By Matt Henderson Ellis
Walking to the gym takes me past empty lots, a disused tennis court overgrown with vines, spirit-trees adorned with colored fabric.
In Thailand, these are haunted places, inhabited by land spirits, spirits of the departed, the wandering ghosts who populate the collective consciousness of Chiang Mai. Before entering the gym, I pause in front of the ruins of an ancient stone shrine.
Locals have left offerings, and it is frequently lit with candles.
I breathe, gathering my concentration and resting in the stillness of these moments before the physical cataclysm of muay thai training—an unintentional form of meditation.
In a country with countless temples, the gym is also a kind of temple with its ritual, its faithful acolytes.
With the traditional wai greeting, hands held as though in prayer, gratitude is the first gesture upon entering. But it’s more than ceremonial, and gratitude is felt more than shown. Feeling grateful for the physical body that performs at a high level, for the country that allows me to stay for months on end. Gratitude for the animal that gave its leather for the gloves, for my trainers’ attention.
Stripped to colorful boxer shorts, I warm up by shadow boxing, conjuring a second self, an opponent whose moves reflect my own. I am myself, but also formless, an invisibility. I react to their strikes, leg blocks, slipped punches, and counter with my own, the body and the non-body shaping the other, a dance of the material and immaterial, self and non-self.
I line up next to my teammates in front of a row of heavy bags.
I shuffle my feet, spring back and forth from one foot to the other; extend my arm, mimicking a long-guard defense, touching the bag with my glove, taking measure before letting loose with a combination of jab, cross, hook, finishing on a low kick. A classic sequence that works the opponent’s weak side, prepping them to defend up top, when the damaging strike will actually come from below.
And then I do the combination again. And again, building up a rhythm, breath becoming increasingly heavy, like a song building to a crescendo.
In the sport of muay thai, when at our best, we train principles.
Technique is only the medium we use: a move that sweeps a stabilizing leg from under an opponent, a glove grasping the other boxer’s forearm in a clinch, neutralizing her punch or elbow. But it’s the principle that matters. In the language of combat sports, technique is just words, the principles are the connective grammar: distance, engagement, balance, breath. Train technique and that’s all you have to fall back on—a series of moves, a key searching for the right lock. But principles can be summoned anywhere, away from the bag, the ring, the dojo.
When I train on a heavy bag, when the Lanna jungle air has encased me like a hot wet bandage, time expands. When flow takes over, the moment subsumes past and present like a black hole sucking up matter. It’s all there for me, right then, right now, the canvas a dark mirror reflecting my own emptiness.
The slapping sound of glove against bag. Meditative but not meditation.
Suturing yourself to the moment, a new window on time. A calm found in the violence, the tender seed at the center of the thorn apple, a place of risk and growth. A gecko scuttles across my field of vision, the interaction elevating my mood. The bag swings back and forth, sweat trickles in rivulets, mapping the body, everything changes.
“Don’t pay attention to the kick, pay attention to the breath. In, out, In, out.” My instructor teaching me breath; life’s most basic function—teaching me to be aware of it. Inhale on the recoil of the strike. Strike on exhale, make a sound: the hesh hissed out, a mantra to engagement in the moment.
“Do not react, answer,” my instructor tells me in the ring after I retreat from his strikes. Do not run, find answer. “Stay,” he commands. “Only stay and find answer.” His blows rain down, each one holding my attention like the crack of a whip. I stay, no answer comes.
Only awareness, of myself in motion, of my instructor who insists I engage, that I offer a solution, even if the solution is annihilation. The principle, right there for me like a worm half out of wet soil, waiting to be plucked. My instructor grabs me to pull me into a clinch, leveraging his weight to move me around the ring; we are one molecule spinning, a yin-yang.
One more round on the bag then home, my teammates already lined up practicing roundhouse kicks and knees. Hesh. Hesh. Hesh. The sun has fallen. Move body, my instructor yells from across the room. The rhythmic patter of gloves on pads, the grunt of exertion, or pain. Panting. “Finish. Drink water,” he commands. Water has never tasted so good. Stretching out later, sweat leaves a phantom outline of my body on the mat when I get up. Stillness falls.
A shadow detaches from the boxer.
Photo: Provided by author
Matt Henderson Ellis is the author of the novel Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Café and works as a literary editor. His writings on mindfulness and meditation can be found at dirty-mindfulness.com. As a muay thai fighter, he ‘retired’ with a professional record of 0-1. Check out his blog here.
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