body of humours and saps
- The body composed of bones, muscles and the vulnerable vital joints of the body
- The subtle, interior body - the seat of the soul or atman
The common elements of Kalarippayattu are:
- Preliminary body exercises
- Combat with weapons
- Techniques of empty handed fighting
- Breathing exercises
- Knowledge of the body's vital spots - marmam
- Body massage and treatment associated with Ayurveda
All the exercises are done in response to a series of verbal commands - vayttari, recited by the teacher as the student exercises and they are iconically written into the student's body. The following are the different practices in Kalarippayattu:
- Vanakkam or Vandanam - These sequences are an embodied mode of paying respects to the Kalari's guardian deity, and are therefore crucial to develop a sense of devotion, as well as one of the most important ways of awakening the substle, interior body of practice.
- Ashtavadivu - These are the basic poses, steps and jumps named after animals and similar to basic asanas of Yoga and mastery of steps - chuvadu - by which one moves to and from poses. These are movements which embody the external and internal essence of the animal after which they are named.
- Kaikuthippayattu - Literally "putting the hands on the floor" exercise. It develops the bladder region, correct breathing and increases flexibility and suppleness in the hip area. It will increase the lower body strength and the foundation necessary for correct practice.
- Chumattadi - Each Chumattadi is based on a particular Kalarippayattu pose and is performed in all four directions to respond to attacks from any direction. These techniques have direct martial applications.
- Weapons - The correct practice of all weapons depends entirely on the correct performance of preliminary body exercises. When the student takes up the first weapon it becomes an extension of the integration of the bodymind in action.
All the body exercises and weapon sequences are to be performed with the entire body and not simply with the hand, arm or weapon. Once the exercises become effortless, while performing them, one should naturally begin to experience the inner action behind the external movement. It is the more subtle, interior aspect of the practice. Kalarippayattu ultimatley enables one to discover sukshma sarira - the subtle body.