How Jiu-Jitsu Happened

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A drawing of my fight poster photo by an ex-team mate from Manaslu.

I started training in Muay Thai almost exactly 3 years ago, in Febraury 2013, to get ready for the spring ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen. Or so I explained it to my friends, who couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea of the sweet, soft-spoken Mila making her very late acquaintance with martial arts by choosing one of, if not the most violent and bloodiest. It was a fact that I needed to ‘toughen up’ both physically and mentally for what I still consider as the greatest of challenges available to a modern adventurer, but expedition preparation was more of an excuse.

I was really after something bigger than that: freedom, as usual, and freedom in general only comes with choice. The particular choice I was concerned with was between violence and non-violence or, put simply, taking it on the chin, understanding and forgiving one’s offender or, instead, hurting them right back – and then understanding and forgiving them. The point for me was to acquire the ability to choose, and to choose the former till the last. In nine cases out of ten, I would, both before I ever punched a bag and today, prefer to absorb punishment, and try to rationalize it with myself and to discuss it with the other person involved. However, there is that case number ten where the aggressor, in my opinion, would benefit considerably more from a good punch on the face than the victim’s kind understanding. As a translator, in learning the language of violence, I ultimately hoped to be able to communicate more freely, efficiently and confidently with the world.

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Training in Pai

The learning quest took me to Thailand, and the rest is history. My training saw long interruptions due to illness, injury and more illness over the past three years, but I have picked up the basics of what I had set out to do. Contrary to what many worried might happen, I was able to open my heart and mind wider than ever thanks to Muay Thai, which was giving me the strength to support and protect my perceived ‘weaknesses’. However, as time passed, I grew restless. I was beginning to feel like my comfort zone had expanded to include Muay Thai. I was being praised and complimented on my skills; I was asked to demonstrate moves to others; I was told I was very, very strong, my reconstructed knee and incomplete set of organs notwithstanding… Although I appreciated it all, it troubled me that I was already supposedly ‘good’ at Thai boxing. Of course, one’s skills can improve greatly on the way from good to outstanding, but what can also grow there is the ego, and it has been a lifetime’s work to squish mine. The two may seem close, but anyone who’s ever tried to cover the ‘distance’ between good quality and perfection, knows that, like the horizon, the latter is unreachable. In my position, this of someone constantly playing catch-up, perfection is not a suitable goal to have.

I was bored, frustrated and simply unhappy working towards being outstanding at Muay Thai, so one day I stopped. Just like that. Soon after I left the gym in Bangkok where I was trying to train at the time, but I still had just over a week to kill before my scheduled study/research trip to South Korea. I had no intention of coming back to stay in Thailand for extended periods of time since I was planning to dedicate the next two years of my life to completing my PhD. I may come and go, I told myself, train leisurely for a week or two or spend a holiday on one of the islands, but nothing more. If I were lucky and physically able, I could go climbing in the spring or summer of 2016… “No more fighting, no more unnecessary pain, no more unladylike behavior! I’m too old for things like that! Enough is enough,” I insisted with myself.

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With my coach and other students at the Bangkok Fight Lab

I couldn’t tell you what possessed me, at the same time as I was making peace with the image of myself as an eccentric old-lady-professor of religious philosophy, to google Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Why? Why did do that? That was how it had started with Muay Thai, too… I looked at pictures, and didn’t like what I saw. Rolling on the floor when I could comfortably punch and kick standing made little sense to me. I watched a fragment of a BJJ tournament on Youtube, and remained equally unimpressed: the fight was a salad of limbs served in a bowl of uncomfortable physical closeness. “Still, I should try it, just to put myself off martial arts once and for all.” I forgot, as I do, that I usually develop a practical interest in the very things I am the least suited for, most afraid of, dislike or disagree with the most! Not all, but many of those things, I come to truly love, even as I struggle to understand them.

In any case, whatever it was that possessed me, I found a gym in Bangkok where Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was taught, and booked a private introductory class. On a hot morning, dressed in a poorly-fitting white gi, I stepped on the blue mat with no expectations except one: that this would be my good-bye to martial arts. And yet, given that you are reading this now, you can probably guess that it wasn’t.