I stepped back into the ring on the third Friday of September 2020, ending a 6 month hiatus from Muay Thai. During this time I had tried my best to stay fit in my own way, with a consistent home training regime. Not great but good enough I thought, and a small trade off to keep potential covid-19 contact at a minimum. Yet, I was incredibly nervous. I use my body everyday, to get up from the bed, to cook, bathe and clothe myself. To hold a pen to write, to walk, to give and receive hugs. But returning to the gym required a different body, one that I hadn’t put to use since February.
My gym is like an old friend, and how could it not be? It was my home when I first moved to Japan and didn’t know anyone. Where I met the first people who cared about me, where I sought refuge each night after battling each day at my old job. A tip from a Japanese man I had met only once in Sydney led to me moving precisely to the area, so I could be close to this gym. Coming back to the space was like seeing this old friend again and recognising a soft smile, a characteristic birthmark and an unapologetic gait. I was glad to see them. But months of pandemic uncertainty, forced closure and reduced income showed that my friend had also aged, like a new liver spot, deep new wrinkles and tired-looking hands. And I was sorry to see them this way also.
It felt uncomfortable at the start, like wearing a dated suit that you weren’t sure fitted anymore. I didn’t like this and hoped it would go away. Muay Thai was one of several things that happened to me which gave me the ability to accept my body. I warmed up, taking an extra long time to stretch and to shadow box. Through the mirror, I nodded at familiar faces, some who were surprised to see me after all this time but seemed to be happy about it. Perhaps they thought I had returned to Malaysia.
Many people liken Muay Thai to a dance, a discipline that is more balance than power, with rhythm guiding the strikes as opposed to the other way around. Dancing with my trainers after all this time is exactly like what you might expect from a six month hiatus, a little awkward at first before the groove kicks in and smoothens itself out. After my first session back, I posted on Instagram about how 6 months away felt like nothing at all. And truly it did not. My trainers had frowned skeptically at the beginning and my training partners hung back to see what remained of my Muay Thai body. We had met the night before for dinner, and the first thing they exclaimed was that I hadn’t become fat during this time. Being in the ring again felt like a natural return to my own skin. As though the past six months was a false me and here was, me.
I have gone back to a more regular schedule but nothing like my old frequency of 5-6 days a week. I’ve noticed more flaws, my reflexes are slower and my balance is sometimes completely off. I hesitate over old combinations that my muscle memory had forgotten. But despite my regression, I am content because nothing grounds me like Muay Thai does. Nothing else gives me this acute awareness of every part of my body, like a form of active meditation. I feel this most on two occasions, one while sitting in seiza and wrapping my hands. The other while standing in southpaw, my power pose, where I am able to acknowledge all of my weaknesses and all of my strengths in the same moment.
I spent a lot of this week reading. One book I’ve just finished is 5 Centimetres Per Second, One More Side. It’s a novel based on Shinkai Makoto’s film of the same name but it reminded me of the unutterable feeling between both protagonists. Where language is simply so inadequate that even speaking or writing about such a profound experience diminishes its value. My relationship with Muay Thai is like that. Nothing I’ve ever written about Muay Thai – including this, could come close to how I feel about it. The writer in me, just like the fighter in me, insists that I keep trying. In my mind I see an undefinable point that I cannot reach with all of my current strength and skills, but each day forward I am a little closer.