Training Joy – Muay Thai
After my last loss I felt terribly, not because I’d lost necessarily – it was perhaps my best fight yet in terms of performance and being free in the ring, trying new things against a good opponent, etc – but mainly because I felt I’d let my trainers down. They didn’t feel that way and kind words were offered to me on more than one occasion in the vein of how well I’d done in the fight. Maybe because of the strange mix of feelings that come from disappointment and encouragement, I felt more free in my training than I have in a long while. Suddenly it didn’t matter what any specific thing was in my training, whether my kick was quick or strong or if I was tired or not. I’d just fought, there was no pressure and I just wanted to get back into it to ask for another fight. And that non-pressure on myself manifested in non-pressure in my training. That’s not fully accurate, there is always a lot of pressure in my training because sparring and padwork is pressure in the sense of energy from my trainers or sparring partners, but no internal pressure. And suddenly I was doing really well. Not because I didn’t have external pressures but because the release of internal pressures that I put on myself made me free and that freedom made me feel joy and that joy made me mess around and play in the ring with my trainers. And all that made me perform much better.
I’ve heard it said – and repeated it myself a number of times – that you do what you know when the pressure is on. If you’ve trained 10 years of TaeKwonDo and 2 years of Muay Thai, when you get in pressure situations the TaeKwonDo is coming out, whether you mean it to or not. In this same vein, and maybe for those of us who have not had prior training in a different discipline, you fight how you train so you should always train how you want to fight. If you don’t have a different discipline to fall back on, doing “what you know” under pressure is not necessarily going to default to the one discipline you have practiced – that would be so lovely if it were the case – but rather whatever it is that you do repeatedly under pressure in your training.
I watched a teammate from my gym have his first fight about a month ago, something I’d spent some energy convincing him to do, and while he performed very well and won the fight and we were all proud of him, we were also horrified to watch him repeatedly put his hands on his hips and turn his back to his opponent to “take a breather” when they were broken from the clinch and he would kind of zombie-walk over to the corner between rounds while Den screamed for him to get his hands up in the air. This wasn’t conscious on my teammates part; in fact, when I talked to him about it after the fight he didn’t even remember doing it. Know why? Because he has trained it, repeatedly. In practice, in sparring, between rounds of pads, he puts his hands on his hips and demonstrates how tired he is because in the west we like to show how hard we’re working.
In Thailand – and I reckon in the west, too, if it were pointed out to us – the preferred aesthetic is of the fighter who is fighting hard but demonstrating ease. The Thai word “sabai” is used all the time by Thais and often we interpret it to mean “relax.” It does mean relax, but in a more complete sense it means to be at ease. The Thai phrase for “how are you?” is sabai dee mai which is basically like asking “are you at ease?” It is the state at which you should always be. In order to find yourself “at ease” on a regular basis, you need to practice it, to train it.
Just as my good friend Robyn Klenk taught me that you have to train aggression – you can’t just decide at the moment you need it that you can turn it on, instead you need to have fed and fostered it in order to have it at the ready when you need it – you also need to practice and train the kind of ease and relaxation and freedom with which Thai fighters perform. It is an expression of joy, of pleasure in the fight that wins in the Thai aesthetic. I am learning, bit by bit, how to practice joy.
So after this last fight when the pressure was lifted it was a good opportunity for me to feel that joy in an organic way and I was feeling great joy in my training. It’s good to be able to feel it in an easy this-just-happened-to-me kind of way in order to be able to recognize it, but I have to recreate it. I have to be able to get back there when it’s not easy, when it doesn’t come to me and I have to find it and make it. Because under pressure, in a fight, you can’t just wait to see what will happen to you. You have to create it. You don’t do 100 pushups just when you feel strong, you do them even when you feel weak so that when you feel weak in the ring you know you can still do whatever it is you know you have to do. You don’t just train when you feel good; you don’t just fight when you think you’ll win. You train when you feel awful because sometimes when it’s time to fight, when you’re getting your ass kicked, it feels awful. But if you’ve trained how to move out of that, how to find joy and freedom of movement out of the mire then you will fight out of it as well. You train how you want to fight and you do what you know. So spend as much effort as you can getting to know joy.