[This article was originally published on Aikido Journal in September of 2019.]
Christina Kelly is an editor for Aikido Journal and has practiced aikido for about a year, currently holding the rank of fourth kyu. She is a professional writer and editor specializing in video games and esports, and has previously worked in editorial at Blizzard Entertainment and ESPN Esports. Her last editorial on AJ was titled “Why the World Needs Aikido, A Millennial’s Perspective.” This editorial was written for a general audience who may not be familiar with aikido.
I’m a woman who has had a lot of experience in female-dominated activities (certain types of dance), male-dominated activities (video games), and roughly gender-equivalent activities (music) throughout my life. I started learning aikido about a year ago, and was pleasantly surprised to find that there was a substantial number of women practicing at my dojo, even if, overall, men were still the majority. As I dove deeper into aikido’s techniques and practices, I realized that it’s a discipline that offers benefits that are very helpful for women and it’s also an art where women have advantageous traits.
In this article, I’d like to lay out these benefits and advantageous traits as I see them, so that women have a better understanding of the way practicing aikido can help them achieve their goals. Nothing in this article is intended to judge women or men as a group – or their activities of choice – as good or bad, worse or better. The idea is to acknowledge and address the challenges women face, the skills or experiences that women value, and the various characteristics that gender brings to the table. Much of the information in this article could also be useful to men and gender nonbinary or gender nonconforming individuals as well. Now then, let’s get started.
Aikido’s Benefits for Women
There are a number of things that aikido has taught me or provided for me that I enjoy a great deal, and I believe many women would feel similarly if they picked up the practice. Some of the benefits from my perspective include:
Greater physical self-confidence and situational awareness
A supportive community where I’ve made many friends
A philosophy of nonviolence and compassion that resonates with and reinforces my own
Better posture and body alignment
Fun exercise that increases coordination and core strength while it gets your heart rate up
Training in strategic analysis of biomechanics
A place I can go where I know I can feel comfortable and respected and I don’t feel self-conscious about my body
A progression system that lets me take on challenges and achieve goals at my own pace, independently and cooperatively
Lots of opportunities to both learn new things and teach what I know
The ability to fall without hurting myself
Practical physical self-defense techniques that are engineered to convince the attacker to desist without causing permanent physical harm. However, the greatest benefit has been psychosocial, in that aikido has taught me about healthier ways of showing up in the world around other people.
If you identify as female, have you ever felt like you should “lean in” and/or “take up space”? Have you tried to do so, and then found that your coworkers, family, friends, etc. resisted your attempts at being more assertive and loudly expressing your perspective? Have you felt awkward about going against the grain and/or seeming confrontational while doing so? This might be because it’s hard to emulate effective new behaviors along these lines without clear guidelines and real training. Aikido can provide both of these.
In aikido, you are physically trained to “lean in,” or commit to the point of contact with your partner (say, their hand grabbing your wrist) so that you can manipulate their body structure and / or momentum. You are also trained to literally enter another person’s space decisively to distract them and/or make it easier to take them off balance. If you try to be too polite about it, an instructor or higher ranking practitioner may gently but firmly correct you, because aikido is about defusing threats in the most humane way possible, which means in the most efficient way possible.
Just as deep breathing exercises and stretching can relax the mind, so practicing the physical act of leaning in and taking up space in a calm, constructive way can guide one’s social behaviors, to great effect. I learned that being assertive doesn’t have to be about being angry or resistant or selfish. In fact, it is often easier to collaborate with people when they are clear about their ideas and needs. Sharing one’s unique perspective can help show other people, no matter their gender, that it is OK to truly be themselves and they can be respected for being different.
Then, when you switch roles with your partner, you realize how important it is for them to perform the techniques as best as they can so you can learn how to react properly and safely to the force of their actions. You realize that it’s not an unforgivable offense for someone to deliberately get in your face in a structured environment of teaching and learning – in fact, it’s very valuable for you. This concept can help reduce the fear of pressuring or hurting other people when you metaphorically lean in or take up space.
I am personally much less scared of being my enthusiastic, brainy, oddball self around other people now that I have internalized these lessons. And I’ve definitely found that people appreciate it and even like having me around more because they enjoy my energy and my ideas. It’s been quite eye-opening.
The Advantageous Traits of Women in the Context of Aikido
It’s true that the population of aikido practitioners tends to be male-dominated. However, this is not because of any inherent physical disadvantage on the part of women as compared to men – it’s more of a historical and cultural artifact of the time aikido and other martial arts were invented and popularized. Female aikidoka and practitioners of related arts have existed since aikido’s early days, as evidenced by photos of Japanese middle school girls practicing aikido budo circa 1940 in a rare technical manual known as the Soden.
Today, Tokyo’s Hombu Dojo, which was established by aikido founder Ueshiba Morihei in 1931, hosts regular women’s classes, as illustrated by Catalina von Crayen’s article “The Female Aikidoist’s Guide to Hombu Dojo.” It’s clear that there is a place for women in aikido, but furthermore, there are specific reasons why having physiological traits associated with being female can actually be a significant asset in practicing aikido.
Correct aikido technique does not rely on the upper-body muscle groups that men generally build easily and women generally do not (i.e. biceps, triceps, pectorals). Aikido is about efficiently leveraging movement and momentum to create the most impactful force, and using smaller muscle groups in isolation is inefficient, even if it produces a similar result. While it is easier at lower levels to get away with throwing or pinning someone to the ground by using mainly upper-body strength, by the time you get farther along in your training, you’re expected to use alignment, big muscle groups (hips/back/legs), and core strength to execute moves. Since women do not have the option of using upper-body strength as easily as men do, we have to rely more on technique to get to the point where we’re throwing big dudes around.
In addition, because aikido techniques revolve around drawing on your own stability to break an opponent’s balance, it is an advantage both defensively and offensively to have a lower center of mass because you are more stable than someone with a higher center of mass. The average height of an American male is 5’9.5”, while an average American female’s height is 5’4”. Women also tend to have a lower center of mass than a man of equal height anyway because of secondary sex characteristics. Certain aikido techniques like shihonage are easier and more effective if you are shorter than your opponent, and other aikido techniques can be modified to take advantage of this kind of height differential.
Penultimately, movement precision and joint mobility are more important than overwhelming muscle strength in aikido, which is why I feel like my dance background has helped my practice much more than my time on the punching bag when I trained in kickboxing and taekwondo. I am not well-versed in the science of joint flexibility, but it appears that women tend to have a wider range of motion in the abdominal and hip areas, and also in the shoulders (source). Women are sometimes thought of as more graceful than men, which may indicate better movement precision and fine motor coordination. Certain movement-based activities like yoga which emphasize flexibility, coordination, and core strength are often popular among women, and they also provide an excellent foundation for aikido.
Finally, while aikido is a martial art that trains people in effective and practical combat techniques, it is more collaborative and not as confrontational or competitive as many other martial arts or fighting systems. I know what it’s like to get punched in the face while sparring, and the novelty wore off pretty quickly. In aikido partner practice, which takes up most of group classes, one person in a pair is the attacker (uke) and one is the defender (nage). The uke “attacks” by grabbing the nage’s wrist or uniform lapel or approaching with an open-hand strike (attacks become more varied and realistic at the advanced levels). The nage then executes the technique specified by the instructor in response to the “attack” in a smooth, precise manner, maintaining physical contact with the uke to manipulate their joints, momentum, and balance until they are no longer in a position where they can successfully attack. After a few iterations, the partners switch roles. Since the overall goal is to discourage the opponent from attacking without causing permanent harm, it is relatively easy to practice directly on a human partner without danger.
Since one of the main goals of partner training is to practice the application of techniques on opponents of different body types, the partners work together cooperatively to customize the nage’s approach to the particular uke. There is one branch of aikido that practices the art competitively, but competition is not common or core to the art as a whole. Women are often culturally more encouraged to develop collaborative and empathetic mindsets than men, which is a great asset in becoming a successful aikidoka.
The Upsides Vastly Outweigh the Downsides
Given all of this, why is it that aikido is still a male-dominated discipline? Part of it is because aikido is not as well known as other martial arts or exercise frameworks, but part of it is also because there are reasonable concerns that women might have about pursuing this kind of practice. Examples include (not a complete list):
- Martial arts might seem violent, given icons like Bruce Lee and Jean-Claude Van Damme
- Grabbing a sweaty person by the wrist might seem unhygienic
- It might seem too high-impact and destructive for joints and other body parts
- Causing someone physical discomfort, even by consent, might feel confrontational and unpleasant.
- Feeling off-balance or being in a physical position of weakness might feel uncomfortable
- Suggesting that women learn an art associated with physical self-defense might feel like victim-blaming
- The prospect of making mistakes in front of other people could feel intimidating
These are all legitimate concerns, and if they or others are personally important, then it would be useful to discuss them with an instructor at a good aikido dojo. [perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I myself find that aikido is full of grace and beauty, that it’s a system which emphasizes safety, that sweat isn’t that gross to deal with, that throwing someone or being thrown is an amazing way to build trust, that having the ability to defend myself is extremely empowering, and that I feel comfortable and supported learning at my own pace. [/perfectpullquote]
For other female viewpoints, see the Aikido Journal articles featuring Patricia Hendricks (7th dan black belt), Ginny Breeland (5th dan), Coralie Camilli (shodan), and Ikazuchi Dojo’s Karen (shodan), Sophia (third kyu), and Juliette (second kyu).
From a larger perspective, John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio’s 2013 book The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future used a worldwide, 64,000-person survey to figure out that the modern leadership paradigm is swinging away from the macho past and towards “feminine” virtues like flexibility and collaboration. While many people may aspire to be leaders and change the world, it can be difficult to develop that power to the fullest without a solid belief in one’s own strength and ability to respond to challenging situations. Aikido is an excellent way to develop the confidence and skills to navigate a complex and dynamic world in a grounded, empowered manner.
In closing, O-Sensei (the honorific term for the founder of aikido) was known as a formidable and powerful martial artist, but he did not create a martial art to perpetuate destruction. “[A]ikido cannot be anything but a martial art of love. It cannot be a martial art of violence,” he said in an interview. “The state of mind of the aikidoist must be peaceful and totally non-violent. That is to say, that special state of mind which brings violence into a state of harmony.” While aikido might superficially seem to focus on physical conflict resolution, the combat techniques are really only the tip of the iceberg. The mental, emotional, and physical skills that practitioners learn form a coherent approach to relationships of all kinds that promotes greater peace and understanding. Anyone can benefit from doing aikido, and gender certainly doesn’t have to get in the way.