I went to a new gym today. When asked, I say I’ve been ‘doing’ (taking classes in) muay thai since December 2015, and ‘training’ (classes 3 – 5 times a week) since this year. In fact, I picked up kickboxing over ten years ago, when I came back from studying overseas, and again when I was 30, just before moving from the city to Port Dickson. I never took it seriously, but no one else took me seriously either. The closest someone got was a trainer who told me, offhandedly, ‘you could probably get pretty good at this’. He also, possibly in reaction to my stony suffering face during our 7am sessions, regularly asked if I was depressed.
Until recently, I’ve had trainers hit on me in every gym I have ever been in. This is not to say that I’m somehow extraordinary, rather that I suspect this is the overwhelmingly ordinary experience of women in gyms, martial arts ones or otherwise.
Now, at 36, no one hits on me. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve learned to take myself seriously. I’ve had to ask for everything I wanted in muay thai – better trainers, more sparring, the opportunity to fight, or simply to be left alone. Not long ago, someone (it could only have been a man) asked if English was my second language, because ‘you seem… kind of reserved’. No, I replied, my English is perfect, it’s that I want to practice punching this bag instead of talking to you.
Sometimes, especially when my body registers the very real difference in endurance between now and when I was 30, I wish I’d learned to speak my desire – to ask – earlier. But I don’t really regret. Part of aging is knowing certain kinds of learning only come with time, like wingseeds borne spinning down by gravity.
Still, I think a lot about how I look in the gym. Pink and green is a favorite color combination. Today, between the tight camouflage singlet and the loose camouflage t-shirt that I like to wear with my pink satin shorts, I chose the t-shirt.
A new gym means getting to know a new coach, his rhythm, his persona – who, really, he is. Martial art is full expression of the self with nowhere to hide, for both teacher and student. The first word ajarn J. said to me, as I took off my shoes at the door of his gym, was ‘welcome’.
I haven’t studied enough muay thai to be able to discern good teaching. I’m at the unicellular sponge phase, absorbing everything in the ever deepening water. But I know how I feel. Padwork with ajarn J. was like dancing with a great partner. I felt the joy bouncing off me, coming out in explosive little laughs, even as I gasped for breath. In three 3 minute rounds I learned an astonishing amount, which I will note here, in an effort to retain as much as I can in the sieve of my body and brain:
No skipping in the left kick, or left knee. An easy, sure step with the right leg is all it takes. Note the difference in balance and power.
My knees could be angled more, and higher. And then turned into a block, where I press my shin against my opponent’s upper thighs, while grabbing their neck with my opposing arm.
Also, 3 different counters for the jab or punch – a teep to the lower lead leg for the jab, right teep for the punch. Sweep the jab with the right hand while sweeping the lead leg with your lead leg to throw the opponent forward. Sweep inside the punch and hook the back leg with the lead leg…? Damn, I can’t remember the sweeps.
I’ve never been able to do spinning back elbows with any kind of conviction. I mean, I know the move, but today I learned this: to apply the technique… you have to keep your eyes open. I was closing them at the moment of impact. This is what progress, and a good teacher, means in muay thai – realizing the split second of what the body is doing.
He kept distracting me, little flicks of his hand, pointing to the door, to the ceiling. I fell for it every single time. After the experience of keeping my eyes open during the spinning back elbows, something snapped into focus. I locked onto ajarn J.’s eyes, and entered a pocket of calm for maybe 20 seconds. In that pocket, no fear, no real effort or striving for the right technique. Just a pure focus in the moment and the other person facing me. It was… something I have been trying to achieve. I knew it intellectually – I experience flow regularly in art making – but my body had not known it in muay thai until then. The body does not go into the pocket because the mind wills it. No, that’s the difficulty – it’s a letting go, not a striving.
How do I extend these 20 seconds? This is the meaning of practice. Months, perhaps a year, for 20 seconds. Meanwhile: failure, defeat… and joy.
I’ve been wanting to write about training muay thai since last year, but my mind has always come first, and this was something I wanted to just let my body do. Then I realized I was stockpiling notes, feeling the wave of words come, and letting them break into foam, lost. I’ve been gone, standing on the shore, listening to the roar. Now I have its rhythm, and write my way to the return.