Feb 14, 2014

The Zen of Muay Thai

A video of me training pads with Kru Sak. On a typical day I would do four 5-minute rounds of pads.

It's hard to believe that three months have passed since I began training at Santai Muay Thai in Thailand. Time has flown. Reflecting back, my experience is one that I will cherish forever. It has been difficult for me to readjust back to life at home. But I've taken this opportunity to reflect on my experience and capture important lessons in writing.


One of my main reasons for going to Thailand was to set a new bar of physical and mental performance.

Like most competitive full contact fighting sports, Muay Thai has a heavy focus on body conditioning designed to promote the level of fitness and toughness required for ring competition. I am, without a doubt, in the best physical condition of my life.

My daily routine was the same for three months: I would wake up, train, then eat. After breakfast I would dive into a book (I had a goal of reading a book per week), then afterwards shift my attention to side projects like redesigning parts of my website or doing research on a subject I was reading about. This would keep me busy until my second training session of the day, and then afterwards I would return to reading or working until I fell asleep.

Apart from training and meals, I spent most of my time in isolation. I lived in a small room with no other furnishings than a bed. For three months I didn't drink or go out other than to watch guys from my gym fight.

It sounds boring, but it was wonderful. When I removed unnecessary things from my life down to the absolute minimum, I found myself happier and more present. The consistency to which I stuck to my routine probably speaks loudest to its benefits.

The zen of Muay Thai.

I was in a meditative state. I was able to sustain a total state of focus and clear thought. I had the time and space to dive deep into subjects like marketing and cognitive science. I could invest energy into making fully considered decisions on a number of issues relating to business and finances. And for the first time in several years, I felt like I had overcome writer's block.

I find it interesting that many meditation techniques are based around bringing uninterrupted attention to your breathing in order to train your ability to concentrate. For example, Samatha is a Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation. As Chade-Meng Tan describes it in his book Search Inside Yourself, the practice of bringing uninterrupted attention to your breath trains your attention and "meta-attention".

Muay Thai, like meditation, demands uninterrupted attention. When you're sparring against an opponent, allowing your mind to wander for even a moment makes you susceptible to getting your face smashed.

Sparring is an opportunity to put your skills to the test.

Perhaps Muay Thai is especially effective because it simultaneously combines the benefits of physical exercise with those of meditation. This concept is well-illustrated in Search Inside Yourself's metaphor for meditation as "mental exercise":

When you go to the gym, you are training your body so that it can gain more physical abilities. If you lift weights, you will eventually become strong. In the same way, meditation is like training your mind so that it can gain more mental abilities. For example, if you do a lot of meditation exercises, your mind becomes calmer and more perceptive, you can focus your attention more strongly and for longer, and so on.

Sure enough, the more time passed, the more focused I felt both during and outside of training. This blend of zen is perhaps best captured in the crass sounding music of the Muay Thai pre-fight ritual, which I found meditative:

The Wai Khru Ram Muay pre-fight music


An awakening realization I had on this trip occurred while I wrestled with my plan to leave Santai to visit Cambodia and Beijing. The flights were paid for with specific itineraries already planned. In Beijing I would get a chance to reunite with a brilliant friend from college who I hadn't seen in almost four years.

I ended up scrapping the trip so I could stay at Santai Muay Thai for two weeks longer, even though there was a substantial sunk cost of the flight reservations and visas that were non-refundable (all in all, about $800).

So what was the realization that caused me to decide this?

In Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsieh describes three types of happiness:

  1. pleasure = feeling like a rock star — chasing the next high
  2. passion = feeling engaged, having "flow" (time flies)
  3. higher purpose = fulfilling a higher cause or meaning

During my stay at Santai, I achieved a harmonious state of "flow" in my training and side projects. The trips to Cambodia and Beijing, on the other hand, seemed to serve no other purpose than the pleasure of setting foot in new countries and visiting famous sites. Unlike Thailand, there were no specific activities, skills, or challenges around which the trips would focus on.

In his descriptions of happiness, Hsieh argues that we instinctively chase after pleasure, believing it to be the source of sustainable happiness. Most of us spend most of our time and energy chasing pleasure, sometimes enjoying flow, and once in awhile, thinking about higher purpose. We should be doing precisely the reverse.

Based on Hsieh's framework, trading away training time for the opportunity to go on these trips seemed like a bad idea. But was this really true?

When I looked back at my past travel experiences, the patterns I found supported Hsieh's framework. I found that what I most consistently appreciated about travel was the opportunity to draw inspiration from my surroundings and focus, more so than the sights and fruits that my destinations offered me.

Whether I was working on a business, learning a new programming language, or training martial art, travel gave me the time and space to unleash my creativity.

For example, when I spent three months living in Chile, what I appreciated most was the time and space I had to focus and unleash my creativity while working on my startup. A couple years ago I spent a week on a beach in Mexico with the goal of "relaxation"—but what I remember most is how creative and inspired I felt after reading the Steve Jobs biography. Travel and transience spur creativity—a neat example of this is Amtrak's plan to give free rides to writers.

"Without great solitude no serious work is possible." —Picasso

While the prospect of visiting "wonders of the world" like Ha Long Bay or the something-or-another-temple sound enticing, I've always found the actual experience boring and non-meaningful. Sightseeing often makes me feel as restless as I do when I'm trapped in a department store shopping with a girlfriend.

My unpleasant travel experiences highlight the pattern of me getting amped up about a trip, only to come down once I arriving and feeling unfulfilled. And this pattern supports Hsieh's theory that pleasure is a short-lived form of happiness.

Thus the more I thought about these things, the stronger I felt about my decision to cancel my trips. In fact I resolved that I would never again plan trips centered around sightseeing or frothy destinations.

Outside studies also support the logic that much of the pleasure of travel is superficial. For example, a research study in the Netherlands found that people derive a substantial amount of pleasure from the act of planning a vacation, but that this happiness subsides after the trip.

In travel, as in life, I want to avoid the trap of unthinkingly chasing pleasures at the cost of missing out on spending my time and energy on things that bring me true fulfillment and happiness.


Though Muay Thai can appear brutal and artless, it in fact requires intricate skills and technique.

Every type of strike has a specific form and requires a unique combination of muscles and movement. There are punches, knees, elbows, kicks; and clinching adds a whole new dimension akin to jiujitsu and other forms of grappling. And for every offensive technique, defense must be learnt as well. Learning to make the right decisions at the right time while combining the reflexes of the mind with control of the body takes disciplined practice.

Left hand up, right arm snapped down, planted leg rotated and up on its toes, hip turned over.

Although I had a couple years of Muay Thai practice under my belt, when I arrived at Santai Muay Thai, I realized I barely knew how to stand properly let alone throw a decent jab. I was determined to get better and worked hard to show up to training, listen to advice, and practice in a disciplined manner, correcting my weaknesses while re-enforcing my strengths. Indeed, showing up itself was often the greatest challenge of all (run 4km in the afternoon heat... or relax and keep reading?). But knowing that showing up was 90% of the work was a great motivator for doing so.

I remember one evening about a month into my stay, one of the trainers was observing me doing kicks on a bag toward the end of training. When I turned and looked at him, to my great surprise, he gave me a thumbs up. It was the first time I had received genuine praise on my technique in my four weeks of training.

It was in fact true that during my first month of training, progress was hard to come by. Many days were spent feeling weak and off-balance, or wondering if my awkward knees were due to some flaw in my physiology. Some weeks I felt like I was actually getting worse, whether due to injuries or lack of focus.

In my fifth week, however, I started to feel good. My combinations were flowing. My kicks had both speed and power. My hips were snapping well on my knees. Not only did I notice real progress in my technique, but my rate of improvement was accelerating—my training sessions felt more productive.

Looking back, it's apparent that my rate of growth wasn't steady or linear. Rather, I frustratingly trudged along for a long time seemingly without any meaningful progress, but what followed was huge rapid progress. Like ice melting in water, once I had reached this tipping point, my growth accelerated dramatically.

In training, as in life, you sometimes have to tough it out and stick to your plan with faith that it will eventually pay off.

Love of Learning

I train Muay Thai for fitness and the love of learning. Training in Thailand was an opportunity to immerse myself and take my learning to the next level. I had no desire to prove myself to anyone or win a competition. And as such, I had no interest in stepping into a ring for a professional full-contact fight.

One of society's paradoxes is that although we understand that results come from practice, we're mostly fixated on the results. In sports, we focus on who won. In education, what we truly learn is a footnote because it is the grades that determine a student's fate. In business, it all comes down to the balance sheet. In certain contexts, focusing on the process is almost frowned upon; it's seen as missing the point.

And so it happened that about halfway through my stay, I started to become fixated on the idea of fighting.

It all started when went to my first Muay Thai fight to cheer on someone from my gym. The energy of the stadium and suspense of watching the fighters was exhilarating. Out of the seven cards that night, over half the fights ended in knockouts that looked like serious injuries. The guy from our gym won in the first round by knockout—apparently by breaking his opponent's ribs with a knee.

A photo from another friend's fight.

It was after the fight when we were mingling and taking photos that the head trainer from my gym, Kru Phon, grabbed me by the elbow and pulled me toward the defeated Thai fighter. "You fight same same", he said, suggesting that we would be a good match up because of our similar body sizes. I shook my head and backed away, feeling a bit startled.

The startling effect soon gave way to a feeling of pride—I was flattered that my head trainer was encouraging me to fight. Not only was it a sign of approval, it also meant that he felt I was capable and that I had reached a milestone in my training. And so it happened that Kru Phon opened a door in my mind.

It seemed that many of my friends at the gym also saw me as fit and ready to fight. More and more, my friends would ask if I was planning on fighting or people would encourage me do it. In addition, the level of my training had advanced to the point where I realized I was one of the best clinch fighters at our gym, an especially potent weapon in the ring for someone of my height.

All in all, my self-image had morphed. I was no longer an enthusiastic practitioner—I was a skilled fighter. My original apprehension to the dangers of fighting gave way to the illusion of immortality.

For a string of consecutive nights, I had difficulty falling asleep because my mind was racing, thinking about techniques and simulating being in fights. My dreams were filled with Muay Thai. I had a burning desire to fight.

A Muay Thai fighter performing the Wai Khru before his fight.

But where had this sudden desire to fight come from?

The most predominant reason was one I have already partially illustrated. There is a natural tendency for us to adjust self-image according to the way others perceive us. In my case, comments by my friends and trainers shaped a new image of how I viewed myself with regard to Muay Thai. But my desire to fight came not from the new self-image alone, but rather the nearly obsessive desire we have to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have decided or how we view ourselves. Once I saw myself as a skilled fighter, I became possessed with a desire to act in stubborn accordance to that self-image by fighting.

Another reason for my change of heart was social proof. As Robert Cialdini describes in his book Influence, especially in times of uncertainty, one means we use to determine the correct course of action is to observe the behavior of others. In general, this is a constructive automatic behavior. As a rule, we will make fewer mistakes by acting in accord with social evidence than contrary to it—usually. But in this case, the one-mindedness of the Muay Thai gym culture played a powerful role. In my state of questioning whether or not to fight, I looked to the behavior of my peers for guidance as to what to do. Since they all fought, it appeared to me like the right choice and pulled me away from my original apprehensiveness to fighting (in fact I could make the argument that the entire gym suffered from "pluralistic ignorance"—but I'll save that for a separate post).

Last but not least, the principle of scarcity was at play. The principle of scarcity states that opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited. Just as marketers use "limited-time" offers to spur us to shop, the fact that my trip was coming to an end and I was running out of time to fight heightened my desire. Research shows that the typical reaction to scarcity causes physical and emotional agitation that hinders our ability to think and be rational. This perhaps also explains the mental agitation and sleeplessness I experienced.

Kru Sak correcting my technique.

Once I recognized the absurdity of my sudden and drastic change of heart, I reexamined things rationally and decided not to fight. For me, it was back to the love of learning—I still want to fight, but not until I have a more rational and committed mindset towards it.

Nevertheless, I've learned a lot from this experience. It's important to be self-aware and cognizant of outside forces that influence our decisions. When you find your orientation rapidly changing, ask yourself, "why?". Is it an innate force driving the change or a desire formed based upon the perception others have of you?