Things I’m Learning About Muay Thai – A Husband’s Point of View
Below is my husband Kevin’s entry in his journal which is now following his attempt to get in shape and finally train in the Muay Thai that he loves, starting at 279 lbs. You can read the full journal here.
Okay, a great week of just pushing through the pads with Pi Nu. It’s so strange to be doing this physically when I’ve been watching it first hand, so closely, for 5 years+. I’m really adept at physically imagining movement, so in a certain sense I feel that I’ve been “doing” Muay Thai for all these years…all the movements are so familiar to me. But it also feels like I’m in rehab after a spinal injury, and my body parts aren’t doing what I know they are supposed to do. It’s like a virtual knowledge trying to map on physical capability.
First Realization: This is something I think I knew, but today it hit me like a ton of bricks. Like I suddenly really knew it. Pi Nu is just an amazing padholder. It struck me today just how much he is teaching rhythm, really his own little style of a kind of music. Techniques are like notes, and yes, you need to play them right, but what is really important is how you play them together. Certain notes belong together, and there are common melodies that can be played within any particular natural group. And yes, the tempo can be changed to produce expressions, and qualities of experience, but it’s the rhythm that holds it all together. And he teaches this rhythm over and over and over, pulling knees and elbows into percussive beats, teeps to jabs, checks to kickbacks, uppercuts to hooks, and back. And he runs you through this music, over the fatigue, until you just start to hum it…you can’t help but hum it. That’s why he was so puzzled when an enthused westerner once asked him: What is your favorite combo? It’s not like that. It would be like asking what are you favorite musical bars? Yes, it’s something that might be answerable, but it isn’t the right level of description. It’s not the level of music.
And, as I climbed out of the ring this morning, armed with my new and weighty realization, I realized another thing. Sylvie often gets the question: How do you not get confused when legends all train you different, sometimes conflicting techniques? She usually answers this by saying she just takes the things she needs or feels attracted to, and leaves the rest. But what struck me was how Pi Nu’s music, which is a certain basic structure of Muay music, is sympathetic to for instance Karuhat’s music, which at surface value is quite different, more lyrical, more sudden. But they kind of harmonize together. It struck me how all of these legends, men who feel Muay Thai in their bones because they have warred it out at Lumpinee and Rajadamnern with huge pressures in the Golden Age, each have a music. And they are all different. What Sylvie has been doing is a kind of DJ-ing these musics into a style she is finding herself, ultimately toward her own music. So creatively, strains of one might sample into another, one harmony might morph into another, beats may syncopate across others. Yes, some music may be jarring to mesh with another, but not really. Not if you really feel the qualities of each. All music can be joined to other music, given the right transition and context. And this just blows my mind.
Second Realization: This came earlier in the week. I was truly struggling with my front leg teep. Being substantially over-weight didn’t help one bit. Being fairly immobile for this half-decade certainly was no boon to my balance. But somehow I was just all wrong about. Nothing made sense. Come on Kev, what are you doing? You know what a teep looks like. But then an interesting thing happened. After several more very confused teeps Pi Nu demonstrated how it should be done. I don’t have to explain how beautiful his was. But, what is interesting is that he didn’t pull the teep. He made it jab right into me. And then again. I’ve seen him do this to Sylvie. Not pull the teep. He doesn’t rocket it, but he makes sure that it has a pointed sting. Now she’s only 105 lbs so she regularly is knocked back, and I’ve noticed that she kind of has gotten into the habit of becoming really passive to this slight bit of aggression, like: If I just melt and fall away…submit…maybe he’ll stop. And he usually doesn’t. I’ve got more than 150 lbs on Sylvie so I decide to take the teep (my gloves were a makeshift pad), in fact after two, I’m going to lean into it, crowd the space. I’m basically not going to be teeped off, at least not effectively. And this changed the whole lesson. Pi Nu felt my resistance, so when he then called for me to try, once again, he resisted. He leaned into it. Suddenly I was banging my foot into his pad, trying to move him. I was no longer teeping “to the pad”. I was actively trying to use my weight against him. And given my size I sent him flying a few times. It’s enough to say Pi Nu was really happy. It wasn’t just that I was able to move him. It was suddenly I was using much better technique. I wasn’t a complete spaz about it. Such a big deal. It made me realize that “copying” or “imitating” a technique really can send you down the wrong alley. You might very well get to a very nice approximation, but if you aren’t using the technique to do what the technique is for, first and foremost, you are kind of wasting your time. Since this moment of realization I’ve had mixed results. Isn’t that the way that it is. Your epiphany is never as clear as when you first have it, but it fuels me, and my teep is definitely working towards a fun and meaningful technique. Now I try to pop him back, let my weight do the talking, and let Pi Nu do his magic and complicate the task with context.
Third Realization: There are two basic footwork patterns in Muay Thai. Not to oversimplify it, but there are two. In one weight goes to the opposite side foot when striking. In the other weight goes to the same side foot when striking. I had gotten into a bad habit during my few months of hitting the bag at Lanna (I didn’t really take an instruction then), years ago. I got pulled into the Dempsey jab which involves a deep “falling step” sending your weight forward onto the lead leg. This set up a basic weight transfer for me, same side weight transfer on all hands, and it kind of got into me somehow and hibernated all these years. This is the exact opposite of the weight transfer Chatchai Sasakul taught Sylvie. I don’t want to go too far into this with examples, but I can feel that these form two different kinds of “walking”. So, in shadowing elbows in a really informal, light way I started experimenting with walking with the opposite side weight transfer. It took me a couple of days before I really started to feel the way that this kind of transfer creates a twisting, elephant-walk-like, basic rhythm. I also realized that it’s really important not to blur these two kinds of walking, at least when distinguishing them in your body. It’s the reason why in the classic right cross you are told to nail your back foot to the ground. You don’t want to slur them. Yes, there are moments when you want to walk with same-side weight, but this holds it’s own purity. It counts as a counter measure. Of course there are many way to blend footworks, but this, at a basic level, felt like a profound element. So, I’ve been working to make sure my weight transfer is opposite, slowly growing to that rhythm. Today I realized how this kind of weight transfer can have a big effect on elbows, allowing them to be married to the basic “cutting off” gallop of a fighter like Yodkhunpon. Each gallop holds it’s own elbow at the ready. Side to side one can move, taking elbows off the typically linear, right in front of you elbow striking practice that is common. It opens angles.
Fourth Realization: This is also something I kinda knew, but as with all these things experiencing it really made a difference. Contrary to some fears of those who have not yet been to Thailand to train: It doesn’t matter how good you are to be taken seriously. No honestly. Yes, a lot of things do matter, and yes, this applies to what I might call “true teachers” of Muay Thai, but you can be the worst example of an athlete – look at me, vastly overweight, in his 50s, almost no training experience – and you can still be pretty interesting to a “true teacher”. The reason for this is found in Sylvie’s 2 part article on Beetle Fighting. In the Muay Thai world there is just an elemental – I’m tempted to call it pure – love of the battle, of the clash. In beetle fights it doesn’t matter how good or bad your beetle is, or how likely he is to not be good, the whole game is to find someone who might be a good match…and to have a battle. At any level. There are champion beetles that may be worth thousands of dollars (I’m assuming), and there are beetles you just find on trees. All of them battle, or can battle. If you find one that doesn’t really like the fight, won’t engage, no problem, he probably isn’t made for the clash. I think, after watching Muay Thai for these 5 years, this is a fundamental grounding ethic of Muay Thai.
There is another part to this though. True Teachers are a bit like Real Mechanics. Real Mechanics are fascinated by any kind of mechanism. How to make it work better? You see this with car guys. Guys have the car up on blocks trying to make it better. It can be a rare model, or it can be a Pinto, its the same ethic. What can I turn this Pinto into? Teachers like Pi Nu are exactly like this. All their students are like projects. They are thinking: Hmmm, what can I turn this into? Yes, the main business and pre-occupation is building Thai boys into stadium fighters and even champions, but deeper, below all of that, there’s a deeper morality. Everyone can be improved. What can I make this fighter into? Humble beginnings don’t really matter much at all. In fact, in some ways it’s more interesting. Pi Nu took Angie, a trans Thai woman with zero Muay Thai experience in her 30s and through matching effort and focus helped turn her into the first trans-woman to fight at Lumpinee. Not because that was any kind of aim of his, I’m very sure that when he picked those pads the first time it was the farthest thing from his mind, but it was because he looked at her and said: What can I improve? I say all this because I can see in his eyes that he’s thinking the same thing when he’s holding pads for me (and really probably anyone who wants to learn). I have no intention of fighting, but already he’s thinking of possible opponents for me, starting to joke about them. When my teep sent him flying he thought: Hmmm, we can do something with that. When he felt how I kind of love knees and elbows together he thinks: Hmmm, we can do something with that. For these kinds of pure teachers everyone is like a stock car whose engine he wants to work on, and that he’d like to maybe race. Not on some amazing, famous track, but on the neighborhood drag strip against another car around it’s same capacities. See what this can become. Of course not every kru is like this, and some gyms have real bottom lines or business aims, but I’ve seen this in several krus in different camps and it’s a beautiful thing.
You can read the rest of my husband’s guest post articles here: