Recently, a friend mentioned that when she first noticed me, she was struck by my walk. She said I walked like someone who was not to be messed with. When I mentioned that I have trained in the martial arts for years, she said my walk revealed that training. The curious part is I found “that walk” in a therapist’s office. I faked it for years, but I came to own the walk through years of training in a martial art. After spending so many years curling up to protect myself, hiding, and running away from the violence, I would have never guessed that I would finally own my past and love myself by getting hit again.
This pandemic has affected us all in different ways, some more seriously than others. I recently posted that I REALLY need to sweep someone and that I often think about kicking my husband while he is talking to me. I am not a violent person, nor does my husband drive me that crazy. One of my martial arts peers understood well when she commented, “you are fight starved.” That is it. I am desperately fight starved. I need the feeling of my foot sinking into a human body. I need to feel the breeze of a fist that just missed my face. I need the sound of a body hitting the mat. The satisfaction of watching a body bend and fall when a joint lock is just right. I also need to feel a foot upside my body, need to fall on the mat, need to feel my body give under a pressure point strike or a joint lock. I am fight starved. And. It sucks.
“For most people outside of the martial/fighting arts, the idea of fighting arts as a foundation for anti-violence work does not make sense; they find this connection challenging.”
Many people, who do not train, do not understand martial arts beyond what they have seen in the media. I often get, “Well, I won’t mess with you.” To which I often respond with “Were you planning to? But, I’ve been so nice to you. Why would you want to mess with me?” Another response from some who trained as children is “Oh, I did that when I was eight.” I usually just smile, thinking I don’t think so. Of course, many 8 year-olds train and are amazing; it’s just that your training changes as you age. The main question I get is “have you ever had to use your training?” only to see a confused look when I respond, “every single day.” At this point, I attempt to explain that martial arts, for most of us (unfortunately this does need qualifying) who train, is not about physical violence, but about confidence, control, and caring for others; in fact, it works against committing acts of violence. For most people outside of the martial/fighting arts, the idea of fighting arts as a foundation for anti-violence work does not make sense; they find this connection challenging. However, the differences are stark and obvious to many of us who are actively involved in a fighting art.
Last February I attended a talk at the annual Association of Women Martial Arts Instructors (AWMAI) conference on creating community through the fighting arts. Our discussion focused primarily on the differences between participating in the fighting arts and participating in violence. The primary differences between the fighting arts and violence we came up with are community building vs. relationship destruction; trust/ consent vs. violation; vulnerability vs. aggression; playful sharing vs. domination. These differences are crucial to growing in your art. If you train and only see acts of violence or being able to avenge the wrongs against you, you have, sadly, missed the point.
Martial Arts Training as a Survivor of Violence
I have often said there are two things that saved my life: punk rock and martial arts. While this may seem like an overstatement to many, I know, for me it is not. Both came into my life when I was ready for them and needed them. Of course, at the time I did not realize how desperately I needed them. Only in retrospect was I able to see the positive impact they had, and the major shift my life took after becoming involved with each one.
At that same AWMAI conference, I took a class on defense against weapons. I had taken a gun and knife defense class from the same instructors several years before at a seminar and was really impressed with the way they thought through domestic violence situations in order to set up their trainings. The first scenario we worked through was one where we were controlled through a hair grab. When my partner grabbed my hair the first time, a had a sudden twinge of nausea; over 30 years had passed since someone had grabbed my hair in a violent way. The response took me by surprise; I had practiced and taught hair grabs before without issue.
These practices were usually focused on someone grabbing the hair during a fight that you would see in any given middle school, high school, or bar. But, this training, the grab was a controlling grab, one more likely in a domestic violence or intimate partner situation. I reverted to my old way of dealing with hard situations: suck it up, stuff it down, keep going. My desire to fine tune my technique and to build my knowledge to share with others carried me through the practice as well. Knowing that if I can work through my own challenges, I not only build personal strength and confidence, but I can pass the knowledge on to others; this is what drives me in almost every self defense class I take or teach. Sharing and growing with others I think is a foundation of most martial artists’ training. That said, getting hit while on the mat can also be fun and cathartic.
“Coming from a place where my body was used against me through violence, controlling my own body and using it to free myself is empowering.”
Looking to the differences between fighting in a controlled environment versus violence can explain how acts that have caused so much pain (and therapy) in my life can bring so much joy. Important to note is the fact that on the mat we focus on technique and strategy and the success or failure of implementing our technique and strategy. In this way, it becomes more like play than violence. In this play, we push each others’ boundaries: What can we take physically? What can we take psychologically? Where are our boundaries overall? We may leave the mat looking and feeling like we have been on the receiving end of a violent act. But, on the mat, we build a community. We share responsibility. We expose our weaknesses. We learn to trust each other.
In this environment, the sting of a hit is cathartic; I take it and keep going. The physical pain does not control my emotional well being, but enhances it. The pain stays on the surface of the body, does not sink in and take up residence like the pain of my past did. In fact, it has rooted out some of the old pain. When I strike back, when I get out of a tricky hold, when a jump up off the mat after being thrown, it is a victory. And, my training partner celebrates with me and I with them. At the same time, when I get stuck in a hold or find a foot smacking me upside my face, it is still a victory because I have learned something in a place that is safer for me. On the mat, we push each other to grow and understand how we work in our own bodies. Coming from a place where my body was used against me through violence, controlling my own body and using it to free myself is empowering.
Through training and the confidence I have gained, I have finally learned to unapologetically draw my own boundaries. I do not feel the need to make things better when someone reacts negatively to those boundaries. I do not apologize for respecting myself and my needs. Training allowed me to walk that walk that puts some people off, the walk I learned in a therapist’s office, sitting for session after session after session trying to just look her in the eyes. Then I stood with my head up. Then I learned to move forward in that position. Finally years later, after moving away, after moving back, after developing a rare autoimmune disease, after confronting many of the obstacles in my life and the bad choices I made, I stepped onto a mat and learned to own that walk.