Women and Aikido – The Importance of Moving Beyond Our Comfort Zone

Tara Sophia Mohr (@tarasophia), founder of the women’s leadership program Playing Big, and author of Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message, observes that the behaviors we learned as girls in school— studying, preparing, performing, being “good students” —can be just the opposite of what we need in our careers, where we need to handle the unexpected, manage conflict and challenges, and improvise with confidence.

“We want to learn to be uncomfortable. So much of women’s playing bigger is really about learning how to be out of our comfort zone, have fear flowing through our veins, have a little adrenaline going, because we’re out of the status quo and familiar. We’re stretching. But we can get comfortable with that feeling of being uncomfortable. And that’s something that school often doesn’t train us for a well, because it’s so routine, and we can get into a certain comfort zone.”

Tara Sophia Mohr
In the video at the Huffington Post article, Why Women Need To ‘Unlearn’ Classroom Skills In Order To Succeed At Work

Mohr was not talking about Aikido training, but what she describes is exactly what we practice on the mat. Aikido isn’t about being prepared with a constrained set of responses. Instead it’s teaches us to go with the flow, stay relaxed, and work with our circumstances as they unfold, even under pressure. We learn to be OK with uncertainty, a rush of adrenaline, and a little fear. We become less limited by our past conditioning.

Whether you are a girl in school (or a parent of one), a young woman just getting started in your career, or a more mature woman looking for more freedom and spontaneity in life, and grounded flexibility in your work, consider the benefits of training in Aikido. Expand your comfort zone beyond being prepared only for what’s expected.

X Chromosomes – Being a Woman in Aikido

This is the twenty-fourth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

X is for X Chromosomes.

Women are not strangers to the martial arts – not outsiders, nor newcomers. We have been an integral part from the beginning both in battle and defending the home while the men were away. Here are a few examples:

  • There were female samurai. “… even though authentic accounts of fighting women are relatively few when compared to the immense amount of material on male warriors, they exist in sufficient numbers to allow us to regard the exploits of female warriors as the greatest untold story in samurai history. Over a period of eight centuries, female samurai warriors are indeed to be found on battlefields, warships, and the walls of defended castles.” (Quoted from Female Samurai Warriors, at military-history.org.)
  • The art of Wing Chun was (according to their accepted legends) created by a Shaolin Buddhist Nun, Ng Mui, as a form of self defense that didn’t rely on size or strength. The art was named after her first student, Yim Wing Chun.
  • The naginata [nah-gi-NAH-tah], a long staff with a sword at the end of it. According to the United States Naginata Federation, “The practice of Naginata is unique among martial arts in the following way: for the last three centuries the tradition of Naginata has been kept alive primarily by women.”
  • United States history also includes female warriors. In many cases women had to pass as men to be allowed to train and fight for their country. According to this Library of Congress blog post, “… at least 400 women served as soldiers on both sides of the Civil War …” From the same source, “The stories of these women soldiers seemed to be collectively dismissed and disbelieved, pushed to the margins and regulated to footnotes if not forgotten entirely.” I’m sure this is not unique to the civil war period, and helps account for our general ignorance of women’s involvement in martial pursuits.
  • Aikido also has a strong female influence. You may recall that in our earlier discussion of history, we learned that O Sensei, the founder of Aikido, was strongly influenced in his spiritual and philosophical beliefs by the Omoto religion. Omoto-kyo was founded by a woman, Nau Deguchi. Onisaburo Deguchi, O-Sensei’s spiritual teacher, was her son-in-law.

The glass ceiling in martial arts

In martial arts, as in other areas, most of the organizations overseeing administration, including rank promotion, have been managed by men. As in almost every other area of life, women are often seen as being less capable, less committed, and less worthy of recognition – also-rans, playing along for their own amusement, not serious students or practitioners. There are many cases of women not being granted high rank or public recognition alongside their male peers.

Even Fukuda Keiko Shihan, the only woman to ultimately achieve 10th Dan in Judo, faced a long battle against this bias. According to the Keiko Fukuda Judo Foundation, “She gave up mar­riage and left her home­land to ded­i­cate her life to judo, fight­ing gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion that kept her at lower belt lev­els decades longer than men less skilled than she.” Here is an 11-minute excerpt from the documentary about Fukuda Shihan, the highest ranking woman (10th dan) in Judo: “Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful.” In the film the head of the Judo organization is reported to have said that Fukuda would not be awarded 9th dan (a very high rank) because no other women had been awarded 9th dan – a kind of circular reasoning that would result in no woman ever being granted that rank, regardless of achievement or contribution to the art.

Some women have been discouraged even at the lower levels, or treated as if they and their training really didn’t matter. I encountered this myself, decades ago, as a 3rd grader, in Judo. The boys, many of whom were more experienced students, refused to train with me, my sister, and our friend – and the teacher allowed that. Naturally we learned very little, and didn’t continue after the summer program ended.

I don’t know any woman who takes up training in a martial art in the hopes of learning a special, watered-down version “for girls.” Women want to be challenged, pushed to become their absolute best. If you find you have a teacher who doesn’t consider you to be a student as serious as any man in the dojo, and an honest conversation doesn’t resolve the situation, leave. You cannot be their student if they are not able to be your teacher.

Women in Aikido

In Tuesday’s first class, as sometimes happens, there were more women on the mat than men. In the second class the participants were all male, but the instructor was female – me. During open training session after one recent class I noticed that all seven students on the mat were women, working on upcoming exams. Our dojo is pretty well balanced that way, right up through the ranks. At least 7 of our black belts, or yudansha [you-DAHN-shah], some of whom are also instructors, are women: Megan, Karen, Sharon, Amy, Stephanie, Cathe, and myself.

Locally, in San Diego County, I am aware of at least 5 major Aikido dojo that are lead by women – and this is out of about 8-10, so a very balanced ratio. Many schools throughout California are also lead by women, and a woman, Pat Hendricks Shihan, 7th dan, heads one of the three divisions of the California Aikido Association.

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“It’s not a man’s world as long as I’m in it.”
~ Either Cyndi Lauper or Madonna
In a televised interview I heard years ago, in response to a question about what it was like to be a woman in a man’s world (the music industry).

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Aikido is a popular martial art among women. Many senior teachers are women. Because Aikido relies on subtlety and finesse, not size or brute strength, it is ideal for women, smaller men, and even children. Aikido’s philosophy of dealing with conflict without fighting is appealing, and the culture of Aikido is an inclusive and welcoming one.

As a woman in Aikido I have not experienced any sense of the art being “a men’s club,” nor its equally abhorrent opposite “how nice that women can do Aikido, too,” as if we were encroaching on the domain of men. The only minor thing I’ve noticed is that some men can be shy about executing powerful or close-contact techniques. A few have been cautious, even apologetic, about throwing me. I’m sure there is a deeply-ingrained “we don’t hit girls” ethic at work. It may also be our ages – with some I’m old enough to be their mother. Usually throwing them powerfully a few times (appropriate to their level, of course) is enough to put their minds at ease about that.

On a few occasions I have been the only woman in a class. I usually don’t even notice until I go to change afterward and find that everyone else has gone into the other changing room. That’s a strangely lonely feeling. On the rare occasions when there’s only been one man in class I’ve felt bad for him, while we’re getting changed and talking and laughing together after class, that he’s suddenly aware of being different, and feeling excluded over there across the lobby, alone in his own changing room. Been there. If I ever have the opportunity to design a dojo facility I have an idea in mind – changing rooms with an opaque divider between them, but one that allows for conversation to continue.

Even as balanced as the art can be, we have had women come to our seminars and say, with happy relief, that it’s so nice to have other women to train with – that they are the only one at their dojo. There’s certainly room for improvement. Sometimes the presence of women in a dojo, or our absence, feeds on itself. If a prospective new student comes to observe a class and sees lots of women training, she might feel more comfortable giving Aikido a try. For schools with few (or no) women, if can be challenging to build a more balanced membership. If you are that prospective new student, I urge you to jump in anyway! You could be the role model who encourages the next woman to join.

Women’s classes and women’s seminars

These are an issue in the fitness industry, too. Some people think they are necessary because women don’t get fair treatment in a coed environment. I am of two minds on this issue. First, I dislike the idea of a gender-exclusive class or seminar. I don’t like the justification that “it’s just us gals/guys, so we can relax and feel comfortable with each other.” If Aikido is an inclusive community, then how can we have training that excludes men? On the other hand, some women are uncomfortable about the idea of training with men. Some may have experienced past trauma at the hands of men, and may be truly too afraid to get physical with male fellow students. Does it contribute to the overall good to support these women in training by offering women-only classes? Or is it better to let them stay away until they are ready to train as part of the greater dojo community? Here I can see plausible reason to offer a special class (and maybe one for men, too, as they can have issues as well), but only with the goal of getting the students to the point where they can join the regular classes as quickly as possible. Ultimately, the point is for everyone (gender, race, nationality, etc.), to train together harmoniously.

Opportunities for high-level training

A few years ago a friend passed along an announcement by a respected, high-ranking Aikido sensei who had an opening at his dojo for an uchi-deshi, or live-in student. This is a valuable opportunity to take on an apprentice-like position, practicing the art and learning from a master day in and day out. These openings are rare. The post said that because there was “heavy work” involved around the facility (specifically lifting up to 50 pounds), only men would be considered. My immediate, gut-level reply was a two word phrase that can’t be repeated in this family-friendly series. He presumably has something worth offering to students, but with this limitation on participation, only men will be able to benefit from his teaching.

I went back and deleted my comment out of a probably misguided desire to appear respectful, but I have little respect for that teacher. I learned later that apparently his wife insisted on the males-only rule. Whether because of actual past behavior or just jealousy, I don’t know. It is understandable that it could be awkward having a female student living at a dojo run by a man – or vice versa. But if developing a warrior spirit means bravely facing fear, pain, and even death, then certainly one should have the courage to handle an awkward situation with fairness and integrity.

It’s an unfortunate situation in our culture that we have to be paranoid about appearances. This is true in the fitness world as well. Being careful never to be alone with a student of the opposite gender. We can be jumpy about the potential for false accusations and rumors. What this means in a practical sense is that in some cases men will have opportunities that women will not – or the converse, when the sensei is a women. If the only way you can have such a program is to exclude half of the potential participants for reasons that have nothing to do with their dedication, ability, or potential, then don’t have the program.

This is one glaring example, but there are many smaller ones. I have heard of cases where a group of men, sometimes including the instructor, will head off to the local pub after class without even thinking of including the women they were just training with. A few years ago we had a dojo ladies’ outing. It was a nice event, but I felt bad about leaving the guys behind. Lesson learned. As with executive golf outings and similar informal gatherings, these things are often where the good stories get told, friendships and mentorships develop, insider information is exchanged, and connections are made with people of power and influence. When women (or men) are excluded, either deliberately or though simple “oh, I didn’t think you’d be interested” kind of thoughtlessness, it limits their potential, and diminishes everyone’s sense of community.

Women’s contributions to the their dojo and to the art, like everything else, are seen through lenses tinted by our culture. We are sometimes perceived as being helpful as though it were just part of our nature. Several times people – usually not my own dojo mates – have referred to me as the “dojo mom” when I am well-prepared, and handling things professionally at seminars or retreats. I know they mean it as a complement. But it’s interesting to note that if I were a man no one would ever consider saying such a thing. Instead they would characterize me as a committed, dedicated student, a leader, one who is well-organized and competent. I imagine no one looked at Morihiro Saito Sensei, a long-time student of O Sensei, managing things at the dojo in Iwama, Japan, and thought “Aww. He’s like the dojo dad.”

Men and women are different

George Ledyard Sensei, who has been a strong influence in my training, and good friend, has observed that students of each gender respond differently when we run up against our limits on the mat. Men turn into jerks, getting forceful and mean. Women go into the changing room and cry. I despise the idea of gender stereotypes, but I think this one is true, at least in my own experience.

While it is important that people of any gender are afforded the same opportunities for training, development, and recognition, it’s important to note that there are differences. Whether they are cultural or biological is beyond the scope of this post. The trends and tendencies overlap – some women will be more masculine (I tend toward the tomboy end of the range), and some men more feminine – and there are outliers, of course. But we do have our temperamental and behavioral differences. I see it among adults, and also in the children’s classes, even among the youngest kids.

Someday I plan to write a paper (or short book) discussing some points about supporting women and girls in training in the martial arts, including physical, biological, cultural, and emotional issues. That should be an interesting, and possibly controversial, subject. Some schools (in Aikido and other arts) find it challenging to attract and retain female students, and my goal will be to provide practical pointers they can use to make their schools more appealing and welcoming to women and girls.

Finding our own balance

One of the greatest benefits I see in Aikido training is becoming more functional and comfortable along a broader span of the masculine/feminine continuum. Regardless of biological gender, people with strong masculine energy can develop their softness and receptivity. People with strong feminine energy can develop their power and assertiveness. When we have access to a wider range of responses – not just the limited set we’ve come to favor – we can freely choose the most appropriate one in a given situation.

We will look at this in more depth in the next topic: “Yin and Yang – Receptive and Assertive Qualities.”

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

Being Who You Are

[I wrote this post almost three years ago, but tucked it away with a hundred or so others in my Drafts folder, because it felt a little too raw. A conversation with a friend recently reminded me about it. Now, with another free intro class coming up at our dojo, it seems like a good time to hit the Publish button. Here it is, unedited.]


There is nothing that touches us quite like being “gotten” – known for who we really are. Being recognized. And there are few things so exasperating as being seen as someone who you are not.

The photo on the left is me, on my 2nd birthday, on what I’m guessing was a birthday present. A Wonder Horse. Like a rocking horse, but on springs. I think they make bull-riding practice rigs like this. I probably played on it until I outgrew it or wore it out. I’m sure I fell asleep on the damned thing. If they had these for grownups, there wouldn’t be a weight problem in our country. It was only a plastic horse, but it offered movement and energy and adventure and freedom from gravity. I loved that thing.

The photo on the right is me, dressed and posed as someone I never was. I remember that day very clearly. They moved the round walnut coffee table over to where the photographer’s background was, for me to sit on. I was told to smile like that, and the photographer positioned my hand, with my finger against my cheek, and turned my head just so. I protested, but the photographer (who was a professional after all, and who knew best) insisted. I’m sure it was supposed to look sweet and cute. But it didn’t look like me. I was as furious as a little child can be. It still pisses me off to think about it. My mom recently gave me that red checkered dress from the photo, to do with as I like. I think I’ll burn it.

When I was a kid I rode my bike or skateboarded everywhere (or cartwheeled, or pogo-sticked). I had pet snakes and a paper route. I hiked all over the local hills and canyons with the local gas station dog. I played street hockey and body surfed. I never had a Barbie. I hated dressing up. I liked bugs. My sister and I had to plead our case very persistently, but we did manage to get a slot car set (“but those are for boys”) for Christmas one year.

All my life (thankfully not as much after 40) people have been trying to tell me I should be more girly. As a little kid I was told that of course I like pink. “All girls like pink.” (Blue was my favorite color.) I was supposed to love babies. (I’ve never had any rapport with babies, I’ve never wanted babies, and no, I don’t want to hold your baby.) I was supposed to adore wearing dresses.

In 3rd grade the girls at my school were allowed to wear pants on Fridays. Only.

In the summer of 3rd grade somehow I’d heard about a judo class at the YMCA, and insisted on joining it. I remember the room, and I remember endlessly slapping the mat and learning to fall (a skill that may have saved my life later on). The class was mostly boys. I don’t remember this, but my mom tells me they wouldn’t train with the girls, and that my feelings were terribly hurt by that. Being an outsider is painful.

Later I worked on cars and built stuff with my dad. I got my ham license at 12 so I could join the Humane Society’s Animal Rescue Reserve (rescuing livestock in disaster situations). I fought my way into wood shop (where the teacher said he didn’t give girls As) and metal shop. Home Ec was still required, of course. Just for girls. A friend and I were the first two girls ever in our school to take Football in P.E., and we had to fight for that, too. But they drew the line at auto shop. No girls. No way.

In 12th grade I trained in Tang Soo Do for independent study P.E. credit. It was mostly guys… I don’t recall any other girls in the beginning class with me, but one of the black belts was a beautiful young mother named Cristi, and she was clearly capable and respected. I never felt like “one of the gang,” but Master Kenyon never treated me differently than any other student. No less was expected of me. I loved training there, but had to stop when I moved to go to college.

Girls are supposed to crave shoes, jewelry, makeup, perfume, shopping, cute clothes, and wearing frilly things. Naturally we must love chick-flick movies, spa days, and girls’ nights out. Whatever those are.

Those assumptions and expectations alone are annoying enough, but there are more insidious aspects. I wasn’t supposed to be smart. I wasn’t supposed to be interested in greasy mechanical things, or computers. I wasn’t supposed to be good at sports. Possibly worse than obvious active discouragement – you can fight back against that – are the subtle low expectations and social exclusion. Simply not being invited to participate in things… “We didn’t think you’d be interested.” Not feeling welcome. How do you fight that?

Girls aren’t even supposed to be strong. Seriously, I was often told as a young woman to avoid doing things that might make my arms or legs big – like swimming, martial arts, or windsurfing. “If you get muscles you won’t ever be able to wear cute clothes.” Fortunately I somehow didn’t give a damn what people thought, but a lot of girls buy into this, and forgo healthy, fun, empowering physical activity in favor of being acceptable to others.

Dar Williams’ song “When I Was a Boy” perfectly reflects my experience. Click here to open a video of her performing it (opens in a new window): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zIB3piK0wE

“And now I’m in this clothing store, and the signs say less is more. More that’s tight means more to see. More for them, not more for me. That can’t help me climb a tree in 10 seconds flat. – When I was a boy – see that picture? That was me. Grass-stained shirt and dusty knees. And I know things have gotta change. They’ve got pills to sell. They’ve got implants to put in, they’ve got implants to remove. But I am not forgetting that I was a boy too.”

No one at the dojo has ever been even subtly discouraging to anyone on the basis of gender. Expectations are appropriate to the students’ experience, physical ability, and skill. But somehow in the context of Aikido recently, the issue of gender has been coming up. Someone mentioned the male:female ratio at the dojo a few weeks ago (about 3:1, I think). In a few small classes recently I’ve been the only woman. I don’t think I would’ve noticed except that I was the only one in the women’s dressing room. It doesn’t bother me in the least to train with just guys, but I do think it’s a shame that more women aren’t finding their way into martial arts.

The reasons why are many, and have been discussed ad nauseum with no agreed-upon answer. For many I’m guessing it’s a lifetime of assertions about who we are (“Oh, you wouldn’t like that, it looks pretty rough.”), concerns over becoming physically unacceptable to others (having bruises, or keeping nails cut short, for instance), the discouragement of subtle low expectations (whether about ability or commitment), and maybe just plain never having been invited, or made to feel welcome once they join. Not welcome like an outsider who’s being treated with kindness, but one of us.

A friend of a student was visiting the dojo one day months ago, watching a class. Trying to strike up a conversation I asked her if she’d ever done any martial arts. She visibly responded as though I’d asked her if she ate kittens for breakfast, and said something to the effect of “Oh heavens, no!” I was so taken aback by her repulsed reaction that I couldn’t find a tactful way to ask what in the heck she meant by that. If I see her again maybe I’ll follow up.

We may never have a solution, but meanwhile, invite someone, include everyone, and let people feel like they belong.