Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, Crowley once said. He was talking about ethics, morality, and of course sex, because Crowley was a big fan, but the same can be applied to fitness in general and martial arts in particular. Do what thou wilt. Do what you want, and sometimes what you want is nothing.
It’s been a rough few weeks. A death in the family has led to a lot of emotional heavy lifting coming on the heels of the ongoing plans to move back to England, to a new city, a new school and the next stage of our lives. On top of all that, for me, has been an ongoing reassessment of what I write and how I write it. I’m looking at goals I set myself a couple of years and realising not only that they aren’t practical but they aren’t healthy. The brass ring is always just out of my reach and the only person who puts it there, just like the only person who screams at me when I don’t get it, is me. So, things are being reassessed, goals are being changed and in amongst all this, fitness fell by the wayside a little. And by a little I mean completely. The occasional bike ride notwithstanding I’ve not had any meaningful exercise for several weeks.
That changed last night.
Smash Gyms is a local martial arts studio with several branches that teaches Krav Maga, Brazilian Jujitsu and Kickboxing. We went to our first Krav Maga lesson last night and it was exactly the right sort of difficult, exactly the kind of difficult I’ve been missing.
Getting there was, to use the cliché, the hardest part. I’ve got no physical confidence in myself, and it’s a ridiculous state of affairs to be in because I may be overweight but I’m at least averagely healthy. I’m strong, I’m flexible but I like pie and I eat when I’m stressed and guess what? I’ve been stressed. So, driving out there last night the year of Judo, the two belts I achieved during one of the hardest years of my life, the three months of Thai boxing during one of the most miserable employment experiences of my life, the running, the weight training, all of it felt like absolutely nothing. Fat and slow and pointless. Do what thou wilt becomes sit on the sofa and complain about how unfit I am.
Except…it didnt. We were both nervous going in, both, frankly, a little scared. There’s a real element of trust to a new martial art that isn’t there with any other sort of physical activity. You’re going to go and train to hurt people by…practising hurting people. If you don’t trust your partner then you don’t learn and if you do, then you’re trusting them not to hurt you badly enough that you can’t train or compete. I’ve been hurt badly enough by a partner that I can’t train or compete. As a result, trust comes a little harder for me than it should. But still, we got up, we got out, we went to the session and my throat only closed with fear instead of actual nausea so that’s a win.
I was the largest person on the mat, by a comfortable margin. I was the slowest, by a comfortable margin. I was one of the only people to take breaks. I was wheezing. This is a new occurrence, in the last eighteen months, and it’s a signifier that the stress weight is just that, stress weight. I’m carrying too much and when I work too hard, my lungs start complaining and I end up sounding like an imminently deceased donkey labouring up a mountain with several very large heavy things on it’s back. That metaphor got away from me but the point is I sounded like crap and I sounded like crap early because Krav Maga is not a martial art that believes in holding your hand. Unless it can then use that hold to break your arm, throw you into a wall or hurt you quickly and badly enough to get away.
The warm up was a run, followed by running punches, followed by descending amounts of punches interspersed with mountain climbers, which is where you drop to all fours and push each leg, alternately, up into your chest. Then back up, then more punching. It was brutal and the instructor, a cheerful ex-military officer who had exactly the right combination of care for his students and magnificent disregard for their limits, made it clear that was the point. Because Krav Maga isn’t a sport martial art in the sense of there being a ring, or a mat, and rules. It’s a martial art designed to let you hurt whoever is attacking you as quickly and effectively as possible and then run like hell.
This, for someone who’s a bit of a martial nomad at the moment, was very, very good news. Especially as, after he tried to murder us with cardio drills which included the infamous ‘Krav massage’ (You follow your partner as they jink around the mat, patting them on the shoulders, they drop, you jump over them. Then you swap. My partner, the junior instructor, to his eternal credit, realised that jumping was not something that was on the cards for me any time soon, and dropped flat. Bless him) we got to the fun stuff. By the fun stuff I of course mean the hitting.
We did three drills, the first about teaching us to transition from close to middle to short range. This involved one of you holding a strike pad whilst the other threw five groin kicks off each leg, five punches off each hand and five kneestrikes off each knee. My inner Thai boxer, who up until this point had been playing Dead Space, got off the bench and had some fun. My balance is rough, so the kicks were enthusiastic if a little inaccurate, whilst the punches were a little more accurate and a little harder but the knees? The knees worked. The two things I was comfortable with in Muay Thai were fighting at range (I’m six foot two so when I throw a front push kick and it connects, then you move backwards) and fighting close in (I’m six foot two so when I clinch, as long as I’m set, I can put my knees pretty much anywhere I want to). So I landed some good meaty knee strikes and then almost threw up and neded to go and get some water (I’m six foot two, and over three hundred pounds, and I’ve not done this for a while).
The second was a headlock escape, which was a pretty perfect encapsulation of everything Krav Maga does well. The style folds itself to your body and to your skills and it’s, for a style which is very up close and personal, full of breathing room. The basic move we learnt was simple; if someone has you in a side headlock then you windmill your hands to their groin, for a short hard groin strike and their eyes, dragging backwards as you go. Hit them both at the same time you’ve got the psychological impact of a groin shot as well as the pain, coming at the same time as altering their centre of gravity so they fall backwards and you either hurt them, or run. The preference, most of the time, is run, because this, as we were told again and again, isn’t a sport. This is a set of self defence techniques that lets you finish a fight and get out of danger as fast as you can, to the point where we were taught to run two steps, scanning as we went. Always be moving, always be looking for the next threat, always be looking for an exit strategy.
The last drill was another headlock escape, this time from behind. Again, it was very simple; you reach up and behind, turn your head towards where their hands are locked, yank them forwards, step sideways and you’re holding their arm at full extension and are all the way clear. In both cases we were shown multiple options to get out of the hold and damage once you’re out. Get out of a side headlock? Scrape your foot down their shin, they’ll fall over, limp and you can run. Can’t do that? Grab them by the balls, lift and drop them on their face. Can’t do that? Kick their inner leg out. Likewise, got your opponent at arm’s length? Spin them through 180 degrees and bounce their head off something, or break their knee with a side kick, or their elbow with a knee, or hammer fist them in the back of the head until they pass out. Hurt them before they hurt you, or, as my old Judo instructor memorably described it ‘Fuck them up first.’
The difference being here you have the freedom to do what your first instinct is. For Marguerite, with an Aikido background, it’s deliver your opponent to the ground, hard. For me, coming from Judo and Muay Thai it’s throw them, immobilise or break a limb or land a couple of meaningful strikes that will make them think pretty seriously about doing anything other than being in a lot of pain. It’s all right, all of it works, all of it’s permissible. Do what thou wilt, before it’s done unto you.
In one hour I sweated, I gasped, I wheezed and I took four breaks. I was the heaviest, slowest person on the mat. And it was serene, perfect. This is the sort of exercise I respond to, work so hard and so consistent that I get rendered down to nothing but my body, my breath and the technique we’re practising. Two years ago, I’d have been busy castles in the air about how quickly I could learn, what I’d have to reach for to consider myself accomplished, how far I’d have to go. Not any more. Now, all I want is this, is the simple, tranquil feeling of being pushed to your limits and knowing you’ve worked honestly. This is why I train in martial arts, not to fight, not to grade, not to compete. To work and know what I’ve worked at. Aleister Crowley can bang, but in my own way and at my own pace, so can I. And today, that’s enough.
Want to talk to me about this piece? Come see me on twitter at @alasdairstuart or email me.