After an epiphany earlier this month, I started my first class studying Japanese Kendo. Kendo is a martial arts practice and tradition of sword fighting, that was developed to pass on ancient methods of warrior training, but uses bamboo in training in place of steel swords. Once Samurai were no longer permitted to carry swords, the tradition was developed to maintain the ancient training and techniques. Kendo practitioners train always with an opponent in mind, not only in physical training but mind training as well in preparation for potentially very long battles. You are trained to be aware that any second your guard is down, could cost you your life.
After my third lesson where I felt like things were progressing faster than I had expected, and entering a new environment of people and methods in training, I started becoming aware, again, of the emotional and mental issues that come up for me in new situations like this, including issues specific to being a woman..
At the time I started Crossfit I was in terrible physical shape, and very (self) conscious of it. I had had a strong yoga practice a number of years before but health issues, work schedules and raising a young child, I got to a point where I had to step away. I remember well the day I decided to take on a new job where I knew the yoga practice I had developed would have to be sacrificed. It was so painful for me, that day, I remember being so sad, knowing that I was losing something that felt like such a big part of my well being, as well as losing my physical conditioning. But there are times in life, especially when you are a mother, where we have to make these kinds of choices.
What attracted me years later to Crossfit, before I knew much about it, was not only the challenge of physical conditioning and strengthening, but also stepping into territory that was unfamiliar, and intimidating to me. For a number of years as a child I had asthma to a degree that even running for one minute, brought on wheezing, and required me to be on drugs that I now know, had substantial side effects, causing sleepless nights and anxiety (specifically albuterol). For a few years in particular it was not only physically difficult, but generally demoralizing, as I was always the weakest of my peers. Gym teachers weren't sensitive at this time, and I think only compounded my insecurities. Fortunately in my mid teen years the condition bettered, and I was able to go off the drugs on a constant basis, but I was still left feeling pretty insecure about my body in the context of athletics.
As an adult this made me more conscious about my health than average, however it wasn't until I got involved in yoga with a great male teacher, that my experience, my physical life, and my ideas about my health, made a great leap.
Getting back to Crossift, however, it wasn't until I got into it, that I came to understand, that I was facing and working with a lot more than just my physical self, but that I was coming up against so much of my conditioning as a woman, as well. It has been both a hard and greatly healing experience. At an age generally older (Gen X) than most other women training at my gym, I observe generational differences around female empowerment, and see younger women reflecting a confidence from having grown up in an environment that overall offered more equality and general respect for women, than in the past (despite all of these issues and impressions currently in the news). Growing up when I did, while athletic activity was admired for girls, there was a lot less flexibility around gender roles.
Therefore weightlifting, for one thing, was not a normal option for girls. Being or seeming strong, with the exception of certain sports, I would say aside from soccer, gymnastics, field hockey, and basketball, running, and swimming, wasn't particularly encouraged. If you look at popular aerobics exercise videos from the 1980s, you can see the relatively scrawny contemporary ideal for women at that time, which (thankfully!) has dramatically changed. Even though things had come a long way since the 1950s and early 60s, girls and women growing up in the 1970s and even early 80s, were expected, though mostly unspoken, to be compliant to men, much more so than today.
I should point out that some of this is hard for me to talk about; it feels shameful and humiliating. But the past year and a half has brought these issues to the forefront for me, like it or not. While there's more to the story than I'll go into here, I have faced a fair number of times where I was threatened, and assaulted, mostly by men, but women too. So when I talk about the role of conditioning, part of what I am talking about is not knowing how to deal with these experiences, not knowing how to defend myself, or fight back. It sounds ridiculous, but I would even say not knowing how to even seem strong. Having faced situations like this since I was a young teenager, every single time I was shocked and unprepared, because almost always people attacking you are looking to catch you off guard, and things happen so fast, that unless you know better, you end up, victimized.
So for the past year and a half, because of a supportive environment and in particular the encouragement of my coaches, I have been able to gain insight into some of these experiences, and awareness of how it has effected my physical and emotional composure, as well as the aversion I experience when I am working to change these tendencies. And ironically or paradoxically, while my efforts to physically train have come from within, so much has been due to the support of my specifically male coaches, whom have helped me so much, to heal and grow through all of this.
Now as I enter a male dominant martial arts practice, I am again facing up to the same issues. Part of the practice of Kendo is actively intimidating one's opponent, through physical presence, posture, awareness, and vocal expression. These are precisely things I want to develop and learn. The experience so far is challenging but I am going along with what is being taught to me, just as I have in the past year and a half.
So much of adulthood and maturity is coming to terms with our lives and also acceptance and understanding of who we are, and as we age, making sense of our life stories. As a person always seeking growth, while I have experienced some challenges that I have touched on here, I have at the same time received extraordinary support from many teachers and guides, including some exceptional men, and to a lesser degree women, who have encouraged me throughout my life in my physical, intellectual and emotional empowerment. It is very important to state this, especially in the current media climate of over simplifying complex gender dynamics. I hope in the future there will be more women coaches and mentors in traditionally masculine sports, who can share their life experiences and compassion and support to other women and girls. My daughter has already been trained in martial arts, and is more empowered than I could have ever imagined, at her young age.