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Breaking the Short Circuit

Well done everybody, we have just completed Circuit Breaker and Phase 1! The social isolation is lifted and we can begin to wade back into normalcy. Phase 2 came into effect yesterday, which meant most sectors of the economy were allowed to resume operations subject to safe management measures. It was what we were waiting for; the grand reveal, the wave of a wand which would return everything the way it was!!

Except that it’s not. There is no returning to what life had been before. There is still a pandemic going on, still hundreds of new Covid-19 cases in Singapore daily, an undercurrent of invisible danger. It is an uneasy truth to digest. This is the new normal, with curbs and cautions around every corner (understandably). But if there’s anything I learnt in the past 72 days, it’s that we are all hella adaptable.

Per government regulations, Onyx had been closed since 7 April 2020 and will finally reopen on 22 June 2020. It was an unprecedented 2.5 months of downtime. I didn’t quite know what to do with the formlessness of my days. I always knew the gym defined my hours significantly. Out of a week, I would be at Onyx 6 days; sometimes 7, if I woke up early enough to make it for an Iron Lab class on my off-day. But I didn’t realise how much it has defined my life, my identity, until I was sitting in front of a laptop in the middle of the night, twiddling my fingers, trying to make sense of this restless itch in my bones.

When the news first broke that life would be halted and gyms closed, it was a Friday afternoon and we were sitting around Onyx. We had the safe-distancing system in place, which meant all visitors had to fill up a travel and health declaration form and there was a cap of 10 people in the gym at all times. We laid on the mats and watched PM Lee drink from a magic porcelain cup and switch between languages. The lockdown that wasn’t a lockdown— it’s a circuit breaker™! We sat in silence for a good half-hour after that. We had anticipated a similar measure because of the worsening situation, but having it confirmed and swerving into view like a trailer-truck,large and unavoidable, sent us reeling for a bit. Then, we got to work, informing the members, programming the systems, working out the phone lines, logistics for staff.

Monday, 6 April, rolled around quickly. The classes were all booked out that day. Members who couldn’t make it for the classes came down anyway, with a rueful smile. They stood outside the door, looking at the white light spilling out, the grunts and the thwacks spiking in intervals. We stood beside them, squeezing out the last bits of catching up and chit-chat. There was a lot of disbelief and uncertainty. Furrowed brows and tensions at the corners of lips.Nobody knew what was going to happen; everyone just knew things were going to be very different. And for many of them, and all of us, Onyx MMA was a safe haven that was going to be closed.

“One last one”, “the aches should last you a month”, we laughed as we bent over in exhaustion. Our thighs buckled under the tyres, but we wanted to keep going on. The members for the next Iron Lab class sat on the drain covers and yelled encouragingly. Inside the gym, the comforting sounds of pads against gloves, pads against heads and abdomens (if you weren’t careful). Eventually, the clock-hand cranked to its way to 10pm. That’s all, folks. “See y’all next month!”, we bandied those words around with a smile and a commiserating sigh. We turned off the gym lights, as did many other buildings in Singapore, and then we went our separate ways, carrying odd bundles of gloves and shin-guards and running shoes into the dark.

The first few days of circuit breaker were easy. I had to run errands and there was outstanding work. Time passed quickly. Then, quite suddenly, I was jolted by the surfeit of time, the yawning gap between my days, and the realization that the normalcy I once knew had disintegrated. My morale and emotions went into a tailspin. I felt like I had come unmoored and was adrift in a void. You see, when you trained twice a day, six days a week, for the past year, for a potential upcoming fight, a flesh-and-blood opponent, there was structure and purpose to the days. Seemingly overnight, that had disappeared.

That led to long reflections on what Muay Thai meant to me. One aspect was the physical effort and time it demanded. It was an equivalent exchange. The natural order of things. You had to put in hard work and dedication, willingly or not, before you could even hope to see results. I liked the discipline that it exacted on me, and that I had been able to deliver on occasion. It made me feel like a determined person, one with an iron will: the others called me a machine, which secretly thrilled me but also stressed me out to live up to it, which delighted me further when I could keep going, which also made me anxious, the cycle goes on and on, believe me. It was an attendance card I could punch in and log my progress. 5 runs, 6 days, 11 trainings— it had been a good week. Rinse and reset and refine. Muay Thai had been the skeleton of my days, adding form and shape to an indistinct, flesh-coloured blob.

The next was the constant feedback of skills and techniques and rhythm. Trainings required mental dexterity, despite the physical repetition, because every situation was different, every opponent was different. One type of push-kick wouldn’t work on another person. The more I did Muay Thai, the more I learnt it is about letting go. It boils down to simplicity and calmness. Everything is effortless and optimised for efficiency. There are no wasted movements. To reach the state of zen, like an outward ripple of a pebble skimming the lake, one has to put in a heck lotta of rock-picking and wild rock-throwing. The feedback process: that was something essential to me, which I didn’t realise until it was gone.

A good training defined a good day, and a good training was defined by how much effort I had put in, how well I had pulled things off that I had wanted to do. The loops of kicking and punching, knowing if it went well or not, feeling like I did well or not: these transformed my days into little glowing coals I could put in my pocket and take out for warmth on a rainy day, on a shitty overcast day when self-esteem was all muddied up. Trainings dictated my days as well as my moods— okay, not fair, it’s more like a symbiotic relationship. But Muay Thai itself was a reliable, evergreen benchmark of whether I had been good/shit on a particular day. In that manner, it was both a vent and valve for stress. It was a source and generator of strength; it simultaneously created and arranged my emotions.

Finally, doing Muay Thai as someone who competes. The identity of a fighter: I dare not dwell too long; there’s always a stench of feeling like an imposter. On a fundamental level, there is an absence of purpose as there are no competitions in the near future. No visible goal to aim for. Which leads to the question of “if I am not fighting or training, then who am I?” and spirals of self-doubt. If I am not doing things I usually do to affirm my sense of self and self-worth, especially when that identity has been so dominant in everyday life, the central self collapses like a pack of cards. It was too easy for aimlessness to set in. “Oh, I can just don’t train? The days could have been so relaxing and easy?” and one begins to reconsider the efforts that one had placed, whether it had all been an arduous exercise in futility. Inertia grows like ivy on cottage walls, swallowing bricks in a dense gnarl of thorns. It gets harder to find your way home, the place where you were once most comfortable.

These thoughts floated above me like a cloud, as the skies turned from mauve to ebony to a bleary orange to robin’s blue to the hazy purples of sunsets again. Time laced together as a herringbone, taut and indistinguishable. The circuit breaker would be extended in 2 weeks’ time for another month, until 1 June. Hoo boy. The weave continued, sibilant and silver.

An itch grew inside my bones. I was restless, but stubborn about resisting the restlessness. My friends smiled from the multiple Zoom panels they shared on social media. There were many sweat-drenched selfies on yoga-mats. The dormant competitive spirit in me stirred a bit. I began to add some things into the mixing bowl. I did 10 push-ups every 2 hours. Went for a run every other day. Skipped on days when my legs felt too tired. Walked to the mall to get groceries. They were small routines to stick to. “Go easy, go slow”, I told myself (while the gym-me frowned at my wheezing self). But the gym was closed. That me wasn’t me anymore, not for now. But I was still the template for it. Patience and kindness, those were qualities I had roughly shoved aside last time. There had been no time for that before; I began to realise their importance now.

The feeling of being strong for yourself was uplifting. I got the platitudes now. “Strong is beautiful!”, “your body is a miracle!”. It felt nice to try and be fit, keeping the machine oiled (albeit creakier than usual). “Okay, I can start doing more”, I thought. Alternate between abs and arms exercises. Certain weights exercises for certain days. Sprints once a week. Shadow-box some nights. Do longer runs occasionally. Hey, I still had it. It never left, just buried somewhere maybe.

I missed Muay Thai very much. Of all the “problems” to have, this was probably the best one. I had things good and I am very lucky and thankful. Still, there was an ache to the days. I texted the others and we would talk about missing all the things that had made us cuss and swear. We shared videos of sublime clinching and wondered about the next time we could try to knee each other’s ribs out. We worried incessantly about being rusty, being clumsy, being forgetful, being unworthy. We trotted out jokes we had shared with the trainers, “remember when I push-kicked Pi’s chin accidentally and I suffered for it the next 2 rounds…”.

And that would lead us down the rabbithole of missing Onyx, missing the people, missing how sunlight throws a slant of gold on the ring, the busy whirring of the fans, and the bracing breeze on the slope of despair. The communal feel, the collective 60//90 minute rollercoaster of anguish and sweet relief. The unguardedness, the innocence, the boisterous embrace of gym-mates who have become friends and confidants, life-lines in their own right. Would that be the same when we reopen on Monday? Probably no hugging, just plenty of muffled shouts under masks. We will find out soon.

Finally, finally, after 70+ days, we can return home to Onyx. But we have changed, as the circumstances have. This is the new normal, where we need to worry about the threat of community transmission. Where we have to register our daily presence on SafeEntry, take note of body temperatures, don a mask, wash our hands with soap extremely frequently, and rush out after the end of classes because of the risks of prolonged contact.

Things in the gym will be done differently too. Shorter class durations, smaller class sizes, no grappling or sparring, friends at a distance, and someone always buzzing around in a mist of disinfectant. We will ease into it, like doing a double take at a fresh coat of paint and crinkling our noses up at the smell. But we will adapt and we do it because we know it needs to be done for everyone.

There is no final point in this pandemic, not without a vaccine anyway. The days will be filled with ambiguity, listlessness, and some basal fear for ourselves, our loved ones, for humanity. There is a syrupy layer of hope though of anticipation, that things will get better soon enough, if we hang on together long enough. And hey, at least, we can now vent out our existential angst on the punching bags in Phase 2.

That’s we gotta do: keep it sweet enough to keep drinking. One day at a time.

As life begins creeping back into a semblance of normalcy post-circuit breaker, please still take care of yourself as well as the necessary precautions. We look different under the masks and face shields, but we are back.









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