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Muay Thai is an Island 

James Gregory is the author of Paleo for Fighters and Heart of 8: What is Muay Thai?, from which this essay is taken.

I have a new ritual since moving to New York City and my new camp. After training, I walk a block down the street to the corner deli and buy a cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice and container of cut water melon.

The deli is well-lit and well-stocked with an ample hot and cold salad bar and tons of cold drinks that I like, like sparkling water, coconut water, and the fresh orange juice, which is nearly orgasmic after a long training session. The entire 35th Street side of the deli is made up of a fresh-cut flower stand, rows and rows of colorful, neatly wrapped flowers, the aroma of which mixes with the grunge of the city to form a mélange that is uniquely Manhattan.

Planter

The planter at 35th Street and 7th Avenue

The sensorial energy of the place is compounded by its intense busyness. This is a short walk from Madison Square Garden and the Empire State Building, a street corner swelling with cabs, tourists and people trying to make a buck to get through the day.

At times, people seem to be driven by the collective energy as much as they create it. And at times you see things that seem crazy, but probably commonplace to a long-time New Yorker.

The other day I saw a man run out in front of a taxi in the middle of the street; the cab driver cut him off and nearly hit him; the pedestrian kick the rear cab window and then spit in the cab driver’s face; the cab driver spit back in the pedestrian’s face, the pedestrian walk back to near where I was standing, exchange a pleasant smile with a woman who had seen the whole thing happen, laughingly tell her “I told him I would break his shit,” and then them both chuckle about it, like they had just seen a small child do something funny, or a puppy chasing its tail.

I watched this all from the place where I always eat my watermelon and drink my orange juice, leaning against a four-foot by four-foot planter that sits directly in front of the deli on the 7th avenue side, right next to two public phone booths, which, since nobody really uses public phones anymore, have transformed into cigarette-smoking and cell-phone-talking alcoves.

With the feel of the warm sun shining down, the taste of the fresh-cut watermelon and fresh-squeezed orange juice, and the smell of both the fresh-cut flowers and the seasonally planted tulips and dirt of the planter, it’s like a tiny, organic island I can get away to for a few brief minutes on my commute home through the concrete and steel cityscape.

I think it’s very easy to confuse activity with vitality, and Manhattan is one of the places in the world where this confusion is most pronounced. While it is indeed bustling and full of movement, sites, smells and sounds, it is at the very same time a 23-square-mile block of concrete, steel, and plastic through which life flows in and out of choked, dilapidated bridges and tunnels.  Cut off from these artificial lifelines, it would die very quickly.

And this is not to pick on Manhattan. Our entire modern world is like this, supported by energy dug from the ground thousands of miles away, shipped on trucks down stretches of asphalt highways, always just enough to keep us going for a couple days. We live a life removed—often far removed—from the source of what actually keeps us alive.

Muay Thai is an island in a very similar way for me, an organic and pure respite from a world that has become both very contrived and, under the surface, often very much lifeless.

The second that I walk into Coban’s Muay Thai Camp, everything suddenly becomes organic and alive. Before I even reach the door, the noise itself transforms, from the clashing, mechanical, metal scramble of Midtown to the primal grunting of human effort and the thud of living flesh against leather pads.

As I open the door, I transition from a world where politeness seems to be a thing long forgotten to one where it is still ritualized: I wai first to show respect for the space and the beautiful thing happening there, then to my teacher if I catch his eye, who I address as such, Ajahn. The students are equally as courteous to one another—soft-spoken, deferential, kind, and welcoming to newcomers. I feel that the people there are nurtured by how they treat each other as much as they are by the graceful physicality of Muay Thai.

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Ajahn Coban teaching me the Wai Kru

Graceful, and at the same time, simple. In our modern world the pureness of something that requires only your body, mind, desire, and a bare minimum of physical objects to devote yourself to, even to devote your life to, is very fulfilling. So much of our world is so contrived that we find great comfort in the primal and pure.

This is certainly the case for me. Much of my day outside of Muay Thai takes place in a very contrived world—one that I love, but one that is contrived nonetheless. Even the act of writing this—something I love very much—is one of sitting in a locked and unnatural position, tapping away at a hunk of molded plastic to make lighted symbols appear on a screen of more plastic, glass, and metal. It feels good to shake away and unlock my body, mind, and spirit into something freer.

For those few hours of the day I can wear nothing but my shorts and gloves, feel my body move powerfully and freely, be in the very moment with the technique, in a space that is simple and unadorned, with people who are there to feel the same thing I am—who know that feeling, and respect it— I am unattached, unbound, unfettered. And, for those few hours, I am happy.