Muay Thai and living in Thailand: Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu

When I first began The Comfort Zone Project, I had it in my head that not only was I going to join a gym and get fit, I was going to learn the art of Muay Thai. One reason being that muay thai is one hell of a workout, and the other being that the sport is so popular in Thailand, it would be great to learn more not only about it in terms of the physical aspect, but also the cultural.


I have yet to get involved in the learning of the sport, but I did manage to connect with Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu. The Muay Thai fighter has been living in Chiang Mai with her husband for two years. I wanted her take on the sport, what it’s like to live in Thailand and what takes her out of her comfort zone.

Sylvie practicing Muay Thai

Diana: Why did you become an expat in Chiang Mai?

Sylvie: I don’t consider myself an “expat.” We came to Thailand in order to focus on Muay Thai because this is the best place in the world for learning and practicing the sport/art. We chose Chiang Mai because we’d been here at this camp before and my opportunities for frequent fights and a variety of opponents near my size is greater than in other areas of Thailand.

D: It is very easy to fall into the trap of not doing much/drinking/etc. What is life like for you as an expat in Chiang Mai?

S: Muay Thai camps see a lot of tourists in and out, with varying degrees of commitment both in time and effort. Some folks stay only for one session, some for a few days and up to a month or more. But, more than a couple weeks is pretty rare. None of the folks here on the short-term are “expats” but they are mostly young travelers who seem to experience their tours in foreign countries through the lens of partying. I think for a lot of tourists, Thailand is a fantasy space and it’s both viewed and treated as an adult playground — an extended “Spring Break” trip. That’s unfortunate, I think, although for many of those people that experience is satisfying. For me, because I have a focus, spending all my time training, studying Thai language and writing my blog, 8 Limbs, is very gratifying.  I simply don’t have an interest in hanging out all night with westerners who are on a transient path through Thailand, one stop of many.  For me, it’s easy to avoid because it holds no appeal for me. And one simply cannot commit to both late nights of booze AND 6:30 a.m. start to six-hour days of training. I consciously, and happily, choose the latter every day.


Sylvie writing for her blog, 8 Limbs
D: How did you get involved in muay thai? Did this happen in Chiang Mai or before you relocated?

S: I started Muay Thai in the US in 2008. I was living in New York and commuting an hour in each direction to train with an absolutely incredible man named Master K, who is a 75-year-old Thai man still practicing Muay Thai and teaching it out of the basement of his home in New Jersey. He instilled in me the love for Muay Thai that is a “way of life” rather than simply an exercise or sport. My husband and I relocated to Chiang Mai in order to pursue Muay Thai full-time (for me; my husband doesn’t train) and get as much fight experience as possible; something that is very limited in the US at this point in time.

D: What makes muay thai such a great work out?

S: Muay Thai is also called “The Art of 8 Limbs” because it uses strikes from the fists, elbows, knees and legs. Using every part of your body in the practice means both that you are going to be exercising your full body, but also it is rare (especially for women) to appreciate all of your body at once, rather than picking one limb or feature to highlight or hide. There’s no hiding in Muay Thai! However, an important point to realize is that Muay Thai is a job for fighters, nakmuay, in Thailand — it’s a job for me — so simply calling it a workout does not come close to what is invested by those of us who practice Muay Thai as a way of life.
Sylvie von Dugglas-Ittu

D: How easy is it to get involved in the Muay Thai scene in Chiang Mai?

S: Very easy. There are numerous gyms in Chiang Mai and surrounding areas. Most of the camps are within a proximity to one another so that you could easily visit more than one from a central location and decide for yourself which suits you best. My camp, Lanna Muay Thai/Kiat Busaba, is located near Chiang Mai University and near the foot of the Doi Suthep mountain, so it’s a really lovely area and easy to access by bike or public transport, as well as being near lots of accommodation options. All gyms offer day rates (single session or single day, depending on the camp), as well as weekly and monthly, so it’s very easy for anyone to just “drop in” and try a session or get a discount for longer stretches of training.

D: Can you describe the muay thai scene in Chiang Mai?

S: There are about four stadiums in Chiang Mai, almost all of which are within walking distance of each other, and located around the Night Bazaar. There are fight programs scheduled for every night of the week and big shows on weekends. Fighters come from all over, from big camps with familiar names (once you’ve attended two shows you’ll start to recognize the names already) to tiny gyms in family yards where the pedagogy is passed down from parent or uncle to children — very traditional. There’s a lot of gambling at some of the venues and that lends to the excitement of the atmosphere. Usually, westerners fill up the seats directly around the ring and the gamblers stand in the back. There are usually one or more  “foreigner vs. Thai” bouts on a card, which are a big draw for tourist audiences. Sometimes, the matchup looks a little funny, simply because westerners can be pretty big and there aren’t Thais of that same size, so you’ll see a big western guy against a much smaller Thai — but usually the Thai makes up for the size disparity in experience and these fights can be really exciting. The cards usually start with the smaller and less experienced fighters, like young boys with a handful of fights, and progress toward the “Main Event” of bigger, more experienced fighters or the westerners on the card.
Sylvie sparring in muay thai

D: Has muay thai changed your body image? How was your body image before you started the sport?

S: I’ve always been athletic but I’ve never committed to a practice like I have to Muay Thai. My body is very “functional” for me, so how it looks is much less on my mind than how it performs. I’m quite muscular, which gets a lot of attention in Thailand, but I’m recognized as a fighter almost instantly here — like an assumption to explain the aesthetic — whereas in the US I was often asked “do you work out a lot?” So, there’s a level of pride to that recognition that I think makes up for the unwanted attention I get for looking the way I do. Muscles on women is not so hot in contemporary Thai aesthetic, so I think I’m more self-conscious of it than I would be back home.  The women I fight don’t look like me – but because a strong body is appreciated in Muay Thai for its function, that lends to confidence nonetheless.

D: What challenges do you face to maintain your health and fitness in Chiang Mai? And how to you solve these challenges?

S: I don’t face challenges.  I’ve heard western men at the camp complain about the expense of protein powder and supplements in Thailand, but I don’t partake in either so it’s not a bother to me.  I find no difficulty in locating nutritious and delicious food and health care is significantly more affordable here than in the US, so if I need to see a doctor I can actually afford to go see one, which I couldn’t do in the US.  So it’s actually easier for me here.

D: What advice would you give to someone who wants to get out of their comfort zone?
S: One of the beautiful things about training Muay Thai is how hard it is. It never gets easier, the level of “hard” just moves right along with you so you are constantly facing new challenges.  Spending six to seven hours a day being uncomfortable is not something that sounds appealing from the outside, but it’s absolutely good practice for being able to push yourself in every area of life.  It’s that saying, “if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.” It doesn’t have to be a huge degree of discomfort, but just pushing a little bit past the comfort is where growth happens, where learning takes place.  And you never know what you’re capable of until you try.

Follow along with Sylvie’s Muay Thai experience on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, or go check out her gym when in Chiang Mai. 

Photos courtesy Sylvie von Dugglas-Ittu


My Kind of Life: model Emily Nolan

Emily Nolan is beautiful. Both on the inside and outside. A model, a vegan, an inspirational role model for those looking to lose weight or get healthy, this writer/model/awesome woman has been helping to change the way women perceive themselves.

I first came across her work on Mind Body Green, and now love following her Web site — My Kind of Life — for reminders that I am fine just the way I am.

Recently, I was able to interview her on everything from her days of being underweight and unhealthy to her life as a model, her lifestyle and more. Enjoy!

Emily Noland

Diana: Can you talk about your struggles with weight over the years? Specifically, can you address when you decided to embrace your body as it is versus being unhealthy to be a small size?

Emily: I struggled for 10 years with painful eating disorders, starving my body from the nutrition it craved to blossom into a woman’s body. I worked very much during that 10th year to be as skinny as possible, so that I could be a model with one of the largest modeling agencies.

I was working out for six hours a day, and one day, I walked into the cardio room, hit a wall (figuratively speaking) and said, that I’d rather be dead than torturing myself for the very little appreciation and recognition that I was getting. That day, I left the gym, and promised myself that I was going to model (or continue my journey) at my own size–wherever that equilibrium falls for me. I chose to connect with my food instead of eating what magazines and fad diets were telling me to eat, and I ended up choosing a plant-based diet (my Mom also did this with me).

I continued to work out, but this time around, I was focused on happiness. I was constantly asking myself, “Does this exercise make me happy?” When you live in the land of excessive habits and disorder and you’re trying to heal on your own (for the most part), the best way to do it is to constantly ask yourself helpful questions that remind you of where you are and how you feel. So, I was asking myself questions and I was answering them honestly. Questions like, “Should you go back to torturing your body to live someone else’s dream, or is it worth giving up their dream to build your own miraculous life?” After realizing that I’d rather be dead than going through the torture I had put myself through, the answers were very clear and I was able to chart my new course for a healthier lifestyle.

D: What is the worst thing someone has said to you about your weight? How did it make you feel? How did you overcome it?

E: There are so many things that people can say about someone’s weight, height, color, etc. In the past, I let it dictate who I was. “I am fat, I am tall, I am athletic.” Now, I just live life as the best version of me, and much to my surprise, people have stopped negatively commenting and started complimenting who I am. Maybe it’s because I surround myself with a network of safe friends that are nonjudgmental, highly supportive and intelligent.

D: In society, it seems like a person’s weight is directly attributed to the respect, love and success they deserve. Do you agree with this statement? How do you suggest people can change the way society links weight to these things?

E: The internet is much to thanks for the rise in “respect for ‘perfect’ body pictures,” which can be attributed to certain men and women being idolized to a god-like level. If we realize that everyone is human, even high-paid supermodels, and that we all struggle with our own issues, we can start to understand that we are all the same–billboard or not. The important takeaway is to know that we all struggle, and we all have things that we’re great at, too. The size of your thighs or waist does not define your beauty or importance–but your brain and heart, do. And if you are setting out to make a difference in the world which I highly recommend, the latter two are the only things that matter.

Model Emily Nolan

D: You’re gorgeous. When did you realize you were perfect just the way you are?

E: Thank you very much. I always thought that beauty came from the way I appeared on the outside, and what I came to realize is that beauty is like a flower. The flower grows from the dirt, through the spine or stem and into a tight protective bud. Only when the bud feels like it is pretty enough, does it open up to show the world just how pretty it is–and that all came from a seed in the ground. I realized my true beauty when I started to make decisions that were deeply authentic and true to my seed; beauty has to do with living a compassion-filled life.

Have you ever looked at a fat manatee and said, “Ew, how gross and fat?” I didn’t think so. Most likely we say, “Oh, look how cute and big that manatee is! How amazing! How majestic and incredible.” By reframing the way that we see beauty, as well as sharing the same spirit with friends and family, we can move past the pressure that’s placed on outer beauty and begin to focus on that beautiful seed that is planted within us all.

D: What is your comfort zone? How did you step out of it to get to where you are today?

E: I am part German, which means my tolerance for torture and rule-following is quite high. That being said, my comfort zone is anywhere that I feel safe. It is important to note that in the beginning of My Kind of Life and my modeling career, public speaking and being in front of a camera were not always the most comfortable feeling for me; however, I always felt safe–to fail, to succeed, to be myself–so I allowed myself to work through the discomfort of a new task or job, in a safe environment.

Build self-confidence by being hyper sensitive to your authenticity, and seeking out safe environments to practice your truth is a great place to grow your comfort zone. And I highly encourage pushing your limits if your goal is to share a message that is great and life-giving.

D: What advice would you give to other women in the world who struggle with their weight?

E: If you’re like me and have struggled with your weight, the best advice that I can give you to feel more confident in your size is to eat healthy, exercise and buy clothes that fit. If you like what you see in the mirror, who cares about what the magazines are promoting, or what fad diet your friend or partner is on. We were made to be beautiful in our size, color and personality–let’s be unique and embrace the paradox of life, we’re all so different, and yet we’re all very much the same.

D: Can you talk briefly about your modeling career, why you don’t like the term “plus-size” and how your modeling career has empowered you and can empower others to love who they are?

E: My modeling career has been an incredible journey; it’s given me a platform to get up and speak to other people and share that the size of our body is insignificant. Plus size, straight size (skinny), men, kids–we all take beautiful pictures. So what makes us unique? Our brains and our hearts.

I stopped calling myself a “plus size” model because I don’t believe that women who are looking at me in their catalog should feel that they are different from thinner women. We are all beautiful and we all deserve to look stylish and feel confident, no matter the number on the tag of our clothes.

Some women disagree and think that I should embrace the label “plus-size,” but I just think, if I was a man, I would not say, “I’m a male model.” It is so obvious that I’m not skinny, so there’s no confusion as to what size of clothes I wear. I can understand both sides of the discussion–I just choose to be inclusive, since I don’t endorse any form of labeling. If I do label someone I’ll say, “She is very inspirational. She is highly intelligent.” Those are positive labels that grow from the seed within us.

My Kind of Life Emily Nolan

D: What are the most important lessons you have learned about loving yourself? What would you tell others to do to honor themselves above others?

E: Notice the patterns of your personality. From day one, I was an animal lover, an athlete, a family person, and highly self-aware (I’m a taurus–again, I can’t be blamed). To stray from that path–maybe if society encourages another lifestyle–is to deny yourself the ultimate truth, and the opportunity to live your life with a bright mind and a brilliant, open heart.

Be true to who you are, and you’ll find nothing but love and fulfillment in your future. That is how I define success.

D: When you realized you could be happy as you are, how did life change for you?

E: As soon as I started to reconnect with my authentic interests, my career(s) started to take off. I built a very unique vessel to navigate life–because no one else has the same story that I do. I dedicate a lot of the hours in my day to fulfilling my interests and helping others find theirs. When I started to help others with no strings attached, my career again, started to build on another, higher level.

I stopped seeing money as a means to life, and started to see how giving life to people is a highly rewarding way to live. Put your heart out there and let it work miracles; money comes and goes, love and good work is consistent.

D: What is your fitness routine these days?

E: I try to sweat everyday. I love the way I feel after I workout. Sometimes I don’t make it to the gym–like twice a week–because I’m on a plane to another country. Sometimes, I just feel like taking my dog on a nice long walk along the water to look at the colorful fish swimming by and to take time to reconnect.

I’m a fan of group exercise because I work a lot harder than if I were to do a workout on my own. I like to use weights, I love spinning, kick boxing, yoga–I’ll do it all. If you’re afraid to jump in to group exercise or any exercise at all, know that even Lance Armstrong had a first day–no need to feel afraid or intimidated. I take a kickboxing class with a 90 year old woman, who shows up every week and spends the whole class going at her own pace. No one at the gym is there to judge her, we actually want to see her succeed! That woman is an inspiration to me. I hope when I’m 90, that A) I’m alive, and B) That I have a gym membership or fulfilling exercise routine.

D: Can you give us an example of your daily meal consumption?

E: This is a popular question that piques a lot of interest. If I were to tell you exactly what I eat, it may encourage others to aspire to the same habits. So when I tell you, know that this is what works for me, and you could require more or less–and your decisions to eat what you do, are great enough. Also, my entire diet is vegan, which is all plant-based, whole foods.

Note: I drink Yerba Matte all day long and drink way too much sparkling water for my own good.

Soy latte
Organic granola with coconut milk greek yogurt with fresh organic fruit on top

Lettuce wraps with tempeh and grilled vegetables.
Side of wild rice with veggies mixed in.
Bowl of raw crudités with a baba ganoush

Candied nuts
Mandarin orange

Barbecue tofu over mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus and root vegetables

Plant-based whole food dessert. A healthy cookie or a few bites of a cherry cobbler with nuts and seeds as a base

D: When do you feel most beautiful?

E: I feel most beautiful when people come up to me and thank me for the work that I’m doing to make a difference in the world. Whether it was a speech I gave, a picture I published, an article I wrote–those are the things that matter, and the things that I value the most. To know that my labor of love has touched someone, that is when I feel the most beautiful.

Do you want more Emily? Be sure to check out her Facebook and Twitter to help motivate you to improve your lifestyle.

Photo credit: Mary Beth Koeth