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How Martial Arts Empowers Women

22 Aug

If you watch martial arts movies, you know that martial arts is extremely male-dominated. This often leaves women wondering if there is a place for them in martial arts classes. Am I strong enough? Will I get hurt? Will there be other women there? Will I be taken seriously? Will I be harassed?

Janice earned her black belt after 50!

Anyone can do martial arts. Male or female, any age, even people with physical or cognitive disabilities can learn to do martial arts. If an instructor tells you differently, that only demonstrates their ignorance.

Any well-qualified instructor who has integrity should make ANY new student feel welcome and supported at their school. If this is not the feeling you get from an instructor, look elsewhere! Remember, the rules for authority figures are the same for anyone else– if it feels disrespectful, it is disrespectful.

Reasons women benefit from martial arts training:

1) Feel stronger and more connected to your body. Martial arts training develops balance, coordination, flexibility, strength, speed and power. You will be amazed at what your body can do! How hard you hit has very little to do with how big you are. When you feel good about what your body can do, you feel good about your body in general.

I trust Jennifer Endres (now 5th degree Master Instructor) to strike with control in close quarters.

2) Get comfortable setting physical boundaries.Working in close quarters with classmates to practice self defense techniques may put you outside of your comfort zone initially, but you will quickly find yourself becoming more confident and less intimidated by other people who are in your space. You also learn to set clear physical boundaries through communicating with your practice partners.

Did I mention how fun it is?! Laughter is a great stress reliever!

3) Let go of stress and anger in a healthy way.There is something about the physical process of throwing strikes, in the air or on bags, that literally shakes stress out of your body. This, combined with the grounding of stance work and learning healthy breathing techniques makes martial arts an excellent stress reliever, especially for those of us who feel we need to keep our stress to ourselves (a common concern for many women).

From my 2nd degree test-- The woman in red is my mom, Master Mary Murphy. The 4th degrees on either side of me are now Master Instructors as well! There's no end to the opportunities for learning...

4) Develop a sense of achievement and success. Regular practice leads not only to significant improvement in technique, but to opportunities for rank advancement. There’s something very satisfying about tying on that shiny new belt, a visible reminder to the whole school of what you’ve accomplished through persistence and practice! Plus, rank trumps everything else in a martial arts school. When we line up to take a drink at the water fountain, it’s not “ladies first”, it’s “white belts first”!

If you are in the Madison, WI area, check out to schedule a free trial class.

7 Self Defense Myths

10 Jul

My job as a women’s self defense instructors is widely misunderstood. This is partially because there is no really credible certification system for teaching women’s self defense, so many people teach it without a complete understanding of what they are teaching and give people the wrong idea. Why should you believe me over them? Not only have I grown up studying martial arts since I was old enough to walk at a school owned by my mother, a now 7th degree black belt in Shaolin Kempo Karate (a self defense based mixed martial art), but I have spent several years educating myself about violence against women through research, volunteer work and activism. Most self defense teachers understand one or the other– fighting back or what you’re fighting against. I strive to understand both sides.

These are some of the most damaging myths about self defense:

1. You need to learn how to protect yourself if someone attacks you when you are walking alone at night, because nobody you know would attack you, and if they did you would know what to do.

About 90% of violence against women falls under the category of sexual assault, and within that we know that about 85% of sexual assault is committed by someone the victim knows: a friend, acquaintance, family member or intimate partner. Most women don’t believe someone they know and trust could attack or sexually assault them, which is why their guard is down and they usually have not thought through what they would do in such a situation. A good women’s self defense class teaches more than martial arts– it teaches how to navigate dangerous social situations.

2. Women are targeted to be victims based on how they look and/or what they wear.

Attackers choose their victims based on what they think they can get away with. Who won’t tell? Who wouldn’t be believed? Who can they overpower with the least amount of struggle? This is why the majority of sexual assault victims are minors. To suggest that a woman’s appearance has anything to do with her attack is called victim blaming and it is extremely damaging.

3. Perpetrators of sexual assault and other violent crimes are sick and different, so they are easy to spot and avoid.

Most perpetrators look and act just like anyone else. I would even go as far as to say that many simply do not know better than to commit sexual violence. In a poll of college aged men whose actions fit the legal definition of rape, over 80% said their actions were “definitely not rape.” This is why it is important to talk about these issues and educate people to change our culture.

4. Self defense is mainly a set of physical skills plus screaming “NO!” and “BACK OFF!”

Self defense is first about recognizing and avoiding dangerous situations so you hopefully never have to use your physical skills, and second about recognizing that we as women are just as strong and capable of fighting back as any man. Although the material is serious, a good women’s self defense class should feel fun and empowering!

5. The hardest part about physically fighting someone off is that they are probably bigger and stronger than you and they may have a weapon.

Probably the biggest obstacle that most survivors report is the “fight, flight or freeze” response to trauma. Many women report that they didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late and then they were in such shock they were unable to think clearly or act in the way they would have thought they should. If you know how to fight back, it doesn’t matter how big or strong your opponent is. What matters is your reaction in a moment of high stress. That is why martial arts classes are great preparation– because they train your body to react to unexpected attacks with physical defenses, and because they teach how to communicate clearly while working in close quarters with other people’s bodies.

6. Women who don’t leave abusive relationships are different from me. I could never end up in a situation like that.

Any person is capable of ending up in an abusive relationship. I know many intelligent, strong, powerful women who have ended up in psychologically toxic or physically abusive relationships. If it were obvious, nobody would go there! The are so subtle and complex that the best thing you can do to avoid it is to understand and HEED the by getting out before you are too emotionally invested.

7. Pressure points and grappling are the best defenses for a woman who is not trained in martial arts.

UGH this one annoys me. Let me put it this way: most self defense classes are from 2-12 hours long. I have studied martial arts since I was a small child and I STILL have trouble using pressure points effectively. My first choice for physical defense? HIT ‘EM IN THE FACE!!! As for grappling, it’s so trendy right now with the surge in popularity of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and MMA. The thing is, joint locks are great (although too complicated for a beginner), but if you are smaller than your opponent you do NOT want to go to the ground with them. Yes, there are ways to defend on the ground but no, they are not easily accessible for someone untrained in martial arts.

Mom Power!

8 May

This Mother’s Day, instead of sending a card, I thought I’d share a little bit about how my mom has empowered and inspired not just her three daughters, but so many others…

I was brought up in my parents’ martial arts studio from the time I was born. My mom was proctoring black belt tests while she was pregnant with me. You know how little kids don’t realize right away that their moms have another name besides mom? Well, it took me even longer because all I ever heard anyone call my mom was ma’am. “Yes, ma’am!” “No, ma’am!” They didn’t want to have to do extra push ups! Basically, I had the coolest mom ever. When I was three, I told the neighbor boys (whose dad was a cop) that my mom could totally take their dad in a fight. As an adult, I now realize that, although true, that probably wasn’t a very nice thing to say … but I was just SO proud of her! Even at three years old, I recognized that it was something special to see a woman with a black belt– let alone running her own school!

Growing up studying martial arts, especially as a girl in a school with female leadership, I developed a strong foundation of self confidence that carried me though to adulthood unscathed by bullying and poor body image, cattiness and cliques. I owe it not just to my training, but to my teacher: Master Mary Murphy Edwards, 7th degree black belt.

This is my mom. Wouldn't you be inspired?

Once at Take Your Daughter to Work Day, my mom took me out of high school to the UW-Madison campus to watch her do a self defense demonstration at a Sex Out Loud event. I was used to seeing my mom teaching martial arts and throwing people around, but I wasn’t used to hearing college kids say in awe: “Wow, that lady kicks ass!”

My mother always told me, “It’s not the size of your muscles, it’s the size of your backbone that counts.”

When I was a teenager and started disagreeing with my parents, my mom stood up for me and said,

“I don’t want my daughters to back down to people just because they are older than them.”

Then there are the basic life skills– a different kind of empowerment. I complained bitterly growing up because my mom made me do chores. Now I know how to clothe, feed and clean up after myself and do household repairs and when I see other adults who don’t I think, “Wow. Thanks, Mom.”

In 2007 my mom moved to Texas, leaving me to run her martial arts school (can you say, “big shoes”?!). I still receive e-mails from students who studied under her years ago and want to get back in touch. And I still call my mom first when I need advice… about anything.

I guess what I’m saying is, Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there! Mom power!

Happy Mother's Day!

I teach to kids, and they can be soooo interesting to work with sometimes…

One kid in my class is a very smart, talented and charming little guy who sometimes forgets that he is bigger and stronger than the rest of the kids. He means well, but he has a habit of manhandling his classmates rather than using his words (we are working on this). Today, he was playfully grabbing one of the girls and she yelled,

“Stop touching me!” He didn’t listen to her, so I told him,

“Hey– You need to listen to her words. She is asking you not to touch her so now it’s your job to respect that.” Again, meaning well, he patted her on the shoulders saying,

“Sorry, sorry!” I stepped in again,

“She just asked you not to touch her, so touching her more is not the answer.” Inwardly I was smacking my own forehead thinking, “Geez, is this kid ever going to get it?” I looked up, and he was holding a sparring helmet above her head (to help her put it on) and, bless his little heart, he looked her in the eye and asked,

“May I?”

I was thrilled! I wanted to cheer, “And that’s how kids can practice talking about consent!” but instead I beamed at him and reinforced the behavior with a,

“Good asking!”

Kids are all up in each others’ space, as a general rule, and it’s mostly in good fun. It’s important for us as adults to set the standards, however, that both kids and adults need to ask before they touch and listen to the answer. If kids practice respect, they will grow into respectful adults.

Don’t Be A Punching Bag: Fight Back!

25 Feb

I am LOVING season 11 of . Ok, maybe as a martial artist I’m a little biased. This season more than ever they are moving to a martial arts based training program. The 2 new trainers are a Golden Gloves boxer (Cara) and a kickboxer/mixed martial artist (Brett). More than that, this season has a wonderful group of very compassionate contestants and totally fierce women! If anyone watched season 10, you would have seen that one woman (Ada- they called her “The Terminator”) had to rep for all the females. I love Ada but man that season was so frustrating to watch. Really obnoxious gender dynamics in the group.

Anyway season 11 is awesome, you must check it out. Prepare to be inspired.

I love this show because it is all about physical empowerment. You watch mostly sedentary people with serious health problems transform into full-fledged athletes. Ever heard of a thing called mind-body connection? By week 7 or 8, you see all of them, one by one, blossom into completely different people. They become confident, assertive, expressive and most importantly they stop questioning whether or not they can accomplish any task set before them. No matter how difficult the task, they approach it with a can do attitude.

A downside of the show is that, because it is a competition, not everyone can continue. On the other hand, because they have to fight to stay there, they are forced to find the fighters inside of them.

Martial arts based training programs, aside from being a fun and engaging way to exercise, really help people to get to that point. Particularly for women, martial arts is such a healthy way to find the fight you need to succeed in life. As women we have a lot to fight against:

  • Unhealthy body image we learn from the media
  • Lack of representation/recognition in history, politics, sports, etc.
  • The idea that we are “the weaker sex”
  • The impulse to put everyone else first
  • The learned habit to constantly apologize for what we think, feel or say
  • The fact that female-dominated professions are undervalued and underpaid
  • Creepers at every turn…

Yet, I often see women in my self defense classes who seem physically pained at the thought of hitting someone! The thought of it. Seriously. And I have to wonder to myself, “Would you be that pained at the thought of taking a hit?” The answer is usually no.

How can this not look fun to you??!

I’ve heard people say that, generally speaking, men take out stress externally and women take it out internally. Of course there are exceptions (I, for example, want to punch people in the face when I am stressed), but in general I have seen that to be true. Women seem to feel that we don’t deserve things. Even basic things, like feeling safe and comfortable and happy and good about our bodies. I’ve said this before but just for good measure: You deserve to feel safe, happy and confident! I’m not saying you should go around punching people in the face, but I am saying you should not take crap from other people. You are strong and intelligent and anyone who makes you feel otherwise is a worthless jerk, so forget them.

Check out this of Jillian Michaels teaching Biggest Loser contestant Marcy not to be a punching bag. Love her or hate her, Jillian is hard core. I’m going to go on the record and say I’m a fan. If you watch the , you’ll see another great scene with the new trainer Cara boxing Kaylee, a contestant who didn’t know she was a fighter until she got in the ring. Great stuff!

You don’t have to do martial arts to be a fighter in your heart, but if you’re having a hard time finding the fight in you it’s a great place to start. If you’re in Madison, WI and you mention this blog post by March 31, 2011 I will give you a FREE 30 minute private lesson to help you get started at my studio: . Call 251-7755.

If you’re not in the area but interested in starting training, here’s some tips on how to find the right place for you:

  1. Martial arts studios should offer a free class or week, or at least a reduced rate drop-in class before you sign on to any sort of contract. I recommend trying classes at more than one place before you make your decision.
  2. Listen to your instincts. Martial arts training involves a lot of trust, so look for instructors that make you feel safe, welcome and supported.
  3. Self defense vs. competition is one of the biggest differences between schools. My school is a self defense based school, focusing on personal development. If you like competition and find it motivating, that might be a good fit for you, but personally I don’t see the value of full contact sport fighting. There are ways to compete, like light-contact sparring, that won’t leave you with a broken nose.
  4. Do you see a variety of people in class? When the student body is diverse in terms of gender, race, ability, body type, etc. that is usually a good sign.
  5. Are there female instructors or high ranks? You can’t always hope for this, because it is a male-dominated profession, but it is a good sign for you when women are in leadership positions in any setting. That being said, I know many wonderful male martial arts instructors who believe strongly in female empowerment and equality.

Ok, now go forth and fight back! Let this song be your soundtrack:

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