Climbing Things, Choking People, and Disability Inclusion (Guest Post)

I don’t remember why I had to go into the campus gym. As a nerdy college freshman who had no athletic interests and was in a wheelchair to boot, I felt out of place even being there. But while taking care of that long-forgotten errand, I saw something that would become a cornerstone in my life: a rock climbing wall.

As a kid, I would climb on anything I could — playground equipment, piles of mats in adapted PE class, anything I was physically capable of. I loved the creativity and problem-solving inherent to climbing. That impulse was still there at 18, so when I saw the wall, I immediately wanted to try it. But how? I have cerebral palsy that affects my balance (thus the wheelchair) and makes using my upper body difficult. One arm likes to reach up — when it’s not too spastic. The other prefers to stay closer to my body but is better at fine movements. Both arms move on their own and may or may not cooperate with what I want them to do. This did not portend success in rock climbing.

Sometime during winter quarter, I got up my courage and decided to visit the Outdoor Adventures office. I shakily introduced myself to the person in charge and said that I wanted to climb.

He was immediately enthusiastic about the idea. Unlike me, he knew of other climbers with disabilities and jumped into discussing possibile ways for me to climb. We talked about what I could and couldn’t do and what kind of gear I would need. From that moment, there was no question of whether I would climb, only how. A few weeks later, with the help of a full-body harness, I climbed for the first time. Despite being completely exhausted after a grand total of 20 minutes on the wall — climbing is hard and I was completely out of shape, having only recently begun to do any exercise after more than two years of inactivity — I fell in love with it.

At the wall, I learned to focus on my own progress rather than comparing myself to others. I spent weeks or months working on a single climb before any academic endeavour required such persistence and met people who remain friends to this day. (One is now a close colleague.) Wanting to climb better made me pay more attention to overall fitness. Eventually, I developed the endurance necessary with my slow pace, started using a regular harness, and surprised myself by learning to climb overhangs. I am now 33, have been climbing for most of my adult life, and can’t imagine going for long without it.

In 2014, however, I faced precisely this prospect after a massive water main break flooded much of the central part of campus. (After finishing my Ph.D. in ecology, I ended up working at the university where I had done my undergrad.) The rec center had reopened but the climbing wall would be closed for several months because the floor padding had to be replaced. While I was still doing gym workouts, I wanted something more fun than weights and cardio machines. I therefore decided to follow a childhood interest in martial arts and try Brazilian jiu jitsu, the choice being motivated largely by the fact that BJJ is a grappling art and the floor is my natural habitat. To start, I showed up to the first day of the beginner BJJ class.

While being on the floor felt comfortable to me, doing anything physical in a group setting certainly didn’t. (The only time I had done so was in a karate class I tried in undergrad.) Fortunately, someone had left a large punching bag lying on the floor and I used it to transfer from my chair to the mat without having to speak to anybody. I listened to the instructor’s introduction and then joined the other students, trying to keep up with the warm-up. (Calling it a warm-up seemed like an understatement, but I digress.) I could do, or sort of do, most of the movements and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the butt scooting I had come up with in childhood actually being taught. At some point, the assistant instructor came up and started helping me adapt some of the harder drills. Despite the fact that I managed to pop a toe doing a move that you couldn’t possibly hurt yourself doing, nobody questioned my being there and I came away from the first class knowing that I would return.

It wasn’t smooth sailing from there. Jiu jitsu isn’t easy for anyone and I’ve had more than my share of challenging moments. (Doing a drill with the instructor as my partner and mounting him backwards is high on the list.) But I loved the power (learning the rear naked choke on a much bigger guy got me completely hooked), the competitive outlet, and most of all, the mental challenge of sparring. And there was always support, both from the teachers and from fellow students. In fact, sometimes more advanced students would take the lead in coming up with an adaptation or substitution or making sure I was included when there was a guest instructor who didn’t know about me. There was no false cheerleading and discussions of how I was doing always felt honest, but the ongoing message was to keep at it. And I did, eventually going to my first open mat and training with people who had never met me before, then dropping in on classes at another school while we were on break, and then competing at Grapplers Heart, a tournament for grapplers with disabilities. I plan to stay on the mats for the foreseeable future — and given the number of gis in my closet, I had better!

What made these experiences of inclusion so successful? The thing that drew me to both climbing and BJJ — the constant puzzles that both offered — was part of what made them inclusive. Both activities emphasize technique and strategy over purely physical attributes. (In fact, BJJ started out as an adaptation of what is now called judo.) In both, there are many ways to achieve something and figuring out what to do is an intrinsic part of the activity. Most importantly, both embrace failure. Everyone who climbs falls off the wall — a lot. Everyone who trains BJJ gets tapped out — a lot. The only difference is the level at which these things happen. This results in a culture focused on individual improvement, at whatever pace. And this readily gives rise to inclusion.

Jane S. is an ecologist currently doing curriculum development in mathematical biology. She enjoys climbing, Brazilian jiu jitsu and any activity that involves thinking with your body. She also put way too much time into choosing the color of her most recent powerchair.

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

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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 www.budo-inochi.com and like/follow her facebook page:www.facebook.com/kaimorg

 

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

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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 www.budo-inochi.com and like/follow her facebook page: www.facebook.com/kaimorg

Fitness after chemotherapy (Guest post)

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This is a photo of me, on my first day back to aikido class after five months of chemotherapy for breast cancer. I look pretty happy, don’t I? Aikido classes are an important part of my life that I had to put on hold during my treatment. This blog post is about my personal experience getting back to aikido (and other physical activity) after chemo.

I have Sam to thank for introducing me to aikido. For a couple of years she kept suggesting that I come out to her dojo, and try this unusual Japanese martial art that focuses on self-defense. My only regret is that I waited so long. Aikido has become the central physical activity of my life, and I believe it has also helped me mentally and emotionally deal with my breast cancer diagnosis and fear of death from cancer.

After my double mastectomy, I rushed back to aikido as soon as humanly possible (after my surgeon gave me the okay, two weeks post-op). Aikido made me feel strong and centred, and connected to a community that I love. Being able to do aikido was healing for me.

So when my chemo started, it was really hard for me to come to terms with the fact that it was probably best for my health if I stopped attending classes until my chemo was over.

Chemo kills fast-growing cells like cancer, but it also attacks healthy fast-growing cells like hair follicles (leading to the hair loss typically associated with chemo) and bone marrow, where white blood cells are made. Low white blood cell counts then leave you vulnerable to germs and infections, and if you get an infection while your immunity is low on chemo, it could become a life-threatening emergency called febrile neutropenia.

My dojo is in a busy community centre full of families with kids coming and going, and I started chemo right at the beginning of flu and cold season. Yeah. Not a good combination. Add to that the fact that aikido involves close physical contact with several others during class, and two of our weekly adult classes are held immediately following children’s aikido classes…  You get the idea. So I reluctantly gave up aikido classes for the length of my chemotherapy treatment – 18 weeks in total.

Thankfully, a black belt friend of mine visited me at my home every few weeks during my chemo, when my blood cell counts were at their highest before each infusion, and marked through techniques with me for a few hours. (I also memorized the Japanese names of most of the common techniques during my practice with him – something that will be useful, since all of my future belt tests will be in Japanese.) Apart from those cherished days, however, I went into serious aikido withdrawal during chemo.

Why did I miss aikido so much? Most classes (which are one hour or one-and-a-half hours long) are a decent workout – lots of full-body movements, calisthenics, breakfall (rolling) practice, and technique practice, which involves being thrown to the ground and getting up over and over again. But aikido also engages me mentally, as I try to master and recall the Japanese names of the techniques, as well as the techniques themselves. There are so many tiny details to learn, which is why the study of aikido can take decades. There are hundreds or even thousands of possible combinations of attacks, controls and pins, and on top of that there’s an element of coordination and patience required to blend effectively with your opponent’s energy, and redirect it without using excess effort. Done well, aikido is like dancing, and makes me feel like I’m flying, both literally and figuratively.

I’ve written on this blog about some of the other ways that I exercised during my chemo treatment. Don’t think that I’m some sort of superwoman, though. I wrote that blog post half-way through the 18 weeks of chemo, and the final nine weeks were much more debilitating that I expected. By my last chemo infusion I was spending most of the first week following each infusion in bed, sleeping and feverish. Exercise was not a priority, except to increase my white blood cell counts. I tried doing gentle qigong exercises every day, and that was about it as far as exercise was concerned.

So when my chemo was finished, and my white blood cell counts were finally back to normal, I was on fire to get back to aikido again. My doctor gave me the okay on a Tuesday morning; Tuesday night, I was dressed in my uniform and ready to roll. Literally.

Don’t think that I immediately reached my pre-cancer fitness level, though. Aikido classes were actually a humbling measuring stick for my stamina, and I was surprised by how much strength and endurance I’d lost. That first class, I had to sit down after the warm-up and watch the rest of class. And for about three or four weeks I had to stop frequently during each class and rest before playing again.

I feel pretty lucky that I didn’t experience too much lasting fatigue from my chemo, but there’s definitely been some. (Thankfully I didn’t have radiation treatments, which can also increase fatigue.) As I write this, it’s been seven weeks since I’ve been back at aikido, and truthfully only in the last week or so has my endurance felt like it’s returned to my pre-cancer levels. I had several injuries (knees, right ankle, right wrist) that I was nursing before my cancer treatment; since going back to aikido, they’ve all been acting up again, which has also put the brakes on overdoing anything.

My dojo offers classes six days a week, and I attend them all. But right now I only get on the mat for three or four classes per week. The rest of the time I just watch. I have a belt test coming up (the same belt test that Sam did, here), and I’ve been focused on getting as much practice as I can without stressing my body too much.

In addition to time on the mat, I also help set up and put away our dojo mats for each class, which is a nice, light aerobic and weight training activity. And I’m still doing qigong as often as I can, which usually ends up being three or four times per week.

In my experience, if you’re facing chemotherapy and you’ve already been fairly active before your cancer diagnosis, using your favourite activities as rewards to look forward to at the end of your treatment can be a great way to stay motivated and quickly get back to movement after your chemo is done. I know that for me, aikido was definitely the carrot on the end of the stick that made chemo more bearable, and I’m positive that my quick recovery from chemo has been at least partly due to my regular aikido practice.

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You may also be interested in these blog posts by Michelle about her breast cancer experience:

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

“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 . . .

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Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger. You can read more of her stories and articles at www.budo-inochi.com or follow her Facebook page: www.facebook.com/kaimorg

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

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Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger. You can read more of her stories and articles at www.budo-inochi.com . . .

 

 

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

 

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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: https://kingston.academia.edu/BalmainColette


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 www.budo-inochi.com. She also writes stories and other articles for the Good Men Project:http://goodmenproject.com/author/kai-morgan/