“It’s okay, you can hit me. Unless I fall over, or I am bleeding, just keep punching and kicking.”
I usually end up repeating this to newcomers several times over the course of a class. I watch the wrinkle of doubt on each forehead and feel the gentle, testing taps of punches as newbies try out their aggression, even with explicit permission.
Some are able to overcome their hesitation and enjoy Muay Thai. Others, especially women, have difficulty overcoming their teaching not to hurt others or show aggression.
Muay Thai is a brutal sport. Watch any fight and you will see your share of blood, pain, and unconsciousness if the victor gets his or her way. It makes sense: the aim is to knock out your opponent, not to hug him. Elbows, knees, roundhouses, and punches to the face abound. So for a woman to come into a Muay Thai gym and even try an initial class she has already overcome a major societal taboo.
In polite society the image of a woman punching another in the face is jarring and raw. It is full of more truths than the manicured and photoshopped women on magazine covers could ever convey.
But to say that women don’t fight—don’t go there.
I didn’t want to go there for a long time. I am a dancer and a yogi, not necessarily an athlete but I was drawn to the intensity and the vigor of the sport. I took the cardio fitness classes at the Muay Thai kickboxing gym because those challenged me enough.
Who can jump rope for five minutes straight without panting and evoking images of pigtails? I could not. At least not for a good month or two. I managed to take the cardio fitness classes for a year. When people would ask me why I wouldn’t take the Muay Thai classes I would tell them the truth: “the Muay Thai girls scare me.”
Why they scared me I couldn’t really say. Was it an intensity, a certain rawness? Fear of being hurt? All of the above?
I continued to take those cardio classes until I had a guest in from out of town who wanted to go to an actual Muay Thai kickboxing class. Being a good hostess, we went, despite the fact that it was a sparring class. And like the frog in the pot where the heat gets turned up slowly, nobody beat me up that first day but the workouts got progressively harder, until I was getting punched in the face, or kneeing people in the groin (oops, sorry!).
I overcame any hesitation and just did what I had been taught; suddenly roundhouses, pushkicks, uppercuts and hooks all flowed from me without a second thought.
As I delved more deeply into the art, I began to dismantle what defenses I constructed to avoid dealing with raw emotion. My all-encompassing tool of suppression was not working. I was forced to deal with messages I received, specifically about anger and gender:
“You shouldn’t get angry.”
“Girls don’t hit.”
“Women are nice.”
“You need to be good.”
“You shouldn’t be so aggressive.”
Don’t mind me over here, boxing some girl in the face…
Of course I probably received these messages because I tend to have a temper. And, someone, somewhere in my life, instead of acknowledging it is natural to be angry and aggressive or even assertive, decided to teach me to stuff that emotion in order to be “ladylike.”
I spent a great majority of my life suppressing anger for the simple reason that I thought as a woman I wasn’t allowed to be angry. Nonviolent ideologies, which I clung to, simply reinforced those beliefs instead of noting that anger might serve a purpose when not used indiscriminately. Anger for me acts as a warning, a bell clanging to let me know something is not right. However, I need to remind myself not to act or speak until I have calmed down.
Anger serves to let us know that a boundary has been violated. If you continually suppress anger you end up losing sight of your boundaries, which is a vulnerable position to be in. Lose sight of your boundaries and you lose sight of where you end and other begins. The more I trained, the more I saw where my boundaries were and that gave me a renewed sense of self.
For me, aside from tapping into raw emotions and my ways of coping, Muay Thai serves as a metaphor for the struggle of life. We all face struggles, we all deserve to fight against those struggles with whatever means necessary. We are each, man, woman, or otherwise identified, entitled to our emotions, our passions, and whatever else serves us in the struggle. To think anything less is foolish and self-defeating.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Lisa Manca
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Daena Tan Mananquil (via the author)