“Do 100 high kicks on each side.” It was a demand, not a question. It wasn’t stern. It was nonchalant, like telling someone to pass the salt at dinner. As if it’d be easy. I looked around and everyone was starting without question or complaint.
The first 20 on each side weren’t so bad, but by the time I hit 50, I was at a loss. The assistant coach, Bibek, yelled with motivation, “Come on, you got this.” Except I didn’t. We’d already been working out for over an hour. I was exhausted and my legs hurt, but I sucked it up anyway and completed my next ten. As I doubled over to catch my breath, I could hear, “Don’t stop, let’s get it done.” Exhaustion led to doubt, but that momentary lapse was filled with a teeny tiny bit of fight. I felt it somewhere deep down. Lately, I hadn’t been enough. That thought began to build, and my kicks got stronger. I am enough.
My ex came into my mind, and I kicked the pads harder and harder thinking about all the lies he told me in a mere two months. About how I felt insecure and inadequate when he decided to dump me after begging me to stay with him. Another face popped into my mind. The guy I felt was perfect for me who’d chosen another girl. The kicks got stronger, my anger building. I was better than that. I was better than them. My shin hit the pads hard sending a crack booming through the gym. The sound was addicting, and I craved to hear it over and over again.
My doubt had turned to anger and that anger had turned to rage. An emotion I didn’t even know I had. It was something I suppressed, and then another face appeared. My dad. The blood coursing through my veins felt on fire, and I kicked violently as hard as I could because I was so insanely angry. I was angry he got sick. I was angry he kept it a secret. I was angry I wasn’t a better daughter. But most of all, I was angry he was gone.
“100 done!” the trainer called. “Two more each side.” I didn’t even argue. 100 wasn’t enough. I wanted to kick for hours. To punch anything in my sight. I wanted to scream. I wanted so much more. And suddenly, it dawned on me. I didn’t just want this. I needed it. I was going to learn Muay Thai.
Before Muay Thai Training in Nepal
I honestly believe that everything happens for a reason. I had wanted to train in Muay Thai for a month in Thailand, but one thing led to another, and I felt compelled to stay in Nepal. When I met a trainer at a Muay Thai gym, it seemed like such an odd coincidence. I didn’t even know Muay Thai existed in this country with no major history of martial arts.
After one class I was hooked and my two weeks of intensive training began. How good could I get in two weeks? Was it possible to learn an art form in the time frame of an average American vacation? Who knew? But, I was willing to try, and I didn’t just want it anymore. I clearly needed it. It felt like therapy. Like meditation. It felt like some strange form of peace.
Day 1 – 6 hours of training
I’m four and a half hours into training, and no one else has showed up for the last class. Raju, the trainer, insists I go home. “It’s not good to train too many hours. Only athletes train 6 hours a day.”
“I want to be an athlete, so I better train like one,” I retort and stare at him, waiting for instructions. He caves in and points to the bag. “Get your gloves.” Each class contains students ranging from beginner to advanced, so I feel like I’ve been thrown into the deep end. Trying to keep up with people who are training full time hasn’t been easy. Having a private one-on-one session feels like I finally have a chance to focus on the basics.
“Jab and Cross. That’s it.” It’s the most basic move. I throw my left hand forward and follow it with my right. “No. No. I told you, don’t lean forward. Just twist.” I do it again. “No, look at me. Like this.” I try and try, but my footing doesn’t work and just when I think I’ve got it, I hear another “No.”
“You aren’t blocking your face.” I try again. “Twist your foot.” This time I focus on both the foot and blocking my face. “No. I can see your attack coming. Don’t turn your wrist like that.” I correct the wrist and then to my dismay, I hear, “No. No. I just want this.” He twists his foot making it look easy, and I feel like a complete moron. Why can’t I get this? It’s literally the easiest part of Muay Thai. It’s been a long day, and I’m feeling discouraged. Maybe he was right. I should have gone home. “Try again… No, not like this.”
I look at him, trying not to get upset and say, “It’s hard, everything feels weird to me,” but it comes out sharper than I mean it to. “I tell you you are doing it wrong because otherwise you won’t correct it. Do you want me to stop pointing it out?” It takes a minute for me to accept that he’s right. He wants me to get better, so I shake my head no and tell him to keep pointing out my mistakes. I focus harder on every limb, but I forget to twist my right foot as I throw my cross, and immediately, I feel off balance. “Again,” he says while holding his hands up for me to punch. Five more times of hearing “No,” and suddenly Raju says something different. “Nice!”
Day 2 – 6 hours of training
Morning class is followed by a sparring seminar taught by champions from Thailand who have come to visit for a few days. The oldest member of the crew takes a few of us in the ring and goes over basics followed by some sparring. It’s intense as he yells for me to punch and kick him. “Left. Right. Hook. Kick. Left. Elbow. Knee. Block. Left. Right. Left. Kick. Kick. Elbow.” I’m exhausted after only a minute, and he asks if I’m okay. I laugh and say, “more” while signaling to continue.
Later, we work on moves similar to the ones I did the night before, and I feel much more confident. I pick up on the sequence quicker than yesterday, and my shins slam into the pads making the addicting cracking sound I love. As I wait my turn to spar, one of the Thai instructors asks how long I’ve been training. I tell him I’ve just started and his eyebrows raise. It’s very obvious that I’m not as good as the others, but the surprise on his face when he realizes I’m new is satisfying. Maybe I don’t look as awkward as I think.
Day 3 – 6 hours of training
A throbbing pain radiates through my ankle. Just stepping on it sends a sensation through my nerves. Running, jumping rope, and kicking makes it scream in agony. I believe that pain is emphasized if you focus on it. Mentally, I’m stronger than it. I complete a ten minute jog and five minutes of jump rope. There’s still five minutes left to go, but every time my toes touch the ground, the pain shoots through my entire body, and it’s crippling. I can’t ignore it any longer. Finally, I give in and tell the coach I’m injured.
He decides to teach me punching techniques, and we go over undercuts and hooks. Then he gives us a combination to try on the punching bag. “Low kick, high kick, undercut, double right kick, hook.” I still haven’t mastered the kicks and twisting on my ankle is unbearable. I move in slow motion, trying to get the moves down, but I keep getting hung up on different parts of the sequence. My feet always end up in the wrong place. I’m too close to the punching bag. Then, I’m too far away. In the morning session, I was just starting to feel like I got it, but now I feel like I can’t do anything right.
Day 4 – 3 hours of training
My sore ankle has only gotten worse. As I get out of bed, my weight feels unbearable. I decide to rest it in the morning, and hope it will be better by night time. In lieu of running and jumping rope, I ride the bike and use the rowing machine. After warming up, everyone else does drills, but all of them require bouncing on your feet. Actually, all of Muay Thai requires bouncing on your feet. While they hop, I do lunges. While they kick, I do squats. While they sprint, I do abs. I try to keep up and move as much as they do, not willing to be the slacker in class.
Raju already knows I intend to stay for the second class. By now he’s accepted my determination (or stupidity depending on how you look at it), and instead of telling me to leave, he gives me technical drills. The assistant coach, Bibek, teaches me footwork. He points to the square floor tiles, making me move from one to the next, like a giant game of Dance Dance Revolution. As I move, he watches until I mess up. He yells “stop” and then he pushes me over. I stumble because I’m off balance, proving the importance of correcting my feet.
I may not be training hard today, but for some reason the atmosphere feels different. I don’t feel like a complete failure. Despite my injury, I showed up, and I did the best that I could under the circumstances. Although Muay Thai isn’t a team sport, I feel a little like I became part of the team today. Like maybe I earned the coaches respect.
Day 5 – 6 hours of training
I’ve never trained for something as hard as Muay Thai while still looking forward to going to class every single day. Would I rather sleep in? Yeah, of course. But when my alarm goes off, I’m so excited to get there and get going. I love laughing about how tired we all are after the third or fourth round of burpees or pushups. I love the camaraderie. I love the feeling of punching or kicking something before having my coffee. The only thing I don’t love is the smell of my sweaty wrist wraps, and secretly, I kind of love that too.
My ankle’s still sore, so I try to focus on doing things with my other leg. One of the coaches, Mickey, tells me over and over again to get “sloppy.” I’m too prime and proper which is hilarious because it took years of yoga to correct my horrendous posture. In yoga, my back is straight. In Muay Thai, I slouch. In yoga, my feet are planted. In Muay Thai, I constantly move and bounce. In yoga, every muscle is tight, but my shoulders stay relaxed. In Muay Thai, everything needs to be loose but my shoulders stay scrunched up. “Loosen up. Why are you so stiff? Relax.”
I’m trying to undo all of my previous training, and for the first time today I feel like a real fighter. I get in my stance with my front foot tapping up and down on the ball of my foot while most of my weight is evenly distributed on my back. I lightly bounce my way forward, my hands blocking my face. I crunch in my stomach and pull my shoulder up while tucking my chin down. My good form only lasts 30 seconds, but I did it, and if I’m being honest, it felt pretty badass.
Day 6 – 3.5 hours of training
I’m only participating in half of the training because of my ankle. I can’t keep up with the other students, but I try to do everything I can. The first class only has two of us, so we each get a trainer to work with, and I can really focus on getting better. Raju points out my mistakes, and I try to correct them until I’ve got a basic combination down. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than I started with.
Before the second class, Mickey asks to see my foot. He rubs different areas while I tell him what hurts. It’s one small spot right on the bone on the inside of my heel. As he presses down, I can feel the blood draining from my face, and a pain that moves through my body like a shiver gives me a chill. When he’s done assessing my foot, he tells me to rest and see how it feels tomorrow because I might have fractured it. If the pain continues, I’ll need to get an x-ray.
Day 7 – 4.5 hours of training
“You’re not doing it wrong. What you’re doing is fine. This is just a little extra technique. Fine tuning that will make you fight better,” Mickey says. We go over all the basics. Punches, blocks, knees and elbows. We avoid kicks because of my bad ankle, which I’m thankful for. “We need to build your confidence back up.” He’s right. Although I’ve been training hard and getting better, my confidence has plummeted, and I don’t feel relaxed anymore. I’m overthinking every move.
“I gave you special treatment today because you’re the only one who showed up early.” I apologize automatically. If I didn’t come, he could have relaxed this morning. “No, no. It’s good. Dedicated.” He walks away without saying anything else, and I can’t help but smile knowing I’ve gone from “overdoing it” to “dedicated” in a week.
When the second class rolls around, I’ve gotten in the zone. My footing is better, and my technique looks stronger. Most importantly, I feel the difference. I can tell when I’m throwing a good punch or a bad punch. All the regular guys are there along with Prama, a 14-year-old Nepali girl. She’s the best in the class, and I constantly push myself to keep up with her.
Class ends with a series of abs, pushups and lunges. I try to do them as fast and as clean as Prama, and we end up killing it while the boys lay on the floor panting, unable to finish. In a country where women are rarely seen as strong, I absolutely love watching little Prama kick ass while the men struggle to keep up. I want to be as good as her one day.
Day 8 – 4.5 hours of training
Thursday is circuit day, and it feels a little like the trainers are trying to kill you. The morning starts with Manish, a pro boxer, teaching cardio boxing. This involves medicine balls, kettle bells, box jumps, weights, and lots of moving around from one station to the next. As I whine about how hard everything is, he just laughs with a giant grin on his face while sneaking heavier weights in when I’m not looking.
By the time I get to Mickey’s class, I feel like I’m going to pass out. He decides we’ll do circuits on the punching bags. We do each exercise two times. Two punches, two knees, two elbows, and two kicks. Then, we do four of each. Then six. We keep adding until we reach twenty or pass out from exhaustion. Whichever comes first. If all that isn’t enough, we end class with abs including 100 v-ups and a two-minute plank that threatens to make me throw up.
Somehow, I manage to get my overly exhausted body to Raju’s 7:30pm class and surprise surprise, we are doing circuits… again. My body aches and the moves take so much effort. All my limbs are so drained that my punches look even weaker than usual and my technique is horrendous. I move slowly through the sets until I’m panting. I have no idea how I’ll be able to move tomorrow, but as I get ready to hop in the shower, I see that my stomach is completely flat with the beginning of abs showing. Mickey said we’d thank him later. Maybe he was right.
Day 9 – 4 hours of training
The morning passes by with the usual routine. It’s at night that things get more interesting. We spend the entire class sparring. I start out with Prama who is always kind enough to go easy on me. She throws perfect punches and kicks, but she has enough control to pull back at the right moment so that I don’t turn into a human punching bag.
My second fight is with a young guy who doesn’t seem as well practiced. I get in a few good shots, but use control to make sure that I’m only tapping him when I get close. Then, I see an opening and take it. I switch my feet quickly to confuse him, throw a hook on his unguarded side and then step forward with a jab to his gut. When he sees me coming, his reflexes kick in, and instead of pushing my hand out of the way, he throws a punch right in my face, hitting me hard between the eyes. “Sorry, you were coming at me so fast, and I freaked out!”
At first, I can’t feel anything except a slight dizziness, but then my eyes start to water uncontrollably. I wait to see if my nose will bleed, but nothing happens. I scrunch up my face to see if it’s broken, but it seems to be fine. The tears continue to flood my face against my will. I feel a little like a baby as everyone rushes over to see if I’m okay. I keep repeating that I’m fine, and it doesn’t actually hurt. Mickey tells my sparring partner to go easy. “Sorry, I was going so hard with the last guy, it was hard to have to go easy on her.” I stare at him for a second through the blur of my tears wondering if I heard him right. He only threw the punch because he was scared, but now, he tells everyone he didn’t know how to “go easy” on a girl.
It’s time to change partners, and the next guy I spar against is really good. He knows how to punch and block, so I practice defending myself. As he comes at me, I keep moving backwards quickly and land hard on my bad ankle. For some reason I can’t concentrate, and my mind is amiss. When the bell rings signaling us to stop, I want to cry. It takes a second for me to realize why.
My nose doesn’t hurt anymore, but I can feel the full effect sparring has had on my ankle. The adrenaline must have disguised it, but now the tenderness inside my heel has turned into a pounding sensation that works its way through my entire body. As I get to the locker room, tears stream down my face and my breathing becomes short. I’m crying hard, and I try to cover it up by hopping into the shower. For the first time, I can’t put any weight on my foot. The scolding hot water runs over my shoulders as I sit in the bottom of the stall trying to catch my breath through the tears. Maybe I’m not cut out for this.
Day 10 – 0 hours of training
After last nights’ fiasco, I decided to take a day off and rest. It was something all the trainers had been pushing me to do since the first day I hurt my ankle, but I was too stubborn to listen to them. Since the pain has been getting increasingly worse day by day, it seems I finally hit my threshold.
Day 11 – 4 hours of training
My foot is still stiff, but I’m hoping it will hold up. I felt lazy for taking a day off which is ridiculous, but the feeling is there nonetheless. It lingers in my mind and makes me feel the pressure to keep up with everyone else. I’m tired of having excuses, and I’m tired of blaming my ankle for everything. Today, I push myself to do the same workout as everyone else. I survive both morning classes which end with a three-minute plank, and I hold it the entire time unwilling to hit the ground before the buzzer sounds. I finally feel like I have a chance to prove myself, but as practice ends, I feel the throbbing sensation return to my foot worse than before.
Night time classes roll around, and I tell Raju that I can’t work with a partner during sparring. I need to work with the bag instead. He tells me to take it slowly, but I know I won’t want to hold the other person back, and I don’t want to push myself harder than I’m capable of. I choose to stick with my gut and practice everything on the bag, that way I don’t need to put too much weight on my back foot when I’m blocking. I need to take care of myself first, and my foot hurts enough now that I know it’s not a minor injury.
Day 12 – 3 hours of training
I decide to go down to two classes a day. In the morning, I work with Manish to correct my punches. I still can’t get it down, and it’s honestly embarrassing. He makes it look so easy, and I feel like I’m actually getting worse. Somehow my confidence has plummeted over the last few days. I feel like I can’t do anything right. Doubt keeps plaguing me, and my anger has dissipated leaving me a little distracted and meek. Where did the angry badass girl from day one go? Where is that fight?
In the second class, I take things slow. I do all of the exercises, but I do them at my own pace. I complete 100 kicks on each side and 100 knees against the punching bag despite the pain. When the coaches tell me to go faster, I point to my ankle. I’d rather do things with good technique in slow motion and avoid injuring myself further than rush to do something to get extra cardio in. It’s not worth it anymore.
Day 13 – 4.5 hours of training
The 6:00am class is both my least favorite and favorite class of the day. I hate waking up early, but once I’m at the gym, I feel ready to go. I’m fresh and relaxed, and most importantly, well rested. I’m usually the only one there, so we get to work on my weaknesses. I remind Mickey that tomorrow is my last day and he jokes that, “I better teach you one thing you can do right before leaving here.” I roll my eyes while waiting for his instructions.
I had a bad day yesterday afternoon. I was angry at a few different people and felt alone with no one to talk to. I’ve been staying in a hotel that’s far away from all my favorite places. So today, I’m a little bit angry. No, I’m really angry. I had at least five different friends cancel on me in the last few days. I’m tired of being canceled on. I’m tired of feeling like a filler for peoples time when they’re bored. I’m tired of being alone.
I throw my elbows as hard as I can while still practicing good technique. Mickey comes at me with light punches that I have to block. As we practice, the punches get faster until I feel like I’m in a speed round. Taking yesterday off, getting a good night’s rest, and being angry has made me focused. It’s amazing how much better I am when I’m not letting my brain wander off. Not only do I feel like I’m getting the hang of it, I feel like I’m actually doing , dare I say, good. I realize now how many distractions I’ve been giving into.
In the second practice, we do the same exercises with partners or the punching bags, and this time, when Mickey walks by, he says good job and keeps walking. When someone nearby messes up, he asks me to show them how to do it. It’s the first time I’ve ever been an example in class. It feels so good to do something right for once.
Day 14 – 4.5 hours of training
I’ve survived the two weeks. This morning was bittersweet. I know that I need to rest my ankle, and it will be nice to sleep in, but I also know I’m going to miss coming here every morning. Today’s morning sessions are empty compared to normal, and I spend most of the time working on defense and punches. Mickey plays a game with us where we spin around (like playing dizzy bat as a kid) and then have to box. I turn around five times with my head down to the ground, and when I stand, I’m swaying like a drunk unable to land a punch. “This is what it feels like when you get punched during a fight,” Mickey explains. It’s a fun way to spend my last day.
At night, we continue with boxing practice because it’s sparring day. The class is packed with students. I take turns sparring lightly with a few of the guys and take a punch to the eye. It doesn’t feel anything like dizzy bat boxing. It feels more like getting poked in the eye. Hard. After resting for a few minutes, I spar with Bibek, the assistant coach. He’s fast and punches hard, and he doesn’t go easy on me because I’m a girl. I take that as a sign of respect.
After two rounds I feel dead, but we continue onto a third. I can barely keep up. For every punch I throw, he throws ten. At the end of the round, we bump gloves, and he says, “You did good. I’m impressed.” They’re genuine words, and they mean the world to me. I survived the two weeks, and in the end I’m not that bad.
Gymkhana Muay Thai has become so much more than a gym to me. The coaches and students have become like family. We joke around between sets of burpees and lay on the floor in pools of sweat complaining about the pushups. We laugh when we mess up, and get excited when we succeed. The camaraderie is so strong that it’s almost palpable. I don’t know if it’s the intense workouts, Muay Thai in general, or just the incredible people, but somehow, the bond formed here has made this place feel like home. While two weeks of training has been fun, I can tell it’s just the beginning for me.
Yoga has always been my version of a temple. It’s where I go to think. It’s where I go when I need perspective. And, it’s where I go when I have a bad day. I honestly never thought anything would replace yoga for me, but Muay Thai has taught me a new way to let go. And maybe, a more fun way. It’s become like therapy to me. A place to release anger. A place to work through my problems. And, oddly enough, a place to find peace. Leaving class is like walking outside after a storm. Suddenly, the turmoil is over and everything is quiet.
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.