equality · martial arts · training

The Limits of Self-Defense Training

I have been in several conversations about the nature of self-defense training in the past few months and as a result I have been puzzling about how to address women’s real needs when it comes to self-defense.

(Please note: I have not included any self-defense photos in this post so I could avoid potential triggers for people. There is a video from 1933 posted at the end but the still image is staged so it seems unlikely to be a trigger. Proceed with caution.)

With my second degree black belt in Taekwondo I feel pretty confident about my ability to defend myself in a fight. I have a fair amount of self-defense training and I’m a pretty skilled kicker and puncher. If someone outright attacked me, I could likely deal with it.

The problem is, of course, that for most women, the ‘stranger in a dark alley’ is the dangerous scenario they are least likely to encounter. We’re much more likely to have to deal with someone we know or sort-of-know in a situation that goes from normal to needing-a-defense-strategy all of a sudden.

If my life was in actual danger, I know I could act.  If the situation was unclear? I’m not sure that my instincts would be sharp enough. I fear that my social conditioning to ‘be nice’ would override my instincts, especially if it was someone I know. And I would be reluctant to cause them any real harm until I was sure they meant to hurt me, and then it might be too late to use what I know.

The author, a white woman in your mid-forties with dark blonde hair, is wearing a martial arts uniform and holding a sign that says 'the push for equality takes many hands #WhyIMarch' She is wearing glasses. The background is grey cloth.
I included this because I am in my dobok and because I think the push for equality – in this case, equality in personal safety – will take a lot of us working together. Yes, I often smirk in selfies.

I know that the big picture solution involves the social change all of us fit feminists are working toward but what’s the solution for while that change is in development?

How do we help women deal with the people who take advantage of the fact that we are trained to be ‘nice’ and agreeable? How do we get them past the fear of hurting someone they know but who is willing to hurt them?

It’s a huge issue, I realize that. In thinking about it, though, I have been tying together bits and pieces of my experiences and conversations with experts so I can start working on at least a piece of the problem.


A few years before I started Taekwondo my friends and I took this one time only self-defense class offered by a local martial arts school (not my current one). I learned lots of great moves and I enjoyed practicing them on people in full body armor. I felt like something was missing though.


The instructors gave us good skills but there was little or no mention of when and how to tap into our instincts. And the instructor did not seem to understand that as women in their thirties and forties we couldn’t necessarily follow the same rules for walking down the street safely as as he could as an advanced black belt male in his 50s. Basically, the class was great but limited. The instructor was missing the cultural and social context of when and how most women would need to use these skills.


The author, a white woman in her mid forties, wearing sunglasses and a red tshirt that reads 'patriarchy got me drove' Grey siding is visible in the background.
My local women’s centre was selling these great shirts this past summer. I think ‘patriarchy got me drove’ sums up the basic issue here.

One of my TKD instructors is working on this issue already. She has lots of great self defense skills to teach but it is really hard to teach women to defend themselves in the sort of situation they’re most likely to encounter. It gets into that grey area where you need to teach skills beyond the physical.

After all, how do you learn to defend yourself against someone whose nose you don’t want to break or against someone that you’re going to see again (and probably not in a court of law)?

Last week I was talking to a friend of mine who teaches women’s self-defense and again she was concerned with that same gap. Her practice is able to address it a little more directly but since every student has individual things to overcome, it’s tricky to address in a wholesale way.


This is one of those situations where physical fitness and training will help. After all, both of those things bring confidence and give you physical leverage. However, the problem is broader than being confident and physically capable.


How do we teach women to further develop their instincts, to trust them and to act on them?


How do we find ways for women to defend themselves when causing physical harm will have additional social repercussions? (I know that defending yourself should be your first priority and the repercussions should be your last concern but that social conditioning to be a ‘good girl’ will get in the way.)


How do we help other women (and ourselves) to recognize that a threat is a threat, no matter who it comes from? That the harm that comes from someone we know is as bad as harm from a stranger? To recognize that we should be allowed to protect ourselves,  no matter who is hurting us?


It’s hard enough to learn that it is okay to say no.  And to understand, on a fundamental level, that we have the right not to be harmed in anyway. How do we help women to reinforce that no without creating further danger for them?


How do we address the fundamental changes in thinking (and in social  indoctrination) that all of this requires?


I know that the answer lies in the social change we talked about. I know that it is really men that need the lesson about doing no harm and taking responsibility for their actions. And there are tons of changes above needed above and beyond that.

But those are long-term changes and waiting for things to get better is not a viable option.

I want women to be equipped to deal with the things they have to face now. I want them to have the skills they need and the confidence to use them. I know a lot of people are working on it, I just want to be part of that working group, too.




The embedded video below shows a Women’s Self-Defence Tutorial from 1933. It is in black and white and features May Whitley demonstrating jiu-jitsu.

martial arts

Focused Patterns Practice: Christine’s Daily Challenge

I need a lot of practice in order to get my patterns ready for my next belt test. I have a plan for how to get myself in gear and learn those patterns inside and out.

In the second half of each Taekwon-do year, my instructors host a competition class. The purpose is to provide an opportunity for students to sharpen their competition skills – to improve their precision in their patterns and their scoring in their sparring. Even though I take the competition classes each year, I am not particularly inclined to compete. Instead, I attend so I can sharpen my patterns through focused practice and so I can hop in the ring with other female students and give them a decent sparring partner.

Competition classes are starting this Tuesday and it is a huge wake-up call for me. If those classes are on the agenda, it means that June is not that far away. I am still hoping to test for my 3rd degree black belt in June* but I am seriously stalled on my patterns.

I have three patterns that I have to be proficient in for my test.  I have been taught two of the three** so far but I still don’t quite have them down. I get stuck at certain parts, the movements don’t flow easily, it doesn’t feel like I *own* them yet.  They aren’t totally out of reach or anything drastic, they  are just a bit tricky. Really, my issues with the these two patterns just come down to a lack of focused practice.

That’s not to say that I have not been practicing at all but I have not being doing the sort of practice that I know I need to do to be ready for my test. I know what it feels like when I am building the connections in my brain that will let me do my patterns with ease and I have not been doing that specific type of work. There are lots of good reasons why I haven’t but it is definitely time for me to switch gears and bring my focus to that type of learning.

That’s why I have decided to let you know about my need to do this type of practice, since knowing that you are paying attention will help me stay one track. 

Starting today, I will do AT LEAST 15 minutes of focused patterns practice a day until March 31.                                           

A pile of white sheets of paper, the top sheet is a chart on graph paper with the dates across the top and a list of patterns down the side.
My tracker for my patterns practice and other preparations in Februrary/March.

Some days I will be doing Eui-Am (I almost have this one ready), others I will be doing Juche (this one’s trickier), and on other days,  I will be practicing my earlier patterns so they will be ready for when I need them.

How does all of this relate to the competition class? Well, for starters, those classes create a sense of urgency – moving my practice from ‘something I should get to’ to ‘something I must prioritize.’ 

Plus, now I have opportunity to bring those developing patterns to competition class and focus intently on improving them. We get lots of assistance in our regular classes but there is something extra that we all bring to those competition classes that will really help me zero in on my challenges.

I will write about my progress (in addition to other things) in my two blog posts in March so you can know if I keep my promise.

Let’s see what that 15 minutes a day will bring.




PS – Are you in need of focused practice on anything at the moment? Want to join me?


*My tests are at my instructors’ discretion. The plan is for me to test in June but if they deem that I am not ready, I won’t be testing.
**I’ll be learning the third one in class over the next little while.


Let Me Set My Own Goals, ThankYouVeryMuch

I fell victim to an interesting Instagram ad this week and ended up downloading a fitness app that catapulted me into this post.

Perhaps it should not have been surprising to me that an exercise app demanded to know my weight before it let me continue. And perhaps I wasn’t surprised, I was just annoyed.

Here is the thing. I do not know my weight. I have not for years. When I go to a doctor who wants to put me on a scale, I decide whether it is worth protesting, but if I do step on to the scale, I do not look at the information.

Despite my disdain for our diet- and weight-oriented culture, I live in it, so I am susceptible to its tricks. So, if I know those numbers then I start to focus on them – about whether they are too much, about whether they are going up or down. And that is not how I want to spend my time or energy, so I just don’t.

I prefer to measure myself by how I feel and how I can move and by whether I can do the things I want to do with ease. I like to work toward getting better or more effective at something rather than trying to reach a certain weight.

I know I am likely preaching to the feminist choir here, but sometimes things bear repeating.

And I can see times when it would be useful to know your weight (or for someone to) – if you were receiving anesthetic, if you were deciding how many ceiling hooks were needed for your yoga hammock, if you needed safety gear, for example.

However, I do not think it is useful for my app to operate that way. I get that many people are interested in losing weight and so they are orienting it to them. But even though I had selected getting stronger as my goal, I was still supposed to jump through the hoop of selecting my weight.

And sure, I could have picked any old weight and put that in but I did not know how they were going to use the information to determine what the program showed me. I did not want inaccurate information to limit what was being offered. I did not want to have my challenges reduced or increased based on nothing.

I wanted to be able to select a goal that was meaningful to me. However, the questions they asked limited what my goals could be. In fact, they limited what I could even think of as goals – at least within the program. And I am sure that it happens with some actual trainers and the like, too. The fact that so many people have been guided into wanting to lose weight has created a situation where program entrance questions are based on the assumption that weight loss is a standard goal.

I would rather that the app (or a trainer!) ask me how many reps I can do of certain exercises and use that in their algorithms. After all, my weight tells them virtually nothing about me – nothing about my fitness level, my strength, my endurance,  It gives them no useful information at all, just a quick metric that they can use to indicate that their program is successful.

A photo taken during the author's walk. Small and shiny grey and brown stones that are covered with a thin layer of ice from freezing rain.
Added bonus: Going for a walk gave me the chance to take a photo of these rocks that had been covered by ice during a period of freezing rain. They look a bit like beach rocks.

The thing that gets me, of course, is that it is not a good measure of success. It would just tell them (and me) about the difference in numbers. It would not indicate health, strength, or anything else that might serve me well. It would only give me a number that might soothe my brain (if I was into that stuff) or that might get other people off my case (if anyone around me was invested in my size).


It irritates me (obviously) and it frustrates me because there are so many other ways to design a program so that it will serve people well.


When I downloaded the app, I did not want all this thinking and wondering. I just wanted to see what the exercise was that they had in the ad for the app – it looked fun.

I ended up just deleting the whole thing and going for a walk.

That *was* fun.  I achieved my goals of moving around and of being outside, AND I didn’t have to weigh myself to participate.

Plus, I got a cool photo of some rocks.


Note: Knowing your weight might serve you well. It does not serve me well.

Dancing · fitness classes · motivation

Gloriously Awful – Christine Heads to Dance Class

You know how I can be when learning something new – I get all tangled up in helping my body move in the way my brain wants to and then I get annoyed with myself. My annoyance makes me tense and the tension makes me worse at whatever I was struggling with in the first place.

Yes, I do get on my own nerves just thinking about it.

One of the few times I have sidestepped this scenario is when I tried Zumba on the Xbox a few years ago. Instead of being frustrated when I didn’t ‘get’ it, I found myself laughing at my mistakes and then just carrying on. It was eye-opening.

Unfortunately, soon after I got into the habit of laughing at my ineptness, changes in the Xbox menu made it tricky for me to access Zumba easily. It was a tiny obstacle, but enough to deter me.

I remembered that feeling though. I am rarely casual about learning new things, and I hardly ever laugh in the process of making mistakes. I wanted to have that feeling again, in other contexts, but it didn’t happen.

Then, last spring, I was lucky enough to take a Nia dance class from my friend Elaine.

I made a mess of the movements* but I was laughing at myself. I was only getting about half of the choreography but I was having a grand time.

Two white middle-aged women (one with blonde hair, one with brown hair -dressed in all black exercise wear. They are reaching up to the left with their right arms, their right legs are extended to the right.
A rare moment when I was in sync with the rest of the class with Nia on the Rock. That’s me in the star pants in the front. My friend Krista is in the back. She’s an expert at laughing when things go awry – I’m learning to follow her example. Photo credit: Stephanie Moyst of Fannie’s Photography. 

I have been trying to fit more Nia in ever since but I have only managed to make that happen in the past few  weeks. Every Thursday morning, I go to class, flail around ridiculously and enjoy the hell out of it.

I can’t hear the changes in the music that tell me I should change steps. I routinely head in the wrong direction. I start too early and end too soon. As I told a friend of mine recently, I feel like I am gloriously awful at it.

I’m not putting myself down here. I’m probably not particularly bad at Nia – and the nature of Nia is that it doesn’t seem to matter how good you are anyway – I’m just celebrating the fact that I am not getting into that cycle of frustration while I learn. I am not the least bit concerned about how slowly I am learning – I am just reveling in the fun of the movements. I’m sure it helps that there are martial arts-type moves in the dances so I have a feeling of familiarity but, mostly, I’m just going with the feeling of glorious awfulness.

I LOVE being gloriously awful. I feel no pressure to get better at it – even though I am, no doubt, improving as we go along.  Getting better just doesn’t seem like something I should focus on – having fun does.

Being in this space is really fun for me and it has my brain whirring – how can I bring this same feeling to other movement I am trying to learn? Can I enjoy being awful at a new pattern? Can I be gloriously awful at parts of Taekwon-Do while I learn?

I certainly intend to find out.

Are you gloriously awful at any forms of exercise? Is being awful part of the reason you enjoy it?

*Learning new moves WHILE matching them to music is a challenge, at the very least.

fitness · gear · martial arts

The Right Tools for the Job

Like everyone, sometimes I struggle to figure out whether the fitness item I want to buy is worth it. Will this item help me train to reach my goal or am I secretly hoping it will get me there by magic? Do I really need this thing or am I just trying to ‘buy’ fitness?

A rectangular yellow board and a black kickpad that is round on one end with a long handle. Both say 'Benza Sports' on them.
I get a kick out of both of these. Or maybe they get a kick out of me? Ha!

I have been on that fence for ages about two items for Taekwon-do – a rebreakable board and a ‘clapper’ pad.* My husband bought me both for Christmas. I was thrilled to receive them but I still felt a little weird about it for some reason. So I did what I usually do when I am getting on my own nerves – I turned on voice dictation and essentially journaled aloud into google docs.

After a lot of rambling, I ended up with two questions for myself.

Did I want both of those things because they were ‘cool’ or because I would actually use them?

Did a part of me think that I didn’t ‘deserve’ those specialized tools?


The first question, I realized, was about me reminding myself to commit to structured and specific practice for my kicks and punches. I could get behind that.

The second question made me mad. Was it possible that I had that thought buried deep in my brain somewhere? Was I falling victim to that kind of annoying thinking? You know, the kind that tells you that you can buy nicer gear once you earn it by reaching some external standard?**

And I do think there was a bit of that going on but now I’m pretty sure I have eradicated it.

Because, here’s the thing, sometimes you need the right tools to get a job done.

Sure, you can use a butter knife as a screwdriver but it is not nearly as effective.

You can roll out a pie crust with a cold glass but it’s much easier if you use a rolling pin.

You can practice spinning hook kick in the living room with a pillow but you won’t be able to tell if you have hit your target correctly.

You can punch any sort of practice pad in your rec room but you won’t be confident that, when the time comes, the board will break.

I can practice that punch and kick all I want in class but I still need more work at home. My challenges with the ‘choreography’ of the spinning hook kick and the jumping punch mean I have to do a lot of solo practice. If I have the right tools, I can do safer, and much more effective practice at home.

So, it’s not matter of me just wanting something because it is cool. And I certainly don’t have to ‘earn’ the right to practice effectively. Even all the overly-socialized parts of my brain can accept that.

Instead, I can consider these tools a good investment.

By getting the right tools for the job, I am showing myself that honing these techniques is something I care about. I am creating a good mental space for the practice ahead.


Are there any specialized tools for your sport or activity that you hesitated to buy? Was ‘deserving’ them a factor for you?

Did you ever get them?

How did they work out?

*I don’t know what it is actually called but there it is in the photo above. It is actually two pads stitched together on the narrow ends. When you kick the wider part, the two pads collide and make a VERY satisfying noise.
**I’m not referring to things you set up as rewards for reaching certain goals. That’s entirely different.

fitness · motivation

My Gift to Me (no wrapping required)

I was busy yesterday so I didn’t get to read Sam’s post until just now. This wasn’t written in response to hers, but I think it complements it nicely. I’m definitely not aiming to be in peak anything by January but fitting in some more fitness is how I *want* to enjoy my holiday time. 

My (non)schedule is one of the major obstacles in my efforts to establish a daily exercise plan. It’s not that I am ‘too busy’ to exercise every day, it’s that my days are a bit of a jumble and I have trouble eking out a regular time to move.

I’m self-employed, I work from home, and my family starts school/comes home for lunch/after school at a variety of different times.* My kids are mostly able to manage their schedules on their own but, they’re still teenagers, and so they often need my support to keep things moving. Then, during the afternoons and evenings there’s homework, and projects for the boys, and projects, meetings, household management, taekwon-do, and volunteer work for me. And, of course, my husband has his own business, and sometimes his work schedule affects the rhythm of when and how all of the rest of that can happen.

Then, if you factor in my ADD (prioritizing, distractions, schedules, and recovering from interruptions are a particular challenge for me), it’s obvious why I end up struggling to see how everything can fit into a given day. To expand on what I said above, I have time to exercise every day.  I just get so caught up in work and details and interruptions that I find myself annoyed when I run out of day and have to go to bed.

Now, I do okay, overall. I do a fair bit of walking – even though my youngest son no longer *needs* me to walk him to school, I use his schedule as an excuse to get out of the house and go for a short stroll. I go to taekwon-do twice a week.  I practice at home, and I do stretches and yoga, and the like, but it’s not regular and it’s not intense.

I feel my best when I work out daily but somehow that fact escapes me as I make decisions about what to do next in any given day. That overall feeling of well-being gets lost in the shuffle of daily priorities and I don’t like it.

That’s why I have decided that I am gifting myself a habit-establishing fitness routine over the holiday season.

The author's fitness gifts to herself - a pair of red hand weights, a hula hoop, a green yoga mat with a red bow on it. A small stuff santa is sitting in front of it and a string of star-shaped lights are draped over the hoop and weights.
On the first day of fitmas, my true me gave to me…
I know that a lot of people find it hard to stick to habits this time of year but for me, the break from daily comings and goings is an opportunity rather than an obstacle. I know what my next couple of weeks are going to look like and I have very few external forces shaping my days. Or, to put it another way, *I* can make everyone wait while I finish my workout and no one will end up with detention as a result.

I’m not going to try anything drastic, and I will be realistic. I’m just going to do at least 30 minutes of movement in the rec room every day, as soon as possible after I wake up. The plan is to alternate between yoga, taekwon-do practice, strength training, and cardio but I will do whichever one feels most fun on a given day.

This isn’t something I *must* do, it’s a gift to myself.

Happy Holidays, me! Today’s present is yoga. Enjoy!

* I have people leaving my house separately in the morning in time to get to work/school at 8:10, 8:15 and 8:30. One person has lunch from 12-1, another from 12:20-1:10. My kids finish school at 2:10 and 2:30. That’s a lot of coming and going.

PS – Happy Holidays to all of you! No matter what you are celebrating or not celebrating, I hope these last few days of 2017 find you at ease. I wish you joy and I wish you fun. See you in 2018!

martial arts · motivation

Taking a Quick Glance Back

A couple of weeks ago, I was helping* with a belt testing for Taekwon-do and watching the other students tests for belts ranging from yellow stripe to black stripe was really encouraging for me.

I spend entirely too much time with my eye on my next belt, on learning the next thing. It is all too easy to forget how much I have already learned, how far I have come. I mean, obviously, I know that I have more skills than I once did but since those skills are part of my knowledge base now, I end up focusing a bit too much on the skills I don’t yet have.

It’s a natural development of a graduated learning system. You are always aware of what you don’t know because that is what is between you and your next belt. I can always tell you what I need to know for my next test and how much of it I have already learned.

The author wearing her white martial arts uniform with a yellow belt around her waist. She is smiling, standing slightly sideways, with her left hand held flat at thigh height.
This is me, right after my yellow belt test in 2010. I’m proud of my past self but I have LOTS of advice for her.

It’s a sensible approach for skill development but it can be a bit overwhelming sometimes. Even though I generally feel challenged rather than discouraged, I am still very aware of the areas in which I fall short. And I know that can be the case with any sort of goal, particularly fitness-related ones.

That’s why the belt test was so encouraging for me. In the course of a single afternoon, I was able to see my skill development at each level mirrored by the students who were testing. I could see what I must have looked liked at my first test – determined, yet uncertain, with my skills just beginning to grow. I could remember myself at each level, what I felt like I knew then, and how I must have been better than I realized.

Seeing how the students’ dexterity, strength, power, and speed increased at each belt level was an excellent reminder and a boost to my ego. I have followed that path. I am still on it. My skills are improving all the time and I’m sure that senior students can note that when they are watching me. That’s a good thought to keep tucked away for when I get frustrated with myself as I practice for that next test.

It’s good for me to have that test in my future – it helps to focus my practice and it gives me something to work toward.  However, I can’t just keep my eyes on that prize, I have to take some time to glance back at my yellow stripe self, my green belt self, my red belt self and celebrate how much I have accomplished already.

I’m grateful that assisting at the belt test gave me such a direct opportunity to see how I have refined my skills over time. I’m not sure that I would have thought to do it otherwise.

Do you often take time to note how far you have come from where you started?

If so, what do you do?

*To be clear, I was *not* testing these students, I am not qualified to do that yet. I was just helping to keep the test running smoothly and assisting where needed.