A few years ago, there was a photo that was all over the papers and social media. It was of two young women on a London bus, travelling home at the end of the night. They were a couple. Their faces were covered in blood. They had been beaten by a group of young men.
Like most people I was appalled. But there was something else about how I related to that photograph. I have been afraid- my whole life- of what I would do in the same circumstances. As women, we are told that we can reduce the chances of male violence if we don’t dress a certain way, or if don’t drink too much, or if we don’t walk alone in certain places at particular times…. The list goes on about how we are to behave if we are to be safe. And it’s not true. In a world where women are meant to monitor their behaviour to be safe, women get attacked just walking home from work. They get attacked travelling home on buses. They are dressed in sensible work clothes (not that their outfits even matter). Sarah Everard was complying with a police officer when she was murdered by him. Women are targets just by living our lives, because we are women.
This feeling I have about the threat of attack- that it isn’t a matter of if, it is a matter of when- is what initially motivated me to enrol myself and my daughter in a karate class. At the very least, I wanted to give my daughter skills to deal with a situation if it ever arose. I enrolled in the class with a feeling of frustration and a lot of anger. Anger that I’ve been scared my whole life, scared that at some point my number might come up and it’ll be my turn. My turn to have to try to survive a random act of violence.
I’ve been with Sensei Simeon’s dojo now for around 2 years, so I am very early on in my karate journey. And what I have gained from being in his dojo is much richer and so much more positive than the reasons I signed up. It is unlike anything I’ve previously experienced, and in my otherwise ordinary week, it is always in some way extraordinary.
Around 40 people turn up to training. The age range is from early teens through to 60s. Men, women, Lithuanians, Bulgarians, French, Ukrainian, Russian, Colombian, Indian, Australian…. all of us Londoners. We go into a large room, and the door is closed. That door is closed on your job, your financial worries, your career aspirations, your disappointments, your studies, your kids, your partner, bills to pay, the fight you had in traffic that morning, your tax payment … for the next two hours, that is all outside the dojo.
There is no space to think about anything else because you need to concentrate. You have to concentrate on every kick, every punch, every block, every move that Sensei Simeon carefully teaches you. You have to concentrate on that whilst your body is pleading with you to stop and rest. It’s 8pm on a weeknight: you’d usually be on the couch watching TV, or scrolling through your phone. Instead, you’re drenched in sweat and pushing your body to its absolute limit. You’re sparring, then you both have to drop and do 20 burpees, then you find a new partner and start sparring again. Sensei Simeon is shouting “NOBODY STOPS” and unless you’re about to die, you don’t stop. Everyone is digging as deep as they can, and it’s hard.
I always leave training in a calm, almost meditative state. I have stopped thinking about everything for two hours. I have reset. I have connected with a room full of people in a way that is very difficult to express. Sometimes during sparring and training, you or your partner will say ‘come on, you can do this’ at a moment where you think you’re going to collapse. And it keeps you going. We keep each other going. I am proud to train with them and be a member of our team. Sensei Simeon runs his dojo on principles that I value: discipline, respect, good humour, kindness. Do your best no matter what. Always remember that you are part of a team.
This is not to say that I find karate easy. I’m not a natural, and I’ve started late in life. I get frustrated by how long my 46-year-old body takes to learn, and even more frustrated by how easily it gets hurt and how long it takes to recover. I don’t like that I get intimidated easily. I don’t like that my progress at times feels slow. And just when I think I’m making progress, I find myself sparring with someone and everything I’ve learnt suddenly evaporates. I am always learning, always humbled by how little I know.
The reasons that lead me to enrolling in karate are not the reasons why I love karate. Whilst I would definitely fare better in any fight now than I would have two years ago, that’s not what I find rewarding about training in Sensei Simeon’s dojo.
What I have taken from karate is that when you get hit hard, you get back on your feet. You do your best. You stay in the fight and keep going. Try to lift each other up.
What bigger lesson is there?