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Is calisthenics India's newest fitness and sports cult?

More and more young Indians are turning to calisthenics not just for fitness, but also as a sport

Calisthenics athlete Srushti Shah.
Calisthenics athlete Srushti Shah.

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A calisthenics coaching club in Pune was full of athletes on a mid-July Sunday morning, as they gathered around four pull up bars, two parallel bars, and one monkey bar. There were flying plumes of chalk, and lots of hype music playing in the background. This was the freestyle calisthenics national championship, with the winners getting a spot at the Street Workout World Championships (SWWC) to be held in Latvia in August.

There is no official calisthenics federation in India, primarily because it is not an Olympic sport yet. But the Latvia-basedWorld Street Workouts and Calisthenics Federation (WSWCF) has two affiliated member groups in India. One of these, the National Calisthenics Federation of India, does not operate anymore. The other is the Alphapack Calisthenics India, with five-time national champion Kunal Mahour, 26, acting as the main link between Alphapack and the world federation.

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National calisthenics champion Kunal Mahour.
National calisthenics champion Kunal Mahour.

The top 16 countries at the SWWC get to send two male athletes and one female athlete to Latvia, and Mahour’s 13th-placed finish at the competition in Moscow last year has ensured more exposure to India’s calisthenics community. “I have been representing India for a few years now, and have decided to take a backseat and start organising more events to make sure others get a chance to compete at the highest level,” says the Pune-based athlete.

Mahour’s organisation also helped India host the global qualifiers for the Calisthenics World Cup (another event organised by the world federation) in March, in which athletes from countries around India participated to decide who would compete in the super finals. “I’ve been in touch with the world federation since 2014 now, and I’ve told them how we keep calisthenics alive in the country without funding. But with the kind of response we are getting, it makes sense for India to host more of these events,” Mahour says. He adds that there are plans to change the name of Alphapack Calisthenics to something more official sounding.

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The national freestyle championships introduced a female category for the first time this year. Srushti Shah, 22, was one of only two competitors at the event, but it was still a watershed moment for the sport: “If I don’t start competing now, then when? We have to start at some point,” she says. Shah is a computer engineer and now a certified calisthenics coach, and is almost single-handedly inspiring women to take up calisthenics. Apart from her personal Instagram handle, which has nearly 45,000 followers, she has also started a community called Calisthenics Girls India and a training platform called Grip It.

“We have had more than 200 women turn up for meetups across five cities at calisthenic parks, with the most successful ones called freestyle Fridays, which allows everyone to show their skills and more importantly, learn,” she says. Shah will be travelling to Latvia with her own savings, but says that the sport has to grow enough for sponsors to back athletes to make it easier for athletes to compete abroad.

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Competitions usually involve athletes getting two minutes to showcase their skills, often divided in categories such as: static/holds, dynamic moves, and flow. The number of moves in calisthenics is endless, and has interesting names as well. An example would be Srushti Shah’s routine: “I started with a ‘shrimp’ and failed it. Then I went on to do an ‘under topsy’, followed by a ‘dragon 360’, and finally a reverse flyaway. My statics included a back lever, a front lever, and a one-arm elbow lever.”

Having done some calisthenics in life, one of my happiest moments in a gym was when Mahour and other trainers gathered around for my muscle-up 360 attempt, celebrating the first time I managed to pull off a grab. This is the kind of support and camaraderie that fuels the sport. Pioneers like him and Srushti Shah are important to the sustenance of the sport, and producing better athletes.

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The gap in international competition is reducing, but India is not that far off. When Mahour finished 13th at the SWWC, he scored of 35 out of 60. The first-placed athlete had a score of 52 and the 2nd-placed athlete 48. The 10th-placed athlete had 38 points. “I think where we are right now could be accelerated with some kind of government support but if you take that out of the equation, calisthenics is accelerating at a very exciting level in India,” he says.

As for Shah, she is revelling at the fact that so many women are stepping forward to learn. “Six months ago, hardly a few people could do a back lever. In the last meetup I attended, I saw 20 athletes get it right. The clincher in calisthenics is that of course it looks cool but it also develops your fitness and physique. The added sweetener is you have a skill under your belt which isn’t a conventional lift of some kind.”

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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