I had studied karate at a local dojo in North Western Ontario for three years, but because of a bad bout of mononucleosis and an injured hip decided that I needed to retire my gi for stretchier pants. Also, I will admit, I had reached the point in martial arts where I either needed to develop a more competitive attitude or get out. With a blue belt, there could be no more avoidance of sparring, breaking blocks of wood with a bare hand, or training for longer hours than I had time. Thus began my inner questioning. What exactly did I love about martial arts? Where could I get the same fulfillment without the stress of competition?
First of all, taking karate lessons in my early thirties served an important lesson in building confidence and self-awareness. My path to the dojo was the result of an unusual, but effective, response by my administration to a violent incident in our school. On the first day back after summer break I was caught in the midst of an argument between two student gangs. Twenty years later, I can still picture the very red lipstick of the girl who pulled the knife on me, although her three friends have receded to grey shadows in my memory. Once the police were called and the feuding girls had been sorted out, the school could have chosen to drop the matter. Instead, in partnership with the local dojo, they brought in Ron Yamanaka and Personal Protection Systems from Toronto. This dedicated team taught teachers personal self-defense skills while also helping us to create a Women’s Self Defense course for the girls in the school, as well as a Budo Life Program for the boys. It was my first in-body awareness of how carriage can both reflect and transform a person’s inner state of being. Most surprising to me as a self-titled feminist, however, was realizing how difficult it was to change my mindset about responding to and using physical force. Three years later when I decided to leave the dojo, I knew I would still want to continue developing this physical sense of self.
Secondly, I simply loved the beauty and challenge of kata, a series of movements in slow motion that create different fight scenarios. I would spend hours practicing these moves by myself and with my teacher friends who were also karate colleagues. It must have been an interesting sight to see two or three women break out in kata in the midst of a walk down the street. In northern communities, however, everyone cultivates a quirky side to pass the time … especially during the long winters.
An awareness of space within and without my body was not the only reason why I wanted to capture the essence of martial arts within a gentler framework. Challenging my physical limits, working on physical balance, and learning how to breathe had become essential components of my daily life. Not only had I improved my physical conditioning, but I had also achieved a greater mental and spiritual balance in my life.
Once I recovered from my bout of mono and my strained hip, I did find a replacement for the karate dojo. Assuring me that yoga was more than just meditation, a good friend finally coaxed me into my stretchy pants and a t-shirt and took me to her class at the Recreation Centre. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a practice so similar to the kata that I loved in this most unlikely of places.