I don't normally spend my Monday nights looking to get my ass kicked, but here I am at the Phas3 Training Center in Santa Rosa, patiently awaiting just that.
The class of about 20 bustles about, picking up jump ropes and wrapping their hands in colorful cloths. I've got neither wraps nor gloves, so I just stand around, wondering just how long into the class it'll take until I get punched in the face. Yes, it's my first time taking a kickboxing class. And I'm just a little bit scared.
These days, my exercise regimen leans less toward ancient fighting techniques and more toward leisurely walks around Spring Lake with a cup of coffee in hand and short sessions on the elliptical trainer while reading the latest issue of In Touch magazine. My body's completely out of whack from sitting behind a computer all day.
And let's face it, after a year of eating sandwiches at my desk, sneaking bits of chocolate and sips of coffee every time my energy lags and drinking beer in the name of "research," my belly is about as soft as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. But that's why I'm here. To unleash my inner warrior, and hopefully get lean and mean with a sweaty sheen in the process.
Besides, where else can I get permission to be angry, to be strong, to put my full force behind something without being made to feel like an overly aggressive asshole with her panties in a bunch? Kickboxing class, that's the place.
Our sensei Ben Brown greets me with a friendly smile, hands me a pair of black gloves and directs us to begin with three rounds of jump rope. The class contains people of all stripes: there are young, buff fighter guys, middle-aged women and teens in the mix. Unfortunately for me, after about a minute of jump rope, I'm ready to call it quits. My heart is beating hard and fast; I can see my stomach flab bouncing up and down in the wall-length mirrors.
After the warmup, Brown—who has been training in martial arts since he was a child—talks to us about motivation and persistence. "Only a few apple seeds become apples," he says. "Are you going to do the work it takes, beyond January, to become an apple?"
I'm already an apple—well, at least as round as one—but his speech pumps me up. I feel like Ralph Macchio in the Karate Kid taking on blonde bully William Zabka on a Malibu beach. I can do this!
Brown demonstrates a series of jabs, hooks, crosses and kicks that he calls the "Pandora combination." He runs through it a few times and then tells us to find a partner. Before I know it, I'm jabbing, hooking and kicking at the Thai mitts held up by Paulette Nelson, a thirty-something brunette who's been taking kickboxing classes at the dojo for about a year. She tells me her experience has been nothing short of life-changing, and has helped her to navigate a challenging year.
"It's given me a healthy outlet for that anger and allowed me to reconnect with what's important," she says, just before throwing a jab toward my face; I deflect it awkwardly with a sweaty focus mitt. All around me, folks are punching hard, and the room vibrates with loud thwacks and breathing and sweat. When I space out, thinking about something I have to do the next day, I'm immediately brought back to the present by the glove heading straight for my jaw.
"When you're on the mat, it's one of those situations where you're where you are; you can't afford to be anywhere else," says Brown later as we chat in his office. "You're getting hypercritical feedback about who you are and what you're doing in the moment."
Brown cites the many reasons people are drawn to kickboxing, which he calls an art, and even a religion. There are the obvious physical benefits, but it's more than that, says Brown. He explains how it builds intellect, as a result of the kickboxer's "incredibly powerful mental calculations." But what it really comes down to, he says, is martial arts' effect on the spirit and heart.
"Out there, there's so much and you're getting pulled in so many different directions," says Brown. "And once you walk in here, it's all about you, and your teacher is there to make sure you can be the best that you can be. If selfish were a good word, it's incredibly selfish, you know?"
The next day, I don't feel selfish. Or spiritually enlightened. I just feel sore and achy. Even the smallest step makes my muscles sigh. But I can't help thinking about that class, and wanting to return. What can I say? There's something completely captivating about being able to hit an object very, very hard with abandon.
Later that week, I decide to check out a kickboxing class at Club X, a Santa Rosa gym owned by Israel Nuñez. Unfortunately, a few hours before, I'd taken a nasty spill over the handlebars of my bike, pulling a hamstring in the process. Though I'd pictured myself strutting into the fighting gym like Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby—all swagger and sweat—instead I limp through the front doors, feeling all of the weight of my years. Once again, I'm ready to give up before we even finish jumping rope.
Gemma Guzman is taking the class, too. She's 13 years old, and her family manages the juice bar inside the club. She's here to keep up on her fitness, she tells me, and to lose some stomach fat before a Quinceñera next fall.
I ask Guzman what her favorite part of the class is. "I like that you can punch freely," she tells me. "It takes out the anger in me."
Punching can do that for a person.
As "The Humpty Dance" blasts on the stereo, our straight-faced instructor tells us to drop into a grueling combination of burpees, mountain climbers and squats—three rounds of each. My hamstring screams in pain, but I put on my game face and try not to feel lame as the twenty-something guy next to me with the huge biceps knocks out the entire set before I've even finished my stupid burpees.
A half hour and one hissy fit later, during which I stomp out of the boxing ring in the middle of a speed exercise involving running sideways and catching a weighted medicine ball thrown right at my face, I'm ready to punch something—preferably my editor for assigning me this story. Luckily, the teacher sends us to the long, hanging "heavy bags," saving me a trip to jail for assault and battery, and we're directed to hit them hard, with straight punches, followed by some squats and kicks.
Later, I step into the ring with Nuñez, and he instructs me to throw some punches at his mitts. "Bust a Move" by Young MC is booming across the gym, and for a split second, I do feel like a strong warrior. The feeling quickly goes away when the instructor directs us down to the mat, to do a grueling set of crunches twists and lifts. I have to remind myself that I'm at a fighting gym, not a catering-to-lazy-little-babies-gym, so I try to push on.
This is a sport and a discipline that originated from ancient Thai fighting techniques. It's since evolved into nearly three separate practices: a competitive sport, a form of self-defense and a way to tone the body and get fit. But it's definitely not for the weak-hearted.
I leave the gym feeling fairly wrecked, walking as slow as an 80-year-old with a cane. I don't feel tough. I just feel exhausted and out of shape. But as I grimace my way out the door, Nuñez encourages me to come back.
"We get rookies in here all the time," he says. "After two or three times, they really get a sense of what's going on. It's as simple as taking a jog. If you've never jogged before, and someone was teaching you how to jog, that's how simple it is."
Brown emphasizes that it's important to find a safe place to take kickboxing classes and that most people will know within 15 minutes whether that particular school is for them or not.
"Ask to sit and watch," he says. "Picking your martial arts school is as important as picking a college. If something doesn't feel right, find another school." Whatever you do, be persistent, adds Brown.
"Even if you're not training, you're just waiting to be exposed to it," he says. "I don't care if you're four years old or 74 years old, you deserve a seat at the table."
Where to Get Your Kicks
Muay Thai and Cardio Kickboxing Classes in the North Bay
Marin Mixed Martial Arts. 222 Greenfield Ave., San Anselmo. 888.391.8705.
Kentfield Mixed Martial Arts. 941 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Kentfield. 415.455.8018.
Martial Arts USA. 822 Petaluma Blvd., Petaluma. 707.769.4735.
Sonoma County Martial Arts Center. 149 Kentucky St., Petaluma. 707.765.2763.
Petaluma Academy of Martial Arts. 620 Petaluma Blvd., Petaluma. 707.778.1069.
Phas3 Training Center. 575 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.538.2950.
Club X. 545 Ross St., Santa Rosa. 707.623.3801.
Sonoma County YMCA. 1111 College Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.545.9622.
24-Hour Fitness. Locations across the North Bay.
Seika Ryu Martial Arts. 3168 Condo Court # B, Santa Rosa. 707.523.3200.
Full Circle Muay Thai. 1820 Empire Industrial Court, Santa Rosa. 707.536.5094.
Nor-Cal Fighting Alliance. 917 Piner Road, Ste. C, Santa Rosa. 707.527.8481.
California Martial Arts Institute. 721-C W. Napa St., Sonoma. 707.938.9478.
Sonoma Fitness Factory. 19310 Sonoma Hwy., Ste. B, Sonoma. 707.939.7116.