Fall in love with the shape of you, at Elysium, India's first calisthenics park

Flipping on the bars at India's first calisthenics park
Kirsten Varela (behind) and Rohan Singh at Elysium Calisthenics Park. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Do you want all of us shirtless?" Kirsten Varela, the 25-year-old jock behind Elysium Calisthenics Park, in Malad, asks before he joins fellow athlete Rohan Singh on the bars. "Yes, please, if you don't mind, thank you very much," we splutter. Varela, who is recovering from a leg injury (his left ankle is currently being held together with a steel rod and an iron will), does langdi till the bars and hauls himself up to a right angle like it's no biggie. His biceps strain and his abs crunch, as the sun bears down and sweat covers his torso.
"The best part about calisthenics," he says, even though we're looking at it, "is that it's mainly 90 per cent upper body: for pull-ups, muscle-ups, push-ups. So even though I'm injured, I can still continue training." It's safe to say that Varela is hooked to calisthenics. "Once you start, it is difficult to [let go]. Even if we're injured, we don't stop. We are shameless. Sometimes I have to tell the boys [the other members], 'Just go home, man. Your mom will fire me.' They are here for three to four hours." Varela has turned his backyard into a no-frills calisthenics park and christened it Elysium, a place of perfect happiness. Now, who can be blamed for being hooked to happiness?
Calisthenics, Varela tells us, comes from Greek. "It means beauty and strength. It's mixing your body with movements like mobility, stability and just trying to create a beautiful movement. There are four basic exercises: pull-ups, push-ups, squats and dips. Once you learn that, you can level up to exercises like the muscle-up, the handstand, the pullover, 360 and stuff." Elysium has a cage setup, along with three parallel bars. It has close to a hundred members today (a month costs '1,000), 15 of whom are women. While their youngest member is eight years old, and the oldest 55, the majority come from the age group of 15-30. "Usually the park is full, but exams are going on," says Varela.
An Arsenal fan, Varela grew up playing soccer, and eventually did his master's degree in sport management from Deakin University, Melbourne. He took to calisthenics because he couldn't take to the gym. "I didn't enjoy the vibe [in a gym]. There were a lot of guys who were really cocky, big dudes with a lot of attitude. In Melbourne, I was surrounded by a lot of parks like this. I was like, 'Let me just try.' The more I did it, the more I enjoyed it." While back home, his schoolmate, Singh, was making his own way to the sport. A hip-hop dancer, he was doing normal push-ups and handstands at home. "Slowly, I started learning the sport and spending two hours in the public park," he says. Of the public park, Varela adds his two bits, "The first time I tried doing a pull-up, the bar almost fell off. So, the quality of those bars is not the best. When these guys had to do pull-ups and muscle-ups, people literally had to hold on to the bars on the side."
Luckily, Varela's folks were standing by as crash mats. "The space [where Elysium stands today] was a party hall and it was called Rosario Lawns. We used to give that for birthday parties, small weddings or communion and baptism parties. When I told my folks, they transferred that property in my name. They were like, 'This is for you. Do what you want.' From a small party hall, we actually turned it into a full-fledged calisthenics and outdoor fitness area."
Elysium officially launched in March with the competition All India Strength Wars. With 50-plus participants, the idea was "to create a platform" for calisthenics athletes. One of the tryouts included 10 pull-ups, 20 straight bar dips, 30 push-ups and 40 squats in a row. "We add strength-based circuits and free-styling," says Singh. "Then we had a showdown, like a hip-hop battle." The response spurred them on. "In one year, the growth has been quite good," says Varela. "The thing with calisthenics is that anybody can do it. For example, if I asked you to lift 200 kg, that may be difficult. If I asked you to do push-ups on your knees, it's possible. With the proper technique, you can start somewhere. A lot of people who come to me are bored of the gym.
In calisthenics, we're very particular about the form. A perfect pull-up would be you pull yourself all the way up, chin over the bar, and you come all the way down. In the gym, people do this [does an abridged version]. You're cheating; you're not really building that strength." He cites the example of photographer Dev Dodia, who weighed 104 kg when he joined, and lost 30 kg in baby weight nine months later. Dodia, who is at the park, says, "I used to chill earlier. I used to see Rohan, whose strength was next level. He used to say, 'Lose weight and get into fitness.'" Today, Dodia trains at the park six days a week. "It's amazing how people can transform their bodies, just through calisthenics," says Varela. He whips out a few 'before' photos on his phone. "I was a skinny dude, and now I've gained muscle. Rohan had a little paunch, now he has abs." When we protest that's no paunch, he says, "He's flexing, that's why."