Monday, 18 February 2013

I'm a woman, not a small man!

Do you think that martial arts are institutionally sexist? I'm not saying that they are or that they’re not, I'm just asking the question.

I sometimes feel like a square peg in a round hole when it comes to my training and the harder I think about this the squarer becomes the peg and the rounder becomes the hole! If I don’t think about it then I fit in perfectly well in my club and don’t perceive there to be any problem at all.

Have I confused you yet? The problem is when I just concentrate on learning the art of karate (or jujitsu or kobudo as I have in the past) then it all seems very relevant to me and I enjoy learning it all. BUT when I think about my own personal self-defence needs I realise that a lot of what I learn is not terribly relevant to women, or is, at least, not presented in a way that is relevant to women.

The self-defence aspect of martial arts is not sexist but it is male-centric, i.e. it generally revolves around the needs of men and the self-defence scenarios that they may encounter. Women are being trained to fight like men. This is not surprising since martial arts were developed by men to teach men to fight other men. Yes, I know Wing Chun was allegedly developed by a woman but it still mainly teaches its practitioners to fight like men.

I suspect most instructors don’t think about it like this – they treat all their student’s the same (so in that sense it is not sexist) but they just treat everyone like a man – women are trained as if they are just small men.

Lots of people tell me that strength is not important to make a technique work and that most techniques can be adjusted slightly to help small people make them work on big people. I don’t doubt this (well sometimes I do) – I have witnessed small (but stocky) women throwing much bigger partners - in the artificial environment of the dojo. However would you ever advise a woman to move in for a hip throw in a real situation in the street? Isn't it expecting a lot for a woman to execute this successfully? Doesn't she put herself at greater risk moving into position for such a throw?

Perhaps we shouldn't ask can this technique be altered so that a woman can do it but rather should she be taught this technique at all? Is there something more appropriate to teach her?

Is there any danger in teaching women to defend themselves like men, particularly if they don’t even realise that is what they are doing? After all, women will not be attacked like men. Men attack women differently to the way they attack other men.  

Men will often find themselves attacked in a ‘monkey brain’ scenario – they get into an argument, tempers rise, they square up to each other, a cascade of hormones is released and a fight kicks off – others may join in and the ‘multiple attacker’ scenario ensues, often in public (a bar, football ground or just in the street). The attacker(s) reigns lots of punches and possibly kicks at the defender who defends his head until he can get some sort of counter-attack in. The defender may have been verbally ‘provoked’ into the altercation but he will not have been ‘groomed’. Women don’t generally face this type of scenario.

Women face a more ‘predator-prey’ situation. There may or may not be a period of ‘grooming’ before hand, e.g. ‘chatting up’ in the pub to gain trust, followed by being separated from friends to isolate them. The attack will then happen privately away from public view, usually by being grabbed first and verbally threatened with violence if they scream. A woman may be taken to another place to be raped/murdered. Or the isolation and violence may occur in her own home by her own partner. These are worse case scenarios for most women but the ones they fear most.

Of course men and women can face similar attacks too – road rage/trolley rage attackers, car park assaults/car thefts, random street attacks by unsupervised psychotic patients etc so I’m not saying there’s no overlap at all, there clearly is but there are also many differences.

Adding to all this, women are also psychologically different to men. They differ in their experiences of violence growing up (girls tend to avoid playground fights and are more cooperative and less competitive with each other) which affects their perception of an attack and their initial response to it (women can be over-trusting of strangers but experience greater levels of paralysing fear).

The physical (generally smaller, weaker stature) and mental (more trusting but more easily frightened by real violence) differences of women compared to men make some self-defence techniques less suitable for women. For example:

·         Punching. Most women have small fists compared to most men. However hard they can hit for their size they are unlikely to inflict any damage on an adrenaline fuelled attacker, they are more likely to hurt themselves. Women are better to train with open hand techniques striking soft (vital point) targets of the body and head.

·         Throwing. Like I said before – just because they can doesn't mean they should. Moving towards an attacker to position for a throw makes a woman very vulnerable to being grabbed and controlled.

·         Locks. These can be notoriously difficult to apply in a ‘fight’ situation anyway and doubly so for small female hands against the adrenaline fuelled large, strong limbs of an attacker.

·         Multiple attacker training. Apart from the very rare situation of ‘gang’ rape (more common in war zones where it is used as a weapon, but I’m not talking about war) women don’t face multiple attack scenarios so it is better to focus more on predator-prey situations.

There is a mismatch when women, training in male-centric environments, are trained to defend themselves like men when they will be attacked like women. There is a risk that they will be trained in in-effective strategies for the situations they face.

Do you agree?

Remember - I'm a woman, not a small man! (I might have this put on a t-shirt!)

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Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Taiji seminar revisited...

Following my last posting on taiji, Joe Harte has kindly written to me and filled in a few gaps in my understanding. I thought I would share them with you. Below is a re-post of part of my original post with Joe's comments inserted in blue type....

Joe Harte
Last Saturday my husband and I attended a taiji seminar in Durham with experienced taiji instructor Joe Harte, whom I met and become acquainted with through my activities with the annual Marfest event last year.

We like to talk about internal and external arts and generally find our own art categorised into one of these groups without fully appreciating why or what it really means. I’m well aware that karate is categorised as an external art yet in karate we talk about (a lot) and practice (to a lesser extent) breath control, mind-body-spirit unity, altered mind states such as mushin (empty mind) and zanshin (aware mind). On the surface these seem like ‘internal’ elements yet karate remains doggedly an external art! Why? And what, therefore, is an internal art?

[ Internal / external? Originally I’m told the Chinese would refer to arts from outside china as external. But that has changed over the years and now usually is a way of referring to arts that train the mind to use intention, awareness, and energetic responses, sometimes with breath. Few however know or use the stretching muscle to generate power which has far greater potential than using contracting muscle states to develop power. See my teachers recent interview where he discusses what makes an ‘internal’ art:  ]

These were questions I wanted to answer. Joe had intrigued me with something he said last year along the lines of “…Master Huang changed this form so that on the outside it looked exactly the same but on the inside felt very different….” How can something be changed to look the same on the outside but be very different in the way itfeels?

[ Master Huang 1910-1992 had studied Fujian White Crane from the age of 14 with some of the famous masters of the time. It seems the Yang Fast form died out so later in his life he introduced the Form  Er shi Ba from the white crane to the Taiji world. Slowly he changed the emphasis of this fast form over a lifetime of study to internally harmonize with the Taiji principles. So now the Quickfist that we train is externally the same, but internally changed  towards that of Taiji]

I knew the only way I was going to gain any insight into what an internal art really is was to go and experience it for myself. Having fortuitously met Joe I now had the means and opportunity to do this so I booked us onto the seminar….

Joe had warned me to dress up warm – several layers, hat, gloves, scarf etc, and wear flat shoes. “You won’t get sweaty in a taiji class,” he warned nor could he guarantee the heating would be on. Like many people I had a mental image of doing forms in a slow, relaxed way. I knew that more than that must be going on but wasn't quite sure what.
[sorry about the hall heating!]

We arrived a bit late due to the adverse weather conditions- the heavens had decided to drop another 3 inches of snow all over Britain on Friday night meaning there had been very little time for the gritters and snow ploughs to get the roads clear. The class was already doing some gentle warm up exercises so we just quietly got ready and joined in at the back.

The general etiquette and atmosphere in the class was much more relaxed and informal than in a karate class – no waiting to catch sensei’s eye to bow you onto the training area or giving you punishment press-ups because you are late! In fact, no bowing (or press-ups) at all.
[The relaxed atmosphere is more typical in Taiji classes. Also rather than belts people are recognized by the subtlety of their training, although some Taiji schools use uniforms and belts we don’t.  People are more or less free to express themselves allowing to see more of their true nature, whereas strict etiquette or outer rules would potentially block this. Seeing this helps people understand themselves in their effort to slowly change]

After the warm up exercises Joe explained that we were going to do Master Huang’s 5 loosening exercises. My interpretation was that these exercises are partly designed to help you relax your body and muscles properly and partly to start you on the path to discovering your ‘deep mind’. Joe talked us through these exercises instructing us on the external movements required and how we were supposed to be thinking and feeling on the inside, teaching us how to listen to our internal senses rather than just relying on our external senses.
We are all familiar with our external senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste but not very familiar at all with our internal ones, which were defined as temperature, pressure, pain, muscle state and joint position. The idea seems to be to try and connect with the part of the unconscious mind that generally controls these senses automatically – the deep mind or Joe sometimes referred to it as the ‘body’s mind’. So as we went through the loosening exercises we were encouraged to think about the pressure experienced on our feet as our weight shifted about or about whether certain muscles were in a state of contraction or relaxation. [ the shift from external senses to internal ones is not at all easy. As the body moves the superficial mind ‘listens’ more easily to the gross outer movement, this masks the much more subtle internal sensations which are listened to by a deeper part of the mind – this takes long long training – discussed in part in my article Milestones in the Mist  ]
See my previous post for the rest of my discussion about this seminar

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