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Do not "pull" your strikes in sparring - and other proper techniques and Forms of Life in Thailand


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Informal Intro: I've been reading Agamben's The Highest Poverty, an incredibly dry but also quite fruitful study of Early Christian monastic orders used to gain insight into how cultures - and perhaps more importantly sub-cultures - organize and express themselves. He's examining Wittgenstein's prescriptions regarding rule-following and Forms of Life when thinking about Language and problems of philosophy, but tracing these concepts down to their historical exemplification in monasteries in say the 12th century. It's pointedly obscure, but these details open up into flowers of realization, like seeds, especially as I draw them into the sub-culture of Thailand's Muay Thai, and more properly kaimuay (camp) Muay Thai. I've written along this grain on the Forms of Life, using Bourdieu's concept of habitus in Thailand's kaimuay Muay Thai in "Trans-Freedoms Through Authentic Muay Thai Training in Thailand Understood Through Bourdieu's Habitus, Doxa and Hexis", where the hidden, or at least non-obvious, forms of doing something carry secret formative principles which are expressed in the techniques of fighting. But here, below, I want to bring out a very small thought, that aligns with the concept of rule-following and shaped communal ways of doing. Do not pull your strikes.

Sorry for the sprawly introduction. Sometimes I feel like I have to really sketch out where I'm coming from because I sense that my frames of reference are potentially quite alien to the topics I'm putting my thoughts to. In any case, do not pull your strikes when sparring. This is why.

Strikes Are Like Words

Body of Thought: We've probably spoken about this in our lengthy Muay Thai Bones podcasts, but there are many analogies to the Muay Thai of Thailand and language. You seek a certain fluency and ultimately an expression of a grammar and vocabulary that is not your own. There are many points which map in an illuminating way from one to the other, and I think this analogy sheds light onto areas of learning (and performance) that are lost in more mechanistic views of Thailand's strike armory.

In some respects this seems ridiculous. "Of course I should pull my strikes, this is sparring! Do you want an all out war!" But, this is the point. A strike in Thailand's Muay Thai is like a word with syllables. It unfolds in time, like a word. And in pronouncing a word which syllable you place the accent on, the stress, is quite important. BE-gone is a mispronunciation of be-GONE. EN-gin-eer is a mispronunciation of en-gi-NEER. When fighters pull strikes very, very commonly what they are doing is radically altering the pronunciation of the strike...they are softening the final syllable. They are pulling it back. This distorts the entire energy dynamic of how a strike is supposed to follow, which involves the communication of mechanical energy through the body parts into the final syllable, which ultimately comes about through a feeling about that strike, in the very same way you would have a feeling about a word, and how it is supposed to be pronounced. What happens is that you feel that in actual fighting you'll just put the emphasis on the final syllable, after habitually placing it much further up the word. Your strikes will have been trained/pronounced with accents often on the FIRST syllable, coming out fast, and then abruptly slowed down and softened. What will happen is that you very well might SAY your strikes louder, even shouting them in fights, but the actual pronunciation of them will be first syllable. You'll be shouting EN-gin-neer!!! Instead of en-gin-NEER. This is because the flow dynamics of how strikes unfold contain a feeling in time, and of emphasis. And sparring is the closest affective training you can have of actual fight circumstances.

Sylvie and I have talked about this in the discussion of the Golden Kick: The Golden Kick – How To Improve Your Thai Kick which compares the shape of the Westernized "round" kick, with the more traditional kick of Thailand's Golden Age. Patterns of acceleration become embedded into the very shape of strikes, just as words become pronounced differently:

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You can take a deeper dive into these patterns of acceleration if you examine Karuhat's particular chest-rising Golden Kick, which is absolutely unique on it is own, but comprises these final-syllable principles to a great degree: #111 The Karuhat Rosetta Stone 7 - The Secrets of the Matador (83 min) watch it here

The idea is that in sparring you say your words softly, but when the emphasis on the end...on the final syllable. They come out relaxed and slowly, and have a bite at the end. This actually folds into very high level striking that you'll find in legendary fighters like Karuhat or Namkabuan, who will begin a strike and as it unfold decide if a different strike is in order, mid-strike...because they are looking with their eyes. Elite fighters have matrix-like perceptions of the time unfolding as a strike a delivered, and I think that some of this comes from the feeling that the emphasis, in terms of feeling, but also bio-mechanically, comes at the end. Ultimately you want the affective shape of a strike, and its reality, to express a confluence of body parts all the way up from the ground, through the torso, into the ends of where the strike makes contact. This is a practiced release of energy. The energy does not have to be "hard". It can be quite soft, just as you can whisper a word with emphasis on the end, almost inaudibly.

There is something Sylvie's experienced many times when training with legends of the past. Men in their 60s, even 70s. You can feel how hard they are. Some of this is just their "bones", hardened from so much training and fighting as well, but some of it comes through the dynamics of how power flows through their strikes. Sylvie's commented about this for instance with Sagat or General Tunwakom, both in the Library. Even at very slow motion demonstrations of a technique there is a tremendous, or at least unexpected transfer of energy, at the final syllable. It's not that it hurts, it just has a certain kind of weight. This is because they are pronoucing the "word" properly, even in slow motion. The energy is not stalling, or getting suppressed. It's just that very little energy is being sent through the line in the first place. It still has a zing, because these are the shapes of the words.

You do not want to lose the shape of words. Especially the old words.

If you've been pulling your strikes, and pronouncing them with emphasis on the first syllables it might very hard to change that pronunciation. It could lead to sparring too hard for a while, or unpredictably. Key would be learning to say your words more softly, with lower energy on the first syllable, and learning to feel how they can accelerate at the end. This would collaborate with what you are or can do on the bag or on pads. You want to feel that ascension in sparring, and the control over just how much electricity you are sending down the line.

Another Note about the Shapes of Words and Muay Thai in Thailand

This comes to a larger concept about the proper techniques one might learn in Thailand. Just because techniques are being communicated in Thai gyms does not necessarily make them purely "Thai", or connected to lineages that are the most effective. This is because the shapes of techniques are like words, and words are effected by the innumerable practices that make up a gym's social space. A kru very well might be teaching the form of a strike as he learned it as a boy and teen in a kaimuay very different than the one he is in at a kru (the social space, the behaviors of fighters and authorities, etc), but the gym itself is a sponge of Forms of Life, and as we, as Westerners (and others) enter these spaces we are also communicating our Forms of Life. How we through punches on the pads can change the way punches are thrown in the gym, how those words are pronounced. How we come OFF the pads and hold our dispositions, how we recover, might very well change the shape of how Thai fighters recover and express themselves. If definitely seen Western-friendly gyms absorb many unscripted but powerful Forms of Life from the non-Thai fighters they train. It becomes a cross-pollination. This is not necessarily even a dilution. There can be benefits of cross-pollination. But insofar as we come to Thailand to find how words - and even sentences, or full paragraphs - are pronounced in their language, in the language of their efficacy, there are many ways in which we can be communicating and impacting against what we are looking for. We come to Thailand and we find what we already are, because others like us have already been carving rivulets into the rock, changing the habitus. This is one of the reasons behind the Muay Thai Library project. We are filming the techniques and affective expression of Forms of Life one cannot really find any longer, because the kaimuay and the promotional muay that produced them largely no longer exist. It's the way words were pronounced, and a great deal of that is a mixture of technical proficiency, the feeling of a transfer of energy, and end of syllable emphasis that holds it own character, a character of a time and place. When Dieselnoi teaches how to knee, he is teaching a feeling of kneeing, as well as a technical unfolding of parts. These feelings are embedded in a realm of Muay Thai that is no-longer. At best what we can do is reach for these feelings, as we scribe the bio-mechanical guidance of what they are.

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Some comments on Reddit on this post reveal that I was far too opaque about the idea that it is worthwhile to see Muay Thai as a language. I probably lost a lot of people who might find it interesting. Sometimes I'm far to oblique in my thoughts, and these forum posts are often just publicly published reading notes of areas I'm diving into in my reading, just in case others might one day also want to follow these lines of thought. But...in the course of my discussion there I was lead to explain further what I meant by "Muay Thai is like a language". I also got an awesome reply. Posting it here to keep it in context and to keep it from being lost on the Internet.

My take on Muay Thai as a language and why I view it that way:

My general thought about Thailand's Muay Thai and language is that it is an embedded art, which means its very difficult to extract the techniques in a bio-mechanical way (which is the dominant way it is exported to the West). Much of Thailand's Muay Thai is a product of the kaimuay subculture, the culture bound practices of the camps that raise the fighters, going well beyond simple techniques. These have to do with bodily disposition, relationships to authority, cultural attitudes towards aggression and discipline, and ideals of Thai masculinity. Which is to say that Thailand's Muay Thai is shaped by the Form of Life of the kaimuay, of which there are thousands and thousands in the country. The benefits of reading Thailand's Muay Thai as a language are that its an analogy that directs the idea towards things like a "grammar" (the way that strikes are put together, in relationship to bodily composure), and to the kinds of things we think about when we think about linguistic expression. In Thailand's Muay Thai a great deal can be read in the way that strikes are expressed, just like the tonation of words, and choice of words reflect a great deal in speech. At least in my opinion, there is an entire meaning universe in these kinds of things in Thailand's traditional Muay Thai, that in the muay of the very best become personal expression. This, in part, is why styles were so varied in the Golden Age. The grammars and vocabularies were being combined with great individuality...like a language. Dropping back down into the subject of the post, how Muay Thai strikes can be read as words, with "accents", at least by my experience of watching legends spar and move (for instance, I've spent maybe 50 hours closely watching Karuhat spar), as well as many contemporary Thais, Thailand's Muay Thai has a kind of acceleration towards the end of strikes that you don't really see in many Western kickboxing-like examples. It's a feeling of the word. It happens to coincide with the way that Thai language borrows English words and changes the pronunciation of them, putting the accent on the end. When you come to Thailand you have to learn that "com-PUT-ter" is actually "com-put-TER". It makes a nice cross-reference. This movement from relaxation to acceleration is - at least in my view - a really distinct aspect of the shape of Thai striking.

Sorry that it isn't really a summation, it's not really how my brain works, but its an attempt to try to clear up some of the larger ideas behind the "Muay Thai is like a language" analogy. Ultimately, its not really about being right, but rather about trying to present a different way of thinking about strikes, something that departs from the usual bio-mechanical way of thinking about striking. There is plenty of that out there. This is just a new framework to change the perspective a bit. Something to add to the bio-mechanical story.

Personally, I find it fascinating how Thailand's Muay Thai might resist exportation outside of the kaimuay subculture which generates it. It draws attention to all sorts of things that might just get silenced or minimized. Again and again in my mind I recall how Dieselnoi insisted that there was a very important way that you come off of pads. There is a way it needs to be done - in his opinion. There is a disposition of the body, a way of presenting yourself and shaking off exhaustion. This at first blush seems to have nothing to do with striking mechanics. But, it is an expression of the long-closed-down Hapalang Gym of the Golden Age. It's HOW he trained. It's part of the language of Muay Thai for him. And...if you look at his relentless, GOAT-like knee style, this way of coming off the pads actually is a huge part of his fighting style. I'm interested in all those things, the non-obvious parts of Muay Thai that are embedded (or were embedded) in the kaimuay which generated the muay of great fighters.

If one grants this, then learning how to pronounce individual words, in this language, is an important place to start.

The awesome reply, which is full of application

TL; DR: Totally agree that muay is an embedded art that makes very little sense outside of its cultural context. I think your analogy with language is also spot on. I think an additional challenge for spreading the art, and this is something I haven't quite fleshed out in my own mind, is that Westerners (not all, but in general), culturally, have a very transactional and (edit) mystical mindset about this sport and the fighting arts in general. I have observed similar parallels with non-indigenous folks learning an indigenous language that is also deeply embedded in cultural context, so it's not just a issue in muay.

Longer answer:

Oh cool, thanks man! Normally I wouldn't ask for a summary of the source material, that's kinda lazy, but I just wasn't getting it, and neither were other people.

I actually really like this analogy. Thinking about it this way makes it easier to understand why people have such a hard time learning Thai style muay, to a level of fluency that appears "native". The only people that I know personally that have cracked this are those that have emersed themselves in a Thai Gym for an extended period of time, speak at least some Thai, and understand intrinsically the fight scene in Thailand.

I think this analogy also makes sense from your perspective, as people trying to preserve the old "language" and context that gave rise to that, as it evolves.

This is a bit of a take, so hear me out. In my country, there is a lot of effort going into language revival of our indigenous language, that was effectively stamped out through colonisation. The language is utterly beautiful when spoken fluently - a confluence of past and present that is embedded in a strong oral tradition. It is simply much, much more than just a means to communicate to one another.

I bring this up because I find that a lot of non-indigenous people, when looking to learn the language, do so to "acquire" the language and generally want to skip all the "cultural stuff". They see the language as merely a tool, nothing more, missing the bigger context and cultural relevance. It's generally well meaning, mostly, but still problematic.

So I've often noticed that people in my country/the West (generally speaking) look at the Thais as quite alien and Thai muay as something (edit) mystical. Like, they see that the Thais are good, great even, but don't fundamentally understand what makes them good. They go about trying to acquire their techniques, without the context of where and how they are used, and not understanding the process that has led them to be so effective. Basically, acquiring the language without any context, picking up words here and there (emphasising different syllables, if you will), but developing no real understanding. They're missing the wood for the trees.

Or, like my example above, maybe they do know there is more, but they don't see how it's relevant to them. They don't want to walk the path of countless Thai fighters before, even on a very basic level, like running. They don't think they need all that extra stuff, just learn a few techniques and some technical sparring to be "good", for a Westerner, because they have no actual aspirations to be like the Thais. This is reserved for some next level of "fluency" that they believe is unattainable for the average Westerner.

Edit: Some stuff you can't replicate easily, if at all, because of those deep cultural roots that start at childhood. But even if people are given a blueprint of what it takes to be good - how to train, what it takes, where to go, who to train with - 9/10 they won't or can't do it, because they don't want to put in the work. They don't connect to the process at all, or it's importance, and want a simplified version of it. I did watch one of Sylvie's little videos a while back on the "hack" and I think this touches on aspects of this.

Anyway, just some off-hand thoughts here.

Edit: I guess one of the challenges that you and Sylvie have is that by producing the content you do, even if it is really good, interesting and contextual stuff, is that people are still going to see it as a collection of techniques to acquire, to be like the golden era, or what have you. You can't really control how people use your material, or how they approach the learning process, and that unfortunately has a big impact on the transference of Thai style muay abroad

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