martial arts

How one woman’s bad karate suddenly became my heart’s desire (Guest post)

Have you ever walked into an unfamiliar situation, and completely misunderstood and misinterpreted what you saw in front of your eyes?

Only to be shocked as the truth suddenly dawns on you, and your mind flips over into a completely new reality . . .

It’s ok to get things wrong in this way. If you’re someone who’s forever pushing new boundaries and exploring new worlds, then sometimes those new worlds will just be a bit too far removed from your current experience to make immediate sense.

So if and when it next happens to you, just go with the flow. These are the moments that can transform our lives . . .

For example, one day my sensei takes a group of us to visit his friend’s Karate dojo and watch a black belt grading.

At this point, I’ve trained in Aikido / Aikijujutsu for many years, and that’s the extent of my martial arts world.

Recently however, something isn’t quite right; and I’m feeling restless and craving something more from my training. But what this “more” might actually look like, I couldn’t say. So when Sensei suggests going along to experience the Karate grading, I jump at the opportunity.

We arrive at the dojo early, and before the grading, there’s some informal practising going on. This is a special grading for three existing black belts going for higher black belt ranks; but a lot of other students have also turned up, to train a bit and support their seniors.

Everything they’re doing is fascinating, but I’m most interested in watching the three black belts preparing for their gradings.

The first is a middle-aged guy, who moves in a graceful, controlled, powerful way – like a big, beautiful tiger.

The second is a younger man who moves faster, like an edgy, hot-blooded boxer – which is also beautiful and powerful in a different way.

The third student is a woman – but she doesn’t look good at all.

Middle-aged, with hunched shoulders, stiff joints and a complete lack of grace. When she kicks, her flexibility is so poor that she has to contort her whole body, and even her face, to make it happen.

What a shame that the only woman in the group is the weakest link here. I more or less disregard her and continue to watch the guys out of the corner of my eye.

The grading comes around and I settle down to watch. As I expected, the two men are a dream to watch. I literally know nothing about karate; so seeing kihon and kata for the first time ever, performed at such a high level, is mesmerising.

Karate is often said to comprise three “K”s – Kata, Kihon and Kumite. Kihon are basic movements – punches, kicks and blocks. Kata are choreographed sequences. And Kumite is sparring.

The two men are fierce, powerful and animal-like in their natural movements. I watch them with a lot of respect and interest. Meanwhile however, the woman’s kihon and kata look pretty mediocre and ugly to me.

But then the kumite begins . . .

As part of this, the three students are each asked to do a “Line Up”. A load of senior students pile onto the mat, and attack each student in order. The student’s task is to defend against each attack, while pushing through and reaching the other side of the mat.

Again, the men are awesome. They cut their way through the line with clean power and technique, applying an impressive range of blocks, locks and throws as they go.

Finally it’s the woman’s turn. She doesn’t seem to know as many techniques as the guys; or perhaps they’ve deserted her in the stress of the grading. So she sticks to the same few aggressive blocks and counter strikes, with the odd straightforward throw, and also makes it over to the other side of the room.

What on earth have I just witnessed? That was incredible!

What I’ve just seen, is a small, middle-aged woman, gritting her teeth and aggressively fighting her way through a long line of big, burly male students, many of them quite a bit younger than herself, and none of whom are pulling their punches.

I see her launching herself straight into the attacks, and holding them off, and countering; and sometimes getting hurt, but ploughing on like a compact little bulldozer. I see her take a nasty punch and stagger back, so that the sensei halts the line-up for a moment – but seconds later she’s ready to restart.

I see her face set in the most aggressive expression imaginable.

I think: I couldn’t do that – it looks so dangerous and scary.

I think: She looks terrifying; how does she do that?

I think: I need to learn what she knows, and be like her.

After the grading, I make a beeline for the woman, and interrogate her. She’s lovely, and very happy to tell me her story. She’s in her fifties, and never stepped inside a dojo until her forties. She arrived at the dojo with little confidence, and a soft, gentle personality. She’s still absolutely that soft, gentle person; but now she also knows how to switch on a scary demeanour and summon up her fighting intent at will.

She trains three times a week, and often ends up in tears of frustration; sometimes at the technical challenges, and sometimes at her own lack of flexibility and athleticism. But she never quits. She sometimes feels a little lonely as the only adult woman in the club; but the guys take care of her and push her like mad, and they’re like family to her by now.

She is awesome. I got it completely wrong. I start learning Karate that same week to complement the Aikido.

In one sense I wasn’t altogether wrong. On a technical level, she couldn’t hold a candle to the two men – my Aikido background is enough to make that obvious even though I don’t know Karate.

But I didn’t walk into that dojo needing to see perfect technique and form. I can watch all that on YouTube any time.

I walked in there feeling restless, and urgently craving something more from the martial arts. And this brave, fierce, determined woman perfectly modelled that something more I was seeking.

All three of the students had the same tenacity and fighting spirit; and that’s what makes them black belts.

It’s not all about how high and beautifully they can kick; or how smooth their turns are in the kata, which is how I initially viewed it

It’s scary and very humbling how we can sometimes be certain that we know what we’re seeing, only to realise that all is not as it seems after all. But these kind of earth-shattering moments are what make us grow.

As Isaac Asimov said, Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.

Picture credit: Ja Karate by Jaap Arriens. Licensed under CCby2.0

Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger, with a special focus on women’s experience of and participation in the martial arts. You can read her blog at She also writes stories and other articles for the Good Men Project: 

10 thoughts on “How one woman’s bad karate suddenly became my heart’s desire (Guest post)

    1. thank you! – I’m guessing your comment is very much grounded in your own experience 😉

  1. I love this story. It was suspenseful, surprising and true. It fires me up about the physical activities I feel less confident about (in my case, hiking in mountains), and reminds me of multiple ways we can be beautiful in movement. Thank you!

    1. You’re absolutely right Catherine, this is a story about different ways of being beautiful. I didn’t get that until you said it!

  2. Wow, that’s an incredible inspiration! Speaking as a slightly lumpy middle-aged matron, I can appreciate the grit that lady showed at her grading. Thanks for sharing her story. Anytime I am down on myself for lack of endurance or strength I remind myself of the physical condition of most ladies my age. I also remind myself I need to find how karate works for me, not the other way around.

  3. thanks Joelle. I think your approach is so important – “find out how karate works for me” . . . our form is of course very important, but as GIchin Funakoshi (the founder of Shotokan Karate) was famous for saying: “Spirit first, technique second”!

      1. No worries, Kai – that’s exactly what I was thinking 🙂 I didn’t know about Funakoshi Sensei’s quote – that’s awesome!

  4. As a martial artist you have the challenge to defend yourself. You have to realize that freedom is possible even in front of any attacker. Martial arts illuminates your personality in every aspect and drive your life in a positive and bright direction.

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