Learning from a master

Muay Thai legend offers Juneau residents lessons on the sport and its history

Posted: Thursday, August 05, 2004

As his Muay Thai students shadow-boxed, practiced footwork and sparred with each other, Ajarn Chai Sirisute worked to instill them with knowledge of the centuries-old history and tradition-steeped rituals that back the sport's brute force.

Part personal trainer, part history teacher, part cultural advisor, Sirisute - who has spent more than 30 years teaching the sport and whose title, Ajarn, denotes a master instructor - moved around the Gruening Park recreation room last weekend, fine-tuning techniques and giving words of wisdom.

"They need to know about where the art comes from (and) why it became an art," he said.

Muay Thai, also known as Thai boxing, allows competitors to use what are termed the "eight limbs" - hands, elbows, feet, knees - to subdue an opponent. With roots in hand-to-hand military combat, Muay Thai evolved into a national sport in Thailand and, in the 20th century, a set of rules was adopted to make competition more formal and safe. Boxing gloves replaced hemp wrappings, and fights were structured into five three-minute rounds.

Even so, Muay Thai remains a fierce sport, though it has gained popularity abroad - including the U.S. - not only as a competitive activity, but also as a high-energy workout and a form of self-defense.

A group of local enthusiasts - many of whom attended the seminar - meets to practice Muay Thai on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Gruening Park rec room, and beginners are welcome to attend.

"It helps in everything I do in life, whether it's better balance for rollerblading or better footwork for basketball," said Geoff Brock, a longtime Thai boxing participant who grew up in Juneau. "It's the best workout I've ever had. It's great for conditioning."

Brock now lives in Seattle, but he has brought Sirisute - his Muay Thai teacher - to Juneau each year for more than a decade. Sirisute is the founder and president of the Thai Boxing Association of the U.S.A. He came to the U.S. in 1968 and has been teaching Thai boxing across the country and around the world ever since. He was in Oregon before coming to Juneau, and his schedule this year has included stops in Mexico, Italy and Germany.

On his trips to Juneau, Sirisute combines teaching with a brief respite to indulge another passion - fishing.

But halibut was on hold last weekend as Sirisute guided a class of nine students - a mix of men and women, young and old, beginners and veterans - through Muay Thai principles.

Many of the lessons focused on defense - anticipating and reacting to the moves of opponents with the correct posture and footwork.

"You build the reactions so you don't even have to think about them," Brock said. "Then, after you have that, you can advance and work on ... a little more of the offense."

On the second day, Sirisute guided students through the tradition of a pre-fight dance, or wai kru - one of the many historic traditions of Muay Thai. In the dance, fighters show their respect for four things - their spiritual beliefs, their parents, their teacher and someone close to them who has died.

The dance "shows what camp you are from - your pride in your camp - and you add your own personal touch to it," Brock said. "It helps warm you up for the fight (and) it can be used to psych out an opponent."

While Sirisute offered a lot of tips, the two-day seminar barely scratched the surface of the sport - and his knowledge base.

"He could teach for a year, every day, and you'd still learn something new," said student Susanne Coleman.

After 15 years, Brock said he still is learning - and that's part of why he remains dedicated to Muay Thai. He said his workouts are "always alive."

"(At a basic level) it's simple," he said, "but after 15 years I still learn something new every day. ... There are subtleties to getting the power."

After a few days of fishing, Sirisute will resume his whirlwind worldwide teaching tour, starting with a stop in Washington state. But his brief stay in Juneau left a big impression.

"He's an incredible teacher, and an incredible person," said student Ken Thompson, who was introduced to Thai boxing 12 years ago and attended Sirisute's Oregon camp prior to the Juneau seminar. "He knows the art from square one."

For more information about the twice-weekly Muay Thai workouts at Gruening Park, contact Thompson at 321-9542 or John Schlicting at 789-2816.

For more information about the history of Muay Thai/Thai boxing, look on the Web at www.thaiboxing.com/history.html.

• Andrew Krueger can be reached at andrew.krueger@juneauempire.com

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