by Ritchie Mintz
Austin, Texas USA
Lathi (pronounced la’ tee) is the ancient internal meditative martial art of India. The word lathi in Hindi means bamboo stick.Lathi is India’s martial art of fighting with the world’s oldest weapon if you do not include the rock. Lathi is an elegant system of human body movement that dates back through a lineage of masters that goes back 8000 years. Lathi is the martial art of the Indian monasteries and thus, the keepers of its flame are spiritual masters as well.
Lathi was designed by its ancient originators to move and manage kundalini. Kundalini is basic life energy. It is known by many names in many cultures. In China, it is called chi. In Japan, it is called ki. In many parts of India, the “breath of life” is known as prana. In the Old Testament, God made Adam from the dust of the earth and then breathed life into him. Native American Indians call it spirit. Interestingly enough, in modern America, in the English language, there is no one simple word that attempts to describe kundalini. Perhaps George Lucas came closest in Star Wars when he called it The Force.
Eastern texts and art depict kundalini as a coiled serpent, usually a cobra, which sleeps at the base of the spine. This is the basis for the caduceus, the medical doctor’s symbol of two crossed snakes that weave upward. Spiritual practices arouse the serpent and cause it to rise up through the chakras, which are energy centers in the spine. Chakra means wheel. People who can see charkas report that they look like spinning colored wheels. Interestingly, each spinal charka corresponds directly to a physical neural plexus.
The movement of this kundalini is said by those who have experienced it to be a spiritual enlightenment. It is described in the poetry of every religion as bliss, rapture, nirvana, Holy Spirit, the timeless moment, the deathless state.
There are many practices that cause kundalini to rise and fall through the charkas. Many times, a particular practice will have a whole religion dedicated to it, sometimes professing it as the one and only way to Enlightenment.
In his book Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda reveals the ancient spiritual practice of Kriya Yoga. One kriya is the cycle of raising the kundalini through the charkas from the root, located in the sacrum, to the crown at the top of the head and then back down again. Yogananda writes that Kriya Yoga can “burn off” one’s karma at an accelerated rate for the purpose of accelerating spiritual advancement. Yogananda is reported to have said that one well-done kriya is worth twelve years of good clean living. In early printings of Autobiography of a Yogi, I remember reading Yogananda saying that Lathi was taught at his school in Ranchi. More recent copies do not mention it. I do not know why.
Lathi is such a spiritual practice. It is a moving, physical, whole-body meditation mantra that harmonizes body, mind and spirit by moving kundalini energy. Its central idea is continuous circles, which describe the figure-8 or infinity sign. The movement of Lathi is balanced, organized, symmetrical, stimulating, soothing, pulsing, wavelike, meditative, healing, therapeutic, dance, exercise and fun.
The movement of Lathi is continuous and repetitive…what we in the western world might call hypnotic. It moves kundalini (energy) through the body and evokes a deeply internal meditative state on a physical body level. I am the kind of person who had limited results with “meditation”, as in sitting cross-legged and trying to empty my mind. This on the other hand, is very active. It is a physical moving-mantra meditation that creeps so deeply into my total being that it reaches to the core of my mind and calms it. If you love meditation, this is for you. If you have gotten nowhere trying to meditate and wish you could love it, this is really for you. It is an extraordinary experience. I highly recommend it.
Although Lathi shares many principles with other martial arts, it is totally unique from any other I have encountered in the world. Of all the martial arts I have seen, most are from the Orient; ie: China, Japan, Okinawa, Korea, etc. These martial arts have one thing in common – they use the dan-tien as their energy center. The dan-tien is two fingers below the navel and corresponds to the solar plexus. This relatively low center of gravity causes these martial arts to be mostly performed out of a knees-bent crouch, which is called horse stance.
The energy center of Lathi, on the other hand, is the heart chakra. This higher center of gravity allows the Lathet (practitioner of Lathi; pronounced la tet) to practice from a higher, longer, more extended posture. This provides a natural alignment with gravity that balances, orders and aligns the body with the earth’s gravity field. This means that Lathi can be used as a powerful therapeutic tool to heal the human body of all kinds of chronic and acute structural troubles.
It is worth noting that in dan-tien-centered martial arts, belly breathing is the predominant pattern. In Lathi, the higher heart center allows for the breath to flow into the high chest. The high chest breath moves energy, nourishes the heart and lifts the body structure into a natural and therapeutic alignment with gravity.
Lathi is not only a deeply powerful spiritual practice and healing therapeutic tool. It is a devastatingly dangerous martial art. It is the big guns of the martial arts. And make no mistake about it – it is not a gentlemanly game. It was taught to me as the dirty street fighting of the martial arts. The object is to win. My Master, who was an ultimate man of peace, taught me that even in a spiritual world, I have the right to protect myself. He said,
“If somebody hits you once, you hit him 100 times; Quick-quick, fast-fast.”
One day, we had class in a park. Not far away, a sword class was wrapping up and we chatted with the instructor. In this martial art, they attack with bamboo canes that represent swords and they wear body armor because they hit full on. Interestingly enough, there is no leg armor. My Master asked, “How do you defend the legs?” The reply was, “We don’t attack the legs; it’s against the rules.”
As we walked away to our car, my Master, this man of God and peace said to me, his jet-black eyes twinkling, rolling the “r’s” in his lilting Indian accent, “This is a game. In a real fight, the first thing I would do is break his knees.”
And there you have it, the dichotomy. On the one hand, Lathi is a gentle, soothing, healing, elegant, lyrical, loving, sacred and spiritual way to move the human body. At the same time, it is an efficient and effective system to quickly bust a body up in the most damaging and painful ways.
Perhaps Lathi is a lot like the India it comes from: On the one hand holy and peaceful and yet, not long ago, India was moments from an unspeakable nuclear war with its neighbor Pakistan. The lesson for me is that energy is impartial and impersonal. It can be used to heal and create or it can be used as a most powerful weapon. Such is Lathi.
I have been blessed with a unique profession. I do a rare and powerful form of Therapeutic Bodywork called Rolfing® Structural Integration. Trained at the Rolf Institute® in Boulder, Colorado, I am expert in the field of human physical structure.
I became interested in Rolfing after I met Dr. Ida P. Rolf (1896-1979) in 1972. I experienced Rolfing in 1973. I learned through this experience that the human body is not what we have taken it for. It is not what society tells us it is. It is not what the western medical establishment says it is and it certainly is not what we were taught about it in high school physical education. (By the way, Dr. Rolf called “physical education” as it is taught in American schools a misnomer and I can’t help but to agree with her.)
My Structural Integration experience demonstrated to me that Dr. Rolf was absolutely correct in her assertion that the body is a plastic medium. She taught that gravity is the therapist. Her life work demonstrates that the human body frame can be released from its chronic pattern of collapse in gravity and aligned with the gravitational field of the earth.
What a concept! Imagine the good news it would be to the world that bodies do not just have to collapse, dis-integrate and fail with use and age. Bodies can be put back together. How about that!
Early in my Rolfing career, I realized that when a body loses its alignment with gravity, the next thing that disappears is the possibility of balanced movement. I knew this was true because I had experienced it in my own body. I knew that there had to be a practice that would teach the body how to move in a balanced fashion. When I found Lathi, my heart sang because I knew instantly that this was the missing piece.
Over the decades, I have drawn some interesting distinctions about Lathi. I knew that the movement of Lathi is a powerful therapeutic tool to help bodies to heal and to move according to their anatomical design. But I also knew that learning a martial art is too far, too much for many people who don’t want to fight; they just want to feel better. There is also another segment of the population who want to exercise in a balanced, sane and sensible way that does not take them apart like most sports and calisthenics do. I knew that I had to find a way to separate the movement from the combat.
And that is exactly what I did. I extracted the pure human body movement from the martial art known as Lathi and I created a system of balanced body movement that I named Balanced~Movement. (© 2000—Texas School For Structural Integration.)
Balanced~Movement is ancient wisdom for modern times about how the human body moves and how it does not. It is tremendously valuable to Therapeutic Bodywork on many levels. Balanced~Movement taught me how to find my center from where all movement radiates through the body and out into the world. I found that every movement validated what I had experienced about Ida P. Rolf’s work. In Structural Integration, we talk about gravity, line, core, balance, length, extension, order and movement. In Balanced~Movement, I found that I could experience all these concepts on a physical body level. Now as a Structural Integrator, I am better able to transmit this valuable information into the bodies and the consciousness of my clients.
As a Structural Integrator, I am especially interested in the effects that Balanced~Movement has upon the body structure. The movement is organized so that every vector of force is counterbalanced by a matching and opposite vector. This takes place in all dimensions, left-to-right, front-to-back, top-to-bottom, and that most elusive of balance—inside-to-outside or as we know it in Structural Integration, core-to-sleeve. The result of this symmetry and balance is that the entire body is in full balanced motion except for only one still point — the center.
Structural Integration and Balanced~Movement combined to give me my first experience of a still center. It is from this place that I strive to work and to impart that experience to my clients.
In 2000, I established the Texas School For Structural Integration, the first and only school in Texas to teach the Ida P. Rolf Method of Structural Integration. Dr. Rolf considered that Structural Integration is incomplete without a balanced movement form and I agree. Therefore, at the Texas School For Structural Integration, Balanced~Movement is an integral part of
training. There is an organized Balanced~Movement curriculum that is built right into our Structural Integration training. Graduate practitioners may be licensed by the Guild For Therapeutic Bodywork as Balanced~Movement Teachers. They may then incorporate private Balanced~Movement lessons and classes into their Structural Integration practice.
There are Balanced~Movement classes for the general public taught right here in Austin, Texas. See our school website for the schedule. www.TXschoolforSI.com
©Balanced~Movement is a copyright (2000) of the
Texas School For Structural Integration Austin, Texas USA
Rolfing® is a registered service mark of the Rolf Institute®, Boulder, Co.
This training program is not sponsored by nor affiliated with the Rolf Institute®, Boulder, Co. USA
The instructor of this training program is not a faculty member of the
Rolf Institute®, Boulder, Co. USA
How Nityananda got from India to America is not my story to tell. I was living in Boulder, Colorado, and I met him because dear friends and business associates of mine had converted the basement of their home into a small apartment, which they rented out. In 1972, Nityananda moved in to live there. I saw him practically every day and I got to know and like him.
Nityananda was a Siddhapurusha, which means he had powers. He was a real live Hindu Tantric Holy Man of God, fresh off the plane from a lifetime in the countryside and monasteries of northern India. Nobody knew his birthday or his age, not even him. They don’t keep track of such things where he is from. His mother is said to believe he was born in the mango season but she did not know what year. Because mangos in India are harvested in the Fall, we assigned him a September birthday and that was okay with him. He was ageless and it was very difficult to guess his age by his appearance. He used to say, “To the children, I am a child. To the old men, I am an old man.” It was true.
Nityananda was a little man about 5’ 2” tall with chocolate skin, jet-black hair, a jet-black beard and jet-black eyes. If you know how to spot such things, it was apparent that he had been malnourished as a child but he was lively and vigorous at all times. His eyes twinkled but they could also pierce and he spoke in a lilting Indian accent with rolling “r’s”. He loved to joke and laugh and he did so all the time.
I knew Nityananda for a few years and I’d heard rumors that he was the master of a strange and unique martial art that nobody had ever heard of. He was the youngest of five brothers and the story was that he had to learn Lathi extra fast because his older brothers took delight in beating him to accelerate his training.
I was particularly interested in Lathi because, as a youth, I had what Structural Integrators call an imploded core. This is a structural condition that is not recognized by western medical science. My body was like a beer can with all the air sucked out of it. Some people might have called me just a skinny little kid but it was more complex than that. I was always smaller than other kids my age and I had a whole childhood full of bullies, some younger but bigger than me who pushed me around.
Also, about three years previous, I had been robbed at knifepoint on the streets of New York City. While it was happening, I remember my humiliation and looking at my robber and thinking, “If only I knew how to defend myself, this could turn out very different.” I also knew that no matter how well I defended, I could just as easily end up stabbed and dead. Nonetheless, I knew deep in my soul that Nityananda had something that I needed to complete myself. I asked him for a private consultation. It was just before Christmas, 1974.
When I arrived at his apartment, he immediately invited me in to join him in a meal. His living room was fully furnished with sofas and chairs but we sat on the floor. He ate rice out of a bowl with his fingers and he served me some too. I took one bite and my whole head instantly lit on fire. Tears filled my eyes and my neck and forehead broke into a heavy sweat. My throat clamped shut and I couldn’t talk. I was breathing in gasps. Steam must have shot out of my ears because Nityananda threw back his head and laughed his rollicking laugh. He said, “Curry! Is good! Hot like India.”
When we stopped laughing and I could again speak, he got serious. His expression changed and he looked me square in the eyes, this time without a trace of humor and said, “I want to teach you how to meditate.” I looked back squarely into his jet-black eyes and just as firmly, I said, “I have no interest whatever in learning how to meditate.” This surprised him and he was briefly taken aback. He quickly recomposed himself and just as seriously, he asked, “So what do you want from me?” I choked back a small sob and said, “I want you to teach me how to fight.”
“Aaahhh,” he said. “Lathi.”
“Yes,” I whispered from my soul through my stinging throat, “Lathi.”
Our eyes locked and he looked deep into me for quite some time. Then he reached behind for a pencil and a small piece of paper. He wrote on the paper and handed it to me. He said, “You be here.”
I looked and on the paper was a date, time and place for me to show up for my first Lathi lesson. The date on the paper was the first Saturday in January of 1975.
My First Lesson
On that day, I showed up at the appointed time and place. You might remember that Nityananda wanted to teach me how to meditate and I told him I wasn’t interested. The funniest part about my first lesson and all the other lessons that followed was that Nityananda began the class with…you guessed it… a 15-minute meditation. Then he taught the lesson. Then we finished up with…you guessed it…a 15-minute meditation. It turns out that the whole thing is meditation. So we both got our way.
Nityananda did not seem to have an ordered way for presenting the lessons. Perhaps there was one but I didn’t see it. Nor did he really teach at all in the sense that a tennis coach, for example, breaks down each technique into its component parts and corrects mistakes before bad habits develop. Nityananda merely did a technique or move and then said, “You do this.” Then he let us fumble and find our own way.
And fumble I did! I was not a natural at the martial arts. Au contraire. I struggled with it until even my best friends were telling me, “Give it up, Ritchie, before you hurt yourself.” It took me a year to find my feet but I did. It took me longer to find my center but I did. Then an amazing thing happened.
After 2 years, I had an ahhah! moment and I suddenly got the “big picture” of what Lathi was about. It was an amazing experience and it changed my life forever. Nityananda saw it instantly and congratulated me by saying, “You learn slowly but for long time.” He was right. I struggled with it seemingly forever but when I had my big breakthrough, I knew that I would never again “not have it”.
I was a Lathet. Nityananda had initiated me into an 8000-year lineage of Great Masters who love me deeply, smiled upon me and gave me a precious gift. I thank you forever.
In the midst of my ahhah! moment, I had a vision of how Lathi could be organized so that the techniques are taught in a more learnable order. Like words of a language, I saw that complex techniques came out of, or were related to, other simpler ones. I saw that a lot of what I was taught was out of order. I saw a hierarchy of complexity that suggested a logical curriculum.
A lot of this awareness came from long years of teaching music. I started playing music entirely by ear at age 8. When I was 15, I was teaching adults how to play. Frankly, most of them had no innate talent so I had to break down the instruction into component parts with logical steps that went from beginning to end, from simple to complex. And from that, they learned and they played music. My guarantee to my music students was this: If you do what I say, you will learn how to play. And they did.
That is what I did with Lathi. That is also how I created the Balanced~Movement curriculum out of Lathi. I designed an organized curriculum to teach Lathi so that anybody can learn it. It is taught simply and logically and any beginner can enter the class at any time.
One way Nityananda taught that was great, was that he ran the class like a one-room schoolhouse. He had an amazing ability to compartmentalize the people by ability levels and oversee the whole class like an air traffic controller looking down over the whole airport from up in the tower. He kept traffic moving by assigning those who had “gotten” a technique to help teach it to the newer students. Everybody was learning and everybody was teaching. It allowed Nityananda to manage a very large class by himself and that is how I teach it today.
Tools and Artifacts
The great futurist R. Buckminister Fuller said that humans should leave behind tools and artifacts so that future generations can learn the ways. I am dedicated to leaving all I know about Lathi in writings and in video format as a legacy for the future. My goal is to document my entire body of knowledge of Lathi into teachable, learnable lessons and make them available on the Internet so that anybody in the world can learn it.
Lathi in the World
Siddhapurusha Nityananda lit a fire that has warmed me since that cool crisp Boulder Saturday in January, 1975.
Will it catch? Will it spread?
This website contains the Lathi Curriculum as it was taught to me by Lathi Master Siddhapurusha Nityananda.
I offer it up as a gift to India, from where it came.