Muay Thai in The Time of a Pandemic

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While I may have lost count over how many days its been since I last stepped into a Muay Thai gym, what is irrefutable is that this is the longest I’ve gone without guided training since I began practicing in 2017. These periods of social distancing and isolation have numbed me to dates, times and days of the week, but my memories of interaction with people have intensified. Now casted over my recollection is a magnifying glass, and more than the content of the conversation, I remember the way my best friend’s lips would crease together when she pursed them while thinking. I remember a purchase I made two weeks ago at my local kombini, and the part-timer who made more eye-contact with my yakitori skewers than me, allowing me to notice her long and thick eyelashes. Even a playful eye-roll caught on a flickering Zoom call where every participant attempted to HIIT out in unison and in unity but separately in our 1LDKs or so, causes heart palpitations. A glance, a touch, the instinctive sense of another warm body close by, these are the ghosts of the past that I hold onto so closely in today’s world.

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On the last day, the last time I walked in to freeze my gym membership, I saw my trainer on his break. We exchanged a short conversation in Japanese, his second and my third language has always been a caricature of how much this sport has done to bring communities literally and physically together. Here surrounded by white walls and soft, red gym floor padding, a space that sat just above Yoshīke Supermarket in Akasaka, Minato-ku Tokyo, what were the odds that a late 40s retired Thai world champion and a tiny fledgling Malaysian-Chinese girl would cross paths at this very spot? And it was here again that we would go from 100 to 0, an almost daily ritual I had treasured for as long as I have lived in Tokyo, and my reprieve from the hands of work that normally beckons me to do to overtime, an indefinite goodbye for now. At the end of it, he winked characteristically and told me to take care with a joviality that refused to bow to pandemic conditions that raged on, just beyond the window. I said the same, turning my back towards him and cried silently on my walk home. It seemed silly at the time, and still a little silly right now. What is the temporary loss of a recreational activity in the face of illness and death around the world? 

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But I used to know a world where silliness had its place. Where deciding what to have for lunch and when didn’t involve a calculation of odds on which restaurant would have the least people, the best hygiene practices, a low chance of peak hour during peak hungriness and the option to get it delivered before ultimately deciding to cook at home, for the nation’s sake. To now, where choosing to not see an elderly loved one is the right thing, the noble thing for fear that a hidden disease would be the third guest, the one you couldn’t ask to leave. Where riding one more stop on the Metro or even getting on at all could seal your fate. Every move we make now is of consequence, is part of a multi-dimensional chess game we are all playing at once, against a global epidemic.

It was my trainer’s birthday a few days ago and Facebook reminds me that this time last year was the epitome of silliness. We were a group of 20-30 Japanese with a dash of multi-cultural foreigners united in a common love for the sport and for our trainer. We had set up camp in an unassuming Thai restaurant on level three or four of a decrepit building in Shinjuku. Here we belted out karaoke tunes in English, Thai and Japanese, eating legitimately spicy som tum as people shouted kampai, Asahi Super Dry to oolong tea, orange juice to high balls. These were the good times, the wholesome times. Despite Japan’s reputation for a cold-to-clinical culture of modesty, warm respites are everywhere if you know where to look.

I still practice Muay Thai every day, just at home. Even if I’m tired, I perform each move slowly. Standing at the annex where kitchen meets dining room meets living space and I go through jabs and crosses, hooks and uppercuts, low-middle-high kicks and never forgetting the elbows, the knees and the teeps. I do it the same way your mom leaves your dad’s car engine running while he’s away on business trips, so that the battery-powered Muay Thai in me doesn’t die. I do it so I can feel normal, so I can conjure up the micro moments again of hitting a pad, dropping a low kick and receiving a nice roundhouse kick from my sparring partner, Yama-chan. 

muay thai training tokyo kickboxing samanthawxlow coronavirus jcoportraitist

Being inherently introverted coupled with a passion for a repetitive sport, I’m strangely comfortable with the monotony of being house-bound. In Thailand, many fighters train in volume, reach 500 knees only to do 600 tomorrow. Throw 3000 elbows or until your arms fall off, whichever comes first. To do the same thing over and over again until you become good at it has always resonated with the part of me that feels I am only a genius of hard work. But even the most solitary of activities, are built on the foundations of many. Any fighter worth her salt in the ring and out of it is the sum of many trainers and training partners, friends, family and loved ones. These are what I miss and who I miss. To the Muay Thai family I’ve built around the world, I am thinking of all of you. Stay home, wash your hands and keep the engine going, until we can be silly again.

The photos in this post were taken a little over a year ago, by my friend Juan Carlos. You can find the full album on his Facebook page

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