Sylvie wrote about what she felt is probably the best Muay Thai private session in all of Thailand, here. This guest post is about why you should, generally, plan and budget private sessions on your trips to train in Thailand. Either long or short term. It now has become a really important part of the tool box of experiences that Thailand offers to serious students of the art and sport.
Things have really changed, and indeed changed rapidly, in Thailand. It was not long ago, maybe even 5 years ago, that private sessions with trainers were seen as a kind of trap. Especially in larger, westerner-oriented gyms it was widely reported that padman would just coast through pads, giving lots of repetitive work, with a sneaking sense that nobody was going to instruct or correct you unless you paid for a private. There was a prevailing concern among westerners that somehow padmen and krus were kind of holding the knowledge hostage, and you’d only get to the “good stuff” if you were willing to level up. I’m not even saying that this isn’t the case now-days, we really don’t spent much time in more western-oriented gyms, but you can definitely feel that something profound is shifting. The very course of the flow of the river of knowledge is changing in Thailand.
First, let’s back up a bit. It’s good to understand that traditionally padwork was never the place for correction and teaching. I mean, maybe with little kids of 6 or 8 years of age, maybe, but for full grown adults padwork is about “charging the battery” (as the legend Kaensak once put it to Sylvie). It’s about pushing through the basic forms of fighting, under duress, and really more than anything practicing (training) your energy and your Ruup. So, it is likely the case that in many instances in the past where eager westerners were pushed through pretty boring padwork expecting instruction, their disappointment rightly may have come from not even understanding the basic nature of padwork. Padmen are valuable in Thai gyms, but they are not often seen as respected teachers, they are more often “workers”, who work the fighters. I’m not saying that there aren’t a fair number of lazy or uninspired padmen in Thailand, there are. Their conditions of work are usually quite far from the muay of the Muay Thai they grew up in, in small camps of Thai fighting. Padmen are often poorly paid, and are often training people with goals and histories very far from Thai realities. If you are having issues with uninspired padwork, here is my list of things you can do to wake it up, and give it life:
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Certainly no expert, but I've watched a lot of padwork over the last 7 years. These are things I've picked up from examples of some of the best I've seen, and ways to bring that extra something to your already hard work. Every padman is at heart an actual fighter, awakening his instincts is the doorway to his greatest gift to you.
So let’s go beyond what may be a basic misunderstanding involving the history of padwork in Thailand, and the intensive needs for westerners who often have a short time to visit and get the very most out of their time here. The truth is that most everyone on a Muay Thai vacation or travel plan really wants to not only learn stuff, but also, more importantly, learn stuff that they can take back home into the gym and have a lasting impact on their training when they aren’t so blessed to be surrounded by Thailand’s Muay Thai. The good news is that I think many gyms around the country have really caught onto this. The best of them realize that the value that they can give a serious student does come with correction and instruction, packaging ideas into principles that can travel well. This is a huge step for Thais because frankly Thais don’t habitually break things down into mechanics and diagnostics. So much of Muay Thai is rather taught in the fluidity of play or over very long periods of time as each student or fighter kind of absorbs the knowledge of the gym.
The Music: The Big Why
This all has been an immense introduction to the “why” of taking privates in Thailand. And I’m not even sure why I took such a round about way of getting to it. Maybe it was because people have very strong experiences and assumptions about what training it, and what it should be about, and what I’m going to say is probably against many of those hard earned assumptions. The reason why you should take privates in Thailand, and especially privates from legendary fighters of the past, is MUSIC.
Every serious fighter in Thailand is a poet. You cannot perform at the stadium level for a length of time without having a certain kind of music within you. Let’s call it a way of rhyming. What is truly amazing about Thailand is that all of these poets grew out of a vast system and project of fighting poetry (Thailand’s Muay Thai aesthetic), brought about through tens of thousands of real, full-contact fights. Thailand is an immense AI of data-learning, at the level of fight poetry. The enormous quantities of fights, that fighters grow into Muay Thai at a very early age and therefore embody it at a profoundly deep level. It’s like nowhere and nothing on the face of the Earth, a huge laboratory of fight experience. And each and every fighter possesses a poetry, a music, you will very likely not find outside of the country, and very likely is starkly different from your padholder at home (even if quite skilled).
Sylvie wrote this post 7 years ago: Hidden Gems – Muay Thai/Boxing Champions and Trainers. It was about how just a low-level padman in a Thai gym, someone who nobody much pays attention to, also happens to be a world class boxer who nearly won a world championship. And 7 years later Sylvie filmed with him for the Muay Thai Library, he’s probably the 2nd best boxing private in all of Thailand (you can see his Library session here: #71 Napapol Giatsakchokchai – Powerful Boxing For Muay Thai (81 min) watch it here ):
This is really the point though. As much as we want to come to Thailand get the package deal of loads of “correct” technique, the right way to throw the kick, the right way to get inside clinch position, the right way to pivot off, etc, none of this is even the most valuable thing. The most valuable thing is the music of the person you are training with, their inner rhythm, the way they move and connect phrasing together. It’s like you are visiting Wordsworth or Shelley, and grilling them about the rules of grammar. Yes, they may have really interesting observations on grammar, but you are losing something vital. You have to stand in the ring, and move with them. You have to feel what they have that nobody has, and for that, honestly, you need a private session (often). An hour of just soaking of the energy, the sound of what they are. Sylvie takes questions when she books privates with legends – she can book privates with people like Karuhat, Sagat or Yodkhunpon, and probably most others in the Library through her Facebook Page – on how advanced you have to be. The truth is, when you move with a poet you don’t have to be advanced at all. You will FEEL the music, the way that fighter moves. Whether that is Sagat’s ferocity, or Karuhat’s silky deception. There is no substitute for being there. Even if you are a beginner, just being in the ring with one of these men could alter your path as a fighter, as a person.
We’ve filmed privates with legends and top krus through out Thailand. Literally over a 100 hours – you can see much of it here, study it. The abiding truth about it all is just how beautifully unique each fighter/kru is, in their music. This is what you want to tap into, this is what you want to feel, this is what is available nowhere else in the world. Even among lower level krus and ex-fighters, you’ll find that when they are correcting you, they are still correcting you from a place of music, a place which they hear in their heart. The way the beat goes. There are many experienced padmen all over the world, but very few of them have the music of the Thais, born from the fights, woven of the culture. These men, all of them, are seriously poets.
I believe that my attention to “training music” really came to the fore when Sylvie made a project of training with Karuhat Sor. Supawan for 30 days straight. We wanted to put up a whole system of a legend’s fighting style, and she published the 30 hours on vimeo On Demand so we could direct the funds back to him. You can watch the Intensive Series all here. But this is actually the point. Watch the video segment above and just see what I am talking about. Perhaps no private in all we have filmed is so much about music as the one that Karuhat gives, and perhaps no legendary fighter was more poetic than he. He teaches simply in sparring, as if a Baryshnikov were guiding you around the dance floor. For 30 days he did this with Sylvie. It was incredible. But more incredible, perhaps, was the way it opened my eyes to how much all of the fighters we filmed with, were doing the same thing (just less explicitly), and how much this is the thing of Golden Value when you train one on one with any padman/kru/fighter. Their inner music is the thing that they have that just exists nowhere else on earth. If you have traveled 10,000 miles to get all the way here, yes, you definitely want to hone in on serious corrections, beautiful technical knowledge and know-how, and small packets of things that will serve you well, but…you also want to feel and hear the music. And you need time, and you need focus to feel that.
Private sessions have become seriously much more popular and also expensive with the wave that was started by Sylvie’s Muay Thai Library project. More and more people are thinking of them as necessary parts of their training here, they are budgeting in hours of one on one time, and in a sense – even though this counters some of the privileges of cheaper instruction of the old days – it is the rightful acknowledgement and appreciation of the deep and rich knowledge buried in the hearts and souls of Thai fighters. Move with them. Be inspired.
If you aren’t sure who you want to take privates with, almost all of the great privates available in Thailand can be found in the Muay Thai Library project. You can study a particular instructor or legend in advance, get a feel for their music, their technique, their emphasis, and then be not only educated in whom you may want to choose, but also, be more sensitive to what they can offer you, be further up the ladder. (If you happened to know a great fighter or kru who would make worth addition to the Library, shoot Sylvie a message with details on how to contact them.)