The first night I got there a little late, so I just got on the mat and tried to copy the other students. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt – not the best kind of clothes for martial arts. Which is to say, I did just about everything wrong, but fortunately the teacher didn’t throw me out.
I can’t remember now – it’s been too many years – but I was probably the only woman there. Over the year I trained there before moving to Washington, DC, I remember only one other woman in the class. I kept trying to get my friends to join, but the couple I got to come to class with me said not just “no,” but “Hell, no.”
The names of the people I trained with escape me, but I can still see the room: a small space covered with wrestling mats just off the front entrance of the Y, with a picture of Jigaro Kano, the founder of judo. (Judo classes also met there, hence the picture and the mats.) No air conditioning, which will mean something to those of you who’ve ever spend any time in North Texas during the summer.
We trained in Shorin Ryu karate, an Okinawan form. Our teacher was a first degree black belt, pressed into teaching so he could keep up his own training. We did typical karate training – drills, katas, some sparring – but the specifics are lost to the vagaries of memory.
Except that the teacher said one thing that has stuck with me all these years, through all the different training I’ve done: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” Meaning work on doing it right, not just on doing it.
I fell in love with it. Fell hard. I jiggered my schedule where necessary to make sure I made my classes every week. I limped through class after I sprained my ankle, only took a week off after I had surgery.
When I moved to Washington, the first thing I did after finding a place to live was to start looking for a place to train. I studied for awhile with Ja Shin Do, an all-woman system based on Tae Kwon Do. Their feminist approach and ideas on action mind and victim mind stay with me today.
Eventually, I found a good Shorin Ryu school led by Jim Coffman Sensei, and trained there for about seven years, training four times a week. By this time, I had learned to watch class and talk with the teacher first.
Shorin Ryu is hard-style, and one of the things we used to do was beat on each other’s arms to toughen them up. I recall going to work with bruises on my arms, which freaked out the guys but fascinated the women. (I still couldn’t convince them to join me in training, but at least they thought it was cool that I was doing it.) I also recall training with beginning men, who were surprised both by how hard I could hit and how little I reacted when they hit me.
I started training in Aikido when I felt stuck in karate and tried to do both for a year before I gave up and decided to stick with Aikido. I’ve never regretted my choice. I love Aikido even more than I loved karate, and that is saying a lot.
Why do I love martial arts so much? It’s not just physical movement, though that’s part of it. I need to do things with my body.
I like to walk, and I used to like to run and lift weights. But those things aren’t martial arts. And some physical activities don’t work for me. Yoga – at least the physical side – does nothing for me, and those dance-style exercise classes give me the heebie jeebies.
I think Aikido and karate both drew me, and kept me, because they’re a way of working on yourself while working with other people. That is, every step you make in improving yourself is constantly being tested in the real world – or at least, the real world of the mat. It either works, or it doesn’t.
My recent studies on embodiment made me aware of another reason: martial arts training undercuts all that training in how to be a girl. All women get lessons in that from infancy: “Don’t climb that. Don’t get dirty. Girls don’t do that.” There’s nothing like learning to hit and kick and throw people – and to get hit, kicked, and thrown – to erase those lessons.
Training let me become a whole human being on my terms. It still does.