The Zurkhaneh is a place of heroes, where ancient rituals to enlighten the spirit and athletics to enhance the body work in unison, turning an ordinary man into a warrior. Little is known of the exact origins of Pahlavani and Zurkhaneh rituals, but it was sometime during the Achaemenid Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great, that this unique marriage of athletics and spiritualism wove into the fabric of Persian culture.
In the Zurkhaneh (the house of strength) the men work to the repetitious beat of the Morshed’s (master) drum, perfecting the three pillars of fitness – strength, flexibility and endurance. For the Pahlavan (warrior), this rigorous system conditions his body to break away from the conventions of traditional movement patterns, rendering him agiler and, as the renowned contemporary practitioner Kashi Azad describes it “increases alertness, concentration and awareness to bridge the mind body divide.”
Above: The Art of Using Meels
The Zurkhaneh is a manifestation of all Iran’s cultural and spiritual history, rooted in Mithraism. Verses from the Shahnameh, and music, that is intrinsically linked with the soul of Iran, plays an integral role in instilling a sense of pride in the men.
There consist seven arts of the Zurkhaneh, which are Sang (shield), Shena (push-ups), Meel (Persian club), Kabbadeh (iron bow), Narmesh and Beshin Basho (dynamic stretching and deep-knee bends) Pa Zadan (kicking and stomping), Zarb and Zang (drum and bell). Learning the final component signifies that a man is now worthy of the title Pahlavan.
Above: Practising the Seven Arts
What began as a strict regime for warriors and defenders of ancient Persia to master excellent strength and masculinity during peacetime, quickly grew into a brotherhood, helping men to bond and transform into heroes of their communities and nation.
As the centuries went by, and Persia convulsed with periods of upheaval, invasion and rebirth, shaking the land and culture to its core, Zurkhaneh rituals were themselves shaped by these convulsions.
Especially after the rise to prominence of Shia Islam, when Imam Ali was chosen as a patron, because of his legendary feats as a warrior. Philosophical components from Sufism were also included; however, at its heart, Zurkhaneh has never changed, the principles of brotherhood, obtaining physical, mental and spiritual strength remain as steadfast as they were during the time of King Cyrus.
A Conversation with Kashi Azad
Fresh from his travels, I spoke with Kashi Azad, a Persian-Australian, who has singlehandedly brought these ancient arts and rituals to an entirely new audience, extracting its core ingredients and mixing it into the contemporary form of Persian yoga.
Kashi began by explaining to me that his relationship with Zurkhaneh began in childhood, albeit from a distance. “Members of my family were and still are practitioners of these ancient arts and members of their local Zurkhaneh brotherhoods and communities.” he says “However, I didn’t have access to these communities as my immediate family, and I had migrated from Iran due to the ongoing war at the time. Hence I didn’t have access to these arts until long after the war when I could travel back to Iran to study and learn the Pahlavani arts from the greatest Morsheds.”
Blending the Old World with the New
His vision to take Zurkhaneh arts into a new direction emerged during a simple, yet impactful, moment – “The idea came simply from the first time I stepped inside the sacred Gowd, the octagonal pit in the middle of the Zurkhaneh where the ritual practice ceremonies are held and was completely blown out of the waters by 60-70-year-old veterans who proceeded to perform over 200 push-ups as warm up on the Shena before starting to swing the Meel. I was in my mid-twenties at the time and a competitive martial artist, my ego was tremendously hurt. Specially because having only seen the practice it had appeared so natural to me and I had been almost offended to have to participate in a training session with ‘these old-timers’.
After having experienced this simple, yet not easy, arts I realised that if young boys, old men, and Olympic and World Champion gold medal wrestlers, grapplers and martial artists can practice these arts SIMULTANEOUSLY and be as strong as they are and move as fluidly and effortlessly as they did then it is something I need to learn more about. I was immediately hooked. Consider this for a moment, a pure art that integrates ALL fitness components while stimulating the mind-body connection that can be practised as movement meditation by virtually anyone regardless of the stage of their life journey to become the strongest most nimble they can be is a profoundly potent and efficient system. Something this good MUST be shared. And here I am doing my very best to share it with you.”
Kashi went into detail about the methods and techniques he uses – “I use the traditional time tested, and battlefield proved techniques of Pahlavani or Persian Yoga as I call it. These techniques were designed by Persians in the antiquity and had been refined over thousands of years to forge elite warriors, like the Immortals, out of the ordinary people to feed their enormous war machine. As you may know, the Persians established the largest empire mankind had ever seen in antiquity, and they did this not by fighting from a distance but by walking up to their enemies and taking them to the ground so to speak. Think of this system as the Persian equivalent to the Captain America super soldier program. Except the Persian version is a natural life long practice and not one time instantly gratifying juice or magic pill. Persian Yoga is real. It is a way of life. I didn’t come up with any of it, I have only compiled the techniques in the most straightforward and efficient way I could to facilitate their transmission across cultural barriers to those who lack access to the Zurkhaneh and live outside of Iran.”
For the participants, the response to Persian Yoga has been “overwhelmingly positive” says Kashi “I had some underwhelming response in the early stages while I was tuning my approach to overcome the cultural barriers promoting a traditionally Iranian art to a Western audience. Persian Yoga being over 2000 years old is as much a culture as a physical, mental and spiritual practice.I also had, and continue to have, some challenge in the Yoga and CrossFit communities. Some Yogis and CrossFitters, especially in the height of CrossFit fever a couple of years ago, have/had in my experience a cultist attitude to their practice which prevents them from gaining the insights and benefits that the world’s most ancient and longest running form of strength conditioning has to offer.”
The Eternal Zurkhaneh
Much has been written about the decline of traditional Persian artforms. A younger generation in Iran looking away from the old and embracing new and alien things etc, varzesh-e Pahlavani is one of those artforms supposedly being left in the past; however, this is not the case, according to Kashi, who radiates with enthusiasm – “The International Brotherhood of Pahlavans is expanding more rapidly than ever before in its history. Today we have practitioners in over 40 countries across the globe with regular international events thanks to the efforts of the International Zurkhaneh Sports Federation (IZSF). US is the fastest emerging market for the Persian Yoga arts with the majority of my clients being US based.”
He concludes – “These arts have withstood the test of time and have been around for over 2000 years. It is not a fad. It is a way of life, an ancient brotherhood and community with values that transcend cultural boundaries. It has been and will be around longer than any of us, I have no doubts about this.”