My knee in March 2016


11 Oct 2017: I spent last week sick and denying it. When the fever started on Monday, I thought I would be back in training by Wednesday, and when it was accompanied by a dry hacking cough that kept me up for the next five nights, I was still stubborn enough to book class on Saturday, which, of course, I had to cancel.

My mind went strange places, including convincing myself that wellness was a matter of will. A real fighter wouldn’t let a cold stop their training, in fact, a real fighter wouldn’t have gotten sick at all.

In short, while my body was fighting a virus, I was fighting my body. The fever came and went. I was like an abusive lover, tenderly feeding my body vitamins one moment, berating it for not responding by instantly getting well the next.

It was the same when I injured my knee last year. The same mental tape. When? When will you be back to the way you were? And why? Why are you not healing the way I want you to, in the time that I need you to? Rehab exercises, turmeric, physio sessions, kinetic tape – what else do you want from me?

Hyper-vigilant and agonized, I counted the days of missed training, which turned into weeks, then months.

Today, it’s as if I never tore my meniscus, and besides a lingering cough, the recent cold is all but forgotten. My body has healed, in its own time, in its own way.

I will tell you a story about the mystery that exists between mind and body. Up to March this year – a full 12 months since the tear – I was still taping my right knee before class. My left kick had never been pretty, but it was worse now, because it’s not the kicking leg that matters, but the standing leg, the one that pivots. Tall Coach watches my left kicks on the bag, and how I frown and wince with each one. He asks if my knee hurts. I’ve been asked this before, by other trainers, and always answered no, because I don’t want to seem weak, or like I’m making excuses. This time, I stop and think about it. ‘No,’ I say, ‘There’s no pain, but it feels, I mean I feel… afraid.’ I’m laughing, sheepish. Tall Coach nods, silent for awhile, then tells me: ‘Your knee remembers the trauma.’ On hearing those words, a gap that had existed in me for a year closed, as surely as a key fitting into its lock. I felt the click, not in my knee, but my whole body. I turned back to the bag and executed a series of almost perfect left kicks, more beautifully than I’d been able to do before I got hurt.

It would seem that my knee had mended long ago, but there is so much more to healing than the knitting of flesh and bone.

I’m learning – and it’s hard for me, very hard – that to be sick or injured, isn’t some kind of moral failing. It doesn’t say anything about commitment or ability. It’s simply a thing that happens to bodies: to have a body, is to be ill or incapacitated sometimes. To not be optimal.

Even in the sick time, the body is speaking. The body doesn’t just exist during training, or for training, or for any of the thousand productive things I need it to do. The body’s suffering does not pit it against me. It IS me, in sickness and in health.

There’s a phrase in the Tao Te Ching that I often puzzle over. My understanding of it goes in and out of focus.

I suffer because I’m a body;
if I weren’t a body,
how could I suffer?

In the hardest moments of training, it’s my mind that searches for escape. Anything to occupy it away from the sharp difficulty of the present, be it halfway through a 5km run under the blazing sun, or the last twenty of 200 sit-ups. Usually a song will loop in my head (the chorus to Solange’s Losing You), or a phrase (You must free your ambitious mind, and learn the art of dying. – Bruce Lee). If my mind is elsewhere, maybe this body that’s suffering is not me.

Recently, I’ve been telling my mind not to leave my body to endure the training on its own, to stay with it. What happens in those moments I haven’t found the words to tell. Not well, anyway. It’s a little like opening up more… bandwidth. A rush of information? Of sensation? I am a nut cradled in its shell, existing in inner darkness and in outer light, enduring, being one. I can’t do this for more than a couple of minutes.

If I weren’t a body, how could I suffer?

To train muay thai is to trace new routes, to know what it’s like when my shin hits my partner’s in a drill, or when Young Coach’s foot connects with the side of my head in sparring. It’s also to go over old routes, tracing the deep grooves of where the mind goes in sickness or suffering, as if seeing and knowing them for the first time.

Lao Tzu – Tao Te Ching, An English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, Chapter 13


Gone to look for my body’ is a line from a song called ‘Weary’ by Solange, on her 2016 masterpiece album A Seat At the Table.

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.

Part 1