It’s the smell that first hits you. When you walk in the doors. But it’s not the kind you’d think. It’s medicinal—camphorish—mentholish.
You learn, later, that it’s from the oil they use to heal joints and sore muscles, and clear the mind.
It’s unusual at first, odd,foreign. But soon, very soon, you’ll come to welcome it as part of the process. As a Pavlovian trigger to transition from the outside world to inside.
Inside, it’s controlled chaos. The constant machine gun popping of leather gloves on leather pads and leathery flesh. There is music pounding on an old CD player sloppily connected to huge speakers which boom, depending on the day and moods of the people, hard rock, rap, or Thai music—a bagpipe-y, snake-y tune. Each, strangely, suffices to energize and calm you at the same time. Trigger two.
You head to the locker room, greet a few folks, butterflies in your stomach because you know you’ve been away too long. Too much work, you mumble to yourself, but it’s not that. It’s never that.
You put on a cup, to protect the jewels, and quickly follow with shorts that have special cutouts to help you knee and kick. A fresh branded tee shirt later, you are ready to head out onto the mat.
You grab your mouthguard, your gloves, and your wraps.
As you approach the mat, you pause—bare feet only from here on out.
You slide your shoes and socks off to the side somewhere and head to the mat again. But again, you pause.
If you’re the spiritual sort, and I suppose you are, you pause here to give thanks. To bow, slightly, and to pray a little prayer.
Thank you. For this. For all of this.
Some people find it quirky, but it’s about tradition. It’s about respect, and it centers you. If someone is watching over you on this day, it’s good to recognize them and say thank you for their presence.
You circle outside the giant ring in the center of the mat, a regulation size boxing squared circle, where your instructor—covered in protective gear, looking not quite unlike the Michelin Man—is busy catching punches, kicks, knees, and elbows from some spastic eager beaver. You smile. They’ll learn.
As you come around the far corner of the ring, the instructor sees you and nods, holding a single focus mitt out, over the side of the ropes.
You see it and slam it with a hammer fist and the rewarding, resounding, pop and kinetic resistance has you both smiling.
This exchange will be your only welcome back. Subtle, but sweet, indeed. You will remember the moment for the rest of your life.
No explanations, as to your absence, are needed. You are back. That’s all that matters.
This is the way it should be.
You stretch and breathe, stretch and breathe. Paying attention to the areas around the ankles, knees, neck and waist. Bouncing around barefooted on a rubber mat at any age, let’s face it, is fun. Something you probably haven’t done since you were a kid, and there’s a lot of that here, in the room. An elevated sense of play.
The instructors, Thai guys fresh from overseas, are hardened warriors forced to fight since they were children, to feed themselves, to earn money, to validate their adoption into a Muay Thai fighting camp. They are simply confounded that anyone would willingly do this, let alone pay good money for it. You’d expect them to be scowlers, bitter, but they rarely are. Instead, they beam smiles that envelope their ears. They love to tease you. But it’s playful, mischievous maybe, but always playful. They laugh a lot. They are surprised so many people want to learn what they were forced to do.
Muay Thai is a brutal martial art, all offense, little defense.
Trading a blow to give one is a legitimate, and often encouraged, point of strategy.
But you love it.
It’s beautiful. Savage. Primitive. Honest.
You love it because truth is revealed here. No lies are told.
You push yourself towards exhaustion, and continue, until you think you can go no more.
And just on the other side of what you thought was your absolute limit, there is euphoria. The slightest taste of Heaven.
Limitless, boundless, energy.
Dancing in this light, you can go forever.
But it takes breaking a sweat, hitting the wall, and fighting through it. Because all of the best stuff is kept purposely away from most; kept away from the people who don’t want it bad enough. The huddled masses.
No, this is rarefied air. Deep waters.
You love this because it’s earned. Not everyone gets to this level. Because its not easy or handed to you.
You dread 50 right roundhouse kicks to the heavy bag, but you do it because on the other side of it is another set of 50 left roundhouses and the other side of that is 50 knees—each side.
But you learn. Your body can go much, much, farther than you think it can.
Expansion occurs here, in this nondescript warehouse.
Of mind. Of body.
You’d call it your salvation, a place where you transcend, if it didn’t sound so blasphemous.
When you’re finished, you’re soaked
Shirt clings like second skin. You have bruises on your forearms from holding pads. Bruises on your shins from checking kicks. Knuckles sore. And yet, you are purified. Scorched clean like a meteor entering atmosphere. Baptized by fire.
You are saved.
—Photo Credit: Flickr/Peter Gordon