I took up Thai Kickboxing towards the beginning of 2016, after several years dedicated to the study of ballet. I had wanted more Muay Thai (the formal Thai name for the sport) ever since having tried the form for a few intense weeks in 2013.
Early 2016 was a transitional time for me. I had just quit my full-time job for the educational company Socos, was exploring what would become the Responsive Conference, and looking for something to compliment my training in gymnastics and ballet. I joined “El Niño’s,” a fight gym in San Francisco owned by professional fighter Gilbert “El Niño” Melendez. Thai Kickboxing is an unusually effective form at the intersection between sport and practical self-defense. I had never thrown a punch and wanted to try.
As is often the case when I begin a new physical practice, I quickly began to take class 3 and then 5 days a week, and to practice ‘shadow boxing’ (sparing without a partner or bag) while on phone calls or in the shower. It was fascinating to see how much the intensity of the martial form complemented the rest of my life, and I found myself wanting more.
Muay Thai is called the “art of 8 limbs” because in addition to kicking and punching, the form uses elbows and knees. In traditional Thai fights, there is a great deal of ritual, followed by some of the most abrupt violence I have ever witnessed.
I have never been prone to violence. Growing up, my mother taught me to believe that violence should always be avoided. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I considered the difference between the concepts of aggression and violence. The practice of a deliberately violent sport was far outside my experience. In Muay Thai we train with heavily padded gloves and pads, and it is still scary to throw my weight into a punch at someone’s head. Above all, my study of the form was as an exploration of fear — the fear of getting hit and of hitting another (albeit, consenting) person.
I’m not proud of everything that came out of my time practicing Muay Thai; I experienced significant downsides. And through my daily study of controlled violence I discovered a level of confidence and courage that will serve me well for years to come.
From 4th grade until early high school, I was an outsider — the “sensitive” kid in a community that valued hyper-masculinity. I sported boy-band long blond hair in defiance of the buzz cuts of my peers. I was called “girl,” which was the biggest insult any of us could think of. I remember one day in 5th grade getting invited to play basketball, only to have the ball thrown at my face, breaking my nose.
Fortunately, I grew out of those years, and it took a decade to find an appreciation of team sports and even longer to begin practicing martial forms. That today I enjoy watching professional fighters compete would have shocked my 10- or 15-year old self.
I remember the first time I felt like a predator at El Niño’s. My fight gym has some world class fighters who practice with us. Merely hearing their exhalations when they strike is enough to make me want to take a step back, and the force of some of their explosive kicks against a bag makes me cringe.
In my first month, I was paired with a fellow — call him Miguel — who was in his first week. He was a few inches shorter and maybe 10 pounds lighter than me. We were taught a sequence of punches, kicks, elbows, and knees designed to help us practice a specific type of attack and defense. It wasn’t especially challenging to hold pads while Miguel executed this series against me. When it came my turn to attack, it was clear that he was tired and bit scared. Like a tiger sensing prey, my aggression spiked and I went after him more intensely. This aggressive drive continued to spiral, until I found myself thinking — through a fog of effort — “I could kill him!” While he was never in any danger, that fleeting thought — that I was capable of causing physical harm to another — rocked me.
I don’t walk around afraid anymore. When someone attempted to steal the tip jar at my café a month ago, I had no compunction about stopping him physically. I was also surprised at how angry I became.
In August 2016 I spent a week camping with my family in the Sierras. One evening we found ourselves in a heated discussion, and I got increasingly angry to the point that I literally punched a tree. My parents were shocked, in 30 years never having seen me angry to the point of violence. I was surprised, too, and somewhat bewildered by my own actions. My bloody knuckles were a useful reminder for the next several days.
This and similar violent outbursts could be attributed to the stress of my professional life — opening the café, running the Responsive Conference — but that would be false attribution. It was tied to the daily practice of violence and aggression. When I walked away from Muay Thai in September, I left behind the intensity of the practice and the anger.
I’m glad not be practicing Thai Kickboxing for the time being, and I’m extremely grateful for the range of experiences, practice facing fear, and understanding of violence I learned.