Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Warriorship of Women

Settle in and get comfortable, grab a cup of your favorite beverage, this is going to be lengthy post.

Last month I was involved in a conversation with some fellow martial artists ( men and women) about how women have been oppressed since the dawn of time on a global scale. That is not the topic of this post, nor have I been on this planet since the dawn of time so I cant offer a point from that perspective. However, one point that was brought up in the broad scope of the topic specifically focused on how women have not been allowed to be warriors. Could they be warriors now in our modern age?  We discussed it back and forth, but the thought stayed with me. Can women be warriors? Have there ever been female warriors or has this always been a male dominated subculture?

Before I even went into history to examine the veracity of the statements made by my colleagues, I drew on my own experience. I have been in several schools in my martial path. All of them had a mixed population, although the harder styles tended to lean towards male students. I wondered if this was because the style was hard or were the women being treated differently? I took some impromptu polls of female students and found that in some schools they are treated differently than the men. For example, some women have been cautioned against doing push-ups off their knees because they are perceived as not strong enough. Others were told that they couldn't strike certain surfaces because it was too hard for a woman.

In my personal experience I have stood in front of some formidable female warriors. In most cases I outweighed them by a good 50-100 pounds. Not one of them flinched at this size or weight disparity, in fact they relished it because it allowed them to really execute their techniques. One senior student used to stand about six inches away from me and still manage to kick me in the head full force. Another was such a technician with her hands and evasive maneuvers it was like fighting smoke, until you got hit. Were these women the exception? I don't believe so.

So lets see if there are any precedents.

Fu Hao was one of the many wives of King Wu Ding of the Shang Dynasty and, unusually for that time served as a military general and high priestess.

Tomoe Gozen is thought to have been a late twelfth century female samurai, an onna bu geisha who may have pioneered the two sword style made famous in the 17th century by Miyamoto Mushashi.

The daughter of a Duke, Princess Pingyang raised and commanded her own army in the revolt against the Sui Dynasty. Later on her father would become Emperor Gaozu.

The Spartan princess Arachidamia is said to have fought Pyrrhus ( of the phrase pyrrhic victory) with a group of Spartan females under her command, and killed several soldiers before perishing.
The British Queen Boudicca led a revolt against the Roman Empire in 60 AD, but was decisively defeated.

Emilia Plater was a Polish noblewoman who fought as a Captain in the November 1830 uprising against Russia.

The Roman Empire was known to occasionally have women fighting called gladiatrix.

The Dahomey a people who live in Western Africa  established an all female militia, who served as  royal bodyguards to the king.

In Native American history, most of the Native American tribes contained a group of respected and well established women who were leaders of their militia. These leaders determined the fate of prisoners of war among other tribal decisions. Europeans and early American settlers refused to deal with the Native American women on such matters leading to their significance not being understood or appreciated until fairly recently. 

In Vietnam the sisters Trung Trac and Trung Nhi led a rebellion against the Han rule in 40 B.C. According to tradition they were joined by many women warriors and succeeded in establishing a short lived independence.

In South Asia and the Indian subcontinent the concept of woman warrior exists both in the mythos and in history. Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi was one of the leading figures of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and was described as "remarkable in beauty, cleverness, and perseverance. She was also considered the most dangerous of all the rebel leaders.

In Indonesia, Martha Christina Tiahahu joined a guerrilla war against the Dutch Colonial government as a teenager in 1817.

Lyudmila Pavilchencko was a Soviet sniper during World War II, and is regarded as the most successful female sniper in history.

This list is by no means exhaustive, however the examples set the precedent for female warriorship. In India which is considered the birthplace of martial arts by many, there are still many female warriors, specifically training in Kalari Payattu.
The word Kalari means practice ground in Malayalam.  The traditional training ground of Kalari Payattu , a martial art of Kerala which is a state in south India, is always done inside the Kalari which literally translates to threshing floor or battlefield. Payattu means exercise in arms or practice.
Kalari playgrounds have, for centuries been used by both, men and women. Historically when men went off to fight battles, young women were often left behind to defend their villages and families. Women also trained in Kalari were able to resist invaders and bandits along the roads. Those who were from a higher caste also had access to a wide array of weapons at their disposal. Those from lower castes used ordinary utensils such as knives, anything and everything was considered a potential weapon. The lower castes also specialized in a more sophisticated from of empty handed combat. 
Kalari also had a place of some importance in the education system  in ancient Kerala. Today Kalari Payattu is a method of physical fitness divided into several schools- Thekkan and Vaddakan being two of the most known. It is a system that even today teaches young girls hand to hand combat.

So what has happened?  Why are women viewed as inferior warriors by modern society. especially in schools that teach martial arts?  It could be said that the media has played a role in this even though there are now more strong female protagonists. It could be that society is finally acknowledging women as warriors after a long time of denial. Whatever the case may be, there is a definitive shift in the perception of women as warriors taking place. I would argue that this is not a new trend but rather a return to a state that has always existed. 

So I presented a problem, let me suggest a solution. I wont say its the only solution, but it is a solution I can actively employ. In our school, we are what I like to call gender blind. Our instructors look past gender when training a student. What is taken into account is ability, mastery of technique, determination to learn, and character. These traits are not gender specific. In our school we believe in cultivating warriors, not tournament champions. That is not a slight against tournament based schools, I think tournaments have their own place in the martial world. It is just not the focus of our school. This means we do not make exceptions based on gender and we expect our students commitment to be based on a warriors mindset, male or female. If more martial arts schools adopted this stance I think we would cause more of a shift in the perception of women as warriors.

Its possible you may be thinking-well that's a good sentiment, but pound for pound a man is stronger than a woman. Being stronger, the man will win in any conflict. I disagree, but let me share an analogy that stresses the importance of technique.  My instructor, a Shihan- used to explain it this way.  The explanation was usually in response to my question of outweighing him by 100 pounds and he was still able to easily deal with my attacks. He would say " If I take a bullet and throw it at you, at most it will annoy you and be ineffective. If I take that same bullet, put it in a gun-the same small piece of metal has devastating consequences if shot at you, and connects." This is why we stress technique over strength. Its not that I feel strength is overrated, its good to be strong (we certainly do enough conditioning to support this fact), but if I had to choose between strength and technique I would choose technique-always. It has been my experience that technique overcomes strength when they meet.  This is why the females in our school are expected to be as  formidable as the males.

I was recently shown this in my weekly jujitsu class.  During class we working on a wrist lock and throw. The person I was paired with was a senior both in rank and in age ( she was easily ten years my senior). Whenever I am with a senior( in rank) I like to ask questions. In this case I presented the scenario that what if I just held my wrist in place could she still execute the lock and throw?  She said "Well why don't we try and see if I can?"  I proceeded to attack, she sidestepped, grabbed my wrist locked it and flung me easily. "I guess it does work" she said as she smiled at me while I lay on the floor. Just to make sure I understood the mechanics behind the exercise we worked on the same sequence for an hour. It was a literal, visceral (and jarring) lesson. When I did execute the sequence on her, it required no strength on my part but rather a shifting of the hips and unseating her balance. she reminded me that its not the strength that makes it effective-which is why so many people make mistakes, but rather proper technique. The technique is the foundation she kept telling me.

So what does this all mean? Well, if you are female and reading this post I encourage you to embrace the spirit of warriorship. If you are male and hold a different opinion than the one I shared here, that's fine. We are all entitled to our opinions, I would challenge you however to open your thoughts to the possibility that women are as capable as men in being warriors. 

I recently heard an interaction between my wife and one of my daughters. The context was that my daughter had hurt her knee. My wife went over and quickly addressed the situation acknowledging that bumping your knee hurt, but then she said something truly profound.  She looked at my daughter and said" We aren't going to let that stop us though, right? " My daughter nodded still in pain, but smiling.
"Do you know why not?" she asked my daughter.  Together in a rising crescendo they both answered.
" Because we are Warriors!" My daughter ran off to continue playing.

The warriorship of women has a long and rich tradition in history. It is up to us to make sure that in continues into the next generation and beyond.

I would like to hear from both my male and female readers. What are your thoughts? Agree or disagree? Lets continue the conversation.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body

Sensei Orlando

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Power of Sitting

Everyday I sit for fifteen minutes. Everyday. You may be saying, well that's not a very long time, and you would be right. Fifteen minutes of your day is actually a very small amount of time. Or you may be saying ,well I sit everyday for hours, whats fifteen minutes?

 Well let me clarify my definition of sitting. For fifteen minutes I intentionally sit in zazen (seated meditation) and still my mind. The running track we all have in our heads gets quieter. I connect to my breath on a deeper level and I just am. On some days (more often than not) those fifteen minutes feel like an hour. Bombarded by random thoughts that seem to be waiting for just this moment to assault me, I do my best not to hold on to any of them. Rather I am an observer as they come and go, always returning to the anchor, my breath. On some rare days (very rare days) the time seems to pass by in a compressed manner. Fifteen minutes seems like five and I marvel at the relativity of time in the context of perception.

So why should you sit? At the very least it gives you quiet time to yourself, to be with you. It highlights ( at least for me) the deeper level of connection we all share. When I sit I can "see" that I am part of a greater whole. Sitting also serves to focus your breathing. You will notice your breathing pattern withing the first minute. We have a tendency to breathe from our upper chest, shallow and rapid. When you take a moment to focus on your breath and move it downwards to your diaphragm, you fill your lungs, oxygenate your blood to higher degree which in turn sharpens your thought process.
 Let me list some of the benefits of meditation, I wont go into detail since there are many sources of information on this:

  • Increased pain tolerance
  • Decreased stress
  • Higher cognitive function as you age
  • Access to greater creativity
  • Stronger immune system
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Emotional balance
This short list presents some very good reasons to sit for a few minutes each day and breathe.  
The list is by no means exhaustive and yet if there were a pill or a drink that offered all of the above, people would get it in droves.When we find out all you have to do is just sit for a short time each day, it seems too good to be true.

 When we train in our school like many other styles, we start and end our training with a moment of seated meditation. It is actually a moment of reflection and contemplation on our training path. It prepares us for the class that is about to begin, and at the end of class it allows us to reflect on the class that just took place, our performance and where we need to focus in our training. We prepare ourselves to leave the dojo and to face the world once again. While this sitting is essential to training, it is the sitting we do in our daily lives, the one we make part of our day that effects a change in us.

We have a tendency to live our lives at a breakneck pace. Our days are full of activities and we are constantly running from dawn until we go to sleep. In the course of all this activity (because many of us will say I don't have time) I invite you to allocate 5-15 minutes just to sit and be still. Some of us will find this very easy. Most will find it difficult at first. What do you mean be still? Do you mean not do anything? Does this mean I cant go online, get on the phone, send a text, read my email and call someone?  If that sounds like your idea of  not doing anything this will be a real challenge for you. 

For 5-15 minutes just sit and focus on your breathing. Period. 

Give it a try and let me know how it goes, I will be curious to hear the stories. Leave me a comment.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body

Sensei Orlando

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Virtue of Humility

Some time ago a gentleman entered the dojo to inquire about classes. This is not the first time this has happened and is quite a frequent occurrence. In this instance after some discussion about the class schedule, I invited the gentleman to come try a class to see if it was the type of training he wanted to pursue. I usually get a  number of responses at this point.
They range from- "OK I'll be back on x day to try the class." to  "Can I just sign up now?' However this time was different. He informed me that he was a black belt in another style and could he just wear his black belt  to class. For a moment I thought he wasn't serious, I realized he was. So after some thought (about 5 seconds worth), I politely said that he could not wear his black belt from a completely unrelated style to a new school where he would not know the techniques. His demeanor changed instantly and he proceeded to tell me that he had trained for many years. My response was that he should endeavor to find a school in the style he had devoted so much time to and that if he needed help in that, I would be willing to offer it. He declined (not so politely) and left the school.

This incident stayed with me for several reasons. Initially I was dumbfounded that someone would even suggest they wear their black belt as a student just beginning in a new school. It spoke of an ego of immense proportions. It was (in my opinion) very disrespectful. After some more thought I realized that the reason this situation gave me pause was the lack of humility. Humility is actually a very important component in our training and life. In order to undergo years of repetitive, physically and mentally demanding training, you need to be humble. In our school some of the instructors are younger than the students, those students need to have humility in order to learn from these instructors.

I have found that the only way to progress is to not only know when you don't  know something, but to be able to admit that you don't know and to seek out someone who does and learn from them. To be able to do this you must be humble. To acknowledge you lack skill or ability or knowledge in an area and then to seek out a mentor or instructor requires humility. The other side of that equation is that you must accept the instruction from said instructor/mentor. Its not enough to just be there you have to be teachable. I recently had a young student in a class embody this. When I would state a technique she would say I know ( she is 8 years old). So I would say " Great! Show me." Then she would proceed to show me that she didn't know. We all go through this phase as children. The key is not to remain in this phase as adults (or children).

A part of the process in our school when you achieve a high enough rank, is to wear a white belt again. Usually as part of the process of becoming a black belt, you wear a white belt anywhere from 3-6 months. I went through this process several times and it serves a quite a reality check. You can examine if most of your identity is wrapped around your waist or if you embody what you are training regardless of the color of your belt.

This lesson of humility that is learned in the dojo is meant to be practiced outside the dojo as well ( as most of the life lessons are). Leaders, those that are successful almost always possess this quality. If you look at some of the most successful companies in the world, many of them have leaders who self effacing, who do not seek the recognition, who lift others up before themselves.

We often confuse humility with  being timid. Humility is not having an attitude self-debasement or self denigration, rather humility is maintaining pride about who we are, our worth and  accomplishments but without arrogance. It is the opposite of hubris- the excessive and arrogant pride which leads some to believe that they are infallible. Thoughts that usually occur right before a downfall of epic proportions. Humility is the quiet confidence that has no need of boasting, it is about being content to let others discover the depth of our talent or ability. It is a lack of arrogance but not a lack of aggressiveness in the pursuit of  excellence and achievement.

There are several indicators of humility,here are a few:

How do you treat people who may not offer you anything in return?

Do you find it easy to say " You are right" ?

Can you easily ask input from others or do you have ALL the answers?

When working with others do you need to have all the recognition or can you work from the background allowing others to be receive the credit?

Can you see every situation as a teaching moment, even if the teacher is a child?

I am certain there are more indicators of humility in our lives, these are just some questions to get you started.

I hope they set you on a more humble journey through life and your practice.

Sensei Orlando
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body