With numerous health obstacles in my way but the travel one removed, Kru training began in earnest after the July 4th holiday. One area Ajarn King first identified for improvement on was grounding when I kicked.
When it comes to physical activity, I’ve always been a pretty all-in type of person. I’m the poster child for giving it 110%. That said, 110% percent often comes with a sort of muscle tension and eager execution that teeters on uncontrolled. So basically, when I was kicking I was throwing so much force into the kick, I was letting my supporting foot come completely off the ground. Now, if one is to execute a jump kick, the “supporting” leg isn’t in this position, and it’s supposed to be off the ground. That leg is lifted high, you simply rotate your hips over to strike, then you land. But if you are performing a regular round house kick, and your foot is disconnecting from the ground, you’ve actually put yourself in a very dangerous situation.
Because it creates a situation where you make it very easy for your opponent/pad holder to kick your leg out from under you. This danger doesn’t exist with the jump kick since your leg rises well out of the way when you lift it high for the jump. But if you’re just letting your foot rise an inch or two off the mat, you are a prime target. And pad holders in Kru tests seem to LOVE putting testers on the mat. Of course, you can still get your leg kicked out from under you even when you’re doing everything right, but I really didn’t want to make it easy for my pad holders to kick my butt.
My charge from Arjarn King was to ground my supporting foot when I kicked. There are many ways to get a student to do this – think about stomping a bug, really feel the ball of your foot pushing into the floor. All of these are helpful, but what became most helpful to me was imagining I was growing roots for the brief moment I was executing a kick, kind of like Groot from Marvel comics, but maybe Groot having drank five or six espressos because you have to be mobile again very quickly. So during classes, bag work, conditioning circuit, and Kru rounds, I practiced growing roots for the briefest of moments every time I kicked.
But, actually, my kicks weren’t the only areas in which I needed to grow some roots. Remember, I was still battling high blood pressure, insomnia, migraines, panic attacks, and clinical anxiety (the latter actually triggered all of the former in this list). On July 23rd, the unthinkable happened for me. I had a panic attack in Muay Thai. It was after class (Thankfully!), so the only ones present were those staying to help me train, among them Arjarn King, Kru Jabari, my friend Ashley, a couple senior students, and one new student who happened to just be interested in what was going on (Thank god, I didn’t scare her off! She’s still a Black Belt USA student). I was doing a round with senior student Mike. He’s a good bit bigger than me, and I was working really hard. I was tired. I got frustrated, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. Realizing what was happening, I spit my mouth guard out and ran outside. I can never express how grateful I am to my Black Belt USA family for how they responded to what happened, despite it coming seemingly from out of nowhere. Kru Jabari, who happens to be a mental health professional, followed me and talked me through it. When I returned inside, it was to warmth, understanding, and support from every one of them. When Arjarn and Arjarn Dr. King say we’re a family, they aren’t joking.
In the aftermath, this panic attack really confused me. Up until that point, they had always occurred in work related situations or right after some big issue at work had erupted. Muay Thai was my safe place, where I went to get away from the anxiety and mess. But now, the mess was creeping in everywhere. My therapist was much less surprised than I. She told me that “anxiety cannot live in the light.” Once you start figuring out what’s going on, it moves around. Over the past few weeks, I’d come to understand my anxiety much better, but there were still underlying causes I hasn’t yet ferreted out. “It’s work related” is a very vague assessment of a very complex system of stimuli, stressors, and responses. In hindsight, I’m rather baffled that I thought it was an accurate explanation. Fortunately, the new Muay Thai student, Christine, who stayed behind while I was Kru training, videoed my round for me with my phone (a typical strategy we use so we can see where we need to improve). Even more fortunately, she didn’t stop the video until after I’d left the room. As uncomfortable as it was to watch, that video was actually priceless. I could hear what I was saying prior to the panic attack. I could watch myself get triggered through the self-talk I was engaged in and ultimately swept up in a flood of emotion until my fight or flight response kicked in.
I needed roots for more than my kicks. I needed to develop my emotional and mental roots. I needed to ground myself so that even if in the midst of exhaustion, my mind racing, and my frustration mounting (all of which were going to be present in that test), those forces wouldn’t sweep me away.
Mental and emotional roots are all about focus. Breathing is a wonderful way to establish this – breathe and focus on the the breath itself. But while focusing on my breath and its rhythm worked great for me as a normal go about my day strategy, I could not make it my focus during a round. There’s just far too much coming at you in those moments. What I could focus on was the rhythm of the round.
So over the next couple weeks, I focused on my roots – feeling my foot sinking into the mat as I kicked, feeling the rhythm of the round like ocean waves beating the shore.
I wish I could tell you that was my last panic attack in Muay Thai. It wasn’t. The next one came a week and a half later. But I did do rounds in those intervening days – a number of them good rounds, and some bad but ones in which I was able to stay grounded. I knew that growing roots and grounding were the keys to quelling the episodes and getting on with business (after all butts needed to be kicked, right?), but to be able to do that effectively, I had to know enough of myself to identify when those strategies needed to be applied. While I certainly wasn’t there yet, with support from my Muay Thai family, I was making progress.
Just like I was making progress with the kicks. Sure, I had a long way to go yet, but Kru Amir told me was getting stronger. He was kicking my supporting leg during my rounds, and I wasn’t ending up on my back. My roots were beginning to deepen.