Aikido · martial arts · training

A 21st century woman’s take on the sensei / student relationship in martial arts (Guest post)

Aikido by Kesara Rathnayake. Licensed under CC-by-sa 2.0
Aikido by Kesara Rathnayake. Licensed under CC-by-sa 2.0

What does a typical student / sensei relationship look like in a 21st century dojo?

Lori O’Connell suggests three forms it can take:

  1. Exalted Guru (very formal – student submits completely to their teacher)
  2. Affable Mentor (less formal – students are more actively encouraged to ask questions)
  3. Professional Trainer (the most informal – the focus is mainly on physical skills and fitness).

But for me, these are all kind of similar in the end. They’re all based on a one-way flow of learning – from the expert sensei to the receptive student.

And I struggle with this. Now I’m in my forties, I don’t want just a simple one-way power dynamic with my sensei.

In aikido we practise two roles equally, and in harmony with our partner – both leading (tori or nage) and following (uke). It’s pure yin / yang in action.

So rightly or wrongly, I want to relate to my sensei (and to other important people in my life) both ways – and practise both following and leading with him.

On the mat, a more traditional relationship is appropriate. Sensei’s martial arts knowledge is outstanding; I respect that, and soak up all the learning I can from him.

But off the mat, I crave ways in which I can balance this dynamic back out – by leading, and having him learn from me. You could think of it like a satisfying counter-stretch for the spirit.

I’m aware that my views on the sensei-student relationship might sound disrespectful to some, or even downright weird.

But I believe I’m learning aikido to develop and equalise my so-called yin / yang energies – not just to practise constant following and submitting to someone else’s lead.

At first I didn’t know how to get what I wanted. I just knew that the one-way role of student was too narrow and restrictive, and longed to shake it up a bit – but had no idea how to achieve this.

Then late last year, I set out to create a martial arts blog, with a focus on women’s participation and experience. It was a scary prospect, and I literally didn’t know where to start. Sensei in all his kindness wanted to help; and started to share everything he knew about training women in the martial arts. And I slipped into the familiar role of student; and was grateful for his help, as I am during class.

But as I started to research and reflect – and grow in confidence on the topic – I started to go places which were completely new for both of us . . .

And before I knew it, I’d become his teacher in this area.

To give him full credit, he’s absolutely thrown himself into absorbing and reflecting on all the new information and ideas. And over the last few months, he’s genuinely started to change as an instructor.

He’s been into the women’s toilets, and understood with a shock how nasty they were for us to change in. (The building only has one side room; and it does make sense for the men to use it to change, being in the vast majority). And thanks to him now, the ladies’ toilet is suddenly clean, mould and cobweb-free, freshly painted and has neat shelving on the wall – so that we no longer have to use the toilet lid (or floor) to place our clothes on.

He’s stopped teasing the boys and men for “kicking like a girl”.

Really importantly, he now gets the fact that many boys grow up learning to use their bodies in a way that many girls don’t, and so we often need far more granularity and repetition in the teaching. I’ve watched him totally get and engage with this; and literally master the art of breaking punching and kicking down into tiny components.

He is becoming startlingly successful at teaching timid, uncoordinated women and girls to punch right through a target with their whole body.

Because he now fully gets in a new way that women’s starting point in the martial arts is often (although not always) that we’ve never punched or kicked anyone in our life. As opposed to many of our dojo brothers who’ve often (although again not always) grown up playfighting and rough-housing.

A real turning point for me, was a lovely conversation we had, where he was very excited about a new teenage female student who’d arrived at the dojo clearly lacking confidence. He was teaching her to punch, and her punches were starting to get really strong; and she was literally bubbling over with excitement by the end of the lesson.

He said to me after the lesson: before I would just have thought she was happy because she was having fun. Now I see something else going on; and I can see that she’s happy and excited, because she feels empowered in a really new and astounding way.

I appreciate this unconventional sensei / student relationship so much.

He is basically helping me to practise the role of tori (the one who leads) – off the mat as well as on. I am getting to experiment and train on him; and grow into the role of thought leader – albeit on a very small, safe and comfortable scale.

It’s a strange and magical dynamic. If you watch aikido in action, you might just think that tori is the one doing everything – and uke is just being thrown around passively.

But in fact the opposite can be true. At its highest level, ukemi is an extremely skilled art. A good uke can actually be the one who leads tori, using the technique often called backleading in dancing. Indeed, in classical Japanese budo, the uchitachi (uke) is the more senior practitioner who helps the shitachi (tori) to understand the techniques.

So to be honest, I sometimes wonder where the roles of student and teacher start and end between us.

He teaches me aiki.

I teach him how to teach women; and so he teaches me better than he did before.

He teaches me how to teach him about teaching women, by being such a strong, receptive student (backleading).

The yin / yang energy flows in an endless, dynamic circle . . .

This may not be a model of instruction my sensei ever envisaged; and I probably never clearly foresaw it either. But for a woman wanting to learn martial arts from a man in the 21st Century, without perpetuating some kind of old-fashioned “Exalted Guru” relationship, I think it’s awesome – and would highly recommend it!

Picture credit: Aikido by Kesara Rathnayake. Licensed under CC-by-sa 2.0


Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger. You can read more of her stories and articles at . . .



20 thoughts on “A 21st century woman’s take on the sensei / student relationship in martial arts (Guest post)

  1. You’re lucky to have that dynamic. I don’t think this is necessarily typical. And it feels very much a happy complement of personalities and complementary attitudes. It’s like saying any manager/teacher is excellent….we know that’s more of an exception.

  2. Agree with you Jean . . . just so you know, I have three martial arts teachers, and with the other two, it’s much more of a straightforward teacher / student relationship where they know things I want to learn and that’s about it – both great people but I don’t believe I would be able to get this dynamic going with either of them . . .

  3. Kai, thank you for your article, I found it very interesting. I agree with your dinamic idea, and fortunately this year I´ve found a new Sensei that is more open minded. I personally think that women are kind of more emotionally intelligent than men, and you are telling me I am right with this article!!

    1. Thanks Sebastián, glad you like it! Also pleased you have found a more open-minded Sensei. I truly hope that he or she will support you on your personal journey, in a way you have perhaps been seeking but not yet experienced. . . ?

  4. Hello Kai, I really enjoyed your writing from the point of view of a women training in Aikido and, like your Sensei, I have been learning from you and it has made me realise how I can help to teach women aikidoka even better.
    I am an NLP Coach and what you were saying about teaching and learning from each other reminded me of NLP modelling. NLP is the study of excellence and those who are being modelled could not tell you everything they are doing, only what they know consciously and usually the difference that makes the difference is being done unconsciously and so they cannot teach it. So perhaps he is learning from you what you have discovered and that is unconscious to him. He just does it. And vice versa, you are learning from him what he has discovered about you that up until then was unconscious to you. I hope this makes sense to you.

    1. Thanks Paddy, that sounds so interesting, and also sounds like a concept I really need to grasp at this moment in time? I have to confess I don’t fully “get” what you are explaining, although would very much like to. It’s all clear, until the words “So perhaps he is learning from you . . . ” onwards

      Are you able to say a bit more – e.g. give a concrete example – or point me towards any resource that would explain this in more detail . . . ?

  5. What a lovely story. Being Sensei in our dojo is a great honour, and the thing I love the most is what I learn from my students. I instruct – then I listen. Sharing is the most rewarding part of training for me.

  6. Thanks Tracey; you sound like a Sensei who exemplifies the beautiful concept of “Servant Leadership”:

    “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions . . . ”

    (I took this quote from:

    take care . . .

Comments are closed.