Book review: Women in the Martial Arts, ed. Carol A. Wiley

Women in the Martial Arts, edited by Carol A. Wiley, was published in the early 90s. Many of the themes which come up are still relevant today.

The book is a collection of essays written by female martial artists from many different arts, ranging from T’ai Chi Ch’uan to Aikido, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu, and more. With more than 20 essays included, there are a wide range of viewpoints.

I found parts of the book slightly tedious, as it seemed to confuse “martial arts” with “self defence”. Although they do overlap, and martial arts can be very useful for self defence, they are not the same thing. The title of the book led me to believe it would be about martial arts, and I was hoping for more philosophy.

However, there were some very interesting essays on, for example, doing Aikido from a wheelchair, how the teacher-student relationship changes for various combinations of genders, and the meaning of “power” in the context of martial arts.

Many of the essays comment on the relative paucity of women in the higher grades of martial arts, and I feel this is still the case. Yes, women do train, and women do get promoted to high grades, but there are far more men at those ranks than women.

The low number of female role-models is an ongoing issue in many spheres of life, not just the martial arts. From CEOs (8 in the FTSE 100 as of Oct 20211), politicians (6 out of 23 cabinet members in the UK as of Feb 20222), to aircraft pilots (90% male as of 20213), too many careers lack the visible proof that women are valued.

What can we do about this?

If you are a woman, don’t be afraid to start (or continue!) a martial art. If your first experience isn’t great, try a different style. Train hard, get good, and stand proud. It will take time – most useful endeavours do – but it will be worth it.

And everyone – treat your training partners as people, not as “man” or “woman”. Yes, some techniques may need adapting based on your body shape, but that is true for the difference between a short fat man and a tall thin man as much as it is between a man and a woman.

Do you have experience learning or teaching as a woman in the martial arts? What are the most interesting things you have noticed about it?

Are you a woman who is considering starting? What most worries you, and what are you most looking forward to?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

No such thing as a push up

I know. Sounds crazy, right?

Of course there is such a thing. We’ve all done them. Some of us better than others, but we all know what they are.

I’m here to tell you that they don’t exist.

This revelation came to me while watching Crash Course videos on YouTube. For those who haven’t found them yet, Crash Course is a series of introduction courses to various topics. For each topic you get 40 or so ten-minute videos which give an overview of the whole thing.

I’ve been working my way through a selection of wide-ranging topics, from World History to Linguistics via World Mythology and Astronomy. I highly recommend them if you’re interested in expanding your mind a little bit in lots of directions.

But I digress. Today’s topic was inspired by the Anatomy and Physiology course.

Understanding how the body works is important for many things, but particularly in martial arts. If you know how it’s put together you can better predict how people will react to different stimuli, and you can figure out how to make them do what you want.

While watching one of the episodes about muscles, the presenter commented that there is no such thing as a push up, and it got me thinking.

Muscles help you to move. Each skeletal muscle is attached in (at least) two places. One of these is the origin and the other is the insertion point. When they contract, these two places get closer together. This is the muscle pulling.

Muscles don’t push.

If you want to reverse the movement, you need either some gravity or an opposing muscle. Think for example of your biceps. You tense your biceps and your hand gets closer to your shoulder. If you want to push your hand further away, you need to either relax and let gravity do its thing or use your triceps to pull your arm straight.

Niwadare, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So what about those push ups? What is actually going on when you do one?

Well, lots of things.

First, the obvious one: pectoralis major. The pectoral muscles are the big fan-shaped muscles in your chest. This muscle connects your sternum to your humerus in the upper arm. When you’re dropping down during your push up, it’s relaxing slowly so that you don’t face-plant. When you “push” up, it’s pulling your arm closer to your chest.

The pectoralis major is assisted by the pectoralis minor, which as the name might suggest is smaller. This one helps stabilise your shoulder blades while you move.

At this point you’re probably thinking “but what about my arms? My arms hurt when I do too many push ups!”. And you’d be right. Next on my list is the triceps brachii, the muscle on the back of your arm. It connects your upper arm and scapula to your lower arm. It helps you lower yourself slowly as it relaxes, and straightens your arm when you push up.

The deltoids, on top of your shoulders, are also getting a workout. They connect the clavicle to the humerus, and help to bring your arm closer to your chest when you are going up.

The last, but by no means least, of the muscles on my list are the core muscles. These are the ones all along the length of your body which keep everything stable. If you’re not doing your push-ups correctly won’t be getting the attention they deserve. You should have muscles engaged all the way down to your toes

Bad (core not engaged) vs Good (core muscles tight)

So, having started out by telling you there is no such thing as a push up, I’ve now explained the muscle groups that you use when you do one.

Should you do them? Are they useful?

If done correctly, yes.

While most of the effect from punches in Shorinji Kempo comes from the speed, technique, and accuracy rather than muscle power, you can still get benefit from training your muscles. Training (at anything) with resistance makes you faster when you remove the resistance.

If you can extend your arms out in front of you with all your body weight on top, then imagine what you could do by extending your arm in front of you while standing up.

Just don’t forget to involve the rest of your body too!

Film review: Sister Street Fighter

Sister Street Fighter was released in 1974. It tells the story of Li Koryu (if you’re watching it dubbed into English her name is Tina), whose brother is the “top champion of the Shorinji school of martial arts”.

Only one problem – he’s gone missing! He was working undercover for the police, attempting to break a drug smuggling ring, and he’s been captured.

Tina must go on a mission to save him from the evil drug lord.

Who of course has his own army of highly trained martial artists. Cue a ridiculous number of hilarious fight scenes.

Sister Street Fighter, directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, starring Etsuko Shihomi

I particularly enjoyed the martial arts ballet dancers.

After battling across Yokohama, recruiting help from family and friends, taking refuge briefly in the Shorinji school dojo, and escaping death by the skin of her teeth, will she rescue her brother? Or will betrayal from an unlikely source be her downfall?

“The ideal of the Shorinji school is the unity of power and love. Shorinji is the embodiment of physical strength and zen spirit. Defence of the self is secondary. Your physical power and the power to love are one and the same.” – Sister Street Fighter, directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi

I also enjoyed the scenes around the 15 minute mark, where Tina goes to the Shorinji school dojo. The students there were practicing, and I enjoyed recognising the techniques they were using.

Sister Street Fighter, directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi

Who is this film for?

For those who just love crazy fight scenes and aren’t worried whether the plot actually makes sense, this is a great film.

If you’re interested in a strong female lead who isn’t afraid to kick some bad guys to hell and back, but also has emotions, you’ll also enjoy this film.

Sensei’s birthday bash

What do you get if you go to training on your birthday?

Well, if you’re the teacher and it’s your 40th and you make the mistake of letting your sensei run the class, it turns out you get 40 star jumps, 40 sit ups, 40 press ups, 40 different types of attack, 40 kata moves, …

And 4-on-1 randori.

So. Much. Fun.

Also I was quite tired.

Afterwards, we went out for lunch. We went to Eat Your Greens, which was a superb choice. Their vegan Beastie Breakfast was vast and tasty, and chocolate and beetroot cake is the best invention ever.

And the company wasn’t bad either. <grin>

Three daily exercises to improve your martial arts – and body

We all know that we should do more exercise. Our once- or twice-a-week martial arts classes are not enough to balance out our long days of sitting at a desk hunched over a keyboard.

But we’re busy.

And there are so many options. Do you stretch? Which body parts? Do you need more aerobic exercise? More strength? More flexibility?

It’s too hard, so we end up doing nothing.

I know, because I’m guilty of it too.

I’d love to say I do these three exercises every day, but the truth is that I often back-slide. That’s ok, as long as you pick yourself up and start again.

Because when I do manage a week of daily exercises I feel great.

Now, obviously there is going to be a lot of variation here depending on your current body condition and the martial art that you do. Do you need high kicks? Do you duck and weave a lot? If you’re not sure, talk to your own teacher about what skills they think will help.

However, there are a lot of things which are universal. Here are three exercises that I’ve found to be particularly helpful.

If you’re in pain, seek professional help. I am not a doctor or physiotherapist, just someone who does this a lot and hasn’t killed herself yet!

Hip mobility

The whole body is connected. A lot of people have hip pain that turns out to be tight hamstrings, nerve pain in the feet that turns out to be stiff glutes, back pain that is caused by tight hip flexors, and so on.

For me, lower back pain is the thing, and I’m told by experts I trust that it’s mainly caused by my hips and glutes.

Get down on one knee. You should have your knees at 90 degree angles. Now, tilt your pelvis forwards. This will increase the stretch on your hip flexors. If you’re not feeling it yet, congratulations, you’re more flexible than I am.

Rock gently forwards and backwards, always keeping the pelvis tilted. After you’ve done this a few times, push into the stretch and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat at least three times, and then do the other side.

You should be feeling the stretch down the front of your back leg – the hip flexor muscles.

If you’re feeling enthusiastic, you can throw in some pigeon stretches too, to focus on the glutes.

Shoulder mobility

This one is for the keyboard warriors. You spend all day hunched forwards – time to open out!

First, circle your arms backwards. Make the circles really big, brushing as close to your ears as you can. Do this five times slowly, and then shrug your shoulders loosely a few times to release any tension.

Do you have doors in your house? Find a doorframe and stand in the middle of it. Put your arms out to the side and brace against the frame. Gently rock forwards, pushing your arms backwards. Push into it five times, then hold the stretch for a few seconds.

I’m not affiliated in any way with these people, but they have a very clear explanation. The doors in the dojo were too wide to film it myself!

If you have super-stiff shoulders you might find your fingers start to tingle where the nerves are getting pressed. Change the angle of your arms slightly until you find a position that is comfortable for you. As you progress your range of motion will increase.

Hamstrings

Ah, tight hamstrings. The bane of many a person’s life.

Kneel down again, but this time keep the front leg straight. You’re going to lean forwards over it.

The important point here is to keep your lower back flat. If you hunch over, you won’t get the stretch in the right place. You won’t be able to get as low down over your leg as if you hunch, but it’s so much better for you.

Once again, move gently into and out of the stretch a few times and then hold it.

That’s it, just those three things. I could add others – spinal rotations and strength exercises and complex movements that activate several different things, but I know myself. If I add too much then I find excuses not to do anything!

What exercises do you do (or wish you did!) every day? Share your experiences in the comments.

BSKF All-Grade Seminar

Bristol played host this weekend to the British Shorinji Kempo Federation for a seminar for all members – from white belt to 8th dan black belt.

With people coming in from all over, it was a brilliant opportunity to meet old friends, make new ones, and get some top-quality teaching. We even had an instructor flying in from Switzerland!

The theme of the seminar was community and teamwork. There was a spirited discussion of why we practice martial arts, with some favourite quotes being:

After lockdown, I wanted to do something that wasn’t go to work or clean my house!

I made really good friends through Shorinji Kempo. We have a lot of fun!

There’s always something more to learn. I’ve been doing this for over 40 years and I am still learning. It never gets boring.

After spending some time honing our techniques, we also took part in some sparring practice. Normally sparring is one-on-one, but in the spirit of the seminar we teamed up and worked together in small groups. It was a useful lesson in how everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, but if we work together we can overcome difficult challenges.

When the seminar was over, we continued our community-building efforts by showing our visitors the local pub.

Bristol Shorinji Kempo: Indoor Martial Art Training Returns

Following the official British Shorinji Kempo Federation (BSKF) guidance for returning to usual training practices, indoor training has resumed, with the group meeting twice per week. 

No longer weather dependent, the Bristol Shorinji Kempo Dojo has resumed indoor training sessions. This means back to formalities, in-class meditations, philosophy teaching and one less excuse to skip training when it’s raining outside. 

While we wait for the world to continue to open up slowly and safely, our indoor classes are limited to six people per session, so please book your slot if you’d like to come along. 

Training schedule 

Tuesday 6.30pm-7.30pmOutdoor training This hour-long, outdoor session offers the perfect winddown from a day of work. Includes a warm-up, stretching and basics training as well as a chance to focus on developing your Kempo technique through feedback and critique. 
Thursday 12.30pm-1pmOnline training This super quick and sweaty session focuses less on the details of your form and performance but encourages you to practice some of the basics in a fast-paced kempo style workout. 
Friday 7pm-9pm
Saturday 10am-12:30pm
Indoor trainingOffering a more formal variety of outdoor training, these longer indoor sessions include the additional philosophy and meditation teachings. 

About Bristol Shorinji Kempo 

Shorinji Kempo is a Japanese martial art that teaches a complete range of self-defence techniques from punches and kicks to throws and locks, a form of shiatsu massage [seiho], seated meditation and philosophy. 

The Bristol Shorinji Kempo Dojo meets for outdoor training once a week in Arnos Court Park, just off the Bath Road in South Bristol, on Tuesday at 6.30 pm. Indoor training takes place at the Totterdown Methodist Church on Fridays at 7pm and Saturday mornings at 10am.

As well as in-person training, the group meets online on Thursday’s at 12.30 pm for fitness Kempo – a 30-minute class designed to move your body and work up a sweat. 

All new members are welcome, from white belts to black, and we always offer your first session completely free. 

We hope to see you soon, 

Bristol Shorinji Kempo 

The Importance of Target Practice in Martial Arts

Hitting, kicking or blocking a real target is important. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? After more than a year of contact-free Shorinji Kempo training, we’re thrilled to be able to re-introduce an element of physical contact into our sessions – for several reasons. 

Following the official British Shorinji Kempo Federation (BSKF) guidance for returning to usual training practices, we’re now allowed to use pads in our sessions. Our outdoor classes now offer the chance to practice hitting and kicking a real, physical thing (as opposed to the air in front of our faces)!

Improving aim, speed and accuracy

Having a proper target to practice with is crucial across all forms of martial arts. There’s a big difference in the way a punch to the air feels compared to a pad (or person)… 

By using pads, we’re getting used to the feeling of hitting something and improving our accuracy, speed and aim – all three of which are crucial components when hoping to progress in Shorinji Kempo. 

On top of helping to improve technique, using pads in martial arts also helps to better engage the muscles being used. This improves the quality of the training (in terms of exercise) and helps to build the strength that is crucial for maintaining good form in other areas of practice. 

Hand-eye coordination can be something that we all struggle with from time to time and it’s actually something that correlates with our overall physical wellbeing. Regular pad training is thought to help increase hand-eye coordination skills, which eventually leads to faster reflexes, improved reaction times, and even improved overall physical coordination. 

Pad work: promoting COVID secure Shorinji Kempo practice 

Aside from being great for practice, the pads mean that we’re also able to continue to train safely. All pad work is carried out in bubbles of six, with masks worn for that portion of the session, and each member of the dojo is responsible for their own pad to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. We also offer wipes, disinfectant and hand sanitiser, as usual, to clean up at the start and end of each practice!

All other training, including warm-up, basics practice and cool-down is carried out socially distanced. Of course, there’s no obligation to take part in the pad work portion of the sessions if you’d rather wait until you’re more comfortable doing so! 

About Bristol Shorinji Kempo 

Shorinji Kempo is a Japanese martial art that teaches a complete range of self-defence techniques from punches and kicks to throws and locks, a form of shiatsu massage [seiho], seated meditation and philosophy. 

The Bristol Shorinji Kempo Dojo meets twice per week in Arnos Court Park, just off the Bath Road in South Bristol, on Tuesday at 6.30 pm and Saturday at 11 am. 

As well as in-person training, the group meets online on Thursday’s at 12.30 pm and Friday at 6 pm for fitness Kempo – a 30-minute class designed to move your body and work up a sweat. 

All new members are welcome, from white belts to black, and we always offer your first session completely free. Either book online or simply turn up!

We hope to see you soon, 

Bristol Shorinji Kempo 

Bristol Shorinji Kempo: Outdoor Martial Art Training Returns

The last year or so has been weird, to say the least. And one of the things we’ve really missed at the Bristol Shorinji Kempo Dojo is training in person. 

Our zoom classes have been great, of course, but there are obviously a few aspects of martial art training that work, well, better in the presence of others. 

It’s one of the many reasons we’re so happy to be able to meet up again to train. Even with social distancing in place and the occasional cold weather (it’s still only April, but summer is coming), there’s something so great about 3D faces. 

And actually, if you’re thinking of trying Shorinji Kempo for the first time ever, this might be the best time to get stuck in. Why? Let’s take a look at some of the many benefits of practising Shorinji Kempo and why there’s no better time to get involved.

A Change of Scenery 

Most of our team (in fact, possibly all of us) are working from home. For lots of people, this means the same space to work, eat, relax, socialise, read and so on. By popping out for an hour of Kempo training, we’re able to give our minds a little bit of much-needed relief from the same old. Fresh air and Vitamin D work wonders for your general wellbeing and can be hugely beneficial to your mental health. 

Plus, if you’ve been sitting down inside all day, there’s nothing your body needs more than to get up and move about. By walking or cycling to the park for Kempo, you’re already working your body enough to start to prevent that stiff, achy neck we all know too well – that’s before training has even begun!

Don’t even get us started on the working-from-home screen time… Kempo gives your poor eyes a break.

Proper Practise – Without Being Hit

We always take care when practising Goho techniques. However, if you’re a beginner, we understand that an attack coming towards you can feel a tiny bit unnerving. If this is you, social distancing is the perfect excuse! Think of it this way: it’s more likely you’ll successfully dodge an attack if you’re two metres away from your attacker. By the time we’re able to practise properly on each other again, even the newest beginners will be an expert at blocking punches!

Healthy Mind, Healthy Body

All in all, we’re thrilled to make the most of training outside for our mental and physical wellbeing. From unwinding after a long day of work calls in the living room, to stretching our legs after back to back meetings, getting to the park for an hour or so works wonders and we’d really recommend giving it a try. 

We’re always happy to see new faces at our sessions, either online or in-person and the first class you attend is always free. You can either book through the website, or get in touch with us first via email if you prefer!

30 minutes Fitness Kempo (online)

These sessions focus on moving your body, running through some of the basic moves with a bit of extra jumping around and stretching thrown in for good measure. Book for either Thursday at 12.30pm or Friday at 6pm – or both!

60 minutes Technical Kempo (outdoors)

Our longer sessions give you a chance to practice and refine some of your Shorinji Kempo skills – think 15 minutes to warm up and run through a couple of basics followed by some more in-depth explanations of each movement. Book for either Tuesday at 6.30pm or Saturday at 11am – or both!

For outdoor training, head to Arnos Court Park on the Bath Road and find us in the top right corner next to the bike track. 

See you soon, 

Bristol Shorinji Kempo

Seiho in the time of Covid

If you read my previous post on Juho, you’ll know that some things in Shorinji Kempo require a little bit of… adjustment, in these non-touchy-feely pandemic times.

Seiho is another one of those things.

Seiho is the system of pressure point massage, joint manipulation, and other healing techniques which is taught as part of Shorinji Kempo. This obviously requires a little bit of physical contact!

Shoulder seiho is always popular with people who work in offices!

Fortunately there are a number of things you can do to yourself, using various props, to at least approximate the feeling.

(Here’s the obvious disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or other medical professional. If you have actual injuries, seiho will not help you – go see someone who can treat you properly!)

For this lesson, you will need:

  • A massage ball (or tennis ball, or lacrosse ball, or similar)
  • A stick (a broom handle is about the right thickness)

First, do some exercise. This will work better if you’re nice and warmed up to start with.

Have you done that?

Good, ok – now we can get to the fun part. Take your ball and sit on it.

Specifically, I want you to put it under one of your buttocks. Say you’ve gone for the right side first. Supporting your weight with your hands, put your right ankle on top of your left knee – you should now have three support legs. You can use these to control the pressure on the ball.

Now roll it around until you find a spot that feels tight, and just sit there for a bit. You can wiggle and bounce slowly if it feels good to you. What you’re doing here is putting pressure on a “knot” in your muscles, to work it out and relax everything.

Don’t worry if this is a little bit painful (although obviously use your common sense on the level of pain that is “good”!). It will get better the more your muscles relax. Generally, the harder your ball, the more pressure you’ll get and the more painful it will be to start with. If you’re really tight, start off with a softer ball.

Spend a few minutes here, really take your time and roll out all those muscles.

Now switch sides and repeat.

You can use this principle for almost any muscle in your body, so if you’ve got one that is tight or achey, go ahead and play around.

Everybody happy?

Excellent. Let’s move on to the stick. This one, I have to admit I stole learned from youtube – Tom Merrick of Bodyweight Warrior to be precise. But it’s a good one, so I want to share! He explains it very well, so if you’re confused by my description go watch his video.

For this one, we’re working on the calf muscles. These get tight in a lot of people, so it’s a good one to know.

Basically, kneel down with the stick behind the back of your knees. You’ll be working the stick slowly down towards your ankles, working the muscle as you go.

The first time I did this, I couldn’t kneel down properly because it hurt so much! Just put on as much pressure as you can take, and it will improve with time.

There are many more things you can do for “self-seiho”. Don’t be afraid to search youtube for good ideas or to experiment.

Keep active!