WEARING only underpants, Pavel Kalina twists his body up a wooden pole before performing a handstand at the top in the first world championships of an ancient Indian sport.
The 55-year-old from the Czech Republic practises Mallakhamb, a gymnastics-like discipline that originated in western India in the 12th century and is often described as “yoga on a pole”.
“I do it because I’m a crazy man,” Kalina says, struggling to catch his breath after two minutes performing poses on the pillar, which is covered in castor oil to stop friction burns.
“To be honest it is like torture but I have to do it because I need to spend my energy,” adds the former gymnast who took up Mallakhamb 10 years ago.
Kalina was among some 100 competitors from 15 different countries taking part in the Mallakhamb World Championships in Mumbai over the weekend.
The sport, first mentioned in Indian texts in 1135, is popular in western Maharashtra state – of which Mumbai is the capital – but is little known outside India.
“Malla means wrestler and khamb means pole,” explains Uday Deshpande, the organiser of the event and India’s most renowned Mallakhamb practitioner.
“The pole is [2.6m] in height. It is smooth, well polished and tapered at the top. Different acrobatic exercises and yogic postures are performed on it.
It “is there in the absence of your partner and you are wrestling against it,” he adds.
On day one of the event – held in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park – men, mostly in swimming trunks, and women, mostly in leotards, wowed a crowd of several hundred with gravity defying moves.
Faezeh Jalali, wearing a headscarf, represented Iran in the rope category which saw participants perform stunts up and down a rope that hung 4.5m in the air.
“You feel a real achievement and you build strength and flexibility, ” said Jalali, 39.
Competitors from France, Germany, Malaysia and Vietnam also took part.
Deshpande, 65, says Mallakhamb helps people mentally as well.
“When you perform yoga on the ground you get lots of benefits – meditation, breathing, concentration.
“When you perform yoga at [2.4m] high you get the same benefits but you also develop your confidence, your courage,” he says.
Deshpande organised the championships to promote Mallakhamb globally and dreams that one day it will appear at the Asian Games and then even the Olympics.
“We want to spread this traditional Indian culture abroad,” he said.