See the suit… not the person!

Today was awesome. Which is good because it came at the end of a horrid week. This morning I went from my bed to my bike for a ridiculous spin class. I was all colours of red but 30 mins later I was on my way to Tooting dojo. Today was also a special day as Sensei Linda celebrated her birthday yesterday, in any case, we knew it was going to be a bit of a “burn” session. It certainly was and to be honest, I was very thankful I had taken the time to get up early and really let my lungs open up!

Sensei made a point during the class that really made me think and reflect on my journey through Karate and martial arts. I’ve written before about how often I was the only female in a class, and for years I never really took any notice of that. I was young and a junior grade and I never viewed myself as different to the rest of the lads in the class. Of course, they were stronger in some ways, but I was surrounded by Karateka who had, for the most part, nothing to lose by helping me and vice versa.

The first time someone turned to face me and visibly showed their disappointment was, unfortunately, one of the first times I travelled internationally and it was in Japan. I was a young blackbelt and this was a World Gasshuku with many senior grades in the front rows. It was hot and sticky and the floor of the dojo was literally radiating out heat. I was in my element, I couldn’t believe that I, this kid, was in Japan, a country I had dreamed of visiting for many years. “Turn and face the person behind you”. I’ve never seen someone show so much emotion in their face… I was looked up and down by a “Sensei” from Turkey who puffed his chest out, put his hands on his hips and started to look around very very unhappily.

It’s not always as direct. In recent years I faced someone from Denmark in Scotland where we trained for an entire class together. This was the first class of the Gasshuku and we were standing beside each other. At the end of the class, he turned to me and said “hmm… you don’t look fast, but you are OK”. He is very lucky that he didn’t meet me 20 years ago as our Turkish friend learned very quickly that I was not in the humour to be dismissed and angry fighty Ciara came out. It’s not a good look and it is something that I really don’t like to see.

I’ve seen this situation from another side, however. I have worked with lots of beginners who really struggle with bringing what they see as violence to a situation, be it against a male or female. I also see that the majority of men are programmed to protect and I see how some struggle when they face a woman or indeed perhaps a smaller man. I get this. It takes time to see the suit and not the person… But I had a Sensei who would always say “Good is good, doesn’t matter the style, person, rank or background, good is good”.

I was lucky to grow up in a house with 5 women. Can you imagine how it was for my Dad? He is an engineer, a sportsperson and an amazing woodworker. We’ve always had a complicated relationship but there were things that he and my Mum (RIP) just would not compromise on. Get a Degree. Non-negotiable. As sisters, we were so different. Today, 2 have Engineering degrees, 1 has an Arts Degree and I have an HR/Business and Psychology Degree. So I guess, despite it all they did us well. Gender was never an issue in our house. My Dad had come up through the education system in Ireland, got Scholarships all the way and got a Marine Engineering “Ticket” when most kids at the time didn’t finish secondary school. We were told we could be anything. In fact today, we have 1 engineer, 1 detective, 1 TV Weatherperson and me.

Ishi Sashi

One time, in Higaonna Sensei’s dojo I was in the same line as Terauchi Sensei. Let me be clear, he was in the front line, I was behind him but 3 rows back. Anyway, we were doing Hojo Undo. At least the front row was. They had to go and get Ishi Sashi. I had no idea of what was to come, but then, the command came for the front row to finish and to move to the back with each line moving forward respectively. Then my turn to face the biggest gnarliest set of Ishi Sashi I had ever seen. I started with the count and immediately knew, I was in trouble. I’d be OK if the count was like 10 max, but when had that ever been the case in that dojo. Higaonna Sensei, seeing this, motioned to Terauchi Sensei to get me a different set, told me I was very strong, but that the ones Terauchi Sensei put at my feet were “better to keep technique”. All this was done without me feeling stupid or weak, it just happened. At the end of the class Higaonna Sensei came to me and smiled, pointed at Terauchi Sensei and with a huge twinkle in his eye said… “He crazy” and motioned that his Ishi Sashis were huge.

I’ll finish on a final note. When I was a kid I trained a lot with Sensei Steve Cattle. If you haven’t heard of him, Google him. He was a huge persona in the growth of Karate in the UK and Ireland and brought some of the top instructors to courses all over the country. He always talked to us about finding our true person. I distinctly remember a Gasshuku in the Lee Maltings in Cork where he focused on Unsu kata for the entire weekend and everyone was banjaxed for days afterwards. But, he was relentless in his teaching asking us to look at the emotions we were feeling in the class and what we could do to be a better version of ourselves. I was 12 or 13 at the time I think… I came home, remember writing up my notes and then went on a huge run that evening so that I had something that, in his words, “would give me something to talk to others about and inspire them”. He constantly talked about finding experiences no one else had. I’ve never forgotten this and it drives me daily. We all deserve to be finding our best every day.

That’s where I will finish… I don’t judge others for their approach to martial arts, but I do ask that we all, take the time to work with people as individuals, to help them take a step forward. In doing so, we will all take a massive step forward.

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