Fiona Lee is a black belt in Bushin and Shorinji Kempo. By day, Fiona works as an auditor at an investment bank, assessing its internal controls and risk management practices. By night, Fiona is a fierce fighter and assistant instructor at Bushin.
What made you get into martial arts?
Well, I started martial arts in my first year at university. The short answer is (laughs) – I did it because at university we were told that in order to get a job, you need to make your CV look better. So not just studying, not just working, you have to have something else. So I thought, ‘okay great, what can I do that is something different that will make me stand out compared to everybody else?’. I went through the university sports schedule and found that they offered martial arts classes. My brothers did martial arts at the time, so I decided that I’d also try it out!
At university, I picked the first martial art that was early enough in the day, and that happened to be Shorinji Kempo (laughs), which is where I met Cailey. It (the Shorinji Kempo class) was at 6pm, I remember. My last lecture ended at around 5pm, so my logic was that the one after Shorinji Kempo, which was Aikido, started at 8pm and I didn’t want to have to be in the library for around 3 hours after my lecture! Shorinji Kempo left me one hour to study between my lecture and the class.
I do remember that my first class was so intensive – but I did like it, or else I wouldn’t have carried on – that the next day I wasn’t able to walk. It was that intensive that I had to walk up and down stairs backwards! But I still enjoyed it, so it must have been a good sign.
So what made you stick it out? When I was at uni I started an Aikido class, but never continued with it as I found it too intensive at the time – my legs could not stretch that way!
I stuck with it because I actually enjoyed being with the people because none of the club members were students and that was a fresh perspective. Having been around students pretty much all day, I didn’t want to be stuck with them. I got to talk to people who had seen a bit more of life and were older than me, and I could just talk to them normally.
It was also an escape from studying. I was beating myself up through studying, saying things like ‘you’re never going to be good enough to get a job,’ etc. It became the only world that I had where I had a bit more control and I knew what I was good at or what I was okay at – and that I could see myself getting better in it. It was quite ego boosting for me.
That’s nice though! A lot of martial artists I’ve spoken to have said that part of why they continue to practice martial arts is that it has helped them with their anxiety, or making them feel more self confident, for example.
I had a lot of anger, and I needed to get that out – so it was my outlet for that as well. With all the frustrations of life, I could take it out in a safe environment and through an acceptable outlet. And I was learning something too, and I felt good that I was good at something. It made me believe that I could do Kempo well, and so I started to really view it as my niche.
I also found out very quickly in Kempo that I was very different to everyone else; a lot of techniques didn’t work on me because I have a low centre of gravity and am a bit more flexible than other people. I was also the only girl in the club for a long time and the only white belt in a group of black belts and brown belts. Accepting that difference, I kind of just got on with it, and thought to myself, well nobody is going to judge me for being wrong because I’m still new and I have a reason to be a little bit crappy?! And that drove me to be better and try and do it over and over again, and try and prove myself a lot more.
If you’re new to something and not sure what it entails, seeing someone who you think relates to you more, is important – tweet this
So there were no other white belts besides you?!
Nope, it was just me for a good nine months, until after my first grading in the summer. So I started in January and six months later I did my first grading and then one by one more girls turned up, and people from different clubs started to join in the summer. It felt good at the time, like a different world. Somewhere where I felt comfortable and happy; an escape.
Do you think that it helps to have another woman who is more established in the club in order to encourage more women to join?
I think so. If you’re new to something and not sure what it entails, seeing someone who you think relates to you more is important. And seeing that if something doesn’t work, being able to think ‘if she can do it, then I can do it too’. It’s also good to have somebody to talk to, especially because techniques don’t work for everyone – we’re not all built the same way, we’re not the same height, same weight or people with the same physiology, so being able to share that with someone who is open to talking about it – not that the guys didn’t want to talk about it – but I think their approach was slightly different to that of a woman. For men, they can drive technique through with power, and it becomes a lot more like a ‘strength game’. Whereas for many women with a lot of the techniques that we do, especially with grappling for example, it’s not all about weight – it’s about how you move your entire body. You then quickly learn that you don’t need to necessarily use your entire arm strength against someone else – I can actually use my entire body weight against their arm. You end up being more in-tune with your own body. Some of the men that I trained with had stiffer hips, but could rely on their arm strength so they didn’t really see it that way, so it was good to talk to another woman who saw it the same way as me.
Why did you decide to move onto something like Bushin? It’s quite dissimilar to a more traditional martial art like Shorinji Kempo.
For a lot of reasons, I felt like I had to move on; I was going through a period of my life where things just seemed to stall. At that time, I’d finished my undergraduate, I didn’t know where to go in life and there were a lot of things happening at once. I was thinking, ‘what am I going to do with myself?’. And it sort of effected me emotionally, which went into my training as well, all while there was a lot of club politics going on too. I felt that it was important for me to take a break, just to figure out my next step. I didn’t want to carry on going through the same things where I felt frustrated, where I felt that I’d reached my peak a little bit. There was no-one there who I felt that I could train with who was on the same wavelength, and I was asking myself ‘should I try something completely different?’.
I think it was one of those crossroad moments where it was like, ‘do I want to carry on doing the old thing, or do I want to try something new and see what else I can do? Did I want to start afresh, like what I had when I first started Kempo?’. I needed to find something that makes me feel good. So, I decided to start with a clean slate, and start again.
But, it wasn’t easy! Coming from Kempo, Bushin was completely different, and if you ask Cailey, he’d probably agree that I wasn’t the best person in the room as I had a lot of old habits. I found it harder to adapt compared to the others who started Bushin as well. It was really difficult. I couldn’t figure it out in my head and I started over analysing things that I used to do in Kempo, like ‘you have to step this way, or your hand has to be over here’. But then I learnt with Bushin that I can actually learn to rely on my own intuition: if something feels right, then that’s what I should go with. I shouldn’t have to go down this ‘step here, move your hand here’ step-by-step thing if it doesn’t work for me. I had to learn to trust myself to say nah, I’m going to take a bit of a risk and adapt it my own way early and see if it works. If it doesn’t work, I’ll just try something else.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to a woman starting her first class?
I think you have to know why you’re doing it. If you’re just doing it because you feel unfit, that’s fine! You can do something that will help you get fit through martial arts – whether that be a full-contact martial art, or a boxercise class. I mean to be honest I had a pretty shallow reason for getting into it, ‘it’ll look good on my CV! It will help me get a job!’ – but it never got me a job interview, at all! I kept with it because I enjoyed it and I did it for me.
I think the thing I would probably say to anyone starting out is – do what makes you happy. If you want to do something that just involves hitting a couple of pads, that’s fine. Or if you want to do a martial art that involves more contact, that’s fine. If you want to do something where you really just want to hit someone in full-contact, that’s fine too — just do it in a safe way (laughs)! Just make sure you’re not breaking any laws, it’s fine as long as you find a safe environment for you!
Just do it, and maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. If it doesn’t work, find out why it doesn’t work and make it work! It made me less risk averse and more able to just do things. – tweet this
How much has your motivation to take up martial arts changed now?
It’s changed a lot, I think it’s taken a bit more of my life than I ever anticipated. Even though I had very shallow reasons to start a martial art in the beginning, doing it changed my perspective on life quite a lot, and the way I think as well. For example, when you try and break down a technique, I learnt to approach it in a very logical and systematic way, combined with intuition. And that’s how I try to approach day-to-day tasks now, and that’s how I am at work. I think that it really has affected the way that I think, the way I approach things. It’s probably even affected the way I talk to people as well! It really has infused with my way of life.
It also made me more confident talking to people from different backgrounds. That’s why I really appreciate starting out in a club where there were no students. Growing up I wasn’t very confident and I found it really difficult to talk to people at all – I was painfully shy. But then, starting university I decided that I was going to be a new person, as you do (laughs). One of my university lecturers told me ‘if you want to be confident, you have to fake confidence’, so I thought that if I wanted to talk to people from different backgrounds, I had to jump right in and just do it!
I take that approach with most things, especially in martial arts. Just do it, and maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. If it doesn’t work, find out why it doesn’t work and make it work! It made me less risk averse and more able to just do things.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
It’s quite difficult, because I feel like I’m at the stage in my life where I want to focus more on my career. Getting to this point, I was just focusing on my ‘martial arts career’ as it were. And now, as I’m more confident in other aspects of my life, I want to invest more energy and effort into that. My work career is going to take more of a precedence now, so I’m probably going to have to dial back the amount of energy I invest into martial arts, but I’m not going to give it up – I’m just going to find a different way of approaching it.
I’ve passed that phase of thinking that I need to be the best and win competitions, I’ve already done that. That’s not my ultimate goal anymore. My goal now for my martial arts career is to find what I’m good at, and find new ways to be better at it. Also, I’d like to try different sports too. I tried Aikido for a while, but it didn’t really work for me so I stopped. I’ve now taken up yoga, which is completely different, but I feel that it will compliment my martial arts. It’s good for focusing on your core, so it doesn’t surprise me to hear that many martial artists are taking up yoga and pilates! I’ve also been going to the gym more to do strength training, which compliments what I do, but I’ve found that it also hinders me in terms of limiting my flexibility! So, I’m trying to find that balance. At this point in time, i’m still trying to understand what works for me rather than trying to be better than everybody else. I’m just trying to prove myself more and more.
I think that sometimes, not just in martial arts or sports, you can end up chasing an ideal…
Yes, wanting to be the best and be recognised – ‘I know her, she’s the best’. But I’ve kind of passed that now. That’s never really been a priority to be honest, I just wanted to compete with myself more. I don’t think I should beat myself up anymore when I’m in competition with myself, I should just appreciate what I have at the moment and use that as a motivation to be better rather than believing that I’m not good enough and beat myself up in order to be better. It’s a different kind of mindset, because I’m getting older. I’m not going to be the best anymore because my body is already starting to fall apart! Like, I had knee problems, my knee snapped and I couldn’t squat for a while; I had a fractured wrist a year ago and it’s not the same as it was before. A lot of things have made me appreciate that I need to not be so harsh on myself and just understand that if I’m rubbish at something… That’s okay!
Does Fiona’s experiences resonate with your own martial arts journey? Let us know in the comment section below!