guest post by Josephine Kim, on her experiences at the 2018 Women’s Muay Khao Summit which brought women from around the world to train in the Muay Khao style with top Thai female champions, and legends of the style from the Golden Age – a Preserve The Legacy project.
Defining “感覺” at the Feet of Legends
Street view of the Petchrungruang boxing gym. The founding family’s warm hospitality made this refurbished pineapple farmhouse feel like a second home. Photo taken with Jojo’s iPhone.
Preface: I have come across many “story collector items” over the years, but never before like this one. The unique “pearl” of Muay Khao is a smothering fighting style within the art of Muay Thai that specializes in close-combat “weapons” like elbows, knees, and the clinch. But because I found it in the ocean of movement, arts and culture, it is inseparable from the waves of information and experiences that blasted me out of my frame through and through.
This article is handy and well-written, so please check the link below before reading my experience:
“What is Muay Khao? Discussion of Muay Thai’s Forward Fighting Pressure Style” by Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu: https://8limbsus.com/muay-thai-thailand/muay-khao-discussion-muay-thais-forward-fighting-pressure-style
Part 1: Words From My Coach
December 14, 2018.
Petchrungruang Gym. Pattaya, Thailand.
Evening. Around 8 or 8:30. Post-night training session.
I am the only one sitting criss-crossed in the center of the main ring. Karuhat “The Gifted” and Sylvie “Miss Gangster Knees” are casually exchanging “bows” as they dump each other to the ground from the clinch. Namkabuan “The Ring Genius” is also present, jumping in here and there to join the play-fight with his stylized versions of tripping techniques.
Wahh! Oayyyy! Swish. Thud. I feel the slightest of reverberations as their bodies hit the canvas floor.
I look up from studying their feet. I now have a clear view of them moving back and forth. Smiles. Throws. Laughter. It is in the midst of this calm ecstasy, my brain “zooms out” of my body to see two juxtaposed illustrations in the screen of my mind:
1) I have somehow overcome the physical impossibilities and am sitting inside an old-school television screen at the feet of movie characters.
2) I am sitting at the feet of Jesus who is teaching his disciples in the Mary’s home (“At the Home of Mary and Martha” – Luke 10:38-42).
These two images came to me simultaneously, like two colors blending together to lend one mood. The weightlessness I feel after a training session usually tends to give my mind wings, but the feeling of this particular moment stood out from the rest. This is because of a conversation I had with one of my (first ever) martial arts coach from Taiwan the day before.
He asked me how the Summit training was. I told him that I was learning how to “feel” the nuances of the clinch, but that it was not easy since training was raw and intense. It is like trying to laser-light-focus on minute details and sensations amidst the thick, blunt fog of body-consuming work.
In response, he advised me to take extra care in defining the “feeling” or “感覺” I was looking for, lest all my results max out at solely experiencing a new type of toil. (感覺 roughly translates to “feeling,” “sense,” an “inner or gut perception” in Mandarin)
He explained that high-pressure training would surely allow my body to locate the 感覺 I was looking for, but only if I identified and specified the 感覺 beforehand. His words stayed with me. How can you seek to know what is inside the easter egg even before going out on the egg hunt? Then, as I continued to explore myself – body and mind – during the Summit trainings, I began to understand what he meant.
Human beings do not possess enough strength within themselves to see through any kind of hunt to the very end, not without an expectation or direction preceding it. Whatever you most desire, the egg surely holds it inside – this is what the mind must believe in. Indeed, this style of training is too strenuous on the body and mind for the sake of just exercising. Over the next couple of hours, I then connected my Taiwanese coach’s teaching to Muay Khao concept of work.
Today, Sylvie shared that sweat, blood, and tears are not very praise-worthy in it of themselves. In the western world, toil is like the ultimate performance, and almost always broadcasted as something externally expressed. In Thailand, at least in the fighting ring, solemnity and disguise are more admired. There is little honor to gain in bathing oneself in the intoxicating clouds of “huff and puffs.” Instead, what my Taiwanese coach and Muay Khao fighters seek is this: see to it that your direction precedes your engine’s roar.
However, at the beginning of the Summit, I had no choice but to allow my brain and limbs to simply feel and roar. I was not brought up under Muay Khao training or its philosophies. Therefore, every stimulus, imbalance, error, success, mystery, and uncertainty simply had to be accepted, wave after wave. Sometimes it was overwhelming; other times more calm-inducing. Day 6 just came to say hello and bye, and only now do I feel something like a small revelation rising over the hulkish mountain tops of the human’s narrow mental gaze, but expansive imagination.
And now, a quietness is enrobing me. It is calming, but also quite intense, like the feeling of Thai methanol oil lathered all over the skin.
– Me (edited from random mid-Summit scribble entries)
Even now, the sensation I felt at the feet of these “dancing” Muay Khao Legends is tangibly vivid. How come? Movement holds a unique power that eclipses a mere visual impression. And, when the movement of self is reined in, one can manipulate not only another person’s behaviors, but also their more internal operations. I think this is because movement is a reaction to the relationship between defined space and level of one’s self-awareness. They are like opposing sides of the same coin.
The more I thought about movement along these lines, the more I came to appreciate Muay Khao as a one of life’s more sound philosophies. Every day, every breath is a battle for the human being. Therefore, whatever applies in the fighting ring can also address real day-to-day dilemmas in life’s other “rings,” and without offering up exhausting cliches. For instance, my understanding of Beauty has been shaped by the mere exposure to Muay Khao fighters and their movements. I always thought the art of hand-fighting was stunning, but when Muay Khao was unleashed before my eyes live time, Beauty evolved to another level. Everything is controlled and fashioned, yet free-flowing and limitless. Truly, seeing power in its purest form is both gorgeous and terrorizing. Moreover, the Muay Khao style meshes vulnerability, the relentlessness of the human spirit, power of movement, and functionality of the body together. Despite the physical cost the Muay Khao fighter is expected to pay during the beginning rounds, the “story-arc” of the 5-round Thai boxing fight highlights the style’s unique strategy and patience.
Sawsing, one of the great female Thai champions, teaching her Ram Muay. Only Kevin can freeze Beauty of movement into a single frame. Photo credit: Kevin Von Duuglas-Ittu.
Part 2: Explaining the “Television Screen” Feeling
Even though I live in a world that was created to be occupied, enjoyed, and always shared, as a Korean-American woman I grew up feeling like I was constantly having to venture back and forth from “watching” and “participating” in the shows of others’ lives. Step in, step out. Step in, step out. Listen. Speak a little. Halt. Listen. Watch from behind the screen.
While this dynamic is neither bad nor abnormal, there are more rhythms and lifestyles than we dare try to live.
That night, however, even as I just sat and observed, I felt like I was occupying space from within the “television box.” I was not asked to step aside or remove myself from the presence of these untouchable Legends. I could remain. I could sit inside the ring, unmoved, and soak everything in to my heart’s content as Jojo, a student of Muay Khao.
Side angle of the main ring at Petchrungruang gym.. Photo taken with Jojo’s iPhone.
Part 3: The Boldness of Mary
Why do I bring up the famous biblical image of Mary at the feet of Jesus? Despite her context being wildly different from mine, she was going beyond societal norms by entering into a space designated for men. Instead of helping prepare food with her sister, Martha, Mary sat amongst Jesus’ disciples to hear him teach.
The Jewish culture of Mary’s time had strict boundaries between men and women. Women were not given access to mentorship or teachers like men, and they were certainly not allowed to share in group gathering discussion.
But the story goes unexpectedly: Jesus spoke to Martha after she scolded Mary rather publicly, “Martha, Martha you are anxious about many things, but only one thing is necessary. Indeed, Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” Then, Mary continued to sit at his feet. Both Jesus and Mary, teacher and student respectively, saw something to be learned and believed women should have a share in it, despite the moment’s counter-cultureness.
While the story does not say how aggressively Mary showed up to the gathering, I do not have to imagine what it is like to sit with a circle of men. This is my reality at work, school, and on the streets. And that of other women in countless circles of our lives. Although this is our “normal,” how comfortable can we truly make ourselves? Not very. However, I am sure when Jesus welcomed Mary’s presence as a woman, her experience became world’s different. This is essentially what the Golden Era Legends of Muay Khao did for me and the other women at the Summit. These champions encouraged our boldness and joyfully taught us as much as they possibly could.
One artist’s imagination of the Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. Photo credit: Google, my Lord Katie WordPress.
Final Part: Finding that 感覺
The 感覺 I was looking for is the melding of these two illustrations. Yes, I am trying to achieve a sense of ease within the clinch. However, it is clear that this 感覺 I desire goes beyond the technical aspects of the fighting style; through the study and celebration of Muay Khao, there is an even greater promise of what is to come:
Freedom of space and movement through and through, as intended for all humans, man or woman, child or adult, Thai or non-Thai.
And, if I can only train my mind to re-imagine all the spaces before me, in or out of the ring, I can and will find familiarity in even the most intense, heart-pounding of battles.
Another afternoon training session drilling the clinch. Photo credit: Kevin Von Duuglas-Ittu.
I love the depth of the Muay Khao heart. It seems bottomless sometimes. Train to be comfortable around your aggressor. Master the bodies’ shifting of weights and balances. Feel timing collide with precision and style. Keep going, just keep going. Press forward, not like a blind bull, but like an unstoppable wave built up with the momentum of hard work, finesse, and artistry.
I think the great Muay Khao fighters are considered legends because they have adapted the above ideas to fit their body type, which has become their style. They express this new dynamic (of fighting, living), its beauties, and possibilities via their movement and control of shared ring space. They are masters of their own breathing, pacing, and emotions; therefore, they are able to outpace those of their opponent. Their footwork is unique, efficient, and absolutely overwhelming when they cut off their opponent’s exit routes and corners. They float, prowl, and drive forward at all costs. All in all, the Muay Khao fighter is a relentless pursuer of their opponent, no ifs or buts about it.
As I adopt Muay Khao philosophy to various areas of my life, I notice my focus slowly shifts from “the body that feels aches” to “how much the body can STILL feel despite aches.” When training becomes purposed, I can somehow persist, no matter how tiring. Amazingly, I can see how this “press on with intelligence and soul” mentality carries over to the other battles of my life.
Even though I am back in the States, I keep my eyes peeled for Karuhat, Sylvie, Sawsing, and the women of the Summit. I half-expect them to walk through the doors of the gym to come train the clinch with me or walk past me on the street. But, the legends and superheroines are from different parts of the world, back in their own circles, niches, and domains. I am more than okay with this. It is better this way. Just as I choose to write about the “pearl” of Muay Khao, they can tap into the craft that best expresses their thoughts. Because just like Mary, we all feel similar pressures in our different contexts. The same heart is being drawn out of us though – one that beats for freedom of space and movement, through and through.
If you find yourself drawn to this side of the human spirit, consider asking yourself – what 感覺 am I looking for right now?
Beyond Josephine’s written account, check out her self-interview video on her experiences: