A guest post from my husband, part of his series: A Husband’s Point of View
New York and New Jersey 2007-2012
Thailand 2010, 2012-present
Above is a pretty detailed list of the gyms (and instructors) Sylvie has trained with or under. Those in the upper section are gyms/trainers that she trained with at least twice. It’s safe to say that very few fighters have this kind of training pedigree, but this post is about that unusual path. It’s not meant as advice, as in: This is how you should do it. Only to say, This is how it has been done. And these were some of the driving principles behind it, its problems, and its benefits. This intense numerical variety gave birth to an incredible range of experiences, one that mirrors Sylvie’s variety of experiences of 150 or 200 fights in Thailand. It’s cut from the same cloth.
It all started from the fact that when Muay Thai spark hit Sylvie we were living very far from practically any Muay Thai training resources. We lived about an hour north of New York City at the edge of a National Forest in Fort Montgomery. There was just nothing by us. But as the Ur story is often told Ong Bak had lit a fire in Sylvie’s mind, and so we did a bit of Goggling (was it Google back then?) and found the closest gym that advertised that it was a Muay Thai gym, in Fairlawn, New Jersey. About an hour or so away. So it began. She enrolled, began taking classes at what was really a standard strip mall studio, and applied herself to the instruction. As classes progressed she could not shake from her mind that the Muay Thai that was being taught was nothing remotely close to the Muay Thai she had seen in Ong Bak. She had not much notion of the historical differences between Tony Jaa’s Muay Boran and sport Muay Thai, but this seemed patently far from any example of Muay Thai we could find on the internet, or the movements which had drawn her to the art.
The head instructor there seemed a bit of a headcase. He had the combined qualities of an oddly aggro, tough guy attitude towards martial arts, and a penchant for languorously over stretching like a ballerina in exaggerated splits before and after class, as if showing off his JCVD Kickboxer attributes. He bragged once, showing up to class with a split lip, that he got it in Jiu-jitsu sparring, but only because of his ten years of experience did he have the will power to not call time out and look in the mirror; instead he powered through and finished his partner, only after to then check out the small bit of damage in the mirror. “You should see the guy’s leg where I tapped him,” he added with insecure bravado, “it looked like he was wearing a black sock.” Cool story bro. This guy was a sweep-the-leg guy if there ever was one, and when he basically locked Sylvie in his office for a 45 minute argumentative berating when Sylvie tried to tell him she was leaving the gym, including the accusation that she was a racist because she thought a Thai man (Master K) could teach her Muay Thai better than a white man, we just counted ourselves lucky to have escaped that dude – though there were very nice people in that gym, a great second in command teacher, and a fellow student we still admire.
Such was to begin a long nomadic process. A voracious process. We had found that Sylvie’s first instructor had attained some sort of certification from an older Thai man through private lessons. His picture was on the wall, he had done seminars there. And he only taught one on one out of his basement in New Jersey. I was like: why are we learning from this guy who seems to teaches some kind of TaeKwonDo, when Sylvie could learn from the man who taught him whatever Muay Thai he had learned? So it began incrementally. Even though very expensive for our budget, and also about an hour’s drive, Sylvie had begun taking private lessons with Master K in NJ, at the time continuing to attend her first gym. The knowledge difference was stark. Night and day. It became painfully obvious that this was the right move. Slowly we inched away from the first gym, and closer to just learning from Master K. And finally we made that break.
Philosophies of Education
Now this is where we discuss my influence in this process. I’m hardcore about things. Sylvie is very chill. She really wants very few things more than being accepted by a good gym, being a part of a Muay Thai family, a sense of inclusion. Though, the one thing she does want more is to learn, to grow and really to get her head and body around this insanely beautiful art and sport. The move from the strip mall gym (and hey, there are lots of very high quality strip mall gyms and instructors, it’s hard running a gym), to the basement of a 70 year old “Mr. Miyagi,” was simply the first in what would become a mosaic of transitory attempts to find training and experiences that would “make a difference”. It became for us a fundamental and driving principle: If something was lacking, let’s go and find it!
Now, this runs hard against the grain of practically every martial art or fighting coaches philosophy. There are many reasons for this of course. Coaches invest a lot of time in students, they want to cordon them off and nurture them, and as students/fighters improve so increases the reputation and success of the gym. Success in the ring brings new students to the gym, it’s the tree that keeps on giving. This basic structure can be re-enforced by what something I would call in the west: sensei-ism. Sensei-ism is the over all orientalist picture of the “master” as the profound holder of wisdom, who has inscrutable ways and understanding that the student can never grasp. This occurs in degrees, but largely becoming a student in a gym often involves the surrendering of your power to the sensei who knows better than you do about you and your process. These two dimensions of owning a gym: a financial/growth structure which requires that you retain the students you invest in, and sensei-ism, can map easily onto each other. They support each other, and make a natural, often unconscious, pair. The bottom line is: it is assumed that a teacher must retain their students to some degree, in order to maintain a business. Seeing another instructor is often experienced as a betrayal or, at the very least, disloyal.
But this is not the only way of teaching, or of learning. A beautiful thing was once said to me by David Graeber, an anarchist Anthropologist who at the time was a professor at Princeton University. I had come to college late in life, after years of autodidactic learning. I had just read voraciously everything I could in fields of study that fascinated me: Philosophy, Economics, Anthropology and Sociology, at least a decade of self-teaching. I would read a book and then footnote hop, and read the books that were cited. Branches of study opened up for me, I never stopped reading. When I re-entered the education system at a fairly esteemed college, not Princeton where David Graeber taught, I was somewhat shocked to find that professors at times seemed less well-read, less critically robust in their thought than I was or wanted to be. Maybe they were more impassioned when completing their PhD’s, but now they often seemed to be just moving through curriculum. Were we not both passionate travelers on the same road, you just a little further a long than me? My questions in class – sincere, investigative questions – proved difficult for interpersonal dynamics, and really for one professor in particular it became a serious problem. I had come up against the very institutional form of higher learning. What was I to do? I wrote an email to David Graeber who I did not know at all but at the time was in the process of getting booted out of Princeton for largely internal politics University reasons. I tried to get an answer of how to persist in institutional higher learning. What he advised me, as I recall, only affirmed an intractable tension between learning and institutional education, and that did not help much at all, one just has to make do. There was no real hope. But…one thing he did say really stuck with me. He said: “My job as an educator, as a teacher, is to make myself obsolete.” For numerous reasons teachers are encouraged to see or portray themselves as the keepers of special knowledge. It’s where their public value comes from. And in the process of teaching often they find themselves, as they let some of that knowledge drip out to students, also performatively acting out how much knowledge they supposedly hold. There is a whole vault of it. More than you could ever know. In a sense: you will always need me. My power and authority consists in knowing more than you do. David Graeber argued: my purpose as a teacher is to become worthless to you, it’s to pass to you every single thing I know so that any value I have as a keeper of knowledge is lost. Now you have it all, go surpass me. For him it was like a wealthy man giving all his money away until he had none.
This is the remarkable thing about teachers like this. When you try to give it all away, and make yourself obsolete in a sense, you attain infinite value. Because your person becomes a fount. You give it away, you give it away, and the process of who you are enlarges what students get from you. Master K, in his 70s, used to say of older coaches who no longer saw him, after they attained their certification and perhaps a little beyond: “They already know everything.” It was said in such a sad, but matter of fact kind of way. As if there was for those students a set list of things to learn. But Sylvie and I just shook our heads, one could never stop learning from Master K. He is an infinite teacher. And so many truly knowledgeable and generous teachers are. By my experience these are teachers who tend not to overly control or close off their students.
This isn’t to say that Sylvie’s training with Master K was complete. In fact it wasn’t. It was one on one, with almost no sparring and no clinch at all. It was just lots of learning of high level technique, the kind of technique that inspired Sylvie (and me) to put it all online. This was when the YouTube channel was launched. Some in the NY area, and online martial arts denizens mistook these videos as attempts to self promote. Look how good I am! When in fact they were attempts to show all her flaws, and through her flaws show how beautiful Master K’s Muay Thai was, in comparison. Gyms and fighters just don’t do this. They don’t put their flaws or their failed attempts online for all to see. Even Master K in the beginning begged us to edit out all the mistakes, it wasn’t beautiful. But that wasn’t what it was about. It was about giving away the knowledge, passing it onto the world. So few people would have a chance to even train with Master K, now he has influenced thousands if not eventually millions. This was a good thing.
above, a quintesential vlog where Sylvie talks about her motivations while waiting for a train to go down to NY
A Mosiac of Knowledge
I’m not going to trace through in detail all the ways in which we found training at one particular place deficit and then sought to supplement it with training somewhere else. Only to say that we were voraciously passionate at chasing down opportunities to learn. If Master K would not spar, then we had to find sparring somewhere else. If a coach was awesome, but really didn’t understand Muay Thai at a very high level, then let’s find a Lumpinee champion (Kaensak, a friend of Master K’s). If Sylvie’s hands were behind the curve, then let’s find a boxing coach (Ray Velez, Ray Rivera, etc). If a particular gym taught a very disciplined Thai style approach, let’s take classes, let’s take privates. A lot of this came from living an hour or more away from any gym instruction, so if we were going to get in the car and drive all that way we were going to get every ounce of benefit from it. We ended up criss-crossing the map, sampling and learning from everyone we possibly could. And in fact they ALL were good experiences. Aside from our very first head instructor, every instructor and gym gave something to Sylvie. Every single one. We did not know it at the time, but she was building a mosiac of knowledge, and a pattern of learning that required moving towards knowledge sources and experiences wherever they might be.
above is a map of how far we traveled for Muay Thai training and experiences in the New York area – browse the map here – the flag is where we lived, the sun is where Master K lived. Red tags where Sylvie traveled to train.
And a lot of this process also grew out of the simple fact that Sylvie had very little sparring opportunity. We knew that sparring was a golden key to growing as a fighter, and where we lived it was very hard to get. Sylvie fought her first fight down at the WKAs in Virginia, and had hardly sparred at all…ever. Maybe 3 times she had sparred (we drove an hour+ down to Manhattan for help from Phil Nurse and her very first sparring session 3 weeks before her first fight). Ballsy to drive hundreds of miles for that tournament, but Sylvie throws herself at things. And that tournament opened a world to her. She didn’t even realize that there were female fighters in the NY area that were near her size. What followed was a series of attempts to organize sparring between these women, coming together from their different gyms, creating the New York Female Sparring Circle. This was met with fluctuating success, but for a while there a handful of women were meeting in Brooklyn at Greg Ardon’s Sweet Science who donated his space, and sharing the ring with other women, sometimes women that they could eventually face in a fight. The feeling was: this experience is more important than winning. The numbers diminished, Brooklyn was long way to travel for some, and there was a feeling that gyms were reigning their students back into the fold, not wanting them to be sparring without being under their watchful eye. It was a noble experiment, and one memory from it all really stood out for me…
My memory – It was probably December. The snows were falling with pace at a temperature that seemed just above slush. But accumulation was piling up somehow. It was bitter, cold, wet, a traditional New York middle-of-winter storm. We normally gave ourselves an hour and 45 minutes to drive all the way down to Brooklyn from our home in Fort Montgomery, but today we needed extra time. We had to be down there, the sparring circle was our responsibility. If we didn’t show up it could die out. But more than that, it was really about the commitment to training itself, to the dire need for sparring, any sparring. Each and every week. It didn’t matter how much. We climbed the darkened stairway of Ardon’s gym after 2 and a half hours in the car, it would be a 5 hour+ round trip. It really is a beautiful stairway, like right out of Million Dollar Baby, a pure and gritty 2nd floor gym filled with cold air from the winter’s day, and hanging bags. A small ring in the middle of a warehouse like space. We were late, traffic had been insane, stuck at a standstill many times. Getting through Manhattan had been so difficult it felt like we should just turn around and call it a day. But we didn’t want to give up. Nobody from the circle was there – it was kind of expected to be the case. The day was miserable. But Nicole, who lived not far from the gym and was a wonderful boxer, she had just woken up. She works at a bar til very late and craves her recovery sleep. I’ll never forget this moment, and it was a moment like others that probably happened several times on several evenings, but this time it burned itself in my mind.
Up the stairs comes Nicole wrapped in an enormous sweater that for some reason in my mind felt like a bathrobe. She in fact has bedroom slippers on, and she is sleepily shuffling across the hardwood floors to the bathroom. She literally looks like she’s gotten out of bed. It is maybe 7 pm. Her shuffle in slippers is amazing. I’ll never forget it. She has a style about her, and half asleep she is getting ready to spar. She would not let Sylvie drive all this way and have nobody to work with. I’m guessing that Sylvie and Nicole spar for maybe 15 minutes or so. 5 hours in the car, 15 minutes in the ring. And it was incredible. There were other round trips that resulted in 20 minutes, 30 minutes, never was the time in the car under 3 hours, but this day just stuck there for me. I shook my head in the car on the way home, inching through red brake light glare, snow falling in the big city. Who willingly drives 5 hours for 15 minutes of sparring? But it was more than this. It was that Nicole dragged herself out of bed to walk in her slippers down a snowy street to help Sylvie out. I know, and I am not exaggerating, this isn’t easy to do in the circumstances. They were not close friends. She was tired and was just doing Sylvie a solid. This moment encapsulates for me what the whole path has been. Sylvie willing to do the absurd, and people generously offering to support her, if even a little bit. I’ll never forget that 15 minutes of sparring Nicole gave Sylvie, nor the drive down to Brooklyn to get it.
The adventures of the Brooklyn sparring circle were just one of a myriad of attempts to find sparring anywhere we could. 2 hours down to Tom’s River south of us with Girl Fight, 1 hour north to Kingston with Michelle Duff, joining in on TSK’s boxing classes in New Jersey and becoming friends with Robyn Klenk through that, sparring with Church Street down in Manhattan, an hour and 15 minutes from our door. We drove everywhere. And everywhere we went we took classes or privates, sampling the knowledge base of the tri-state area. Everyone had something to give, it was of value. We didn’t realize it at the time, but Sylvie was building a mosaic of knowledge, made from little pieces of everyone else’s knowledge.
The Picture of the Mosaic
This is the thing about mosaics, until they are closer to being done you can’t really see what the picture is. If you study under one coach, and fit into a single gym’s system, you will start to reflect that single influence’s fighting style pretty quickly. Basic approaches to simple combinations and defenses start to surface, a single language or approach makes you appear fluent quickly. Much more quickly than a mosaic approach would. And Sylvie would have loved to have done that, but out of the circumstances of where we lived, and the way that she got such an early taste for classic Muay Thai style with Master K, instead we found ourselves in a collective approach to Muay Thai training. And I personally really pushed this ethic. Sylvie is a gracious and loyal student by nature, but I’ve been ever vigilant for her to reach for more and different knowledge anytime her training seemed to bottom out. And we’ve been fortunate that even from the beginning we’ve found teachers who have also encouraged Sylvie to experiment with instruction. Even Master K strongly encouraged Sylvie to see Kaensak, because he knew things Master K didn’t. There were of course lots of tensions with coaches or gyms that wanted things to be much more under their control. That’s okay, we understand that, but somehow we got out on a mission to just see all of it. All of Muay Thai. All of technique. All of the approaches. Filing in holes anytime we found them.
Even when we moved to Thailand and settled into one gym, Lanna Muay Thai in Chiang Mai, though we didn’t move around Sylvie was constantly experimenting with trainers, not something you are encouraged to do. When her hands were falling behind she started taking privates with Neung, a former WBC boxing champion at the camp, though a trainer not high in social standing, something that had quiet complications within the gym politically. She would move between the expertise of one trainer to another respectfully as she could, every trainer has their specialty, their strengths, again…no move without consequences. She would just try to reinforce each relationship she had, out of her sincerity, all the way registering the skills and focus of each trainer, hoarding the knowledge until one day it would prove useful.
And when we decided to move to Pattaya, for the very same reasons, just to expand her training experiences and come in touch with techniques that would help her grow, we made a renewed commitment to do something of what we did in New York. But now instead of having to drive an hour or two, it was 15 minutes. She found herself training at 3 gyms in a day, bouncing between them morning to night and the incredible variety of techniques and training partners, each one a harvest. It’s a concentrated version of the slow mosaic she was building in her first few years in the NY area. Same principle: when there is something unique to learn, let’s go get it. If some aspect of training is failing (certain techniques, amounts of work, clinch partners, sparring partners, etc): let’s go get it! We do it respectfully, sincerely, but the bottom line is that the Muay Thai comes first. There is just too much to learn, and only short time to do so.
Of course this same powerful drive to learn from variety is the same thing that propelled Sylvie to already have fought more times in Thailand than any other westerner, and this in only a few short years. In the end this will probably be what Sylvie as a fighter will be remembered for, fighting prodigiously, but it is all part of the very same ultimate belief that experiences teach – they may teach slowly, but they teach. And exposing yourself to teachers in variety helps you grow too. It’s not 1 fight, it’s 10, its 40, it’s 100. It’s not 1 teacher, or 5, it is 20…The problem with such an approach, in that there is one, is that growth is not always coherent and visible. One is always taking in disparate data and information, and ultimately it falls on you to be able to integrate it. No one teacher will be able to draw it all together for you. Your mosaic might very well look like it lacks that coherence for a very long time. Conflicting styles and advice undercut each other. There isn’t necessarily a single focus, unless you can fashion it yourself out of the wisdom and experiences you expose yourself to.
Needless to say, the latest avatar of this process of exploring, documenting and studying techniques has been her Nak Muay Nation sessions with legends. This was something we were already pursuing for Sylvie’s own hunger to see and understand, but with Nak Muay Nation the process became structured. Sylvie, already a nomad of training processes, found herself training one on one with the greatest fighters of all time. Some of these rare men are not teaching anyone. These hours spent with incredible variety had a very powerful effect on her as a fighter, and a student of the art. Each man is an extreme condensation of a style and decades of training and fighting experiences. Seeing them month after month has given her an almost encyclopedic perspective on schools of technique, where one technique might appear in the Muay Thai of 3 very different legendary fighters, and another opposing approach in another 2. The differences and similarities suddenly became stark between men, and what’s more, their own vibration of vitality, the very inner thing that made them great, each manifested at a different frequency. Dieselnoi’s engine idles so incredibly high, Karuhat’s, slow and smooth. It has been like thumbing through an archive of the greatest works of the last decades, and taking notes all along the way.
The Skills Involved
Now I’m going to say this, ultimately as a warning. This path is not easy. And I’m not going to recommend it for anyone. It can produce really confused results at times. It can produce frustration. A fight style that takes a very long time to come into its own. It will also be something that much of the community may shun because this just isn’t how it is done. You belong to a gym, that instructor knows what is best for you, you are loyal, you become a fighter. Sylvie has had very long term and powerful relationships with her trainers. Master K is like a father/grandfather to her. Andy Thomson has been like a Muay Thai uncle. Pi Nu and his family have been and continue to be an anchor of support and really an adoptive family. But her path has taken her across oceans of technique and trainers. And in this path she has developed, I think almost accidentally, a unique set of skills.
What sets Sylvie apart from many has been the incredible variety of influences she has attempted to understand and harvest. When you face multiple trainers, all of them with competing techniques – and different teaching methods – over time what might initially produce confusion starts to produce patterns. I think she has spent so much time deciphering and applying different techniques she has the developed the skill to see through a technique, not only into what it’s purpose is, but also it’s relationship to other techniques that may be similar, or even quite different. When Dieselnoi teaches you a crunching, chewing up knee, and Namkabuan teaches you a floating, submarining, lean-back knee, all your experiences of knee instruction from so many instructors informs you to see the differences between these two, and even to be able to integrate what might be opposed at the surface, into a single approach. If nothing else Sylvie has become expert in deciphering technique when it’s being taught, no matter who is teaching, and seeing how that technique fits within a larger picture of a personal style. Much as a linguist who knows 10 dialects of a language may see something that a linguist who knows only one may not, Sylvie has learned to listen with very acute ear, having had to integrate the great variety of instruction.
What emerges is an understanding that when a instructor says: No, not like that, do it like this! she can see how a certain approach fits within an entire system of the body in Muay Thai. And at bottom, various systems have more in common with each other than they do apart. Technical differences: point the foot up, point the foot down, swing the arm, don’t swing the arm, etc, etc, don’t really conflict. They serve purposes. She somehow has developed the ability to see through technique to some degree, to see the larger mechanism. And I think her knowledge is only starting to grow and accelerate – the process of breaking it down and sharing it here no doubt also has played a positive role.
Now, this knowledge isn’t the kind of stored knowledge where you would say: I know more than you! It’s a certain comfort that comes from encountering seemingly conflicting approaches. Her years of pushing for new information, new technique, differing expertise has made her I think a translator of sorts. What began as a serious disadvantage, not living near any instructor or suitable training at all, ended up producing a tremendous interpretative skill set and nurtured a hunger to seek out a full spectrum of expertise in fighting…and the discovery of lasting teachers who themselves are not threatened by other teachers, those who are integrative in their approach, and who take it as their mission to give their knowledge away .
I write all of this knowing that such a path is just not available or even advisable for many people. I write it still celebrating all the coaches who run their gyms, and nurture their students and fighters as best they can, creating fight families. It’s an incredibly difficult job, and apart from metaphysical positions, we are all best if we just support each other in the sport. But I also write this for the few and the rare who do not find themselves within easy reach of a gym, or a qualified gym/instructor, or even hope to escape a toxic one, to tell a different story of what is possible if the hunger burns inside of you. There is always an alternative to your training. Always. It might involve an expense that you think you cannot take on, or travel that is beyond ridiculous. It might involve offending people which is difficult especially if you are a pleaser kind of person. I cannot tell you how many times we chose to make the move to better training opportunities knowing that we probably could not afford to maintain them, or despite the travel seemingly like craziness. When things start to stagnate, or you feel like you are not being nurtured, and there is room to grow, our approach is that you just Level Up. Leveling Up means that you go and seek it out. Even if it doesn’t make logical or reasonable sense. You can always return to the way things were. This is the amazing thing about Leveling Up. It almost always produces an emotional shift, a growth that leaves you in a substantively better place than where you were before. And somehow things end up working out, almost out of the sheer will of it. It may take you a while to see the results you dream of, but what really is happening is that you are pursuing the thing you love with a passion…a passion so strong no one context can ever contain it. For those who find themselves limited in powerful ways, when the time comes Level Up.
That’s my view – Sylvie talks about this from her own perspective below.
My Addition – Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu
Part of me yearns for the singularity of a gym or a teacher. It feels simple. It feels comforting. But a lot of it is just a fantasy because I’ve talked to enough women around the world to know that our experiences at gyms are rarely all-embracing. Saturdays are probably my favorite day of the week, as I only go to one gym here in Pattaya. My trainer over at WKO is off on Saturdays and the Sor. Klinmee gym where I go for extra clinching on most days has an earlier schedule (because the kids don’t have school), so it’s just my home gym all day. I love it. It is less work, it is less complicated; it’s simple. But it’s also incomplete. Without WKO I only have padwork once in the morning with Pi Nu, and in the afternoons I only have half as much clinching as I would otherwise because I’m not heading over to Sor. Klinmee. I added each of these other gyms because I know I need that extra work, not because I dislike my home gym.
It isn’t easy to have these multitudes of relationships and training situations; in many ways it is cumbersome, exhausting, and balancing the respect and care required to make each relationship meaningful is something that takes a lot of effort and attention. But, honestly, it’s the way it’s always been for me. I would love to have a trainer who understands my motives and works hard to teach me, help me grow and find all my fights for me. But it’s asking too much. Finding my own fights is a full-time job, how could I ask that of a trainer who has a dozen or more other students? I want a lot, so I have to do a lot for myself. And as a woman, it’s important to not put that responsibility on someone else who thinks he knows what is good for me. Pi Nu, who I adore, has come to understand what I am and actually brags about me now. But for a good, solid year or more he thought I was fighting “too much.” If I’d waited for him to understand, I wouldn’t have been doing what it is that showed him a different way to see. And so it has been with all my teachers, even when it’s difficult to navigate the misunderstandings that occur before that understanding comes.
About 6 months ago I sent my record and “statistics” to the head writer of the female Muay Thai section of the Muay Siam newspaper. I’d just won the Northern Belt at 105 lbs and he wanted to put a profile in the newspaper of me. I train at Petchrungruang and fight under that name even when I travel around, but when I go to Chiang Mai those fights are often booked by my old gym, Lanna Muay Thai, and so they give that name to the promoters. So, I won the belt under the Lanna name, but in giving my information for the profile I used Petchrungruang. This caused a problem, even though I can name a many fighters (Thai) who fight under two or more different gym names. Some have a “home” gym and a “sponsored” gym, like the woman I fought and won the belt from: she fights out of her home gym Sakunthong by name, but when she is booked through her university sport team in Bangkok she fights under their name. Same deal. When my profile was published online (as well as in the paper), the fact that two names were on the profile pulled some bitchy comments from readers. One man wrote, “Sylvie Sit Kru Roy,” meaning Sylvie of 100 Teachers. He didn’t mean it as a compliment – poor kids in small gyms, or without a gym end up having multiple, transitory krus, my own trainer Pi Nu grew up that way. But you know what? Fuck him, because the opportunities I’ve said yes to are some that nobody else in the world gets to match… and I get to share it through my website. When I train with these legends in private sessions, 99% of the time these men are very happy to work with me and are generous with their knowledge. Dieselnoi spontaneously sends me long private messages about what he wants me to work on, without any concern for what gym I train out of or what other trainers I work with. The important part is the knowledge, sharing his heart with me and knowing that I will value it. That’s why Pi Nu doesn’t mind me going all over the place, because he knows that it’s a “yes, and,” kind of relationship, not a “no, but,” of contradictory information.
In my recent vlog about what I’m working on (Patreon supporters can see it here), I go through a series of different techniques that I’m focusing on in my training currently. Each one of them is connected to more than one trainer, while each one is emphasized by one in particular. They weave together, rather than standing apart. My mind craves patterns, I get excited to find similarities and connections between seemingly distinct things – and learning from all these different people, who are fighters in their hearts, allows me to do this without fatigue. If Sudsakorn tells me to throw my arm behind me on a kick and Ajarn Surat insists I stick it in my opponents face, not a single piece of me thinks there’s a problem. It’s not contradictory, it’s not a matter of figuring out what to do when two people tell you two opposite things. Because I can feel the value of both, I can choose which one I prefer and still use the other when it’s appropriate. There’s this thing that trainers will say to you here in Thailand, something that Pi Nu loves to say all the time. It’s “tah-ma-chaat,” and it means “nature” or “instinct.” Master K was the first person to say it to me, but back then it was only a translation because I didn’t know Thai at all. It took me a long time but I’ve started to understand it differently. It seems, at first, that he’s telling me to do what is natural to me. That kind of makes sense because if you like kicking, if it feels natural, you’ll kick a lot. But it also reminded me of when trainers first started telling me to “relax,” and my immediate response was opposition, “it’s hard to relax with you punching me in the face, man.” Kicking, getting up on your toes, contorting your body to positions that feel very unnatural is a concerted effort that is not, “natural.” But I’ve recently come to understand this command differently, in the very same way I came to realize what is meant by “relax.” Both commands mean to remove tension and sabai is much better translated to “be at ease,” than it is to be relaxed. It’s the same with “natural.” You know in movies when the characters are in a precarious situation and don’t want to be found out, the command is, “act natural.” That’s what is meant by “natural.” Not “do what comes naturally to you,” because you’re learning an artform that is not intuitive or instinctual. Rather, take those elements that you are learning and ease into them, act like they are your nature. And that’s what I’ve learned from being Sylvie Sit Kru Roy. I’ve learned how to see what these different trainers are doing, where their feet land, how their techniques are an expression of their nature. And my nature is learning; my nature is ravenous, it is my nature to find more where there is plenty to be given.