Seven years ago, if you’d told Mike Seamans that today he’d be opening a Muay Thai gym, he probably would have laughed at you.
In those days, he was still running Mind Cure records (now Cruel Noise,) in Polish Hill. And you were more likely to find him at the bar than working out. “I was really burning the candle at both ends,” he recalls. “I had no outlet for anything.”
Things have changed since then. And on March 31, he and his wife and trainer Marissa Barr-Hartman, along with partner and head trainer David Reese, celebrate the official opening of Sitkiatnin Muay Thai.
The gym — located on Murray Ave. in what was once the Heads Together video rental store, where Seamans went as a kid — has actually been up and running since February. Offering traditional Muay Thai classes for kids, teens and adults, they do have a competition team (Seamans says they shy away from calling it a “fight team,”) but Sitkiatnin (or SKN, for short) aims to offer something for everyone.
“If you really just want a great workout, but also [want to] really learn a martial art, and learn something that’s valuable for everything from fitness to self-defense, there’s a program for you.”
If you’ve never tried Muay Thai (which literally translates to Thai boxing,) you probably know someone who has: your cousin, your barista, the guitarist of that punk band you saw the other night. It’s similar to kickboxing, but involves more close physical contact, almost like upright wrestling.
In Thailand, it’s a stadium sport, but interest in the U.S. has exploded over the last several years thanks, in part, to the popularity of MMA. But, while the integration of Muay Thai into MMA may have introduced many Westerners to the basic concept, Seamans says that the appeal of Thai boxing runs deeper.
“It has a really interesting history and [culture] and I think it’s something that people feel a broader global connection to.”
For Barr-Hartman and Seamans — who now travel to Thailand twice a year to train and to experience the sport in its original context — that broader connection is something that they want to capture with Sitkiatnin.
“We wanted to create a space that was really focused on authentic Muay Thai and Thai culture,” Barr-Hartman says. “To be able to go and see the sport as it’s actually played and the culture surrounding it was really amazing, so we wanted to try to bring some of that back to Pittsburgh.”
But they’re also motivated by a desire to create a welcoming and comfortable space for anyone — especially those who might shy away from typically “macho” spaces. Barr-Hartman says that Muay Thai has changed the way that she moves in the world.
“In my personal relationships … I [feel] more comfortable taking up space and asserting myself,” she says. “So I wanted to create a space where people could come and try the sport and see that it’s really fun, and tap into an aggressive part of themselves that they might not interact with every day.”
In that spirit, Sitkiatnin offers women-only classes, taught by Barr-Hartman, and will soon be adding classes for members of the LGBTQAI community as well.
“I think about all the other women in my life who are tough and like to use their [bodies], and [how] they would really like this if they would just feel comfortable enough to try it,” she says. “And I think it’s turned out to be true, because we’ve been having these women’s classes that I teach and the turnout for them has been really amazing.”
Seamans agrees. “I mean, I’m a well-over-six-foot-tall white guy who’s under 60. Like, [I’m] the person that the world is catered to, and I get intimidated walking into gyms. So knowing that, and wanting to make a space where, if you don’t even check one [demographic] box that I can, let alone multiples, you would feel comfortable walking in the door, and someone’s going to make sure you’re not just standing in the corner feeling uncomfortable, and is going to make sure you feel welcome, that’s paramount to us.
“We want to build a community of people who feel welcome and safe and part of something,” he adds. “That’s something I want everyone to have.”