by Jacob Jarvis
Walking in to Sor Vorapin Gym in Bangkok, I was greeted by a shrine of plaques, trophies and medals, all won by its fighters over the years. I’d never trained Muay Thai before but I decided to sign up for a full week, training five hours each day – with people used to training pros.
I think I’m a healthy guy. I run a bit, work out a couple of days a week, try to avoid too much junk food. But if nothing else my time in Bangkok proved one simple fact to me – I’m not fit at all. Being ‘fit’ and being ‘fighting fit’ truly are two different things. Those involved in Muay Thai professionally will train twice or even three times a day ahead of fights and can have had over 100 fights by their early twenties.
Their careers usually don’t last much longer, due to the toll on their bodies – something I can vaguely sympathise with after just seven days of living their lifestyle. And that was without taking thousands of strikes all over my body from fists, elbows, shins and knees.
At fighting retreats, which are becoming more and more popular with tourists, you’re treated like a seasoned athlete, no different from those who’ve been training their entire lives. Waking up at 6:30am on my first day, I was taken out for a run before the morning session. Easy enough, around 5km, and I ran along calmly and naively thinking, “I’m going to breeze this.”
My initial reality check came soon enough, with what I thought was a simple task – skipping. Hats off to all the girls from my primary school who spent hours every day jumping rope on the playground. Because, apparently, I can’t do it right. This led to me having to stand on a metre-wide tire and bounce for half an hour before I was even allowed to use a rope again. It took four days before I graduated to using one consistently.
Before throwing a punch or swinging a kick, I had to stretch out every muscle imaginable, then slowly build up with shadow boxing. I spent most of a session simply getting into a stance and stepping backwards and forwards. My dreams of diving in headfirst and sparring within a couple of days were crushed. At first I was disappointed, but then I realised the only way I was going to make it through the week was ditching my over confidence and making the simple realisation: this was going to go slowly.
It took me three days until I sparred and then it was completely easy going. Even by my final day I was barely going half the speed of the serious competitors. I wasn’t patronised for this slowness at any point though, every one respected every other person in the gym as an equal. It didn’t stop me being knocked in the head a few times by the lean seasoned hitters I got paired with if I dipped my guard, or taking a few kicks to the gut if my feet were a little too slow. One guy around my age ducked and swerved away from any meagre kick I put in and then would just lean in like a phantom to knock my teeth back. He moved even slower than me but his confidence and physical prowess meant he had no need to try and go quick or hard to get the best of me.
I hope these were purely educational strikes though, there certainly didn’t seem to be any malice. Although fighting is competitive, training and improvement is an individual process – your progress doesn’t matter, as long as you’re working at your technique you’ll get respect.
It was adopting this perspective which truly made the week worthwhile for me. The ancient martial art is renowned for being testing on your body, but, in my opinion, the mental endurance necessary is something that needs to be mentioned more. Once those gloves are on, you’re on your own. No matter what instructions you get, you need to want to do it yourself. There’s no room for arrogance and no place for making short cuts.
Mindfulness is the mental health buzzword of the moment, with endless self-help books, podcasts and apps designed to make us accept this way of thinking. I’ve never bought into it. But if you want to experience living in the moment, just sign up to a Muay Thai session. When a bag, pads, or a person is in front of you, you can’t think about anything else.
As intense as this sounds, it was in its own way incredibly calming. Training cleared my head at the time and made me too exhausted to think afterwards. ‘Relaxing’ is also a key part of the Muay Thai fighting technique – a minute wouldn’t pass where I wouldn’t hear a trainer shouting relax into someone’s face.
I had to allow myself to be a beginner at something, when so often in life I, and I’m sure many others, shy away from anything I’m not familiar with. Then when I made that conscious decision I had to focus on training and nothing else. I’d do my first three hours in the morning, shower, eat and sleep, then repeat that process in the afternoon. It was a strange experience to completely immerse myself in something new and unknown, one which I’d recommend anyone to try from time to time.