How MMA took me on an amazing journey of self-discovery.
I’m afraid of a lot of things - small things like bees, the sea, tunnels, elevators. And big things like not having enough friends, being alone, not being able to take care of myself. But mostly the fear of being inadequate. I used to spend a lot of time looking over my shoulder, waiting for one of these to catch up with me and prove me right, that somewhere along the way I got comfortable being scared. I got used to behaving in a way that would validate my fears. If one spends so much time worrying about it, isn’t it easier to actually have something to worry about? It’s a pitiful cycle, and one that doesn’t leave too much room for growth or fighting back, because it’s easier to see this self-fulfilling prophecy through than actually do something about it.
Now where do I direct this conflict? I was fresh out of a job, fresh out of a relationship, fresh out of funds and fresh out of hope that things could get any better. But it did, and how. And It all started with a class.
MMA conditioning for power
I joined an MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) class because I thought: a) It would be cool b) If I spent an hour punching a bag, I could deal with all the aggression and c) I would know how to fight.
I remember walking out of my first class with a fascination I hadn’t felt in a long time; it was something that I was doing purely for myself and it was nothing short of phenomenal. I spent my first month in a haze of aching muscles and adrenaline fuelled enthusiasm, I forgot about everything else. I channelled all the pain and disappointment into my hands and legs, and worked it out till I couldn’t feel anything else. I was getting what I came for. I was too tired to be angry at myself or worry about fixing the ten things that were broken. But eventually, my fists and shins got used to the pain, and my mind calmed to a pace where I could not only understand but also appreciate what I was doing. And I realised that I was selling myself short if I was using it as a means to escape, because it was and is so much more.
I’ve been training for over seven months now - my day centers around when I have to go to class and I really wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve learned how to throw punches and kicks, tackle people to the ground, fight without using my hands and push myself to places that I didn’t know I could get to. But beyond the physical aspect of arming myself and becoming stronger, it’s done so much more. It has given me a sense of peace that I would not have imagined I was capable of achieving. I’ve come to see class as a metaphor for life; everyone is fighting their own battle and the only thing you can do is make sure that you fight yours. People become bodies, and you learn to observe how they function before you make your move; it demystifies them, and breaks them down into components you can understand.
Fighting emotional pain
It’s a strange process though, I won’t lie. Just like me, everyone, all eight of us, come into the class to work towards a certain goal, and have to deal with various people’s conditioning and thought processes in volatile situations. I’ve been hit, multiple times, by people who want to show you that they’re stronger simply because they can, almost had my shoulder dislocated because it’s tempting to see how far you can go, and how much pain you can cause because the strength that you’re capable of is sometimes intoxicating. And I’ve found myself guilty of pushing that envelope as well.
In the 50 minute session, we start off with stretching for 10 minutes and then progress onto techniques, depending on what form we’re learning that day. If we’re lucky, we get to end with a sparring session! It’s exciting not knowing what the agenda is, but still be able to learn something new everyday. We get trained in a variety of martial art forms: kickboxing, wrestling (which is my favourite!), muay thai and Brazilian jiu jitsu. Whether I’m punching a bag, rolling on the floor, sparring, engaging or conditioning training - time slows down, speeds up, reverses and in the one hour that I find myself on the mat, it’s like meditation.
A triangle choke hold is an effective way to get someone to submit
Somewhere along the way in the midst of broken toes, tangled limbs and tapping out, I learned that knowing how to hurt someone doesn’t make you stronger. That the true measure of strength is when one doesn’t feel the need to show it. As my trainer says: the best way to avoid a fight is to not be there when it happens. It is especially humbling. You can’t help but realise that you’re not the cat’s whiskers when you’re taken down ten times a day. But you get up each and every time, because you know that’s not the end of the game and you can keep fighting. I know now that I don’t have a point to prove to anybody: I cannot just expect people to take me seriously, and it doesn’t matter if they don’t. I just have to do the best that I can. It has developed a sense of balance and discipline that I try to achieve everyday, and no matter how difficult things get, I know that’s not the end of the line, because I have some fight left in me. The confidence that it gives you, in yourself, is really nothing short of magical.
No place for modesty
However crazy this experience has been, it is not without its challenges. The biggest one being that I’m a woman, involved in an activity that mostly draws men. In a country like ours, it would be naive to assume that women have an equal shot at succeeding in a space like this, one which involves a lot of body contact and superior levels of strength. I’ve found my head between legs, my face in their crotch, legs wrapped tightly around theirs and several other compromising positions with nowhere else to go. I’ve got an extra fight to fight every time I walk into class and I’m one of the few (or only) women there because it’s a lot of conditioning to overcome. I’ve had men, who’ve done a handful of classes come up to me and tell me “don’t worry, I’ll go easy on you” because they assume I’ll be weak. Only to have their ass handed to them 5 minutes later. You constantly have to struggle with perceptions and reservations of the self in order to learn, and the ring is no place for modesty - there’s too much adrenaline flowing, and people are just waiting for the first sign of weakness to pounce.
Always keep your hands (head) up
It really is terrifying sometimes to be up against men who are 30 kgs heavier than you and have the arms the size of your thighs. I was once at the mercy of a man who attacked me in my own house, broke my door down and pushed me to the floor like it was his right to show me that he could hurt me. It was one of my motivations to start training actually. There’s nothing that one can do about men being strong, but you can always make yourself stronger.
I hold my head a little higher, walk a little taller and am not as scared as I used to be because I know that everything can be overcome. I have a male teacher Adarsh, who is nothing short of amazing, who pushes me to do better everyday, who doesn’t cut me any slack cause I’m a woman, and who has changed my life by giving me the tools to build myself to be a better person. Some days are tougher than others, but they are all opportunities to learn. And if I can overcome my fear, the possibilities are endless.
My MMA crew
1. Find a class that is engaging, with an experienced trainer.
2. Every woman should know how to protect herself.
3. Men are strong, but you can make yourself stronger.
4. Don't succumb to social pressures and insecurities, fight to be better everyday.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Nikita Neti
Photographs by Nikita Neti