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Monday, March 27, 2023

I Maced Up!


A riveting personal account of how a mace gave more than a grimace...
PRASHANTO BANERJI | Issue Dated: November 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Yogiji | Swami Vidyanandji | Swami Satyanand |

As winter nights go, this one was as cold as they come on this latitude. A dear friend who is fondly known as ‘The Count’, for the way he wore his hair and sideburns in those days, walked beside me as we shuffled in our woollens towards the lonely incandescence of a single light bulb’s wet glow in the mist. The cobbled path wound its way through a garden and into a hall. It was full. We were late again…

In my hand, the cold iron bar insisted on completing its headlong rush to meet gravity, promising to rip the skin off my palm and fingers, stuck as they were to bone numbing cold that seemed to suck my very being into that hunk of iron. The Count noticed my discomfort and offered to help. “Would you want me to carry it for a while?” I wasn’t going to give in, neither to gravity, and nor to my discomfiture. Not now, in front of all these people. I had to seem worthy of the great honour and privilege that was to be bestowed upon me. Out of that hall full of people who gathered every Sunday to listen to ‘Yogiji’ talk about the inner secrets and dynamics of yoga , I was amongst the handful that had been chosen to advance our practice and get initiated in the ancient art of the gada – the battle mace.

I was feeling a little embarrassed about walking through the hall, strutting about with my newly welded iron mace and so I waited for the sermon to end before approaching Yogiji to ask him if the dimensions and design of the mace were in keeping with his instructions. As the question and answer session that followed the sermon whittled to a close, the Count and I made our way towards the stage. All through, I had been torn between intense excitement and grave doubts as I walked with the mace.

The thrill of new learning, the promise of great strength and vigour that accompanied the thoughts of training with a weapon that had once been wielded by the mightiest of divine warriors – Bheem, Hanuman, Balaram, Vishnu and Vali – was tempered with the fact that though I was by no means a weakling, with extensive training experience with barbells and in Krav Maga, I found this mace which a local iron worker had put together for me, extremely difficult to muscle around. It was a mere 20 kgs from tip to base, less than the starting weight of any respectable gym athlete’s warm up set. And yet it took all I had to lug it around. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to ‘work’ with it.

Moment of truth: I stood in front of Yogiji and handed him the mace. Tall and broad shouldered, Yogiji held the mace in his right hand, close to the rather large bulbous head and waved it around a bit. His eyes narrowed and I could tell that even he, an acclaimed master of the art, found it a tad too heavy for comfort, or perhaps he was just wincing at the décor damaging prospect of his
newest protégé getting squashed under that overloaded ball and shaft set-up.

“This is too heavy…,” he declared, “…for you!” he added. I nodded knowingly. Perhaps I had misunderstood, I ventured. I thought I had been told to keep 10 kilograms on the shaft and 10 in the head. As it turned out, it was 10 kgs too many for a beginner, yes… even a ‘conditioned’ beginner like me. Perhaps my ego got in the way and refused to accept a 10 kg implement as a worthy opponent and piled on another five kgs each on head and shaft. So now I was stuck with a mace too heavy to start training with and I was told to get another one made. Unfortunately, that never got done, and that was a good seven years ago. Circumstances changed and my mace training never really took off with Yogiji.

The big mace monster just lay in the attic gathering rust while I moved to kettlebells for my endorphin high. Once in a while I would pick it up with a staggered grip and try a few moves but it always was “too heavy… for me!”

Then about four years ago, I made up my mind about getting a Yoga teacher’s Training certification and landed up at the Sri Ma School of Transformational Yoga, affiliated with Aurobindo Ashram. I met Swami Vidyanandji, a venerable Master who has learnt at the feet of legends like Swami Satyanand, amongst others.  After our first session together, I walked down the stairs, past the driveway and towards my car, when my eye caught a once familiar shape in the back seat of Swami ji’s car. (Yes he drives a car.) … It was… would you believe it… a mace. Not an iron monster like the one in my attic but a wooden one, carved out of the trunk of a tree and just the weight mine should have been – about five kilograms. I ran up the stairs, breathless, fell at Swami ji’s feet and begged him to teach me how to be a an ancient mace warrior in a modern world. Swamiji smiled and nodded... “But only after you complete your teacher’s training…”

I could live with that. After completing my teacher’s training, I spent many many sweaty hours twirling that mace. My initiation into the world of mace swinging was very different from any other kind of weight training. Swami ji taught me that the mace wasn’t to be treated like just another conditioning tool but like a living breathing ‘guru’ that taught as it twirled. It was to be meditated upon, understood, respected and allowed to reveal its secrets as it chose to… Mace training was an art that focused on building control, first in the self, then in the muscles and finally in the mace. That offset weight made control a difficult virtue to master and all sessions began with a long time spent on just meditating on the mace, letting the weight sink into the body, the bones and the breath before starting dynamic exercises. This is similar to stationary stance training being used as a foundation of the Shaolin arts. But all of this is all rather complicated for the scope of this article. All I want you to know, for now, is that if you want to get fit, the mace is a far better tool for the purposes of most, than traditional implements like the barbell and dumbbell.

So let’s leave the spiritual and yogic aspects of mace training for a later date and introduce you to Sam. His name’s Sameer but when he is pounding away at you with his hammer fists while training in the Krav Maga dojo, it is a lot quicker and safer to scream out “Sam easy!!”, than to go “Sameeerr… ouph! My feet!! (That’s “Ouch! My teeth!!” with two front teeth missing). No I’m kidding… Sam’s a responsible Kravist and he is more likely to hurt himself while ensuring he doesn’t hurt you but Sam’s a lot crisper and easier and shorter to type in when chasing a deadline. And so we stick with Sam… for Sam is a UFC nut and he loves this one guy in particular… a 5’6” dynamo called Tyler Jeffrey Dillashaw. Now Dill’s a bantam weight. And even though Sam himself is a light heavy, he can’t get enough of TJ. And so one day after listening to him rave about TJ, I decide to check him out on YouTube. And what should I see but good old TJ swinging away with what looks very much like—a mace!

Turns out, TJ is one amongst many professional mixed martial artists who use the mace as a training tool. Now why should one of the world’s best martial artists with access to cutting edge training technology secede to stick with a tool that is more than just a few thousand years old?

Technologically speaking, the mace or at least its close cousin, the club, is perhaps the oldest weapon used by man. So why bother?

Well, simply because it works.  The mace began life as a bone crunching hunting tool, evolved into a skull smashing, armour crushing battle honed weapon, and then in the lands of present day Greece, Iran, Russia and India, gradually it came to be known as an esteemed training tool and weapon which often behaves like it has a life of its own.  Today from the mixed martial arts octagon to the wrestling mat, those are hands that swing a mace that rise in victory. Well, maybe I’m generalizing a bit here but the truth is that the mace rules, in its traditional stone and bamboo avatatar in our akhadas, in the modern day steel versions in MMA gyms everywhere from Dublin to Dagestan and in the zurkhanehs of Iran.

So what do some of the world’s best built and fittest athletes know that you and the average gym Joe does not?

I will keep it short. In short – rotational strength. You see in the real world you find very few opportunities to lie on a bench and push away 140 kgs. I can think of two scenarios… one under a car and the other… well, never mind. My point is that most often, especially when exerting strength, we corkscrew our torsos to generate power (think a boxer’s punch, a golfer’s swing, a wrestler’s throw-down, turning to keep the groceries on the mantle, shovelling snow, a tango lift…a… you get it?); and yet, when we train to build strength, it is always in a straight line… unless… unless you have held a mace in your hands.

Another very important point to consider is the fact that with a mace, 15 kgs will be a few kilograms too many for male athletes who can deadlift 150 kilograms on the bar. That’s bad news for your ego but great news for your joints.  You see, the further the weight rests from your core, the tougher it gets to handle it. So at the top of a two feet long pole, 15 kgs gets magnified many times over. As a consequence your muscles get worked like you are Thor hammering away at the Hulk while your joints have it easy – for two reasons. A) when the weight is moving in a circle around your head (like in the standard 360 degree cast mace exercise), some or the other muscle is always working all through the exercise working on pushing, pulling or stabilizing the weight, which means your joints never get too stressed, like they would when you are handling a weight you can’t handle and end up resting at the top or bottom of a barbell move with all that weight tearing down the joints… And B) Even if the weight does rest for long on a joint in a certain move, the weight, without the disadvantage of leverage, which only comes into play in motion, is so light that it ends up stimulating the joints without ever wearing them out.

To really understand all this without being a physicist, I suggest you pick one up. You could buy one online or better still, you could ask your ‘welding wala’ fabricator to fix one up for you. And what’s a good weight to start with?

If you are that sweet grey haired lady who teaches ‘modern history’ and whose daughter just had a daughter and who smiles at me when I meet her at the park while on her regular everyday morning walk, I suggest you pick up a 3 kg mace, and begin by holding the shaft closer to the head than the base in all the exercises and slowly move down as you get stronger. Cain Velasquez might have a good time with a 25 kilogram beast while most of you and I might do better than we think with anything between 8 to 15 kilogram maces.

Did I say ‘you and I...’? Nah… I was just being nice… I just ‘picked’ up the 20 kilo monster mace in the attic.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017