The Muay Thai Conundrum: Relaxing for More Power
Every day, we sit in the gym and hear the pounding of the bags, the thwacking of the pads: hard work and effort manifested in decibels. We hear the grunts, the exhaustion, the strength exerted with every strike. The few minutes of padwork is enough to make the most energetic cardio bunnies winded. Onyx members are enthusiastic and give 100% effort with every hit, which makes classes so fun to watch and react noisily to. Padwork is a tango, made spicier with a live audience.
“Harder!”, the trainer would call in a purposely-flippant tone to goad members into going full power on the pads. “Harder!!” the members would grin amidst gritted teeth. They would strain their biceps or calves, wringing every bit of strength in their limbs to pummel harder. And then, “relax!”. There would be a slight recoil as the members pause to ponder the command. You can see the thought bubbles whirring in their brains: “What do you mean? You mean… SMASH?” and they go full-steam again, tensing muscle fibres to the maximum limit and unloading brute force on the pads.
At this, the trainer would shake their head, put up their arms to slowly sway in a hypnotic manner, akin to a conductor in front of an orchestra, and repeat “Easy! Relax!”. The smiles would still remain on the members’ faces, but doubt begins to creep in along forehead furrows. They attempt to obey by following the swaying motion, loosening their limbs, and unclasping fists in the gloves. But the punches come out as weak sighs, and the kicks, deflated balloons. The trainer shakes his head again. This was not what he had ordered.
“Relax! Power!” The members try again. They inhale deeply, rock back and forth heavily and slowly on the balls of their feet, before launching into the right roundhouse with all their might. “This should be what Pi meant. Slow, controlled, and powerful!”, they would think as they grimace and flex to their utmost ability. Alas, the trainer shakes his head for the third time. “Relekkk” he pulls the second syllable into a drawl, as he motions an unhurried rhythm with his arms. “And power!” Then he whips into and completes a right kick before one can even blink, the wind from the kick’s trajectory brushing across the members’ bewildered faces. It is one of the biggest conundrums in Muay Thai: one must “relax” to be more powerful in strikes. It is all about the art of relaxing.
It is something that I still have a lot of trouble with. The times when I competed, I could always hear the Supreme Leader shouting at me to relax throughout the rounds. “Relax!”, “Rhythm!”, “Let your hands go!”, instructions that I tried to follow by jogging my shoulders and taking deep breaths in between strikes. During the breaks, he would tell me to regulate my breathing and once again, to relax, before sending me out to the next round. What exactly is this relaxation, and how does it help? It was only after two or three fights (and the many months of training in between) that I began to realise what the Supreme Leader had meant.
It makes sense when you think about it: when one’s body is not relaxed, there is stiffness in the limbs, which one must use more force to overcome the innate tension in order to move. As such, one is not able to exert the full scale of impact, as some energy is already used to correct the tenseness in the body. More energy is required to override the inertia and the recoil, depleting the finite energy stores that we have. In Muay Thai, there are so many things to think about: placement of the feet, holding up of the guard, twisting of the hip, turning of the shoulders, turning of the wrists, landing of the combos. All these are increments of tension to the body, the manifestation of the mind’s preoccupation. They act like friction, and the more worries we accumulate, the more resistance the body forms against itself. And so, even when we try really hard and use our full strength, it is just sheer brute strength hitting the pads (that has already been depleted from straining against our body’s resistance).
It may sound oxymoronic to hear that more power comes from relaxing, but it works. When one is relaxed, one can move like the flow of water. There is no resistance against where you want to go, no muscles being forced to go in a different direction, because it starts from a state of zero action. To be relaxed does not mean that one slacks off completely. Instead, one is in a state of watchful observation, ready to spring into action at any moment. The muscles are loose and limber and warm. It is as if one is a crossbow, drawn taut only when you want to be launched, and the roundhouse is like the arrow, whistling through the wind as the tension is cut free. Easy, fast, simple. And then, it is back to zero-state again, relaxed, watching for the next moment to unleash.
True power comes from being able to maneuver one’s body completely at will, knowing when to tamper with tension and letting it go quickly. When one is relaxed, one can rev up instantly (instead of decelerating from a heightened state of tension and accelerating again) and give in totally. One is able to channel the strength cleanly and fully: from hip to shin to pad, from hip to shoulder to wrist to knuckle, from hip to knee to balls of feet, and so on, so forth. Of course, understanding is one aspect. The difficult parts are in (1) the self-awareness and (2) execution. For me, I rarely notice that my body is tense. The Supreme Leader would tell me to loosen my shoulders, and I would protest, “I am already very relaxed!”. (Narrator: She wasn’t.) These are things that are easy to see from an outsider’s POV, but difficult to feel by yourself. The solution? Experience. Learn to move consciously, learn the inflections of one’s body. How does it feel like one is tense? How does it feel when one is more relaxed? Get someone to watch, or video yourself shadowboxing or doing padwork. It has to be lived and practiced. Theory can only take us so far.
As for the execution, that is also a tricky thing to practise. For me, I would put on my favourite songs, tunes that make you happy as a lark or ones that you can groove to. At least, you would be in a comfortable headspace and not concerned too much about the nitty-gritty details of techniques. I would lip-synch in my head, enjoying the music, and let free. Or simply, smile. Recognise the fleetingness of what you’re trying to achieve and not stress yourself out more by trying not to stress out. A deep breath may help. Taking a few steps backwards and clearing may help. Not overthinking will definitely help. Sometimes, one must cease control (not lose, just ceasing for a moment) and give oneself over to the moment of being. The art of relaxation is a lot of airy-fairy talk and not knowing if you’re listening properly. It is something that I am trying to learn more about and do it myself. The feedback will come from my trainers (by their “yesss!” or “good!” during padwork), or my sparring partners (by fruitful and fun sparring volleys), or my body itself (by sensing if my balance is good, was the trajectory of the strike smooth and unstilted?). It is a lot of effort to make things effortless. Muay Thai is a never-ending journey, filled with many seeming contradictions. To relax is to be more powerful… What?? What about those adages that tell us to go harder, to hit faster, to beat stronger? About giving your 100% strength and effort? Well, they apply too. But not completely in the literal sense. It is not about brute force or reckless strength. Instead, it is about going easy to hit smarter and beat better. Clarity of mind, cleanness of body lines, to release the whole ball of force like a Rasengan (hadouken if you’re Gen X/Y). One has to tame the beast first, so that they can be unleashed freely after.