The Surprising Way Boxing Changed My Body & My Life

Photographed by Kava Gorna.
“Just 30 more seconds, come on. Get higher. Don’t let your hip near the ground,” barked my trainer, Anthony. He wasn’t so much yelling as projecting over all the other activity in the gym. And he didn’t seem to care that “30 more seconds” feels like an eternity when you’re side-planking. Sweat dripped onto the mat, and I pushed up harder as the dull pain in my shoulder began to get bold, prying its way down to my forearm and wrist. Less than 25 seconds in, my arm slipped on the sweat and the side of my body hit the mat, hard. Useless, melodramatic tears welled up in my eyes as I had a sudden flashback of sixth-grade gym class, where I was the worst at everything except ping pong.

“Get the rope,” he said.

As miserable as I felt during planks, jumping rope was my least favorite part of my boxing training. It seems simple enough, and it’s certainly less intense on the body than the actual punching (and getting punched). But it terrorized me. In the beginning, my jumping was slow and choppy, my feet often getting tangled up in the rope. Eventually, when I learned to lift my feet high enough, I tired after 30 seconds. This cardio was nothing like my typical leisurely jogs in Riverside Park.

I hated boxing. But in September of 2010, I endured a difficult breakup and needed to process my pain in way that didn’t involve tequila. Exercise seemed like a smart place to start — I’d always been a yogi and frequented dance classes, but right now, I wanted to hit something. I wanted to release frustration, anger, and resentment. So I walked into Mendez Boxing Gym and asked about training. I knew I would hate it when I first met Anthony, with his sinewy arms and a half smile that implied he didn’t smile much. I looked around the gym and saw a bunch of Anthonys.

But the few women there were even more intimidating. They walked through the space and in and out of the ring without making eye contact with anyone. Most were ripped in the most exquisite way, their high sneakers hugging calves seemingly chiseled from granite. More than fit, they looked strong. Plagued by my feelings of weakness, I longed for an ounce of their strength.

I signed up for one-on-one sessions at first. Pricey, but I needed to learn the basics. I quickly found that it was a total-body workout, split ends to toes. The training drills — the repetitive practice of punching, channeling strength and stamina, and moving in the ring to avoid hits — wrecked me, and they were only a small part of my boxing training. Even three weeks in, the planking, the jump ropes, and the standard sit-ups all still brought a jarring amount of shame. I was an active person. I should be better, I told myself.

I was awkward and clumsy at the actual one-on-one combat, too. If they let me in the ring for real, it would be a death wish, I remember thinking. But when we did get to the sparring (one-on-one combat where one boxer tries to bring the other down), my body quickly revealed that this was the part it had been waiting for. “Use your back to jab and cross, not your arms,” Anthony said. “Your strength is in your back.”

It registered, and I jabbed. Anthony, who was used to putting absolutely no effort into resisting my pathetic, noodle-armed punches, seemed startled. He looked at me — sans smile — and said, “Okay, Rajul. I see you.”

I held both fists, not wrapped or gloved (the impact felt more satisfying this way, and I found both glamour and glory in my sore, pink knuckles), close to my face to protect it, the way he’d taught me. Jab, cross, hook, bob, weave. I first imagined the bag or mitts that I aimed at as my ex’s torso. But it wasn’t as satisfying as I thought. Instead, I began to focus on the power I felt in my back, my core, and my shoulders.

It wasn’t anger or frustration that was fueling this power. It was confidence. I was finally doing something with force. It still felt uncomfortable and challenging, but it felt right.

It wasn’t anger or frustration that was fueling this power. It was confidence.

One evening, I was lacing up my Converses in the locker room, getting ready to head home. My hands were gently trembling as they often do after a class. I was now training with nine other beginners who were still all better than me. I had just started to complete all the drills, but I was still slow, and I lacked that gritty grace of a boxer that I superficially craved.

A woman next to me was unwrapping her own hands. “I can’t believe you don’t wear gloves or anything,” she said, looking at my knuckles. “my wrists would be wrecked.”

“Oh,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. I finished up and walked out of the gym, onto 26th street. Maybe I should start wearing gloves, I thought. I began to think about how I enter new relationships. I always go in unarmored, the residue of any previous heartbreak wiped away to reveal vulnerability and openness. I pride myself in it, but it often screws me over. A healthy level of defense — a little extra self-care — could be wise.

I hate boxing like I hate that transition between an old relationship and a new one. Both excavate flaws — old ones that have haunted me for years and new ones of which I was blissfully unaware. Both require an unbelievable amount of resilience. Couldn’t get it right today? Try tomorrow. Weave to dodge a hook, or to avoid that clawing fear of failure. Getting punched won’t destroy me, but fear would, I learned.

My boxing practice and my relationships, they both tend to rip away layers I’ve positioned to guard me, revealing muscles and tendons and pieces of soul that haven’t been used in a while. These parts of me are out of practice. But they’re there, waiting.

I quit boxing for nearly six years. But just last week, when I returned to the gym to conquer more demons, I realized what my practice had done for me. I hadn’t released frustration by punching and kicking. I’d learned instead about mercy. I’d hated my body for what it couldn’t seem to accomplish — and then forgave it for not living up to my expectations. I’d forgiven myself for not being complete. It’s something I needed to do before I could start forgiving anyone else for the same flaw.

I’m in an all-women’s boxing group now. Some of the ladies don fancy, hot-pink CrossFit gloves as we walk onto the mats. I should know better by now, but my knuckles still remain bare. I’ll try not to go as hard as I used to. For better or worse, I’ve let go of the image of myself as an Indian Laila Ali. It’s hard and not always attainable, but I suspect that letting go of pounds of expectations, little by little, makes me a lightweight champ of sorts.

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