Tag: women in martial arts

Episode #83: Self-Defense, Self-Care, and The Art of The Ninja

Susie Kahlich is a Certified Instructor in Ninpo Tai Jutsu, the Art of the Ninja. She is also the founder and owner of Pretty Deadly Self Defense, a program dedicated to teaching women the art of self-defense by finding their inner strength and power through natural movements and self-exploration.

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Secrets of a Middle-Aged Ninja

Secrets….we all have them. I probably have a few more than most. And many of them are secrets that I learned in my martial arts training. I’d love to share them all with you, but then you’d know too much. Besides, it might get me in deep trouble with the Secret Society of Ninjas. So, if you ever run into one of their members, please don’t let them know I have shared my secrets.

This first secret might be a little disappointing. Ninjas really aren’t fighters. We’re lovers. We love life, our families, our friends, our homes, and our communities. We want nothing more (and nothing less), than to simply live our lives in peace and harmony. Ninjas aren’t about war, or warfare. However, we are warriors. Wait a minute….doesn’t that sound contradictory?

It’s not. Because a true warrior has a heart of compassion. For life, for nature, and even for their enemies or those who wish to cause them harm. A warrior also has a playful spirit, and doesn’t take themselves too seriously, even when they are under attack, so to speak.

Patience is a virtue. Everyone knows that, and everybody gives it lip service, but a true warrior really embodies it, and incorporates it into their daily life. Considering our fast-paced modern world, as well as the “got to have it now” attitude, patience truly is a virtue as rare as hen’s teeth.

Above all, a warrior is honest. At least, they’re supposed to be. I have met a few who proclaim honesty and demand it of others, but not of themselves. Hmm, that hardly seems fair. But, that’s when you know they are not true warriors. And those who are just smile, and walk away. No sense in engaging in a confrontation over such a silly thing. A warrior knows how to avoid confrontation at all costs.

I have a lot more secrets up my sleeve. But, I think I’ll make like a ninja and disappear for now instead. I can always share them another time.

Sword cuts, patience, and a powerful teacher.

I bought a sword last weekend. I hadn’t planned on buying one, and I certainly hadn’t been looking for one. We have been working a lot more with sword cuts in my martial arts class, and I have a nice white oak wooden sword. It’s light weight, it’s really pretty, and it serves it’s purpose.

But last weekend my husband and I took a drive up to the mountains just to get out of town, even if it was only for a few hours. I was in the mood to go exploring, so we drove up to one of the popular mountain towns just to walk around and check out the shops.

We walked past a store front, and I said to my husband, “I have to go in here”.  He looked at me like I was crazy, but he followed me in the store anyway. It was a knife shop, exactly the type of store I would never enter. But when I walked in, I saw what had drawn me inside. Behind the counter were several swords on display. After handling a few of them, I knew which one was for me. It just felt right. And it was pretty.

I didn’t even take it out of the case for three days. Cautious and careful by nature, I waited until I was at the Dojo and Sensei could help me and teach me a few things. Handling a sword was a lot different from handling a wooden one. He did tell me that the blade was a little too sharp for training purposes and I needed to file it down. I thought he was being just a wee bit melodramatic, but I said okay. I knew I’d get around to it, eventually.

Two days later we had sword class. There were a lot of students, it was a bit chaotic, and we were moving a quickly through complicated patterns. Losing my focus for a split second, I was trying to sheath my sword in a hurry to catch up with the group and felt a sudden sharp burning pain in my wrist. Uh-oh. Sensei was right. The blade was too sharp. So much for care and caution.

That was at the beginning of class. I stopped long enough to wash the cut and put a big band aid on it. In the process of cleaning my wound I almost got stuck in the bathroom, because my sword was still in my belt at an awkward angle so my hands could be free. Thank goodness nobody witnessed that fiasco. I did have to ask one of the guys to help me with my band aid, which was demoralizing enough. If I needed help out of the bathroom, I never would have lived that down.

For the next hour and fifteen minutes, I practiced my sword cuts while the blood from my wrist saturated the band aid. I patiently listened to several of the guys giving me corrections all at the same time. I’m pretty good at taking directions, but only from two or three people at once. Any more than that and I go into sensory overload. But I smiled, bowed, nodded and thanked everyone for their help. Finally class was over. I put my sword away, took my notes and my throbbing wrist to my car, put my head on the steering wheel and burst out laughing.

I just couldn’t help myself. And I couldn’t stop laughing. The entire situation was simply too funny. The truth is, the reason why I love sword work is because the sword is a powerful teacher. It is honest; it always tells the truth and it never lies. I believe that I did not find the sword in the mountains that Saturday afternoon. The sword found me. It will continue to teach me patience, humility, honesty, integrity, truth, and humor. But I think I’m already good to go on that last one, don’t you?

Be healthy!
Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP

Focus, focus, focus….

Good grief, I’m exhausted. Every free moment of every day over the past several months have been devoted to my martial arts training. That is my focus right now, like a second job, except without a paycheck. I have eliminated everything else in my life except work and training. I have stopped going to ballet class, stopped socializing with friends, and put projects on hold. I’m not even going shopping. I’m trying to focus.

I have been organizing notes, reviewing techniques, taking extra classes, and meeting my number one training partner for additional time on the mat. I am memorizing Japanese words and phrases. I am diving into the historical, philosophical and cultural roots of the art I study. I am teaching some classes, helping other students, and collaborating with my fellow student instructors. I am really trying to focus.

There isn’t a lot of extra room in my head for mundane things. I must focus on what is important. Deflect, evade, escape; throw, pin, lock, strike. Hand weapons, heart weapons, spirit and intention is far more critical to remember then where I parked my car. I am testing today for my next belt. This level is a comprehensive review of everything I have learned since my first day of  training. I was told to be prepared to spend three hours on the mat for the test. That seems like a long time, but I’m sure I’ll be fine. I just need to focus.

I’m training and I’m studying. I’m training so hard that I can barely get out of bed in the morning. Every bone in my body aches and my muscles are begging for mercy. I’m studying so much that my head is full of Japanese words and phrases that keep bumping into each other, something that they particularly enjoy doing at three o’clock in the morning. The smell of tiger balm follows me wherever I go, but I guess it’s better than the smell of the sweaty guys I’ve been working out with. The good news is, I’m learning how to focus.

I am so focused that two days ago I lost my checkbook. No worries, I found it in the ficus tree at my office. Yesterday I misplaced my cell phone. Not a problem; it was in the dog food, right where I left it. I accidentally locked one of my dogs outside, but fortunately heard him barking before I left the house. I got mad at my husband because he wouldn’t talk to me before dinner a few nights ago. Then I remembered he was out of town. Focus, focus.

Every day I train. Every day I study my notes. Every day I wear my little gold earrings that have the Chinese symbol for “courage” on them, even though the art I study is Japanese. I think it’s probably okay. Most of all, every day I wonder why I am doing this to myself. I don’t have to, and I’m not even sure that I want to. I just want to be normal again. Then I focus at the task at hand.

I say that I have been working toward this for the past few months. The truth is, I have been working toward this for the past eight years, but I didn’t realize it then. Had I been able to look in the future and see where this journey would take me, I would have run screaming into the woods, never to be heard from again. Actually, that almost did happen two years ago, but that’s another story.

I might not get through this test. I might succeed, or I might fail. But that’s not the point. The truth is, this test and this level is not about me, or the belt, or the honor of achievement. It’s about the journey. It’s about the art. The art I didn’t choose, but chose me instead. It’s about patience and perseverence. It’s about humility, and learning how to embrace and accept something that is so much bigger than myself. It’s also a way to discover more about myself than I ever knew existed. And it taught me how to focus.

Well, I’d better be on my way. I have a test to take. If only I can find my car keys. I know they’re around here somewhere….focus, focus, focus!

Be healthy!
Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP

The gift…. of three little words.

I’ll never forget the first time I looked into the eyes of a man I barely knew and heard three little words that helped change my life. It wasn’t what I was expecting, especially from a man I had just met. We were brought together by a strange twist of fate. I remember standing close to him while he murmured those words in a soft, silky voice that nobody else could possibly hear. But I heard them. I still remember them. And it’s not what you think.

It was in the early days of my martial arts training. That means I was in the first  six months and still not sure what I was doing there and wondering how soon I would quit. But, I was learning a few things, so I kept going to class. Somehow, I was talked into attending a seminar. I was assured that it was great fun, low key, no pressure, and I would have a marvelous time. I was more gullible back then than I am now.

During the seminar, I found myself paired up with a huge bull of a man. I am good spirited by nature and a natural born flirt, so I was okay with it. At first. Everything changed when I suddenly found myself in the middle of a huge circle surrounded by all of the other students, instructors, and Sensei walking straight toward us. I was the only woman there, I was the center of attention, and everyone was staring at me.

I froze, like a deer in the headlights. I looked towards the back door to see if I could make a quick get away. Unfortunately, there was a wall of black belts blocking my path. They were lined up next to each other like the ninja version of Red Rover. “Red Rover, Red Rover, we dare Cheryl over!” I was fairly certain I couldn’t break through that line. I glanced around for my teacher to bail me out. No help there. I had no way out. Honestly, I was just a heartbeat away from a serious and very public major melt down.

Terrified, I looked up at my partner. Very softly and quietly he whispered those three magic words, “Don’t be intimidated.” Easy for him to say. He outweighed me by at least 150 pounds. And he was quite comfortable in this testosterone infested environment.  The circle was closing in tighter and I looked at the back door again. Maybe I could break that line. My partner shook his head slightly and said it again, “Don’t be intimidated.” All of a sudden, the circle that was closing around me opened up. I got out of my immobilized state and found the courage to start moving again.

That was eight years ago. The rest, as they say, is history. That man gave me a gift beyond anything he could have imagined, and the support I needed without embarrassing me. It was our little secret.  I can’t help but wonder what the outcome would have been if he hadn’t been so supportive. Maybe that would have been the end of my martial arts training.

A few years later I ran into him again at another seminar. He looked at me in surprise and said, “You’re still here!” Then he looked down at my belt and burst out laughing. “And you outrank me now!” Later that day we were paired up again. In that same soft voice, he taunted me this time. “Look at you, girl, you’re not scared any more. Look at how strong you are.” Of course, strong is a relative term. I can’t overpower a cat. But I have developed a strength of spirit and courage that I never knew I had before, thanks to my training.

Words can have a powerful effect. It’s important to choose your words carefully. Speak softly, honestly and gently. You may be giving someone a powerful gift that keeps on giving. After all, you never know when you may be in need of some encouragement. Recycle the gift.

Be healthy!
Cheryl Ilov. PT, GCFP

Habits, constraints, and neuroplasticity….let the learning begin!

In my martial arts class, we often practice something called “randori”. One student stands in the center of the room while the other students form a circle around them and take turns randomly attacking the person in the middle. It’s kind of like the Ninja version of monkey in the middle. And it scares me to death. It is my least favorite training activity, but my incomparable stubborness won’t let me opt out. And besides, the guys would make fun of me if I refused to play with them.

Last week, after we completed our randori, just as I heaved a sigh of relief, Sensei said, “We’re going again.” He looked at me and said, “And you are not allowed to do the same techniques. I want you to find new ways to react to each attack.” My response to that constraint was not very mature or Ninja-like. I threw a hissy fit.  Apparently my little temper tantrum didn’t phase him. Either he is immune to them or I need to work on my hissy fit skills. Anyway, he wouldn’t budge. Sheesh, I thought I was stubborn!

Before we began, he had me stop, breathe and relax. Not an easy task when you are surrounded by men waiting to attack you. Against my better judgment, I listened to him. Then I took my place in the middle of the circle and let the games begin. The attacks started coming. And something very interesting happened. I felt new movement patterns come forth without even trying. My reactions were more thoughtful, meticulous and less effort. I discovered that I had a lot more techniques under my belt (so to speak) than I knew I had. I was calmer, my breathing was easier, my chest felt softer, my movements were more fluid. I felt myself responding in a visceral, organic way.

By giving me that one small constraint,  my Sensei gave me the opportunity to interrupt my habits explore new movement patterns, and discover new sensory patterns.  He did this in an environment that was safe, supportive and non-judgmental. What ever I did, it was not right or wrong, good or bad, just opportunities to learn. Hmmm….this sounds familiar. Why does this sound like  Feldenkrais? Because it is. The Feldenkrais Method(R) gives us the opportunity to learn new patterns of moving, sensing, thinking and feeling in an environment that is safe, supportive and non-judgmental. What Sensei did that day was absolutely brilliant! But let’s keep that to ourselves, shall we? We won’t tell him I said that. After all, if I encourage him, who knows what devious new methods he will use to help me learn and grow. Hmmm….on second thought, maybe I will tell him!

Ninjas at Play

And the journey continues….

It takes a tremendous amount of courage for a woman to walk into a testosterone infested  Dojo and begin training. It also takes an enormous amount of trust. I had neither. I was scared to death for the first two years. However, the guys were incredibly tolerant, gentle and patient with me. Most of the time I was the only woman in class, and they dutifully took turns working with me. I thought that was awfully magnanimous of them. I soon discovered that it was because I was prettier and smelled better than any of the guys, even on my worst day. They had plenty of opportunities to work with each other, and they seemed to enjoy tossing me around for a change.

Even though I was enjoying the classes, I was still incredibly intimidated. I was a good student, not because I was interested in going up through the ranks, but out of a strong sense of self preservation. In keeping with my good humor and to hide my perpetual state of terror, I hid my fear by setting some ground rules. So, I told the guys that they were permitted to kick me, punch me, throw me and pin me, but for Heaven’s sake, don’t mess up my make up. That would make me mad. After all, we all have our limits, and it’s good to set boundaries.

It’s funny to remember how my friends responded to my sudden interest in martial arts.  I had some impressive bruises during the first year, and many of them encouraged me to quit. My girlfriends just knew I would get hurt, and some had the audacity to suggest that I was too old. That did it. I was determined to stick it out for at least another year. I would quit when I was good and ready to quit, and on my own terms. Have I ever mentioned my incomparable stubbornness?

Some days I would go straight from ballet class to the Dojo. Some people thought I was nuts. Sometimes I thought I was nuts. In reality, it was good cross training. But during this incredible journey something really strange happened. My experience slowly transitioned from the physical training to something deeper. My nervous system was responding to my newly discovered patterns of moving and sensing myself in this new environment. The term is called neuroplasticity and refers to our ability to learn new things by responding to changes in our environment.

So, something inside of me changed. It was slow and subtle, but it was there. My intimidation  turned into awareness. My fear changed into confidence. My incomparable stubbornness developed into Spirit. My humor and acceptance about my gender, size and age led me to the understanding of my limitations as well as the acceptance of my possibilities. My lack of trust transformed into self compassion. And now, with each rank I achieve I experience an overwhelming sense of humility. And respect. For myself, and for my art.

Be healthy!
Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP

That’s how the journey began….

Eight years ago I began my training as a martial artist. Full disclosure; I did it on a dare. I honestly thought I would take a few classes and then quit. After a month or two, I realized how much I enjoyed the classes. However, I wasn’t going to continue training. I had proved a point, and now I could quit at any time with my dignity intact. I didn’t know why, or how it happened, but I just kept showing up. As intimidated and terrified as I was, at least twice a week I found myself in the Dojo, wondering what I was doing there.

I knew I wasn’t going to stick with it, and I surely wasn’t ever going to test. I could certainly remain a white belt since I would be quitting soon, anyway. After three months of training, one of the guys badgered me into testing for my yellow belt. I didn’t want to do it, but sometimes all you have to do is say the wrong thing (or in this case, the right thing) to get my blood boiling and have my incomparable stubbornness come rearing up to the forefront. So, I tested for my yellow belt.

Three months later, the same guy taunted me to take the next level test. (Who was that masked man, anyway)? So, I tested. I knew I would probably be quitting soon, but at least I had two yellow belts to show for my efforts. And as proof to any one who may doubt me in the future when I told them about my six month long martial arts career.

In spite of myself and my cavalier attitude, I learned a lot in those six months. I finally learned how to tie my belt properly, even though that skill took a full six months to master. I learned the Dojo etiquette and proper manners. I learned how to suppress my giggles during the meditation and formal bowing in at the beginning of class. I learned that I didn’t have to be badgered into testing, and after my third test I realized that I didn’t have to cry after each test. Not that I would cry in the Dojo; I always waited until I was in the privacy of my own car. But, after that third test,  I discovered that it was far more rewarding to go to the mall and buy something pretty instead. However, the most valuable thing I learned was where the back door was just in case I ever wanted to make a fast exit in the middle of class. After all, I was going to quit soon, so why even wait until class was over? And that’s how my journey began….

Be healthy! Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP