Podcast Episode 2: A Toolkit For Boundary Setting with JKD black belt Eve Parmiter

Have you ever felt uncomfortable with a sparring partner who has gone too hard? Agreed to ‘flow roll’ only to find that your partner is definitely going hard? Or, have you struggled to articulate how you feel with your training partner when you’ve had a shitty day that you know will effect your training?

Join Eve and I for I Hit Hard’s second podcast, focusing on setting boundaries in a martial arts/combat sport setting. Using Eve’s experiences as a JKD black belt as well as a master practitioner of cognitive hypnotherapy, this episode looks at a few tools people can use to set and maintain their boundaries in a space where our physical and mental limits are often challenged.

Interview: Brenda Guiled on the Karate Way, Okinawa and Dance

I was lucky enough to stumble across the delightful, generous, warm and wonderfully sharp person that is Brenda through a Facebook group for women who practise martial arts. In a discussion on the role of martial arts in recovery and healing from mental illness, Brenda posted her short piece on the body-mind-spirit connection, plotting out her journey as a martial artist in correlation with the unity of body-mind-spirit. I was moved by her love for karate and the way she conceptualised her relationship between these three elements of herself. Following on from this early interaction, Brenda and I have been exchanging ideas and emails around karate, martial arts and her book ‘Dancing in the Kara of Te’.

(Brenda is a black belt in Okinawa go-ju (hard-soft) kara-te with over 23 years of experience and is the founder of Salt Spring Shorei-Kan dojo on Salt Spring Island, Canada)

Dancing in the Kara of Te opens with a look into the first written account (in 1816) of Okinawan dance and kara-te. The dance witnessed by a British colonialist was performed by a remarkable Okinawan man called Maehira. I wanted to know more about Brenda’s relationship with Kara-te and its roots in Okinawan dance.

(Naha port, Okinawa, from Captain Basil Hall’s journal depicting his 1816 encounters in Okinawa)

I realise that you mention in your writings that you don’t feel sufficiently historically grounded to render a deep historical recollection of Okinawan kara-te. However, I found your account very informative and riveting …

Brenda: Much appreciated, but such caution is necessary. The Caucasian-Canadian wife of the good friends who hosted me in Okinawa took me to task about any non-Okinawan daring to say anything about the place and people. To my shock, she ended our friendship over my refusal to state any opinion about one of our very senior white-guy teachers performing a kata to western music. I was a junior belt then, so didn’t think it my place to say, plus she and I both knew that he had cleared his music choice with the Okinawan head of the entire international organization. When you lose a friend over such a thing, it’s very daring to write anything about Okinawa, even as a tourist who hopes that in-depth, on-going study allows for careful comment.

I would very much like to understand your opinion on the presentation of kara-te as uniquely “Japanese”, and whether you think that this term is historically placed to encompass kara-te’s Okinawan roots. Does the idea of kara-te as Japanese obfuscate its origins and cultural grounding?

Brenda: Absolutely. Even in “The Karate Kid” movies, old master Miyagi rejects being called Japanese, insisting on “Okinawan”. In Okinawa, albeit for only one brief visit 25 years ago, I saw, heard about, and talked with numerous young Okinawan women who refused to date or marry Japanese men. A movie that embodies the dichotomies and confusions about the Okinawan-Japanese-American amalgam is “Hotel Hibiscus”, 2002, which I can’t find to stream, download, or buy now. Too bad. Here’s a summary.

I watched it with my sensei, a rare Japanese man to marry an Okinawan woman (met when he was studying the history of Okinawa and karate for his master’s thesis at Okinawa’s Ryu-Kyu University). He helped me understand much of the symbolism and depth that I’d have missed otherwise, starting with the hibiscus being the Okinawan symbol of loss of “mabui”/spirit, i.e. death. Scroll down to Mabui here, where the movie is mentioned.

If you have time, please read Gichin Funikoshi’s autobiography, which covers the difficulties Okinawans faced when taken over by Japan. You can get a used copy for a good price here. He also makes clear, by stating three times in different ways, that the karate way is not competitive. He’s spinning in his grave over how it’s been turned into a win-lose sport by Japanese and American interests who have severed the movements of the art from their Okinawan roots and purposes. What most of the world knows today as “karate” shouldn’t bear the name. It’s fine for what it is, but it most definitely isn’t karate, which, by definition, is the karate-way.

In terms of understanding dance and kara-te, do you find it useful to separate the two?

Brenda: Impossible. There is no separation. “The essence of the karate way,” my teacher’s teacher, Seikichi Toguchi wrote, “is the ability to smile at any occasion.” Not that you do smile, except when appropriate, but that the ability is always there. That’s the dance inside – the karate way, which is a deep expression of the Okinawan way. There is no karate itself, there is only the karate-way, which has a dance inside, or it’s just movement craft, not even an art.

What do you think would be the outcome of teaching martial arts as being integrated with dance? You mention in your writing that you believe that teaching the inner kara-te dance could help students aspire to a kind of flow and integration of dance with their martial arts –

Brenda: First, the karate way is not a martial art. There’s nothing martial – Mars, the god of war – about it. I consistently call it a self-defence art, which it most certainly is, plus a whole bunch more, because it’s always karate-DO, or the way, the path, the journey of body-mind-spirit integration where one never throws the first strike, then invoking every possible strategy to avoid striking to get to win-win solutions. These strategies go through four stages: getting away, changing the dynamic with good humour, positioning to de-escalate, then taking physical control such that the person feels inordinate pain, with the risk of breaking themselves if they dare to move. Only when dire injury and death are in the balance is it okay to strike, then striking and killing are done as quickly and efficiently as possible, to end the problem mercifully.

‘The first priority of kara-te is to serve justice – to do oneself justice, as well as our relationships, our community, the world beyond, and the art itself.’ This is such a beautiful mantra to live by! I’m really curious, how do you feel you’ve been able to apply this to your own kara-te journey and wider life? How has this mantra transformed for you as you’ve made your way through your kara-te journey?

Brenda: Nothing has transformed for me. As a kid, like all kids, I had a profound sense of what was fair and not fair. I never let go of my “justice antennae”, nor my certainty when others are played for fools, dupes, suckers, scapegoats, powerless beings, as well as demi-gods, above others, etc. It’s the ultimate disservice to the human soul, leading to all the ills of the world.

At age 10, I started to actively consider what it takes to be a good teacher – to pass on the best of what we know and have learned. While taking an M.Sc. in Education, I learned about many, many teaching theories and applications. While some addressed justice indirectly, none had any overt method for ensuring that it’s done, for all students individually and collectively, for the subjects at hand, for the greater world and good. Only when I stumbled into the traditional Okinawan karate-way did I find the philosophy and tools needed to do this. Despite having some crappy teachers, with the egos of too many of them destroying everything they’d worked for and hypocritically said they believed in, the art kept shining through.

The karate-way, when understood and lived, becomes a self-correcting art. The answers are within it. This makes it a self-teaching art, a self-purifying study. Thus, the karate-way purifies the body-mind-spirit integration of those who follow this path. Which is to say, it has clarified who and what I have been all along, no transformation whatever, rather coming into my own. There is no arrival, because there’s no such thing, just continual strengthening of the foundation of justice, so that key truths come clear, from which trust can grow, leading to win-wins every step of the way, inside and out, for one’s self, those encountered, the community, and the larger world.

The karate-way is also a dream, a spirit, a ghost, a shadow-art. We can only achieve these things when we acknowledge these things and learn to dance with them.


If you’re interested in reading Brenda’s book ‘Dancing in the Kara of Te’ in full, you can purchase the book on her website here.

Interview: Mariana and Fran from Esfinges, on Historical European Martial Arts

Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) is something that I only recently learnt about. I was aware that people practice different forms of sword fighting, and in fact I did a little fencing myself when I was younger, but little did I know that there is a thriving, passionate community of people fighting in a similar way that I am in the martial arts that I practice.

Where there are martial arts, there are women martial artists – and HEMA is no exception. There are thousands of women who practise across the world, mastering historical weapons such as the federschwert, messer, dagger or shortsword. Others engage in historical grappling sports such as Ringen – a German wrestling sport from the Late Middle Ages and German Renaissance periods. What makes these martial arts specifically ‘HEMA’ is that the martial arts they practice are based on historical texts from past centuries of old methods of fighting or combat that may have either gone extinct or contributed to the formation of the contemporary martial arts we see today.

Determined to find out more about women who practice HEMA, I found Esfinges (Spanish for sphinxes) – a dedicated international network for women in HEMA, founded by women HEMA practitioners. They provide a space for women to ask questions and read about others’ experiences within HEMA. They also host a variety of awesome live events, including competitions and regular training sessions.

I’m excited to share with you all my interview with two of Esfinges’ founders: Mariana and Fran. Their love for what they do, and their drive to make HEMA a place that is inclusive and encouraging of women fighters, is inspirational and crucially important.

First of all, would you be able to tell us a few lines about yourselves?

 Mariana: My name is Mariana, I am from Mexico but I’ve been living in the USA for over a year now, I’m 27 years old, and a recent college graduate in International Relations (my love), painter and graphic designer (my hobby) and HEMA-ist for the past 10 years! (my passion). I currently work as a Fencing Instructor and freelance designer.

 

Mariana from Esfinges

 

Fran: My name’s Fran and I live in the UK. I work in admin, have two kids, a dog, I write books and short stories, and I run The School of the Sword and Waterloo Sparring Group.

 

Fran from Esfinges

 

How did you first get into HEMA? Where and how did it all begin for you both?

Mariana: I was on my search for an appealing martial art, at that time during a ren-fair (Renaissance Fair) I saw a group doing stage combat and I remember saying out loud how I wish swordfighting were an actual martial art. A person behind me (who had been in the USA and learned about HEMA almost by accident) told me it was. My friends and I hired him for a workshop alongside several people from the ren-fair. Both my club (founded by me and my brother) and another 4 clubs were founded afterwards (being the first HEMA clubs in existence in Mexico as far as I’m aware!)

Fran: When I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband Pim and I went to a re-enactment event (similar to USA ren fairs) where Schola Gladiatoria had a stand running small tournaments with LARP (live-action role playing games) swords and light gear. He thought this was great fun and they gave him a flyer, but it was a bit too far and we were about to have our first child so it went on the back burner. Just over two years later when my son was born, Pim looked up HEMA and found that there was a school near us. My parents agreed to have the kids for an evening and I would take him along. I sat and watched his first class, then enthused about it to my parents when I got back. They told me I should do it too – having been nothing but a mother for two years straight, and they were right!

What attracted you both to HEMA as opposed to say, karate or judo? Was the historical element particularly important for you?

Mariana: It was a combination of several things, the lack of “personal space” in the martial arts I had tried wasn’t very appealing to me at the time, and the concept of rank exams in front of an audience was too stressing on my teenager over-conscious self. On the other hand I had always had a love for history, the romance behind knights and the excitement of understanding how so many of this weapons that looked so impractical to me (like pole arms) were actually used. So as soon as I had the offer to try it, it was impossible for me to say no, and as soon as I started – I simply couldn’t stop.

Fran: The history and the scholarship was definitely a big draw. There lies a key difference between learning what sensei tells you to do, or smashing one another with steel or foam weapons…and focusing on what the fencing masters centuries ago were trying to achieve – you want to get it right, and you want to be authentic. It draws you in on several levels.

As HEMA practitioners, what role do you play in telling the history of the martial arts you practice? Do you sometimes see yourselves as ‘historians’ of sorts?

Mariana: I think more than historians we are a mix of storytellers, archeologist and time travellers. Translating and interpreting the manuals and making them work, having to think not only on a sense of what works mechanically but also keeping in mind the historical context making us dig into how people lived back then, to the point ancient people are no longer “these strange people of the past” but more like “just another person but without the Internet or pens”. On the other hand it also builds a connection to other cultures; We might not be as similar as some Asian martial arts, but we are not that different either, the human body only moves a certain way.

Fran: It’s important to me to explain to new students at my school that we are teaching as closely as we can the same material that was being given to students just like themselves over 400 years ago. I get the books out on day one, and get them taking notes – the books are the link between them and those people who studied under Marozzo and Manciolino all those years ago.

 

I know that sometimes roleplaying/cosplaying is a big part in how people interact with and get into HEMA. Could you tell us a little bit about your experience with role playing? Do you think it has contributed to your relationship with the martial arts you practice?

Mariana: That’s… An interesting question. HEMA has had a long bipolar “fight” when it comes to how we relate to geek culture. Roleplay/cosplay/larp etc., all of those things are “games”. HEMA is not, yet it used to be commonly confused, so through its evolution HEMA has had a hard time to establish itself as a Martial Art and Sport (let’s not forget we have tournaments) that it is. Nowadays I believe that the distinction is properly establish, and while it still causes me to twitch when someone ask me if HEMA armored fencing is the same as LARP or BOTN for example (which are perfectly fine activities! Just not what we do!) now it’s a lot more easy to show people material for them to really understand the differences between these activities.

That being said, a lot of us enjoy or have backgrounds or have gained a lot of students through roleplay/cosplay/larp, etc. So while we want to make it clear we are not the same, we welcome everyone!

Fran: I play tabletop RPGs: D&D and call of Cthulhu, but the only link for me is that a lot of HEMA people are equally as nerdy and it’s something we often have in common. I am keen to not blur the lines between re-enactment/cosplay/HEMA etc – from the outside they all seem to be the same thing anyway, so defining HEMA as a study in historical swordplay rather than a chance to dress up is necessary in my opinion. Otherwise it detracts from the task before us.

That said, having taught a lot of newbies from different backgrounds I have developed a keen eye for what makes a good beginner – and LARPists are often the best, particularly those who have done a lot of foam weapon fighting. They have excellent timing and movement, and a real urgency that is necessary in martial arts.

Moving onto Esfinges! You guys are the first female network for HEMA women practitioners. That’s amazing! What made you feel that you needed to start this network? 

Fran: I got on board shortly after Mariana came up with the idea, I will let her speak about her experiences and why she felt it was necessary to begin. I personally thought it would just be fun to get all the women in HEMA together and make new friends, but as time has gone on I’m learning more and more that our work is vital for the growth and proliferation of HEMA, and the continuation of women in historical martial arts.

Mariana: I will do my best to keep this story short, but no promises:

Back in the day, when HEMA was young and I lived on my cloud of happiness running my own club and knowing pretty much everyone in the community, This girl called Ruth told me it would be cool to make a Facebook group with all the women in HEMA in Mexico, and who knows, maybe talk about what hairstyle is best to keep your hair away from the fencing mask, etc. She needed my help as I pretty much knew almost everyone, and she didn’t. I though the idea to be entirely idiotic, absurd, and ridiculous. Few months after I went to my first international HEMA event, and in a crowd of 60 people, only 4 of us were women. For the first time I was conscious of this disparity, so I messaged Ruth back and told her I would be onboard as long as we made it international, so together we created Esfinges. I wanted to know why there were so few of us! After some time Ruth found her passion to be elsewhere and left, but I now had too many questions to just drop the project.

I started paying attention every time I invited women to training sessions, and I realized there were a lot of taboos and stigmas from society about women doing fighting activities, and I couldn’t stand it. Without going through names I started noticing absurd situations where women had to quit HEMA because of boyfriends threatening to leave them if they didn’t stop training because they couldn’t stand seeing their girlfriends with bruises. A girl left HEMA after 3 years of practicing because her parents offered her a new car as long as she quit HEMA and joined a “real women” activity like dancing. Women who were interested but “they were women so they wouldn’t be able to do it anyways” and women who loved it but got tired of all the stigma and treatment they got from the “outside world” about them doing HEMA.

To date my main goal with Esfinges is to have a tool to make clear and loud to the non-HEMA world that women (any woman! Girly, manly, queer, big, small, religious, atheist, etc.) CAN AND WILL DO HEMA, and that we kick ass at it. I want us to break the stigma about what is a female activity and what is a male activity, and I want us to provide a space in which women feel identified with and welcome, so if they happen to have to deal with the outside world telling them they can’t do this, they gather enough strength for them not to quit, and show the world they can! And they do it pretty darn well!

In all honesty, I never thought this would get so big, and we ended up dealing with more projects and needs than what I first planed, and while I still hope for the day Esfinges is no longer needed (I aim for it to not exist anymore one day). Right now it has become a monster. But I see it as my baby monster, so I’ll stick to it!

I think support networks for women martial artists are very important, whether you’re practicing HEMA, or a martial art like Brazilian Jiu jitsu. It’s a way for women to know that they’re not alone, and that there are many women out there who share or have been through their experiences (both positive and negative). Have you seen this happen through Esfinges? Could you tell us a story that stands out to you about women who have connected through Esfinges?

Fran: The stories that touch me most deeply in Esfinges are the private messages and posts we see from those who have wanted to quit, but found the strength and the will to continue – or found a better environment –  thanks to us. Plenty of women find what they are looking for in HEMA – and they are very lucky – but there are plenty who have adverse experiences, because of club environments, relationships with other students and instructors, or just plain old sexism. And it’s a testament to their passion and enthusiasm for HEMA that they don’t just walk away – many do. There are a lot of hurdles for women to overcome to get started on a HEMA career, and they don’t disappear once they’re started. Often we find we are the lifeline, and I don’t use that word lightly, that allows them to stay in HEMA. We are the hundreds of supporting voices that believe in them when it feels like nobody else will.

Mariana: Adding to what Fran said, I will talk more on women on the “outside” of HEMA. I love when women are interested but not sure they can practice HEMA, then they find Esfinges and realize there’s nothing extraordinary about the people who practice HEMA, they are people like them. Students, workers, stay at home parents, regardless of religion, regardless of skin color, size, sexuality, gender identity etc. So then they finally feel the bravery to go to their first HEMA class, and join. I’ve been amazed to realize that Esfinges has been inspirational not only to women but to other minorities and how it allows people to see the value of having more women in their clubs and learn how to be more welcoming and inclusive.

On the other hand, what hurts me the most is seeing women who even while already in HEMA, they are so feed up with what society has told them, that they feel unworthy of being good, they doubt too much when they have the chance to be instructors and coaches, or when they feel they know and could do more but don’t have the strength to go or ask for it. We don’t see enough women instructors not only because there’s not many women doing HEMA, and there’s even less who had done it for a long time, but also because many, during their entire lives were never told they could be bold, strong, capable leaders or that they are as important and deserve as much respect as anyone else in the room (the saddest part is knowing I have been in all those positions myself). It’s especially hard and common when clubs have new members and there’s every now and then, or very often depending in which country you live, this one guy who don’t want to train with you or teach you because you are a woman and that to their eyes, means you’re less capable.

How do women experience HEMA? What are some of the boundaries you’ve both encountered training in HEMA? 

Mariana: I started my own club with my brother, so when it came to my club and my environment, I was always welcome, however it was very hard for me when I had people who were onboard to come train to our club and as soon as they figured I was one of the instructors they left. However my brother gave me a great lesson.

Once upon a time, one (big) guy arrived in class for the first time, he said out loud he didn’t wanted to work with me because he didn’t want to hurt me. After telling him I had 5 years of experience he proceed to say “but you are a woman” my brother came to me and told me “I want you to go, throw him, throw him as hard as you can, just beat him and have no mercy” and so I did. In fact, this happened many, many times. The result was one of 2: they learned the lesson and treated women with respect and fight them as they would fight anyone else, or they left the club that same day. That day I learned that while there are boundaries, we are the ones who allow them to stay or force them to leave.

I’ve been told the only reason I achieved things in HEMA was for “being pretty and cute”, I’ve been told women shouldn’t fence men, I’ve been told that my opponent were “easy on me” if I won a fight. Outside I’ve been told that “no man would ever date me” as long as I practiced HEMA (joke’s on them, I have an amazing husband!) In college one guy started to harass me because of the fact I did martial arts, to the point he tried to forcefully kiss me to prove I wasn’t going to be able to defend myself ( I smashed the back of his head against the wall… he never got close to me again 😉 ) Even my parents got comments from other people for letting me do HEMA!!!! Worst of all, I’ve believed those things myself…. And so many other things…. But as my brother taught me, every time I find a boundary I go, throw it, throw it as hard as I can and just beat the boundary with no mercy.

But that being said, it is necessary to state: none of those bad experiences compare to the fulfilling experience, the personal growth, the achievements, the joy, and the love HEMA has brought me. Where some might be sexist and stupid and unfortunately loud, there is also a welcoming, loving encouraging community built by women, men, queer people and just about anyone who wants to join it. Full of diversity, beauty and most importantly: FULL OF SWORDS!!!

Fran: I had the best start in HEMA as a woman, because the founder and head instructor of my school was a woman. Caroline Stewart was my role model and now I’m a leader at the school I feel it’s my responsibility to be a role model to others. That said, even as a woman in a leadership role, with 8 years of experience as a competitor, instructor and organiser; even with a spouse who is world renowned as both a competitor, instructor and researcher, I still experience sexism. Whether it’s being undermined for being a woman instructor, or even sexually harassed, or just battling the voices in my head telling me I shouldn’t be doing this…those boundaries are real. And that’s as someone speaking from a position of privilege, so it’s my strongest passion to kick those boundaries away whenever I see them. HEMA is an overwhelmingly white and cis-male hobby, it can also be a very macho hobby – a place full of very strong masculinity. That is something that can be attractive to all the sexes, but if it is a dangerous and toxic masculinity, it can be very excluding and damaging.

 

Do you feel that you’ve been able to overcome these boundaries? And if so, how did you do it?

Mariana: I don’t know if I’ve been able to overcome them entirely, but I’ve learn to challenge them, I’ve learned that for every time I believe I’m not capable I need to try. For every time I feel like crying because I’m afraid to hit someone, I need to go and hit them even if I have tears in my eyes. For every time I want to put the word “women” on my fails, I need to remember it’s a failure that humans – regardless of gender – have had before me. I’ve learned that there’s no way for me to know if I can do HEMA or not, If I don’t do HEMA. And that I will never been able to know if I am good enough, if I don’t train as much and as hard as I can. And that I won’t know if I can’t inspire others, if I don’t try to inspire others.

I try to put into actions what I believe in. To remove the excuses society placed for me to be lazy and to make of any environment I’m involved into an environment that breaths inclusivity and openness. Breaking boundaries can be achieved by simple things that seem dumb, from changing that one flyer promoting your club by having a woman instead of a man, (or a woman and a man!). By cutting through social taboos and talking openly to your students about how cramps and periods and hormonal changes can affect your training instead of talking about it as a deep dark secret only with the female students. Sure, there are more “complicated” actions that can be taken, but no big goal is reached without tiny steps. And those tiny steps will show you what’s next.

However the most important part for me to break boundaries is: talk to people, ask questions, and open your ears and your heart, challenge everything. Many people creates or perpetuates toxic attitudes not because they are inherently bad, but because that’s what they were taught all their lives, because they don’t know other ways, or they don’t even realize they are being damaging because they don’t live our lives or feel our experiences. We must learn to be approachable and to approach others. Ask first, then Listen, Ask again, Listen again, and then make your argument. Every now and then things get solved not by telling our needs, but by explaining to others where those needs come from and why we have them.

Remember how I was surrounded by an environment in which I was questioned for doing HEMA? Those same people, that same environment, has been transformed into a group of people who believe women can and should do this if they want. Minds are not solid, everything can change.

Fran: My current issue with the HEMA community at large is lack of women instructors at events. I saw two events in the UK recently where one had 2 female instructors out of 40 (and everyone was white, able bodied, straight and cis as far as I know, but that’s another issue), and another which had zero women teaching. By my estimate we have approximately 20% women in the HEMA community, so this isn’t even representative of us as a community, let alone as the human race. My quiet protest is to put on events with only women instructors – not as a gimmick or anything drawing attention to that fact, just trying to redress the balance.

People have said “women just aren’t interested in HEMA”, this patently is not true, far from it. Last year on Esfinges’ public page we ran a month-long event called Give a Girl A Sword (GAGAS). We have run this in previous years and the idea is everyone brings at least one female friend or relative along with them to class, so they can try HEMA for the first time – and hopefully keep going. This time people took it a step further: several clubs around the world – from Chile to the Philippines, Spain and the UK – ran women’s beginner classes. In several cases that I know of they were completely overwhelmed by the response. One club in Chile was expecting around twenty women, and they got over a hundred. A club in London had to put on several extra nights to cope with the demand. So quite simply, representation matters – and if you market HEMA to women, they will come, in ARMIES.

 

As founders of such an important network, how has Esfinges changed your lives? Has it impacted the way that you train?

Fran: I strive for parity in beginners courses, in instructor quotas, in competitions. I am enthusiastic about open lines of communication, about mentorship, I encourage my female students to discover their hidden talents, to be their true selves, and to encourage other women. The women that take the brave step of starting HEMA deserve all the support they can get, so they can show others that it can be done.

Mariana: Now more than ever I care about being inclusive and to build healthy environments and break preconceived ideas or “who’s more capable” and “who’s more talented”, if I run an event, I make sure it’s clear and loud that it’s an activity for everyone. As Fran said, strive for parity and encourage people to reach the best of their capabilities. I want to create an environment in which everyone supports everyone, women and men equally, where there’s a constant understanding and dialogue. Were we no longer feel threatened or questioned or judge what we decide to do with our lives or on how we perform for no other reason than our gender.

Esfinges was a blessing and a curse, I now live in a constant awareness of my environment, but I now have tools to work with different environments and working and learning on building them to be better.

And finally, what advice would you give to other women looking to start in HEMA? 

Mariana: Just do it, all you need to practice HEMA is wanting to practice HEMA. And once you try it, if you didn’t like it – was it because of HEMA itself, or something else? If the answer is the second reason, then do it again, differently, elsewhere. You don’t have to be good, you don’t have to be great, and you just have to enjoy it. Talent, athleticism, capability comes with time and practice. If there’s no one to teach you in the near area, research, find a seminar, start on your own. When there’s a will, there’s most likely a way, and people willing to help you (like us!).

Fran: Try it out, see if you can find a club near you – if there are several try them all. Every club culture is different and you will find one that suits you best. It’s not just about the weapon being studied. When I ran By the Sword in March (an all-women’s event with all women instructors) we had a Q&A panel with all of the instructors  and someone asked a similar question. The main thing I would say to those women, and to the voices in the heads of those women is “you deserve to be here”. You deserve to be here as much as the tall athletic guy who wins all the medals, you deserve to be here as much as the veteran who has been teaching for decades, you deserve to be here as much as the instructor running the class. Find your tribe.

If you’re interested in starting in HEMA, or are curious about Esfinges, visit their website here.

All images in this post are taken from Esfinges’ gallery, or directly from Fran and Mariana. http://esfinges.net/gallery/

Fighting Through Mental Illness: how martial arts helped with depression and anxiety

When I strike, a calmness washes over me. The full body focus I experience enables me to fully immerse myself in the present. Nothing compares to the sensation of being in-tune with my physical self, my surroundings and the power my body is capable of exerting, all at once. It lights a fire in me that stabilises my senses and grounds my emotions. As I fight my energy often wanes, but the ecstasy of being in the moment pushes me further. Not over an edge, but into a post-tired state, where I discover I can go physically and mentally further than I’d ever imagined. Fighting has allowed me to trace and learn my physical and mental boundaries, and appreciate how far I can take myself.

In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, rolling has shown me a new kind of intimacy and mindfulness of the self and of the person I am rolling with. I am guided through a mental landscape that requires my thought processes to travel to the tips of my toes and fingers. I grip, dive, enfold and, often, stumble. I have found the collision and melting of bodies into one another as I roll meditative. I love the shapes I can form with my partner, and discovering that I can attain consciousness at multiple physical touch points. On the mats, I feel like I’m suspended in the ocean, which can sometimes be overwhelming, but I’ve learnt to let that feeling pass through me. I’ve learnt that it’s okay to feel like you’re drowning. Rolling has taught me to let go of anxious states of mind, and to know that they don’t last forever unless I cling to them. Letting go, mentally and physically, has been transformative.

It feels amazing to fight, to learn about myself in ways I didn’t know were possible, to love what I can do and be excited by my own potential. Through martial arts, I’ve found myself thinking: Yeah, I did that – and I am capable of so much more.


Many women live with mental illnesses, and I am one of them. I feel vulnerable talking about my mental health so publicly, but in the spirit of International Women’s Day, I want to share my experiences with depression and anxiety to show that what makes us vulnerable can also lead us to find great strength and grounded-ness. I firmly believe that had I not spent so many difficult years battling with depression and anxiety, I would not be the person I am today, and I would not have the motivation nor the tenacity that I carry with me to train hard in the martial arts I practice. I also see martial arts as being a pivotal part of my mental health journey, having been a means through which I have freed myself from many of the toxic narratives that had kept me in a depressive and anxious state for so long.

I remember reading a Guardian article a year or so ago that described having depression as akin to looking through thick ice. It resonated with my experience of living with depression so well: peering out at the world through thick, opaque ice that made everything on the outside appear distant, foggy and blurred. When you’re depressed, the way you view what is around you changes, as well as your sense of self and your perception of your place in the world.

I think I had been depressed for several years before I was able to truly see myself as having depression. I first accepted that I was depressed when I found commonality with some of the close women friends I had made at university who were experiencing similar mental health struggles to my own. At that time, the labels ‘depression’ and ‘depressed’ were unfamiliar and bitter in my mouth. But, like the heaviness in my lungs and stomach that I carried with me day-in and day-out, I absorbed these words and tried to make sense of them.

In my late teens and early twenties, I couldn’t get out of bed. My body and mind felt harnessed to my mattress, and I had no will or desire to move until 2pm or so in the afternoon. This wasn’t helped by my inability to sleep. I would hyperventilate in my room, anxious, afraid and desperately lonely. I was scared about what was happening to me, where every day became a struggle to the point where I thought I was going insane. When you’re in the thick of it like I was, it’s so hard to pin-point what is happening to you and why. There is a lot to uncover when you experience mental illness: where did it come from? Why am I experiencing these things? What does it all mean?

I knew that what I was experiencing was related to the toxic and volatile relationship I had with my body. I despised my physical self, having absorbed from a very young age that my body, in all its fatness and largeness – was monstrous, grotesque and unacceptable. There was a voice in the back of my mind narrating this hatred of myself every waking second of the day, thoughts like: ‘don’t walk that way, you’re disgusting stomach will show’, ‘you can’t sit like that because it will make you look horrific’, ‘you would never be able to wear anything like that because your body is too ugly’. It was a lot to deal with, mentally, and looking back I have no idea how I dealt with it.

A sketch I drew in 2015 depicting my conflict over ‘self love’

It was only after university that I begun to look to exercise as a serious outlet to support myself. Before starting martial arts, I found that my initial venture into exercise and fitness only reinforced my toxic relationship with my body – do it to the point of exhaustion, or punish and reprimand yourself. Eventually, my curiosity lead me to begin lifting weights in my local gym. Weight lifting was the first form of exercise that had a positive effect on me because it highlighted an attribute of myself that I’d always been proud of – my strength.

Martial arts went several steps further than that, and it has taught me many things over the years. Most importantly, it has shown me that:

  • I can be dynamic and open with my body. Since I can first remember I have been taught to compartmentalise my body and contort it into acceptable shapes and sizes that were palatable to others. This, many women are socialised to do, and it became central to how I existed as I grew older where the apparent unsightliness of my large body continued to be emphasised by others. Moving in combat slowly bore away at these narratives in my mind, as it enabled me to move my body in ways I had been afraid to in the past. It no longer mattered that I jiggled when I pivoted my hips, my mind was too focused on perfecting my jab. I didn’t care anymore that my stomach rolled with me when I narrowed my body into a fighting stance, I just wanted to optimise my basic position work.And I felt good about it, knowing that moving in such a way was turning me into a better fighter. In turn, I began to appreciate what my body could do for me. I inadvertently was retraining my mind to think about myself positively – something I had no will or means to do previously.
  • I can love myself, fully. ’Ananya, you have to find a way to love yourself and be kind to yourself,’ said my counsellor for the hundredth time. I was infuriated and confused by the ease with which she expected me to achieve this, because when I thought about myself it was so far away from being full of love and kindness. I felt repulsed by myself. How could I turn that around? Martial arts have taught me that attaining love for oneself is not something someone can force to happen – it is a process. For me, it had to come through something else, as willing myself there by mindful thinking alone was clearly not working. That something else, a vehicle through which I could love myself, has been fighting. It’s hard to write down exactly where and when I began to love myself, or exactly what part of my martial arts journey was the spark that ignited that ability in me, but all I know is that I do love myself now. From my experience, I think a huge component has been the self-forgiveness I have learnt through martial arts. It’s okay to make mistakes and be imperfect, what’s important is what you learn through your mistakes and forgive yourself for making them.
  • I can unapologetically occupy space. My relationship with martial arts has always been about the occupation of space: as a woman in male-dominated clubs and as someone who struggles with body image and self-esteem. Crucial to my mental health journey, training in martial arts has taught me to own the space my body occupies. Having grown up obsessing over needing to contort, starve and beat myself into being smaller and slimmer, valuing my body for how it is naturally has been indispensable to my mental well-being. I feel proud of my height, weight and shape, and the fact that I take up space. I no longer feel that my body is a hinderance to who I want to be, or dissimilar to who I am on the inside. Fighting has created an equilibrium where my mind and body work in unison in order to be optimised in training. This has translated into how I view and hold myself in general, no longer apologising for my physical self and the weight that I carry.

I feel moved by the growing number of people who are vocal about their relationship with mental health and martial arts. Campaigns like Mindmats and Submit The Stigma, as well as podcasts like Fight Like a Girl have been raising awareness about mental health by platforming stories of fighters affected by mental illness and how martial arts has benefited them mentally.

I wanted to share my mental health story on International Women’s Day because mental illness effects so many women around us. And those women who struggle, but still manage to train and fight, deserve to be celebrated and heard. I am one of many who have found martial arts and combat sport to be places where I can mentally grow and heal. Fighting has paved a way for me to turn my vulnerabilities into becoming my strengths: I have finally reclaimed my body from my anxiety and depression, and that is something I try to acknowledge every day.

If you have a story to tell about your mental health and martial arts journey, I Hit Hard wants to hear from you! We are looking to publish stories each month from women fighters on mental health. If you would like to submit a piece, get in touch by emailing: i.hit.hard.mma@gmail.com