Edappal, Kerala—Arya Prathap, 9, twirls her Kuruvadi, or blunt wooden staff, on her right hand as she stares ominously into the eyes of her opponent. A few seconds go by before she leaps into the air to deliver a strike to the head, then lands firmly on the ground to aim for the feet.
Her opponent is her cousin Ardra, 11, who manages to avoid both strikes then grips Arya’s right arm and swiftly takes the wooden staff for herself.
Arya and Ardra are demonstrating a fight sequence from one of the oldest forms of Indian martial arts—Kalaripayattu.
The art form originated in the south Indian state of Kerala. Translated into English, Kalari means place of practice and Payattu means defense.
Often referred to as the ‘mother of all martial arts,’ its fighting stances mimic the movements of animals in the wild and rely on balance, flexibility and stamina. K. Haneefa, owner and lead Gurukkal, or teacher, at HGS Kalari, a third-generation family-owned school in Edappal, Kerala quotes,
I can say that this is the Kalari which hosts the maximum number of girls in probably the whole of Kerala.
Although Kalaripayattu was once a sacred art form taught to men and boys in the Kshatriya, or Hindu warrior caste, Muslims gradually began to train in it as well. While the art form involves several sacred rituals, Haneefa says its foundation is a practice that demands respect and makes it inclusive to people of all backgrounds and religions.
As a Muslim practitioner, Haneefa separates the religious aspect of the art form from its practice and sees it as a powerful way to prepare girls for the hardships of adulthood. He began training his daughters when they were just four years old and says that concerns over the rise in crimes against women in India inspired him to teach the art form to girls. Haneefa continues on to say,
They need the courage to go out in society, they need mental strength.
While the rigorous exercises of Kalaripayattu strengthen the body, he says learning such a demanding artform instills a sense of responsibly and reinforces discipline, which also strengthens the mind.
A father cannot always protect her and there’s no guarantee that her husband will protect her either. We should empower her in whatever way possible.
Nina Nayar, a Kerala-based anthropologist and member of the Raising Our Voices (ROV) Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps prevent violence against women explains that in Indian culture, women are taught to be submissive and obedient, so in a way, Kalaripayattu is forcing women to challenge the very boundaries that they’ve been taught. Nayar explains:
Kalari makes you have to use space, grab space, advance, lunge. I think it works better than a hundred lectures that I can do on empowerment because you’re physically making that person break through the boundaries.
Nayar says that interest in self-defense among females has been on the rise throughout the state, especially within the last 10 years. She also notes how the practice picked up a lot of steam after the Nirbhaya rape in Delhi.
On December 16, 2012, 23-year-old student Jyoti Singh was brutally raped by six men while on a bus heading home after watching a movie. Singh eventually succumbed to her injuries and became known as Nirbhaya, or fearless
While this event happened in Delhi, it sent a wave of shock and anger across the country which resulted in mass protests against India’s laws against sexual offenses. Nayar reflects the impact that this shock had on one’s safety and security:
People started re-evaluating because there were a lot of assumptions and presumptions about safety and comfort, so safety and self-defense became a very big piece of it.
Empowering the Next Generation
Dressed in black training pants and shirts with red sashes tied around their waists, Prathap, Ardra and their classmates sit on brick tile floors as they patiently await the commands of their female Gurukkal, Arifa Kodiyil. Kodiyil is a four-time state champion in Kalaripayattu and teaches the artform to girls three times a week alongside her father, Haneefa, and her sister Anshifa. Kodiyil says,
Through Kalari, we get enough willpower and mental strength to defend ourselves against those who try to disturb us or say anything against us.
She continues the decades-long tradition of arduous training practiced by her grandfather and says that teaching helps her contribute to the next generation of physically and mentally empowered females. Kodiyil continues to say,
My wish is that more girls should learn this. This is essential for them in the days to come.
Since the early 1960s Kalaripayattu’s action-packed fighting sequences have been featured in several major Indian films, making the art form a popular fitness regimen and practice throughout the country. But for many young Indian women, the art form is much more than a practice; it is a source of strength, courage, and empowerment.
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Ten to 28% of the world’s population of women experience painful sex. Keep in mind, that this is just what is reported. As embarrassing and as vulnerable as you may feel, you are absolutely not alone. The good news is that in addition to your traditional medical care to treat painful sex (also known as dyspareunia) such as medication, injections and surgery — a conservative approach is effective and long-lasting. Conservative care ranges from pelvic floor physical therapy, chiropractic care and acupuncture which are beneficial in treating the root cause of painful sex, as well as symptoms, for long-term healing.
Some of the signs to look out for if you experience pain are:
Treatment options for painful sex such as pelvic floor physical therapy, chiropractic care and acupuncture provide a long-lasting and profound effect on the pelvic floor and address your entire physical well-being.
The pelvic floor is a layer of muscles that range from the pubic bone to the tailbone. The purpose of these muscles is to assist in bowel and bladder control, support a baby during pregnancy and contribute to sexual sensations. Just like any other muscle in your body, these pelvic floor muscles can become tight or weak which can be a contributing factor to pain.
Pelvic Floor Physical Therapy
Pelvic floor therapy can assist by strengthening and relaxing the muscles which is necessary to relieve pain during sex.
Chiropractors can be extremely beneficial with assisting in helping relieve pain. Associated pain and discomfort can originate from the lower back and buttock muscles. Chiropractors are trained in taking a history and performing a neurological, orthopedic and soft tissue examination to identify treatment options. Deep tissue massage, skin rolling, Active Release Technique, muscle energy technique, ice, heat and electrical stimulation are just to name a few.
Acupuncture can activate the human dopamine system which helps regulate hormone levels and can assist in psychological factors. Acupuncture can improve mood, decrease pain and can be vastly beneficial in managing pain and mental health symptoms.
Ask for help
“Everyone is having pelvic pain and no one is talking about it”
Start with seeing your gynecologist who you trust for a history and examination of current symptoms to rule out any other medical conditions that could be a contributing factor to symptoms.
How to talk to your partner about this in a safe/healthy way
Being open with your partner about your symptoms and painful sex may seem like a difficult conversation. Intercourse should never be painful and learning when to stay ‘stop’ is important in communication. Talking about pain before, during and after sex is important also in your own health diagnosis to see if pain symptoms are improving or becoming worse. Having open communication does not only benefit your relationship but most importantly, your own health.
To experience these symptoms may seem taboo or unheard of but quite frankly, they are common in many women. Women deserve to be directed to proper healthcare.
Disclaimer: These are based on recommendations from a board-certified chiropractic physician and licensed acupuncturist. If symptoms become new or worse, consult with a primary care physician and or OBGYN to co-manage symptoms.
I was taken aback when my late cousin shared this with me on the cusp of our twenties.
As a fairly modest Indo Guyanese girl raised in the Connecticut suburbs, the thought of discussing a stranger’s love life seemed not only foreign but shocking to me. Nevertheless, my cousin was always bold in this way. She took pride in the more daring aspects of our Caribbean culture with natural confidence. It was one of the things I loved and now miss most about her.
Admittedly however, it was over a decade before I started to understand some of her deeper curiosity in love, sexuality and mental health. This awakening was thanks greatly to Dr. Samosa.
In early 2020, Dr. Sarika Persaud, a New-York based, Indo Guyanese psychologist specializing in relationships, sexuality and complex trauma, took to Instagram as “Dr. Samosa,” an alias inspired by her favorite South Asian snack — and one she feels is a common thread for brown girls.
The platform became a safe space for brown girls to connect on topics like mental health, psychoanalysis, sexuality and relationships. From discussing sexual empowerment to building a strong sense of self, Dr. Persaud quietly became a confidant for those craving practical and candid insights the community shied away from.
Dr. Persaud and I sat down to talk about her journey and breaking these taboos in the South Asian society.
Her interest in psychology started as a journey of self-discovery as a pre-teen.
“I think I experienced myself as different from my peers,” she explained during our interview.
She didn’t get caught up in teenage drama and avoided certain types of relationships and people. Meanwhile, the friends she did make saw her in “this sort of teacher role.”
“I became curious about that about myself — how, in some ways, I found it beneficial to feel my feelings and have a depth people were drawn to, but also use it in ways to isolate myself,” Dr. Persaud said.
She was also beginning to identify as bisexual.
She shared, “I think I was avoiding my sexuality in some ways and psychology became a way for me to understand myself more. It’s always been this confluence of philosophy and science and even art for me.”
Growing up in Queens, New York, Dr. Persaud saw fellow Indo Caribbean women at a “very specific intersection of religion and culture.” It was the nexus of Caribbean values which welcomed sexuality and more modest Indian traditions. Caribbean influence seemed to “remove a boundary” on how Indo Caribbean women felt permitted to present themselves sexually, she explained. On one hand, after her Bharatanatyam dance classes, she saw her didis (the older girls) leave their classical moves behind for sexy Bollywood choreography and dancehall songs.
“It was exciting, like they were just beginning to find ways to express their sexuality,” she reflected. Then, around the same time, Dr. Persaud discovered a copy of the “Kama Sutra” at home and her mother was appalled. “What’s wrong with your daughter?” aunties asked.
Confused, Dr. Persaud thought “You own this. This is from our culture and it’s a Sanskrit text. It’s literally a religious text. It all seemed so powerful — and yet so many people were afraid of it.”
Something didn’t add up.
In 2013, she started a blog to bring a voice to topics like these. As word of her content spread, Dr. Persaud was met with backlash from her temple. Leaders said her blog was inappropriate and dishonorable to her community, but she stuck with it and her family stuck by her.
A few years later, when she launched Dr. Samosa to share her research and insights with a wider audience, sexuality came front and center.
“Sexuality — how you understand and honor what you want and like, and the ways you let yourself experience that pleasure — is intrinsically connected to how deserving you feel in the world,” she explained.
For example, if you think you’re worthy of a raise at work, a partner who desires you, or a family that listens to you — all can be linked back to a block in your relationship with yourself as a sexual being.
However, if you can feel confident in something as “primal, instinctual, and personal” as your sexuality, Dr. Persaud argues you lay the foundation for confidence in these other areas of your life.
Dr. Persaud says the fear of sexuality comes into play for South Asians.
“Being comfortable with your sexuality means being comfortable with your power,” she explained. “If everyone felt empowered and had a healthy relationship with themselves sexually, a lot of our relationships and hierarchies in society would change. And there are just so many people who benefit from women and marginalized communities (like LGBTQ+ and those with chronic illnesses) being disempowered,” Dr. Persaud said.
Throughout her work, Dr. Persaud has found it’s especially difficult for South Asian women to feel pride in themselves as sexual beings.
“There’s so much shame about the self and the body. Women especially are held to a double standard and it’s so confusing. If you look one way, you won’t get a husband. If you look sexual, no one will want to hire you for a job. Regardless of the South Asian ethnic group, there’s the same shame and belief that your body has to look a certain way, and if it doesn’t, you’re not desirable. Everything gets tied up in sexual shame.”
It’s undeniable that Bollywood movies have also heavily impacted many of our views on love and sex, but Dr. Persaud didn’t condemn this.
She says, “People need to realize Bollywood started from a tradition of classical drama and dance from ancient India. Those dances were meant to be explorations of dreams and mythical and philosophical ideas. Bollywood is just a continuation of that. It’s meant to be a break from reality.”
Real relationships are much more fraught and complicated than in films, but that doesn’t mean you should be ashamed of looking to Bollywood as a way to be in touch with romance and love in your life.
“They’re a fantasy,” Dr. Persaud added.
She also argued Bollywood isn’t necessarily as “censored” as many claim.
“People don’t have to watch others physically have sex or kiss to be in touch with their sensuality,” she noted. “It can be much more nuanced to see two people just embracing in a way that stirs up feelings. Like, how does it feel to have your lover’s head against your chest? Culturally, we just explore and express sexuality differently than the West.”
When it comes to becoming more comfortable with our bodies and sexual health, Dr. Persaud says it starts with self-reflection.
“Ask yourself why you’re afraid of being sexy or seen as sexual. Are you afraid your family will reject you? That you’ll be thrown out of your home? We all have different triggers, and once you identify yours, you can get to the issue underneath it all.”
Dr. Persaud encourages women to ask themselves important questions.
“If you’re afraid that if you assert your sexuality, your family will reject or not support you, how can you be more financially independent? How can you find pride in being able to take care of yourself?” She urges women to take inventory of what they like. “Look at books and movies and what you see in the world and consciously take note of what you react to. This puts you more in touch with yourself.”
When it comes to fostering open conversations with others, Dr. Persaud says to lead with vulnerability and clarity.
“If you wonder whether your friends have had sex yet and are embarrassed to ask, voice that concern. Share how you’re feeling or ask yourself why. Leading conversations with vulnerability allows people to connect a little bit more; to feel safer to share.”
“If you’re uncomfortable with something your partner does or want more of something else, talk about what you want to change and why it’s important to you. It’s not a shortcoming on their part, but rather you saying ‘this is what I need for myself. Is this something we can talk about and work on together?’”
With South Asian families, especially older relatives, things can get a bit more complex. Boundary setting is important as the family can bring out your biggest triggers.
“You need to be at a point where you own yourself,” Dr. Persaud explained. For example, if your mom finds out you were out with someone and questions you about it — “A bai? A boy?!” — you should be able to say confidently, ‘Yeah I was on a date,’ and also not feel obligated to give more details. Of course, that may not always be safe for someone younger, but at a certain age, it is OK to be private, to have that shield to protect and develop yourself and your confidence,” Dr. Persaud says.
Dr. Persaud also reinforces the importance of knowing your boundaries when reflecting on “coming out” to parents. She wanted to be open about her bi-sexuality with her parents; that she was dating — but not just men. She stresses however, one does not need to be excessively open.
“Not everyone has to come out and not everyone has to come out to everyone. You’re likely not facing anything new from your parents when coming out. If they are critical and judgmental generally in life, they’re probably going to be like that again. South Asian dads can really just be like, ‘Okay, don’t tell me you’re a sexual being,’” she laughed.
While Dr. Persaud is thankful for her parents’ acceptance, there are members of her family who’ve been less than supportive. She credits her confidence and sense of self for drowning them out.
“I’ve found the more I become comfortable with myself, the more I have this sexual energy that I can use creatively and in other good ways. If my dad rejects me, it doesn’t change that I am bisexual. Or if my mom rejects me, it’s not going to change this thing I know so deeply about myself. I’m just sharing something true. I can’t change it.”
Toward the end of our conversation, I shared with Dr. Persaud that I wondered how my own family would react to this article. I felt a bit of shame.
But she reminded me, “You can also find pride in it — ‘Yeah, I’m really proud of the fact that I’m one of the people breaking the stigma. I’m talking about something important to people’s health.’”
And she’s right, as was my dear cousin in her early ambitions. These conversations are never easy, but walking in curiosity, confidence and pride can help us find our power as South Asian women. It can help break the stigma surrounding love, sexuality and relationships in our community and their roles in our greater health.
In so many ways, sexual health and mental health are not only connected but interdependent. In fact, Dr. Persaud believes the more confident people are in their bodies and identities, the more confident they are as a whole — and the more attractive they are.
“Sexual attraction and energy comes from people being competent and peaceful and calm with themselves; knowing who they are,” she said, and the more we learn to embrace this and speak about it openly, the more we can not only grow but thrive.
For more on Dr. Sarika Persaud’s (aka Dr. Samosa) doctoral work and writing, visit her website or Instagram @doctor.samosa. For more on how to talk to your family or children about sexual health, visit sexpositivefamilies.com.
Mental health in the South Asian community has long been stigmatized, and South Asian individuals who experience psychological issues might feel hesitant to express their concerns due to the shame they may encounter. Nevertheless, while there has been progress made in studying and openly discussing South Asian mental health, several topics remain in need of further examination; these include studying the relationship between mental health and gender, specifically the role of masculinity on mental health outcomes.
What is South Asian masculinity?
Masculinity and mental health have come under greater scrutiny by researchers, particularly as traditional masculinity is often cited as the reason why men are less willing to reach out for support regarding psychological issues. However, the influence of masculine norms on well-being has been insufficiently viewed through an intersectional lens and is understudied within South Asian mental health. From a South Asian context, traditional masculinity can include focusing on material success while displaying suppressed emotionality, which can be manifested through anger or practicing other harmful behaviors.
In order to understand its influence, it is critical to examine the impact of traditional paradigms of masculinity across the diaspora. For instance, some traits associated with traditional masculinity among South Asian men include displaying control over others. A Sri-Lanka-based study found that most male participants “associated manhood with dominance…” A Forbes India article asserted how boys in India are “taught to … apply themselves to the task of growing up to be a strong, unwavering support system for their families,” which in turn forces them to be silent about topics that may make them seem weak. This pattern of behavior becomes manifested in a particularly harmful way because boys grow up with the inability to handle their emotions or formulate healthy coping strategies during challenging circumstances.
These norms can have drastic implications and harm other community members. For instance, a focus group conducted among Nepali men found that failure to deliver for their household economically as breadwinners eventually resulted in heated disputes, which escalated and led them to engage in domestic violence. The presence of domestic violence can also be observed through media stories on the pervasiveness of gender-based harm within South Asian communities, as seen in the murder of Sania Khan.
Traditional masculinity also hides the wounds that South Asian men may be battling within themselves. One paper asserts that for a sizable number of Indian men, “…sadness and despair find a distorted manifestation in destructive behaviors that deny their emotional pain to themselves and to others.” Thus, performing conventionally masculine behaviors can mask deeper mental health issues.
Repercussions of South Asian masculinity on mental health
Because of the pressure to adhere to such strict standards of conduct, traditional masculinity has significant, greater repercussions for mental health and well-being. For instance, because of the narrow ability of men to compartmentalize their feelings, this restrictive emotionality can result in an inability for others to recognize their mental health issues, thus failing to target the deeper causes of men’s behavior. Furthermore, men themselves might engage in fewer help-seeking behaviors. This is also further complicated due to gaps in culturally competent services that can serve South Asian men when they do utilize support systems.
Additional social forces experienced by South Asian men might explain mental health outcomes, particularly when considering the role of immigration. Among South Asian American men in the United States, one study noted that “a lower social position” within their community was linked to higher distress, indicating how critical it was for first-generation men to be leaders and actively participate in their ethnic community’s organizations. Thus, social expectations of men within South Asian communities influenced their well-being, as did their social status and relative power.
What we can do to change the status quo on South Asian masculinity and mental health
In order to ensure that men in South Asian cultures can embrace their mental health, it is important to formulate a prudent, welcoming paradigm that encourages greater help-seeking behaviors. Greater attention to this topic can also contribute to theories on feminist and sociocultural therapeutic frameworks, which both offer the following includes suggested remedies:
Challenging gender stereotypes and encouraging mental health care as a means to discuss issues about well-being
It is imperative to encourage South Asian men to show more emotion, thus changing the existing narrative and social pressure they face to limit the expression of their feelings. Fortunately, there is a platform, known as @BrownManTherapy, that posts content about the struggles South Asian men experience. Furthermore, therapy ought to be recommended as a means to deal with mental health concerns, which should be combined with support from the community.
More South Asian male clinicians
In addition to instituting changes in community norms, there needs to be more diverse representation in the mental health field. In doing so, there will be greater platforms to have conversations about the negative repercussions of traditional masculinity that are unique to South Asian men. Furthermore, it is critical to challenge the social stigma that mental health is a female-dominated profession or that seeking therapy is emasculating.
More research studies examining cross-cultural differences in masculinity across South Asian cultures
The connection between masculinity and mental health ought to be investigated much further. Studies should particularly assess masculinity within non-white contexts in order to examine the standards of manhood across several communities and truly understand the unique stressors men face across different cultural backgrounds.
While the connection between South Asian masculinity and mental health is not discussed among psychology professionals, it is critical to study the association since it plays a role in South Asian gender inequities and in mental health behaviors among South Asian men. More broadly, given the prevalence of intimate partner violence within the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and the role of patriarchal norms in inflicting this harm, it is now more important than ever to reimagine expectations surrounding men’s behavior.
By further examining the problems caused by adherence to traditionally masculine norms and implementing certain solutions, these ideas can be challenged and dismantled to create a progressive and more inclusive model of manhood. Above all, identifying and eradicating toxic ideas rooted in traditional South Asian masculinity will lead to liberation for all people.