In the summer of 2018, I began to learn Muay Thai. Training has been a major part of important life changes I’ve gone through in recent years, so I wanted to share some of the lessons that I have learned, and also explore the philosophical and practical connections between learning to fight and my personal and professional life.
The first thing I learned was the importance of letting go of my ego. I got the most out of training when I simply shut off the decision making part of my brain and did exactly what the trainer said, no matter how hard it seemed like it was going to be, or how much my body protested.
I realized that my mind often gave up before my body, and with my ego turned off, I could go further than I ever thought was possible. I lost 8 kilograms. I quit drinking for a year and started waking up at 6am. I became stronger and more in shape than I had ever been, and I began to feel present in my body, and started to understand how it moves in space in ways that I had never connected with previously. For someone who spent most of their life working behind a computer screen, this was revelatory.
There is no room for faking it in Muay Thai. You have to commit. It’s the anti instagram. In the world of Instagram, you’ll see thousands of accounts of designers and artists, each with thousands or tens of thousands of followers.
But there is no way to tell if their business is truly working. They are signalling success, doing cool projects, but are they really making ends meet? Are they only showing us the successes, while cleverly editing out all the losses?
In Muay Thai feedback is instant and there is no room for this kind of posturing. You are either doing the technique correctly or you aren’t, and if you aren’t you pay the price. There is no room for bullshit.
LEVELS OF HURT
I learned that there are levels of pain. I was 37 when I started training. I was in what I thought was decent shape. After all, I was going to the gym 3 days a week consistently since I was 25. But the cardio and fitness needed for muay thai, even at the hobbyist level that I was committed to, was on another level.
It took at least a year before my body was broken-in. Every week I was hurt. My ribs were sore, or my shins or foot swollen. I went to work with a black eye more than once. Or my back was slightly sprained, or I had a badly stubbed toe. Always something.
Now, even though I am sparring and training more intensely, I do not experience those same pains. My body has become harder. What I thought was pain was not pain at all, but just a new becoming. I had experienced those pains before not because I was hurting myself, but because my body was weak and couldn’t handle what I was exposing it to.
This is the same in life. Too often we give up because something hurts us right now, not realizing that if we push through it, we will never have to face such discomfort again.
Muay Thai, like design, is about problem solving. There is an opponent in front of you, and they are putting pressure on you and trying to score points by punching, kicking, elbowing or kneeing you. This is your problem and you must devise an appropriate solution. Bonus if the solution is elegant.
Through practice you will develop a vocabulary of techniques that you can use to address the problem of the opponent. Just like in art and design - everyone has the same colors and tools and materials. The art is when you figure out how to deploy those tools in a way best suited to the problem at hand. It takes patience and subtlety to do this, and is something that is hard to put into words. In both art and fighting, you simply have to experience it to figure it out. Studying from books will only take you so far.
CONTINUITY AND FLOW
The beauty of muay thai is that it’s not all about power or force. Although the sport is notoriously brutal, if you look deeper, you will learn that the underlying ethos is one of patience, economy of movement and conservation of energy. The best fighters know how to use an opponents' energy and effort against them. They understand the value of timing. They know when to be soft when the opponent is hard, and how to be hard when they are soft.
The understanding of timing is also useful in life. If you can successfully change your perspective and understand the latent energy of a challenging situation, you can find ways to turn it to your advantage
CALM AND RELAXED
Christine Zelinsky, my Ukrainian drawing teacher from the University of the Arts, would always tell me to loosen up. Coaches on baseball teams always said loosen up on the bat, relax your grip. Dentists even told me to relax. It was very hard for me to feel that I was tense at all, although it was quite apparent to them.
Once I started sparring it became crystal clear how much tension I carried around in my body. I was so tense I could not defend myself, and I rushed through all of the techniques that I had spent hours practicing. My trainer helped me see that when we are calm and relaxed, we can see, feel and think properly. We can respond more appropriately and take better action. Both in fighting and in life, instead of always simply reacting to whatever stress is at hand, being calm allows us to simply deal with things as they arise.
FEELING VS. THINKING
I am an analytical person. I intellectualize everything, and try to rationalize the problem. My trainer Vahid is different. I can see how he feels his way through the movements of his Muay. Sometimes he has to take a moment to think about how to explain a technique to me, because the technique doesn’t exist for him as a language pattern in his brain. For him it is an embodied feeling that he trusts just as much as words in a textbook.
The shift from learning by thinking to learning by feeling was groundbreaking, and I try to transfer it into every aspect of my life. I started to take this approach into my work, my relationships, and how I generally go about moving through the world. This is not to say that feeling always trumps thinking. But for most of my life I relied too much on thinking and discounted the value of using emotions and my body as a way to interpret the world.
DO YOUR THING (BE RESPONSIVE)
Fighting requires confidence. There is no space for half-stepping. When I first started sparring, Vahid could see my hesitation. It’s natural to not know what to do when someone is trying to punch you in the face.
Vahid would say to me “Do your thing. Don’t worry about what the other person is doing.” I had to stand my ground and trust the technique that I had learned. Trust that I could defend my opponents attacks, and that I knew how to take advantage of weaknesses in their defense to attack them.
He did not mean to blindly throw punches or kicks without taking into account the strategy and style of your opponent. To win, you must understand your adversary and how they approach the fight. Muay thai is about flow and continuity, and making the right moves at the right time. What Vahid meant is that when I did make a move, I had to stand my ground fully committed to it.
Essentially, I had to believe in myself. I began to trust myself, my experience, and my talent more and to let this belief bring me to new places creatively and professionally.
Growing up in Philadelphia, violence of some sort, either direct or lingering in the background, was a normal part of life (I’m working on an essay that gets more into this by the way).
A lot has been written about the difference between violence and fighting in combat sports. There’s a lot more to be said there of course. But I realized that I never felt fully confident defending myself in threatening situations. More so, I never understood fully the dynamics of violence, and how being a witness to or participant in violence affected my psychology.
Once I started to actually learn how to throw a proper kick, punch or elbow, how to hurt someone, I paradoxically felt that there would be almost no-situation possible where I would ever have to use anything that I was learning. It was easy to look back at all the fights I had seen or been in and realize that all of them were the result of out of control ego, of someone trying to prove something, and they were all avoidable and never worth it.
COMING TO TERMS WITH MY AGE
I’ll be 41 in a few months. Once I started sparring, I fully understood the physical differences in stamina and strength between me and a 25 year old. I am almost the same number of years from 25 as I am from 55. Although obvious, it was somehow a shock when made so clear to me. My time would run out at some point, my body would change, and I would not be able to perform the same way physically as I can now.
Besides reminding me that yes, I too had aged, training highlights the fact that the best time to start any endeavor is today. While I am no professional fighter, nor desire to be, if I look back on my time learning Muay Thai, I see a guy who never really played any sports, and is now fairly proficient at the basics. What if I would have started five or ten years ago? The point is almost too obvious to state - we get better with practice. The results of practice are always incremental, and we rarely see improvement in a straight line. Instead it compounds, and the small commitments we make each day add up to something greater in the long run.