My Way with Vyayam
by Tom Billinge
Tom Billinge found his way into martial arts through a trip to Thailand in the early 2000s. Quickly becoming hooked on Muay Thai, he spent the next few years training in his native England and in Bangkok. Tom left the UK in 2009 and spent 6 years living in Asia. He now lives in the USA where he splits his time between writing, teaching Muay Thai, learning Jiu Jitsu, practicing Vyayam, cultivating his garden, fermenting foods and exploring the States with his wife and dog.
I am by nature a traditionalist. I like bareknuckle pugilism. I like traditional Muay Thai. I like traditional Vyayam.
As a child, I was never particularly sporty. I played a little Rugby, but didn’t have much technical skill, I was just big for my age. After university, I travelled to Thailand and experienced Muay Thai. It was a game changer for me. Combat sports became a lifelong passion and I love teaching Muay Thai.
I had intermittently gone to the gym and lifted weights since my early 20s. It was always a chore for me. I had a eureka moment a few years ago when I discovered Paul Wolkowinski’s videos of Akhara training in India. The gada caught my eye and I immediately made one. My first gada was too heavy at 25lb (11, 3kg) and I couldn’t swing it. I made a 15lb (6, 8kg) gada and swung it for the first time. It was a moment, much like when I discovered Muay Thai, that changed everything for me.
It felt right.
I began swinging the gada daily. I read and watched all of the material I could get my hands on (I still do). I discovered Marcus Quijas’ youtube-Videos and Quiet Power-website, which gave me even more insight. When I found the work of William Calvani, I expanded my routine with the aim of training a complete traditional Vyayam system, as close to one would find in an Indian Akhara.
There is no disputing the immediate practical application of Vyayam training to combat sports, particularly grappling. The motions, the grip strength, the increase in muscle strength on the back, shoulders and neck. Vyayam sets you up to be better at both wrestling, clinching and striking.
The gada remains at the heart of my Vyayam training, which is my exclusive strength and conditioning method. I do not lift weights or swing kettlebells. I have discovered my perfect system. I prefer circles to lifts and jerks. I prefer isometric and traditional bodyweight exercises to modern calisthenics. Thanks to Jan Adams, I have added the wrestler’s bridge to my training, a new challenge, but one which compliments what I’m already doing.
Typically, I start with dands, bethaks, and bethak-dands, before moving on to gada swings. I prefer bricks to a shena board for dands, as I can have my hands in a more sideways position that is more traditional for Kushti wrestlers. I vary my gada weight, but swing 15- 25lbs for single arm swings and 25- 40lbs for two-handed swings. I believe in getting full extensions in front of the body and behind the neck. I almost exclusively swing 10-to-2s, rarely performing 360s. I make gadas not only for myself, but also for other people who approach me with commissions.
I use a gar nal that weighs around 65lbs (29, 5kg) for weighted squats and walks. I find it much more natural than a barbell for squats, as it works the neck and distributes the weight more evenly through the body. The sumtola that I have started exploring. While I make all my own equipment, I want to add jori training to my routine, so the next step is having a pair made by a local wood turner.
I am in essence, creating an Akhara here at my home. I absolutely believe in the strength and conditioning power of Vyayam and its application to combat sports. After years of trying to get stronger through conventional gym exercises, I have had success with an ancient method. One that has created strong men for centuries. It speaks to me in a practical way and also in a spiritual way. I find meditative peace in the rhythms of the exercises. I like being outside rather than in an air-conditioned box. In a way, the rhythmic nature of Vyayam connects me to what my Ancient Greek ancestors performed and called calisthenics.
Vyayam has made my fighting game stronger. When I took up Jiu Jitsu at the beginning of this year, the work I had put in with the gada helped. I have a solid grip and strength foundation for grappling. Once my grappling technique improves, I have no doubts that my Vyayam practice will give me the edge over my peers when rolling and competing.