Aikido · Guest Post · martial arts

Do some women learn martial arts differently to some men? (Guest post)

The blogger Miles Kessler recently published an interesting article called, Masculine & Feminine Principles In Aikido – 3 Common Mistakes.

Kessler makes it clear he is not equating “masculine” with men, or “feminine” with women – he is speaking in terms of principles, which often cut across physical gender. His theme is the integration of these masculine / feminine principles to create oneness through Aikido.

Kessler sees three common mistakes preventing this integration. They are:

  1. Polarization (identifying too strongly with one of the poles)
  2. Confusion (not clearly understanding the difference between the two poles)
  3. Refusing Distinctions (making it taboo to differentiate between “masculine” and “feminine”, and thus failing to understand either pole).

Kessler’s article focuses on the individual’s personal experience. But he also challenges us to think about how these “mistakes” play out more broadly, in the culture of our own dojo.

And for me, the first one really struck a chord. I’ve been thinking for a while, that because the martial arts are generally male-dominated, there are some ways in which more “masculine” ways of doing things are sometimes unconsciously valorized in the dojo – by both men and women.

This is no one’s “fault”. It’s just an expression of the way many of us have been conditioned to think and perceive. And all too often, we don’t even realise we’re doing it.

One example I’ve noticed is that inexperienced men and women often tend to be “bad” at ukemi (receiving throws) in different, gender-specific ways.

Many (not all) women start off very scared and hesitant to fall, and so it takes a long time before you can throw them properly.

Meanwhile, many (not all) men start off by hurling themselves around and crashing into the mat with force and a loud slap of their body.

I don’t believe either of these is “worse” than the other. They’re both awkward and need refinement. True ukemi is a perfect blend of hard and soft.

But in my experience, what I’m identifying as the “feminine” version of getting it wrong is far more likely to be seen as wrong – and labelled as an inability to take ukemi. While the “masculine” variant is seen as a more normal, expected stage of the learning journey. In fact it is often valorized and even encouraged in many dojos.

A second example is to do with the use of strength. We are often told that beginners tend to rely on muscular strength at first; and over time they learn to relax and use technique instead. It can take a very long time to reach this stage; and I’ve seen this over-reliance on strength in many men and women, unfortunately including myself.

But I’ve also seen another, completely different process at play. This is where a student (more often a woman, although by no means always) starts martial arts with apparently no strength whatsoever, and can’t seem to summon up any kind of power from anywhere. But over time, their strength and power start to emerge, making them a better practitioner.

Some of us may start from one pole, and some from the other. Ideally we meet in the middle. In theory, I can’t see any advantage to either path – only the fact that they are different.

But in real life, an over-strong beginner is often likely to be instinctively evaluated as more competent and promising than an over-weak beginner. Again, learning to temper hardness with softness is often seen as the “normal” learning process for many martial arts; while learning to temper softness with hardness may not be recognized in the same way. The subtle expression of this (probably unconscious) judgement from teachers and peers may then contribute to the first student persevering – and the second giving up.

But if we can value and support both starting points equally, we may find those weak and timid students doing as well in time as the strong ones . . .

It would of course be very wrong to slip into uncritical gender essentialism. But the idea that some women might sometimes travel a different path to some men is not new. Carol Gilligan challenged Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, because it apparently “proved” that men were more highly developed than women. Gilligan argued that this was only because Kohlberg’s stages were male-oriented; and that women’s morality generally developed in a different way. [1]

Maureen Murdoch adapted Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey, and developed an analogous roadmap for the Heroine’s Journey, to address the specific psycho-spiritual journey of contemporary women. [2]

So with all the emphasis on integrating yin and yang through martial arts training, and perhaps especially so in Aikido, it’s possible that there may be scope to think in terms of different starting points, different experiences and different journeys – all on the way to the same ultimate goal of integration.

[1] In a Different Voice. (1982).

[2] The Heroine’s Journey. (1990).

Picture credit: Aikido Premantura by Darij & Ana via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger, with a special focus on women’s experience of and participation in the martial arts. You can find her blog at and like/follow her facebook


Guest Post · martial arts

Why I’m not inspired by female warriors – despite loving martial arts (Guest Post)

A friend has sent me a three-minute video called Women Were Some of the Fiercest Samurai Warriors Ever. It’s about a woman called Takeko Nakano who led an army of women to fight in the Boshin War (Japanese Revolution).

He thinks he’s sent me an exciting, inspirational and glorious story about women’s empowerment, which I will love as a female martial arts practitioner.

What he’s actually sent me is a story about thousands of men killing and wounding each other; and then some women getting involved too, killing and being killed. The end of the clip shows Takeko dying in action at the heartbreaking age of 21. I know he means well; but exactly what part of this was I supposed to enjoy, or find empowering?

He’s not the only one who thinks like this of course. Only the other day, a Karate friend said: I’ve found the coolest role model for you! Her name is Tomoe Gozen (she was a late twelfth-century female samurai warrior). The image of the female warrior is iconic and popular; often depicted in a glamorous and sexualised way.

This article is not about whether war is right or wrong or justifiable – these are enormous questions with no easy answers.

It’s also not challenging the resonance and power of the warrior archetype (male or female); an image which instinctively evokes a deep, emotional response, as it strikes a chord in our unconscious collective memory.

It’s simply about whether we should feel excited or inspired by the violent actions of real-life warriors in real-life battles, whether male or female.

Myriam Miedzian writes:

It would be unthinkable for a respected children’s publishing house to publish a book for children entitled Famous Public Hangings, or Famous Witch Burnings, “excitingly illustrated in full color.” Western society has rejected public hangings and witch burnings together with slavery and gladiatorial fights, and sees itself as having progressed towards a more civilised set of values and attitudes. But a book entitled Famous Battles of World History, “excitingly illustrated in full color” is perfectly acceptable. (I found a copy in the waiting room of my daughter’s paediatrician.)[1]

Lt Col Dave Grossman argues that our glamorisation and constant, thoughtless consumption of misleading, “exciting” images of war (for example through movies and computer games) has the same effect as operant conditioning on rats. It promotes blissful ignorance of the real, horrific cost of killing on the ones who kill; and contributes to our rising rates of violence.

Grossman cites research that found that after sixty days of continuous combat, 98 percent of all surviving soldiers will have become psychiatric casualties of one kind or another. (The remaining two percent are said to have aggressive psychopathic personalities).[2]

Is war really so cool then, that a Youtube video about a young female warrior dying in battle can be considered an example of women’s empowerment?

This is not to say that women’s courage and ability to fight are not inspirational or worth celebrating. China Galland’s book: The Bond Between Women; A Journey to Fierce Compassion is a compelling portrait of 20th century women warriors. It’s about women who (consciously or unconsciously) channel the Hindu Warrior Goddess Durga, or their own cultural equivalent to fight child trafficking; or feed the poor; or do battle on environmental issues.

It’s moving also to read about wartime heroines such as Edith Cavell or Susie King Taylor who worked bravely and tirelessly to save others’ lives in the face of danger. And I’m deeply grateful to the women and men who fight to protect us in everyday life in the line of duty. The title of this article is not quite true; because their spirit and selflessness are of course awesome and inspiring.

I just can’t feel excited or inspired by the actual violence these people may face and/or administer in the course of what they do. Just sad that it has to be like this.

Violence is fascinating; but all too often we don’t really understand it, and enjoy it in an oversimplistic way. But the examples of women warriors cited above live(d) in close, daily contact with the actual, ugly reality of violence, which is something quite different.

How does this link back to martial arts? Toby Threadgill says,

This is the true purpose of budo. To allow one to acknowledge the reality of violence in our world, to properly address it, temper one’s spirit against abusing its powers and then transform the associated power of violence into a force for good.[3]

I don’t blame my friend in any way for sending over the video clip. He is just a product of our society, which finds glamorised, sanitised images of battle exciting. But I do see martial arts training as a potential instrument to challenge this culture; and promote a more mature and nuanced understanding of violence – and that possibility really is something exciting and empowering to contemplate . . .

[1] Myriam Miedzian. (2002). Boys Will Be Boys; Breaking the link between masculinity and violence. Lantern Books, Page 35

[2] Lt Col. Dave Grossman. (2009). On Killing. Back Bay Books. Pages 43-4

[3] Toby Threadgill. (n.d.). Commentary on Yukiyoshi Takamura. (1978). Tameshigiri Reigi  

Image credit: Takeko Nakano – By Original author unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger, with a special focus on women’s experience of and participation in the martial arts. You can find her blog at and like/follow her facebook page:

Guest Post · inclusiveness · training

A morning with Mara Yamauchi – Part Two – Ways to engage more women in sport (Guest post)

woman running

I recently attended a Project 500 Networking Day for female sports coaches called: Women in Sport – The next steps.

(Project 500 is an initiative to address the imbalance of female to male coaches in England – you can read more below, or on their website).

A major highlight of the event was the opportunity to hear a presentation by guest speaker Mara Yamauchi about her experiences as a female athlete, and her more recent move into coaching – you can read about it here.

For the second half of her presentation, Mara answered questions, and facilitated a discussion on issues relating to local women’s participation in sport – and “what works” to minimise any such barriers and increase engagement.

Just for clarity, these were personal views and experiences shared by the attendees (all local female sports coaches and volunteers) and do not represent in any way the views of Project 500; or Coaching Hampshire and Active Surrey who organised the event.

Competition and self-esteem

One issue that came up was that of women marathon runners not having other women to train with, and becoming demoralised if they trained with men and couldn’t keep up. A potential solution to this is to use a “garland” running course, so that mixed ability runners can complete the number of loops they wish to in their own time, while still training alongside others for companionship.

We also talked about how some (although by no means all) women dislike competition, and can benefit more from process goals, as opposed to outcome goals. These might include consistency of training, posture, recovery periods and so on.

Technology – help or hindrance?

We also talked about technology, as a mixed blessing. Mara expressed concerns that she sees a lot of runners get over-fixated on their GPS watches and other devices, and believe that they are the key to better performance. Whereas in fact, in Mara’s view, nothing beats good old-fashioned hard training 🙂

Mara also made the point that monitoring your speed and distance are not the be-all and end-all in training. In fact, things like using different terrains, and a mix of speed and recovery can be very effective training methods.

Another crucial skill is learning to be aware of and judge your own effort, and know how it feels to be at different intensities. As one participant explained it, At 50% you can still get your words out. At 90% you can’t!

For all these reasons, Mara sometimes just advises her athletes to leave their watches and other gadgets at home. We agreed that it was ironic that running is such a simple sport in itself – but people have become so very hung-up on their kit and technology these days.

Technology and gender . . . ?

Technology looks set to increase in importance. It’s very visible in the new UK Government’s Sports Strategy: Sporting Future: A New Strategy for an Active Nation, as an area to take forward:

Wearable technology which encourages people to be more physically active through quantifying their activity or competition and websites that enable simpler access to facilities have already transformed how people engage in sport and physical activity.

The increasing use of technology is one of the strongest examples of how meeting the needs and the demands of consumers can drive up levels of activity. Apps like MapMyRun and Strava and wearable technology like Fitbit and Jawbone have made participants in sport far more aware of what activity they have done, and introduced competition with both other people and themselves, for those that derive motivation that way. The ability of these apps and devices to capture data and encourage increased levels of activity will define the world of sport and physical activity in the coming decade (page 25)

But quite a few of us challenged this unquestioning championing of technology, as we believe it doesn’t necessarily appeal to all women. One woman said that she knew a coach who taught by Skype – and was finding it to be very popular with men, but had no female take-up at all.

Although we acknowledged the definite benefits of technology – for example allowing you to avoid a flooded road and find another path, there was also some discussion about how men seem to enjoy using technology in sport more, whereas for the women we coach (and ourselves too) the social side seems to be more important.

Obviously it’s undesirable to generalise too much. Plenty of women enjoy fitness technology – see for example Sarah Millin’s recent post on the excitement of upgrading to the Microsoft Band. But the general experience and view of all the coaches present seemed to be that women tend to be less keen on using sports technology.

We also discussed the pressures that technology can place on women and girls to feel that they need to look good while training or competing, especially since nowadays with social media use, photos of anyone and everyone appear on social media. When in fact, your appearance is probably the last thing you want to be worrying about during sporting activity.

We agreed that as noted above, technology is a mixed blessing, and has definitely done a lot of good to engage people who wouldn’t otherwise train. We need to try hard to get the most out of it, and do our best to stop it impacting negatively on our athletes.

Women from minority ethnic and cultural backgrounds

Several of the coaches present spoke about the ways they supported local women from minority ethnic and cultural backgrounds to participate in sport. Obviously coming from an ethnic minority is not a barrier in itself; and many women from these groups engage easily in sport. The focus of our discussion was on supporting women from specific local communities within our area, where barriers to participation in sports do appear to exist for some women.

One prominent issue was women fearing to be seen out and about engaging in sport, either by other members of their community, or just in general. For some women, engaging in sport in public would be seen as shameful. One (cycling) coach said that she overcomes this by taking students out in large groups, and separating men and women into two groups, especially in the first instance while participants get used to doing sport.

Another issue that several coaches often came across was women wearing unsuitable clothing for sport, including “floaty” national dress and flip-flops. There was agreement that this needed to be gently challenged for safety reasons. If the women could not wear other clothes, there were various safety options available such as removing long, flowing scarves, and tying dresses. Some women were uncomfortable removing their scarves to wear a helmet, and leaving it on could create risks, if not done safely.

One coach added that she felt it important to dress in a relatively modest way herself, so as not to make the women from minority ethnic and cultural backgrounds feel uncomfortable.

Some of the coaches also said that women from these groups sometimes started out quite overweight, and with low levels of fitness, due to their lack of previous exercise.

As a general point (going beyond ethnicity or culture), it was agreed to be important not to take on too many adult beginners at once, and to ensure that there were enough experienced participants to support them.

The support of men

It was agreed that when women came from cultures which discouraged them from participating in sports clubs, the support and influence of men could be enormous (either positively or negatively).

We then moved on to talking about women’s participation in general, and the number of women who can appear to be fearful and unconfident in a sports setting. One participant queried as to whether some of the Project 500 marketing should in fact be aimed at men, to enlist their support for the programme goals.

All in all, it was a great experience to meet with local female sports leaders and discuss these issues as a like-minded group . . .


About Project 500: Project 500 started life in 2013 as an exciting initiative in the South East of England, to help address the imbalance of female to male coaches by recruiting, developing, deploying and retaining 500 female coaches.

Research from sports coach UK shows that just 30% of sports coaches are female and of newly qualified coaches each year, only 17% are women.

The initial two-year pilot was really successful, and recruited and retained over 530 female coaches across a variety of sports.

In celebration of this – and with an eye to the future – Coaching Hampshire and Active Surrey held a women-only networking day on 13 March 2016, which I attended on behalf of my dojo. This discussion was part of the day’ programme.


Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger. You can read more of her stories and articles at, or follow her Facebook page at:

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athletes · Guest Post · Olympics · running · training

A morning with Mara Yamauchi – Part One (Guest post)

File:Mara Yamauchi 2 new.jpg

I recently attended a Project 500 Networking Day for female sports coaches called: Women in Sport – The next steps.

(Project 500 is an initiative to address the imbalance of female to male coaches in England – you can read more below, or on their website).

A major highlight of the event was the opportunity to hear a presentation by guest speaker Mara Yamauchi.

Just ahead of Mara’s presentation, the day opened with a screening of the new Project 500 More Women Better Coaching promotion. This powerful video was launched on 30 March 2016, and you can watch it here


The message of the video is that many women are using coaching skills anyway (at home and/or at work) – so why not extend that to sports coaching . . . ?

Presentation from Mara Yamauchi

Mara is a retired British long-distance track and road running athlete, and the second fastest British woman over the marathon ever.  She spoke to us about her experiences as a female athlete, and her more recent move into coaching.

Mara’s background

We heard about Mara’s exciting childhood in Kenya and Oxford (where she was always outside and playing sports!) and her entry into serious athletics training once she started university.

After graduating, Mara joined the civil service (working in both the UK and Japan) for ten years, while training in her spare time, whenever she could fit it in. However, since she was a little girl, she’d always really dreamed of competing in the Olympics. Around the age of 30, Mara realised that time was passing her by, and that she had to pursue her dream – or lose it forever. She therefore dropped down to part-time hours in her job – and went for it.

Mara didn’t make the GB team for the 2004 Athens Olympics, but she kept at it, and in 2008 she came sixth in the Beijing Olympic Marathon. Her dream of being an Olympian had come true!

In 2009, Mara also achieved Runner-up in the London Marathon in 2:23:12. This is still the second fastest marathon time ever by a British woman

Lessons learned

Mara retired from professional running in 2013 and decided to use her talents and experience as a coach. She shared with us what it felt like to go from being an elite athlete, to being quite a “beginner” in the field of coaching, and some of the lessons she has learned along the way.

For example, she’s come to question the popular belief that to be a great coach, you have to have been a great athlete. In fact, Mara explained that in her view, coaching requires a completely different skillset.

As an athlete, your life can be very regimented, and you’re “told what to do” a lot of the time. But Mara has found being a coach completely different. It’s more creative and personal, and takes a lot of “softer” skills such as motivating and engaging people.

Mara has also discovered through coaching, that people’s motivations for doing sport are really diverse – and can be surprising. Often, they are nothing to do with the sport itself, but are more to do with relaxation and escapism from a stressful job, or a demanding family life.

Culture and social support structures are really important. Mara has no doubt that an important factor in her success was because she lived in Japan. Japan has a rich, gender-balanced marathon scene, with up to several thousand athletes training full-time at any given time, as opposed to just a handful in the UK.

This means that runners can access a lot of mutual support, and opportunities to share knowledge on training regimes, diet and so on.

After Mara’s presentation, she led a group discussion on ways to engage more women in sport. Watch out for part two of this post, which outlines the topics we covered . . .


About Project 500: Project 500 started life in 2013 as an exciting initiative in the South East of England, to help address the imbalance of female to male coaches by recruiting, developing, deploying and retaining 500 female coaches.

Research from sports coach UK shows that just 30% of sports coaches are female and of newly qualified coaches each year, only 17% are women.

The initial two-year pilot was really successful, and recruited and retained over 530 female coaches across a variety of sports.

In celebration of this – and with an eye to the future – Coaching Hampshire and Active Surrey held a women-only networking day on 13 March 2016, which I attended on behalf of my dojo. Mara’s presentation was part of the day’ programme.


Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger. You can read more of her stories and articles at, or follow her Facebook page at:


Image credit: Mara Yamauchi at Mile 24 and a half of the 2009 London Marathon, along Mid Temple right by Temple Place. By Mara_Yamauchi_2.jpg: SNappa2006 derivative work: Omarcheeseboro [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Guest Post · martial arts · training

“To see a world in a grain of sand” – The awesomeness of training with beginners (Guest post)

Last week a new woman started in my aikijujutsu class. We trained together all evening, and had a ball. But still, she kept saying, Sorry, you must be so bored! or Sorry, I feel really guilty for spoiling your training. It didn’t matter how many times I assured her I was having a great time.

And I understand why she felt that way. If I was in her position, I would surely be just as worried about my partner feeling bored.

But I was genuinely not bored in the slightest!

Brian Johns has an excellent article on the reasons to teach beginners in the martial arts. His main reasons are:

  1. To practise empathy and compassion – you were like that too once!
  2. To refine, expand and experiment with your teaching
  3. To challenge yourself – because beginners haven’t yet learned the “programmed” moves and responses of more experienced students

These points are spot on. I would add that there can also be an emotional richness and beauty in working with beginners. Something clicked in this lesson; and I suddenly realised that different partners are just gateways to different parts of the whole.

It’s like the famous story explains:

The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

A king explains to them:

All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned.

The black belt on the other side of the room can offer me plenty of things this beginner can’t – the opportunity to express and receive more power and intent; and an enjoyable sense of stress and risk. He or she can probably also show me more subtle and advanced aspects of the techniques.

But this new woman can offer me other valuable things, including exposure to her pure “beginner’s mind” (to cite the classic Zen Buddhist concept).

The martial arts are so complex and rich, we are never going to learn any more than a fraction of the whole anyway; so in that sense there is no rush.

Teaching her just one throw was fascinating; as every tiny movement within it needed attention and focus. It felt like slowing down time and learning the movement with a new intensity and attention to detail. Like an infinite fractal opening up . . .

I think of William Blake’s opening to Auguries of Innocence:

To see a world in a grain of sand.

An anonymous online writer explains this line as follows:

One can find vast truths in the smallest of things – or to put it in fashionable literary terms, he’s dealing with the microcosmic as representative of the universal. So, knowledge of the whole world can be gained from examining its smallest constituent part.

My Aikido teacher says: The older I get, the deeper I want to go into narrower topics. I could write a book – or three books – just about kamae! [combative stance].

Even as recently as a year or so ago, I admit I would have felt a sense of losing out by being partnered with this beginner all evening. I would still have helped her because it was the right thing to do; but with a sense of noble, slightly injured self-sacrifice.

Something’s changed. I think it’s a growing confidence that there is enough learning to go round; and that I can genuinely learn just as much about martial arts from training with the vulnerable as with the powerful; from the inexperienced as much as the expert.

This reflects the Ninjutsu historian and author Antony Cummins’ description of moving through phases of your own spiritual development. In the early stages, you may go through a phase of finding those who are less developed dull, and even beneath you in a sense. But in time, you move beyond this phase, and the world becomes fascinating.

So one partner is genuinely no better or more valuable or interesting than another. Antony Cummins writes:

[…] the martial path has no end; linear thought is a process of modern man. There is no end, you realise that you are no longer working towards an end goal but it’s the journey itself that is the fascinating aspect. (To Stand on a Stone pp.274-5).

So if you’re a beginner reading this – in any martial art or sport – have faith! It’s very likely that your teacher or training partner really is enjoying working with you as much as they say – and not just pretending, to spare your feelings!

Hang in there, and one day you’ll hopefully realise the truth of this for yourself – as you join another beginner in the exciting early stages of their own journey . . .



Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger. You can read more of her stories and articles at or follow her Facebook page:

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 . . .



Guest Post · martial arts · movies · stereotypes

Are “kick-ass” martial arts movie heroines empowering – or not . . . ? (Guest post)



Training in the martial arts can be incredibly empowering for women, as Sam and Michelle have testified. So surely watching movies about female martial arts experts who kick ass must be a truly inspiring and liberating experience?

Well, not necessarily . . .

Balmain Colette
Dr Colette Balmain

I was lucky enough to see Dr Colette Balmain from Kingston University speak on this topic recently. Her lecture was called:

Chick Kicks: Bad-ass heroines of Hong Kong Cinema

Colette’s presentation focused on the question:

Are the “kick-ass” women in martial arts movies liberational – or ultimately constrained by patriarchy?

Colette explained that although she was focusing on Hong Kong movies (to fit in with the theme of the conference this was part of), this is a wider question relevant to all martial arts movies.

Colette has analysed a huge number of female characters in martial arts movies. Her conclusion is that:

Female characters in martial arts movies can certainly be transgressive – but it’s always within limits.

Here are the limits she’s identified:

  • The women in these films tend to be defined by their sexuality – which is typically either very over-stated, or very repressed – there’s rarely anything in-between. For example, in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Michelle Yeoh’s character (Yu Shu Lien) has been tragically denied her love. Colette argued also that when Jen leaps into the abyss in the final scene, this represents the fact that there is literally no space for her, or her desires.
  • There are often undertones of male castration anxiety within scenes of women fighting men. This might sound extreme, but Colette played us a stunning movie clip from Kung Fu Girl (1973). And because she’d said that, I guess it had primed my mind, and it now seemed startlingly obvious (to me anyway!)


  • Images of Asian women tend to fall into just two simplistic categories: the Lotus Blossom Baby or the Dragon Lady. Even many supposedly transgressive martial arts heroines ending up falling into one group or other. The typology comes from Renee E Tajima who explains that the Lotus Blossom Baby can also be presented as China Doll, Geisha Girl, or Shy Polynesian Beauty. The Dragon Lady can appear as Fu Manta’s various female relations, prostitutes, devious madams. But there is little in between.
  • The female characters are often portrayed as being stymied by their out-of-control emotions. Either the woman’s crazy emotions prevent her from reaching Zen-like enlightenment; or the emotions fester inside her, and render her a “poison woman”. A typical example of a “poison woman” is Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (Jade Fox is actually played by the same actress as in the clip above –Cheng Pei-pei)


  • “Bad-ass” heroines are very often either “rehabilitated” by the end of the movie through marriage – or “punished” through exile or death.
  • The movies often fetishise women’s bodies in a stylised way – Colette explained that The Lady Assassin is a typical example of this.
  • Carol J Clover’s notion of the Final Girl in horror movies can also be useful for analysing some martial arts films: A common plot line in many horror films is one in which a series of victims is killed one-by-one by a killer amid increasing terror, culminating in a climax in which the last surviving member of the group, usually female, either vanquishes the killer or escapes.

Colette explained that the Final Girl figure has to be asexual and female. This allows the male viewer to vicariously enjoy the feelings of terror, without losing his own sense of masculinity. So the Last Girl is generally not an empowering figure – she is just a symbolic plot device, there for the male spectator. And in any case, she is often helped out at the end, and does not win the battle in her own right.

During the questions afterwards, one audience member asked Colette if it might be productive and healing to just stop talking in terms of gender, and think only in terms of human beings or martial artists, and their respective skills.

Colette and Dr susan pui san lok (another presenter at the conference) advised that this was indeed the ideal they’d like to reach ultimately. But that all the time unhealthy tropes keep repeatedly appearing in these movies, discussions on gender will need to remain out in the open.

ColettKungFuryBCUe said that she has only just started to skim the surface of this fascinating topic, and intends to go into it more deeply for her next project. I for one will be looking forward to her conclusions very much . . . !

Colette was speaking at the conference: Kung Fury: Contemporary Debates in Martial Arts Cinema organised by the Martial Arts Studies Research Network.

You can read more about Colette’s work at:

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: 

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: