8 Reasons Why Mom Should Practice a Martial Art

I hear you saying, “What, me sign up for martial arts lessons? No way!” I see your never-ending “to do” list and your full calendar. Hey, I know how rough it is to have at least two kids in diapers – been there, done that, got the T-shirt with the spit-up and who-knows-what-else stains. Here’s the thing – you don’t have to be a national champion and you don’t have to burn through all the ranks in one year or even three. That can wait until your kids are older. Your body and your mind can’t wait. They need activity so go ahead and leave the laundry and the running noses. All that will still be there when you get back from class. Just be sure to give Dad his getaway time too. Believe me, your children would rather have you sane than irritable and snappish. And yes, I do know what it’s like to start a martial art as a slightly lumpy, middle aged, and out of shape mother of teenagers. And if your kids are in martial arts class, why not join them instead of sitting there playing with your phone waiting for them to finish?

Here’s 8 reasons why Mom should practice martial arts…

8) Adult students are rare and usually a very welcome addition to the class.  Don’t get me wrong, teaching kids is rewarding.  But speaking as someone who helps out with newbies and lower-ranked students, I enjoy helping a variety of ages.  And it’s kinda hard for an instructor to get experience teaching a variety of ages if all the students are children.  Kids benefit a lot from training alongside adults.  For the most part adults model appropriate behavior and that helps an instructor no end.  Kids who are more senior in rank get a kick out of helping and working with adults.  I had the pleasure of teaching new adult students when I was a teenager and now I treasure the youngsters who outrank me!  An adult who treats a child with respect is a blessing if that child doesn’t fit in well with his or her peer group at school.  You are needed.

7) With a huge variety to choose from, more likely than not there’s a martial art out there that will fit you. It’s not my place to say what the best martial art for you is. Do some research, try a few free lessons. If you find an art and a school that clicks with you, you will learn your lessons better and you’ll be more likely to stick with it. You need to look forward to your lessons. If the classes are a drag try a different school or art.  You should be having fun, and yes, you should feel like whatever martial art you choose is the best in the world 🙂

6) You can practice a martial art with your children. Say what? Yes, it can be done. But during class you have to let the instructor do the parenting, especially in a traditional karate dojo (school) where there is a hierarchy of authority. Starting together means you can practice the same things at home. If you start after your child, let your child help you at home – the role reversal can be delightful for both you and your child. Don’t be surprised, though, if you outlast your child and your child moves on to other things while you continue with your martial art. This is very common and means nothing more than your child is forging his or her own identity.

5) Martial arts are more than just a workout. There’s problems to solve, like how to escape an arm bar or how to string techniques together. You’ll have goals to reach – for instance earning the next belt or refining a form. Not to mention you’ll hang out with a diverse group of some really great people. Every mother needs exercise, mental stimulation, accomplishments of her own, and some time to interact with adults. Martial arts are a time-efficient way of gathering these benefits and more. One hour of Karate class time to me equals three hours of other activities – like, say, reading a book, hanging out with friends, and jogging.

4) Adults reap the same benefits as children! Read any article out there on how martial arts are good for kids and put yourself into the article. Are there areas of your life where you could use a bit more self discipline? Do you want to be a great role model for your children? The discipline of practicing a martial art benefits mind, body and spirit and keeps one from stagnating.

3) You will age more gracefully if you keep up your martial arts studies for as long as possible. Look up some of the more “seasoned” warriors and you’ll see what I mean. Along with the rest of the body martial arts work out your vestibular system (responsible for maintaining your balance) and your core muscles. You will be less prone to falling and most likely your back will stay straight. You can’t stop the inevitable but studies show that you can slow it. Your continued good health puts less of a burden on your children.  I helped my mother with my grandparents, so I know what I’m talking about.

2) Middle-aged lady hormonal changes are the worst and they usually hit at a time when you need to be the best parent you can be. At perimenopause us women turn into freaky wild-eyed hags, our periods are hell, and at the same time… cough, cough… um… To put it delicately I have a lot more sympathy for young men than I‘ve ever had in my life. Exercise helps all that on a physical level, but there’s more. It’s true that karate has been an outlet for my inner harpy but it’s also given me the mental discipline to overcome the emotional/hormonal weirdness when it wafts through my psyche. My husband and nearly-grown children don’t mind my Karate-related absences. They know I’ll be easier to live with in between classes.

1) You are your children’s body guard. Most women know this instinctively. Awareness, instinct, and adrenaline count for a lot, but wouldn’t it be nice to have more tools to use in a crisis situation? Do you know exactly where and how to hit someone who is grabbing your child? Do you really have time to dig around in your diaper bag for the mace and is your child in the line of fire? It’s easy for me to be an armchair quarterback and to say I would do this or do that, but I do know that I’ve had training in shattering joints and a smattering of training fighting off more than one attacker and in cooperating with others to take someone down. I have tools pounded into my muscle memory – and that is what martial arts training gives you. Hours of sweating and drilling turn into something your body can do automatically if needed. I hope I never have to use these tools to save one of my kiddos, but it’s good to know that I have them.

Still not convinced? Read more articles on my blog and see what I’ve gained. I re-started Karate at the age of 44 knowing full well what I’d be getting into because I’d studied as a teen. I wish I’d started sooner. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re too busy, too out of shape, too old, too this, too that. Just join your children in their class or find a martial art that fits you and start. It’s a lot of fun.

This post was inspired by a mix of happenstances.  After a woman in his community was raped, Greg Sommers-Herivel offered a month of free Karate instruction to local women. I knew many women would not take him up on his generous offer because they feel like mothering would get in the way.  Then “Super” Dan Anderson shared this rather good article on Facebook, “7 Reasons Why Your Child Should Practice Martial Arts“by Eric C Stevens.  A mother commented on how much benefit her son was getting from his martial art and I replied, “And now for 7 Reasons Why Mom Should Practice Martial Arts.”  Roseanne Mussar saw the comment I’d left and suggested I write this article.  Thank you, everyone!

To The Beach

After work and lunch on a day when I didn’t have Karate class, I found myself dreading the exercise and practice I needed. It isn’t unusual for me to fight the attractions of computer, couch, and bed, but that day it was hitting me hard. I was still sore from an intensive workout two days prior, even with a recovery day. I decided what I needed was a change of scenery. I got into the car and drove to my favorite local park.

I was dismayed to see so many vehicles, and I almost didn’t get a parking space. However I knew most people wouldn’t opt for the “primitive” trails down the steep bluff to the beach below. Water bottle in hand, I strode confidently down the wooded trail. I saw no one. I broke into a jog, water bottle sloshing and gurgling in my hand, feet drumming the bare earth.

I noticed that I was very confidently placing my feet to avoid tree roots. Years ago when I first discovered this park, I would never have rocketed down the steep primitive trail at a jog. I admit it is hazardous, and a misstep could result in serious injury. There’s vegetation to stop a fall, but… Tree trunks are hard, and underbrush scratches. Rescue would involve a specialized team, lots of rope, and a hand-carried stretcher for at least a quarter mile. I let go of my fear, trusted my eyes and feet, and enjoyed breathing in the rich forest air.

I only encountered two people on my jog down to the beach. They were young women with milk-chocolate brown skin, covered head to foot in brightly colored clothes. I must have looked very strange to them – tank top, shorts, pale as a corpse, middle-aged, muscled and sweating. Nonetheless, as they moved aside and I flew past we greeted one another with smiles and quick pleasantries.

The trail I chose had a short but intense uphill stretch before plunging down the bluff again. I sprinted up this, slowing to a walk near the top. I was disappointed I couldn’t jog the whole slope. I reckoned that last summer (July 2016) I probably could’ve done it. I got control of my breathing and told myself I was still doing well especially compared to most women my age.

Soon I came out to the paved trail and the stairs down to the beach. There’s anywhere from 101 to 105 stairs depending on how much sand is piled at the bottom of the tower. Before I knew it I was at the beach. Immediately I found a driftwood log at the perfect height for some inclined push ups. I did a few, knowing I’d do more arm work in class the next day. Then I scouted out the beach for a spot for kata (forms) practice.

I picked up a fragment of a large barnacle and stowed it in my fanny pack as a reminder to myself that no matter how frustrated I get with my weak areas, I’m not like a barnacle. Barnacles just sit in their shells all day long, never going anywhere. All they do is kick food into their mouths. Too many people are like barnacles, I mused as I jogged towards an empty stretch of sand. I don’t stay in a little shell. I don’t like being out of my comfort zone but I recognize that’s the only way I’ll grow.

After about a quarter mile I was sufficiently far from my fellow human beings so as to be more or less alone. I did a few abdominal exercises in the warm sand, then started practicing kata. I did the six advanced kata I’ve memorized. Up the beach about 50 yards (roughly 50 meters) away, a guy was on his cell phone. Down the beach 50 yards away, a mom, two kids and a dog were enjoying their day. On the water a motorboat idled by. I don’t think anyone really cared much about what I was doing.

Kata is very different when you’re not barefoot on hardwood floor or foam mats. Add a slight slope, sand, and patches of round rocks, and you bet you have to adapt. My balance was tested many times. I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to pull off the kata named Rohai Shodan with only one wobble. In that kata, one has to get into sagi ashi dachi (crane stance – yes, on one leg) three times. The advantage of practicing kata on sand is that one gets to see the embusen (floor pattern). For the kata I’ve most recently memorized, I moved to a “virgin” stretch of sand. I was pleased that the marks in the sand matched the embusen I’d envisioned.

I felt good, much better than I had felt before I grabbed my car keys. I used driftwood logs for some stretches, the warm sand for others. I enjoyed the sparkle of the sun on the water, the smell of ocean in the air. Then, yes, I had to get back up those 100+ stairs and then that steep bluff trail.

The colorfully-dressed young women I met earlier were sitting on a log near the stair tower. I grinned at them and remarked, “It’s worth the walk, isn’t it?” They agreed and laughed. They commented they had gotten a little lost on the way down, and I advised them to take the paved trail back up.  I wished them a good day, then started climbing.

I was going at a slower pace and my feet didn’t need much of my attention. I enjoyed the rich green smell of the forest in summer. I listened to the birds and to what they were saying about each other, about me, and about other intruders in their territories. Based on the bird calls, I tried to locate the other intruders with my ears… There! One faint voice – a woman’s. I know the trails well, so I knew approximately where we’d pass each other.

Twenty seconds later, a dog rounded a corner followed closely by a second dog. I cooed to them, then they took off up the trail, no doubt to alert their owner. Shortly thereafter, I could hear her quite clearly, and my suspicions were confirmed when she came into sight – I saw she was indeed talking on her cell phone. Her dogs had assessed me and dismissed me as harmless long before my presence registered with her. She was startled to see me standing quietly by the side of the trail even though we had been in full view of each other for three seconds.

After the lady and her dogs passed me I pushed my pace just a little harder just to get my heart rate up a little so I could practice controlling my breathing. I used the bird sounds as my guide to how hard to push, being careful not to pant and drown out even the slightest rustlings in the underbrush. It paid off. I turned my head at a rustle, stopping to see what creature was there. A squirrel and I stared at each other. He started twitching his tail, trying to decide if silence or scolding would be better. Eventually he concluded I wasn’t a threat, and so began foraging for new leaves. Tiny branches bent under his weight and he nearly slipped. His recovery was funny and noisy. I laughed and continued up the trail.

I was at the top of the bluff when I realized that I felt like the climb had been almost effortless. I was stunned. I remembered years ago I was always absolutely worn out by that climb. I knew three years of Karate had improved my physical fitness, but exactly how huge the change had been didn’t hit me until that moment.

On the way back to the car, I reflected back on my workout. At first blush, I didn’t see that I’d done much Karate. 6 kata practiced once each. Hmm… Doesn’t sound like much. But then again, there’s more to karate than kihon (basics), kumite (sparring) and kata. I worked on footwork during my jog down the trail. I was polite when I met people who were from a culture not my own – politeness is in our dojo kun (school creed) that we recite at the beginning and end of each class. I pushed myself physically and measured my progress. I trained myself in observation and breath control. Most of all, I found and successfully implemented a solution for my initial inertia and angst – in other words, I exercised self discipline. Did I have a Karate workout in the woods and on the sunny beach? You bet I did. I hope to do it again soon.

A Liminal Experience

I was archiving old blog posts when I ran across this one from February 2015, when I was eight months into my training. In the introduction of that post I wrote:

“I am not always comfortable with sharing my inmost thoughts… I don’t like opening myself up. But I’ve met enough of you to know that if I do step out of my comfort zone a bit I will come out better for what I’ve learned from you.”

I sat bolt upright in my chair and read the whole post. In that article I wrote that I had been waffling but eventually decided to go ahead and write about a punch that, fortunately, missed my sparring partner. I outlined how I processed my feelings about knowing that I could inflict great harm so unexpectedly early into my training.

Further down, I read my words:

“I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting this issue and working through everything that goes with it throughout my karate career. Am I correct?”

Oh I was absolutely correct. I read through to the end:

“If even just one person can benefit from what I’ve written, it’ll be worth everything.”

I had no idea how much my own words from my past would benefit my own self nearly two and a half years later. I stopped archiving old blogs and started typing the draft of this post. I had been waffling about writing this blog post, but I saw the courage I had then.  You see, shortly after my last blog post I landed in the same position I was back in February 2015:

“It was tempting for me to just never let anyone know [about the lethal punch that didn’t land], but this blog is about the experiences of a beginner. Sometimes us beginners have to deal with hard things.”

I still consider myself a beginner. My belt rank (currently 4th kyu – an intermediate rank) says I’m not a newbie, but there’s still a pretty wide gap ability-wise between myself and a shodan (1st degree black belt). I’ll still consider myself a beginner after shodan because I’ll still be learning new things. And yes, sometimes us beginners have to deal with hard things.

Earlier this month I accidentally injured someone while we were sparring.

It took me quite a number of days to process everything that went with the accident. Some people were concerned that I was taking it too hard. I dragged myself to the dojo and was grateful whenever my fellow students showed they weren’t afraid to work with me – particularly the teenagers of both genders. I received advice from sensei (instructors, plural).

One kind friend wrote, “Perhaps try to look on this as a liminal (transitional) experience if you can? You are becoming Joelle who has the genuine ability and power to hurt others; and to be a woman who can live and thrive well beyond the tight, dreary rules about what “femininity” is supposed to look like.”

I know very well that transitions can be hard (e. g. college to working world) or downright brutal (e. g. puberty). If we play our cards right, we come out better people for what we’ve learned. As another confidante put it, “As we used to say in the mountains of western North Carolina – sometimes you get the bear; sometimes the bear gets you. Just try to be better than you were the last time you met a bear.”

An interesting phenomenon to note is that the gentlemen I’ve confided in are quite pragmatic about the whole situation and about what I need to do and not do. There are some women who echo the gentlemen’s perspective. But most women have a different take on the incident. My opinion is that this difference in perspective exists because most boys grow up with rough-and-tumble play in which they injure themselves and each other fairly frequently. I simply listen to what everyone has to say and I try to learn from all.

“I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting this issue and working through everything that goes with it throughout my karate career. Am I correct?”

Yes, this has already happened nearly two and a half years after I wrote those words. Furthermore, I’ll bet some day I’ll have to counsel my own students through a similar situation.

On this blog I’ve been loosely translating “sensei” as “instructor,” but a better definition is “one who has gone before.” Sometimes being the one who has gone before means you’ve walked down some roads that nobody should walk down (but we’re human, so we do walk those roads sometimes). From raising my own children I know this is true. Sometimes your darkest moments and deepest regrets enable you to effectively counsel your children if and when they face similar situations in their own lives. I deeply appreciate the sensei (plural) who have said what needed to be said about what I did, especially if it was hard for me to hear. I am learning how to handle this situation so that when my own students go through it, I will have the tools to help them.

As a side note, I’ve been treasuring the continued confidence of a young girl kohai (a student lower ranked than oneself). She was a witness to the incident and immediately afterward she was the one who insisted that I take care of myself.  She brought me a damp towel and told me to clean up so I could see if I myself had an injury.  She has not been afraid to work with me during subsequent classes.  Her trust has helped me to regain my confidence.  Some kids just goof around and don’t do much then they quit. Some kids stay, and boy are they molded and shaped!  Hats off to my young kohai.

Two Against One

Two men were closing in, angling me in the direction I didn’t want to go.  They were taller than me and they meant business.  I tried in vain to position myself to where the evening sun would be behind my back, shining in their eyes.  Eventually I stopped trying for the optimal position.  For an instant, the three of us were still.  I only had a heartbeat to make a decision.  As I drew breath I threw myself forward and sprinted between the men.  On my right, a brief flash of pain as my thigh absorbed a kick.  The left sleeve of my jacket slipped between the other man’s fingers.  I was free, running down the soccer field like a rabbit.  I ran towards cars, people, safety.  I was grateful for all those times Sensei (the title for a karate instructor) had me sprint uphill, trying to beat my best time.  This sprint on a level field was much easier.

I laughed around my mouth guard.  My little experiment was a success.  I ran just far enough to make my point, then turned back.  I raised my padded fists in challenge to the two tall men, who were closing in once more.  The whole point of the exercise was to engage, to experiment in a mostly safe way, so I threw myself into the fight.  When circumstances permitted, I tried sprinting again.  Sometimes I got away, sometimes I got caught.  I learned the ideal times and relative positions for running away.  This was as close to street fighting as I care to get.

Quite frankly, common sense, not Karate, has kept me alive for 47 years.  First my mother’s common sense, then my own.  To date, I have had to make a decision to fight or flee only once.  The decision to run kept me alive.  So in this more-or-less safe setting I practiced fleeing.  But I also practiced fighting – after all, this was my chance to experiment with that too.  My fellow students pressed me hard, and Sensei called a halt only when I was clearly exhausted and overwhelmed.

You learn a lot about yourself when your brain refuses to believe that you will come out of the situation with only a bruise on your thigh and some grass stains on your gi.  I really am my own worst enemy.  I’m glad I am learning how to deal with this in mostly-safe settings.  That evening, yes I fought terror, but there were also moments of elation when something I did worked.  Like when I got thrown to the ground and I twisted away from one opponent while planting both feet in the stomach of the other, pushing him hard with my legs.  The elation I felt when I regained my feet was sweet.

So what did I learn about fighting in a life-or-death scenario?  I learned I can’t be “nice,” otherwise I’m toast.  I was “nice” to my two senpai (more senior students).  I didn’t target joints, the throat, or (cough cough), um, “that.”  I didn’t use very many techniques against these gentlemen because I don’t trust my ability to perform some of the really nasty joint-shattering things we learn from kata (forms) unless I’m going slowly in a highly controlled drill.  So if I couldn’t kick knees, punch throats, or grab wrists and slam elbows, that left me with…  Not much of anything.  But conquering my opponents and looking like a superstar really wasn’t the point of this exercise.  The point was to come as close as we could to real fighting without harming each other.  The point was to see what worked and what didn’t work in a two-versus-one scenario.

Eventually it was my turn to be one of two opponents against someone else.  Again I was the smallest of our group of three, and the only lady.  My partner and our opponent fought hammer and tongs.  I darted in at the worst possible times for our opponent.  Sometimes our opponent saw or heard me coming and had a counter, sometimes he didn’t and I’d get a quick (light, controlled) hit to the kidneys or face.  A dark glee rose up in me when our opponent went down.  I have to admit at one point I even crowed, “He’s down!” and punched his nose (lightly).

Later, when I was driving home and processing things, at first I felt a little ashamed of this dark glee.  I thought, “Two against one isn’t really fair, after all.”  But then I realized that there is a time and a place for two against one.  It is always OK to stop evil from happening.  If the bad guy is outnumbered, too bad for him.  Learning how to work with someone to bring someone else down is a valuable exercise.  Processing the emotions that the successful execution of violence brings is also a valuable exercise.

I’m not sure I quite understand all the aspects of that dark glee I felt, but I’m working on it.  I don’t think I can explain it – and I tried while writing the draft of this post.  Most importantly, I’ve come to terms with that particular emotion and I recognize it has its place.  I’m very glad I had a more-or-less safe setting and hadn’t actually hurt anyone.  I wonder if policemen and soldiers sometimes feel this dark glee.  I wish I could ask my late grandpa (a WWII veteran) about it.

What we learn in Karate is not just physical.  I’ve come to appreciate being pushed and being pushed hard.  Quite often, the most difficult physical exercises lead to the deepest lessons.

On a lighter note…

While I was watching the first trio of fighters I heard a little boy call out, “LOOK!  A black belt is fighting two guys at the same time!!!”

Ya know, when I got through with my fight, nobody shouted, “Hey look!  A slightly-lumpy middle-aged matron survived being beaten up by two big guys!!!”

Life just ain’t fair…  LOL!


It’s not unusual for me to lead warm-ups at College Dojo (a community college Physical Education class).  At such times, College Sensei (instructor) might take attendance, get equipment out, consult with people who are sick or injured, or do other tasks he needs to do.  If he finishes quickly, he might then quietly go to the back of the class and follow along with us or warm up on his own.  Other times, College Sensei will take the space in line that I just vacated and he’ll do whatever calisthenics I have the rest of the class doing.  Recently when College Sensei took the sempai (most highly-ranked student) position in the lines and I took his place in front of the class, half my brain was involved in choreographing, leading, and doing the warm-ups.  The other half of my brain was engaged in observing and analyzing.  I noticed things I never noticed before.

During the early weeks of each quarter, the vast majority of the college students taking this Karate physical education class are still not used to acknowledging commands with a loud “Osu!” (in this context it’s the equivalent of “Yes, Sir!”) and they don’t quite know how to echo the Japanese counting of each repetition of the warm-up exercises.  New students need second-quarter students and more highly ranked karateka (those who study Karate) to model these behaviors.  Recently, College Sensei was in “my” spot in line and he was doing an admirably spirited job of modeling dojo (Karate school) etiquette.

I have to admit, hearing College Sensei, one of the more highly ranked karateka in our organization, shouting “Osu!” in response to my commands was, to me, both a little jarring and a tiny bit amusing. Given the vast disparities in rank, experience, knowledge, and ability between him and I it’s like a sergeant giving orders to a general!  I hadn’t really noticed my internal response to this situation before.  Maybe I’ve led warm ups so often that I now can devote some brain power towards internal reflection and observation.

As I listened and observed while sweating along with the class, I started feeling grateful for College Sensei’s spirited modeling of behavior.  I noticed the class growing more confident in responding with “Osu!” More students tried counting in Japanese.  I invest quite a lot into my kohai (students who are more junior in rank) and I’m glad to see them learning.  College Sensei was helping my kohai along, and their positive response helped me be a cheerful and spirited leader.  I really appreciated his support.

Knowing that College Sensei was giving the class a boost made my job as warm-up leader pleasant.  I experienced the positive “glow” of doing something together with a whole bunch of other people.  This is a very real phenomenon – I’m sure doctors can tell you all about the endorphins that are generated and the physiological responses such as lowered blood pressure.  All of this is very healthy for one’s mind and body!  I’m not sure I want to know the physical things that lack of spirit does to one’s mind and body.  All I know is it’s not fun.

Within the dojo and outside the dojo I’ve been both a student and a teacher when students (including me) are dragging a bit.  Nobody’s engaged, nobody’s having fun.  New concepts don’t sink into a brain that’s bogged down.  The instructor starts to wonder why he or she bothered to come to class.  Every class has its “off” days, but these can be turned around if someone takes it on him or herself to support the leader.  This is absolutely the job of the senior student(s) but really, everyone should take responsibility.  Even one person with good spirit makes a world of difference.

I find it interesting that there are lessons to be learned even during warm-up exercises.  Certainly as a student I’ve learned lessons during warm-upsWhen I was a teenager I first learned how to lead warm-ups by simply running through our sensei’s usual routine.  Of course I learned leadership skills and self-confidence even when all I did was run the class through a warm-up routine I’d memorized.  Last year I suddenly found myself in the role of senior student at College Dojo and I’ve gone beyond what I’ve learned as a teen.  I’ve been adjusting my leadership style and developing warm-up routines that work for College Dojo.  I have a feeling this will be an ongoing process.  But now there’s something new in me.  I’m starting to think about the psychological things that are going on not just with me but with the whole class.  I have a deeper appreciation for how my sensei (plural) are supporting me in my own development.  I hope I remember these lessons so one day I can help someone else grow into the role of senior student and, eventually, a sensei.