I took my first boxing class at a fight gym. As someone who has always relied on barre and Pilates classes for workouts, to say that I felt out of my element, surrounded by punching men in a space that was smaller than some of the lobbies of the boutique workout studios I've frequented, is an understatement. As I checked in, I was thrown hand wraps, the ones that you need to know how to wrap around your hands—not the fingerless glove-wraps that have become so popular recently. "I don't know how to tie these," I said. "The instructor can show you," was the response. Except he didn't. Upon entering the space, he started the warm-up immediately, everyone ready to go with their wraps securely tied around their hands. As I looked around in panic, trying to catch the instructor's attention, one of the few women in the class stopped her jumping jacks. She pulled me to the corner and tied my wraps around my hands. "I will show you after class how to do it," she said to me. She did.
While I can blame that negative experience on the gym, or the instructor, truth is, until recently, boxing has been a male-dominated sport. It wasn't until several years ago that it became commonplace for women to participate leisurely in boxing for fitness, with popular fight-inspired studios like Rumble, Shadowbox, Overthrow sprouting in New York seemingly overnight. It has been in the last two years that more women have begun teaching in these spaces and even opening their own gyms to accommodate the increase in women interested in the workout. "As boxing was beginning to trend, we saw that it was always a male-dominated sport," says Valerie Ding of co-founding L.A.'s CruBox with her sister Bebe. "That became our fun challenge, to bring authentic boxing to group fitness, and making it accessible to women." Dana VanPamelen, who co-founded Hit House, a boutique Muay Thai fitness studio that opened this year in Manhattan, with her husband, Tyler Scott, agrees. "These past few years have marked the beginning of combat fitness classes being offered in a boutique setting and women are less intimidated to try out a typical 'man's sport'," she says.
After being introduced to Muay Thai while working as round card girl for Friday Night Fights, the petite-sized VanPamelen decided to try it for herself after seeing the "action and excitement in the ring." "My first few lessons and classes were at a traditional gym, surrounded by fighters in training camp. The workout is really intense and fun, but I found striking a traditional heavy bag very difficult—it hurts your knuckles, wrists, and shins," she says. "As a beginner, I was not skilled or quick enough for mitt or pad work with a partner. Plus, I couldn't show up to work with a black eye!" A self-proclaimed "boutique fitness enthusiast," she, along with Scott, had a lightbulb moment when she took him to SoulCycle in 2014. "It finally clicked for us: 'Hey, we can DO this. We can teach other fitness enthusiasts a skill and provide a challenging workout in a fun, welcoming atmosphere.'" Scott created the heavy bag they use in the class, Bishop, that allows participants to strike it without hurting themselves; the floors are padded, allowing for a shoeless workout. "In our studio, no one needs to hold pads for half of the class or get paired up against someone twice your size," she says.
Olivia Young founded Box + Flow, New York fitness studio offering boxing-yoga hybrid classes, after boxing for 11 years and practicing yoga for 16 and not finding a space where she could do both. "Boxing has always given me strength and confidence, while yoga forced me to slow down and feel," she says. "The combination of boxing and yoga gave me a balanced empowerment, a feeling I wanted to then share with the world, [that] idea of embracing both sides of ourselves, grit and softness, fire and water, fight and flow."
All three say that the majority of their customers are women. "Women want to feel strong and independent now even more so than before. As the world moves increasingly towards gender equality, women who have always been seen as solely domestic are now breaking out of that shell," Ding says. Not to mention how combat workouts allow women to learn defense skills, not an unimportant part of today's political climate that has left many women afraid. "Instructors focus on striking form for so many reasons; one of which is learning and understanding how and when the strikes should be used and being able to apply it to real-life situations—for example, what happens if someone's invading your space and you need to get away," VanPamelen says. "Knowing strikes that can be used as self-defense should make women—and men, and everyone—feel confident and strong."
Vulnerable, too. I've frequently found myself thinking at Hit House that, yes, the moves that I was just taught could come in handy should I find myself in a threatening situation, prompting an emotional response I didn't expect. This is not uncommon. In addition to being an amazing physical workout, boxing is a very mental sport—one where you're encouraged to channel emotions, like anger and frustrations, when hitting the bag. It also forces you to focus only on the task at hand.
"Boxing is one of the only workouts where you can learn a skill that challenges both your mind and body to push past your comfort zone and really to grow. You have to focus on the shots that are being called. It requires a lot of mental focus and attention. It also requires coordination of the hand, eye, and feet," Ding says, pointing out that it makes the brain take a break from thinking about things that may be on the mind. "You are not able to throw a punch or a shot called when you're not listening to what it is." VanPamelen says that 50 percent of Muay Thai is mental. "You are learning a new skill while remembering combinations," she says, noting that it's also a great stress-reliever. "Striking is such an awesome way to relieve stress, release aggression, and let go of all of those small day-to-day annoyances."
Young says that boxing also resets your mind, allowing mental blockage to flow so you can become strong from the inside out, as opposed to the other way round. "[Box + Flow] started with the intention of bringing mindfulness to the fight. The front door of the space says 'everything you need is inside' in hopes that we will stop fighting, resisting ourselves, so that things begin to flow in our lives," she says. "If we can rid ourselves of the mental mess we manipulate internally, we can lead more powerful lives." Not to mention, more powerful bodies.
Her way of thinking also explains why so many of the combat studios comprise a dark space with no mirrors: It allows your focus to remain on you, as opposed to competing with others. "It promotes strength physically, mentally, and spiritually in an environment with no mirrors, no judgment, and no comparison," Young says, "It is NOT about how you look, it's about how you feel. Women, and men, feel safe here, free to fight, flow, and feel."
Despite the fact that fighting is an historically male-dominated and violent sport, the studios I have frequented have all surprisingly felt like safe spaces. Before Scott adjusted my Muay Thai stance in my first class, he asked for consent before touching my shoulders. And, while at the time, to me personally, it seemed like an unnecessary precaution, I saw how menacing it could be to someone when, in a cardio class at a different studio, a male instructor came behind a female student and made her jump by adjusting her back without asking. (It should be noted that he felt terrible about it and apologized profusely to her after class for startling her.) And while there's a lot we can learn from combat sports, like consent and being able to let go of mental blockage, VanPamelen says that she's just happy that "more and more people are interested in and appreciative" of the practices. "It's a simple as, punching and kicking stuff is REALLY fun, and people are catching on to this!"
And while it is incredibly fun, there is also something powerful about walking out of class after putting all your strength and energy into just hitting something for an hour. And that's the point. "I hope women walk out of the space feeling empowered, inspired to take on life's challenges, and be strong after a tough workout that even a lot of men find challenging," Ding says. "I hope they feel inspired walking out of there knowing that anything is possible and inspired to lead the world and follow their creative dreams as females. Anything is possible."
The future (of boxing) is female.
Read on to hear what some of the other instructors behind fight-inspired workouts love about teaching and what they hope their female clients take away from their classes.
Raquel Harris, instructor at Hit House
I met a lot of women who believed that they were not strong or fierce enough to learn Muay Thai. Teaching gives me the opportunity to prove that they are. As a petite woman with a soft voice, I hope that I can be an inspiration and proof that you can be tiny but mighty.