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Claiming Space

“Unless I’m crying or bleeding, you don’t need to apologize.”

I found myself uttering this odd phrase the other day during Kenpo class when I was practicing techniques with a girl who was about 12 years old (and taller than me). Our dojo in Granada Hills is still small when it comes to adults, and often teens and adults practice together. It works out well: the adults challenge themselves to keep up with the teens physically, and the teens are challenged to behave more maturely.

After my young partner had said “I’m sorry” for the tenth time or so, I finally told her stop apologizing. The training philosophy at our school involves making contact with strikes and kicks while doing techniques, but withholding power—the thinking being that you can always add power, but targeting is difficult under duress. (I have been at other dojos where the philosophy was the exact opposite: full power but deliberately miss your target, because power is hard to develop, but targeting is easy. Go figure.)

At any rate, sometimes you hit harder than you intended, sometimes you hit a target you didn’t aim for—hence you some days come away with a few lumps and bumps, and some days you give a few bumps and lumps. This is to be expected, and unless someone has done something truly egregious (that back elbow right on the spine last month might count as egregious), constant apologies are not only unnecessary, they are detrimental to progress. Unfortunately, most young girls and even grown women have a lower threshold for what requires an apology than their male counterparts. We try to soften the requests we make of others, to be polite, to appear non-threatening, because we’ve learned that we don’t particularly like it when we are labelled rude, bitchy, or aggressive. We apologize when we disagree, when we have a question, when our job requires we interrupt our colleagues to give them timely information, when we ask for help (“Sorry, can you pass that piece of paper to me, I can’t reach”). This constant need to make sure the feelings of others aren’t ruffled if we do some daily thing we have every right to do—to apologize for existing—subconsciously puts us in a subservient position. This habitual submissiveness is not only a hindrance to improvement in our Martial Arts training, but in an actual physical confrontation, it can be life threatening.

The Kiai
Once of my favorite moments in watching a young martial artist develop is when they finally find their kiai. A “kiai” is the loud shout martial artists make when executing a strike or receiving a blow. I’ve seen several ways to translate it, but it basically means “Spirited Yell.” There are several practical purposes to a kiai: it regulates your breathing in such a way that your strikes are more powerful and tightens your stomach so when you receive a blow you are less likely to be injured; it can startle or frighten your opponent; and it can call attention to your confrontation so others can help you. Most beginners, children and adults, are timid with their kiai initially. Fear of embarrassment generally keeps them from belting out a solid yell. Then slowly, after enough nudging from their instructor, they start delivering a perfunctory kiai—not really impressive, but enough to keep the teacher off their back. Then one day, they get it, they embrace the kiai. No more the dutiful half-hearted shout, but a full, powerful gut-wrenching yell comes out of them. This is a turning point. Their skills are always different—better—after this. They have found their kiai.

It has been my observation that ‘finding their kiai’ can sometimes take longer for young girls, especially those who have been taught to be apologetic about being loud. These same girls struggle with sparring in particular, because sparring requires a kind of aggressiveness they have not yet embraced. When they find their kiai, they are entirely transformed—because it’s not just about the shouting. I can’t speak for others, but for me, the kiai is an unapologetic affirmation of my right to exist, unmolested; to take up physical, emotional, and intellectual space in the world; and to use my voice in any way—loud or soft—I deem fit. It lies outside the realm of apology; it is a repeated mantra of power. It makes the strikes I give stronger, it fortifies my body to allow me to survive attacks. Sparring is still a challenge for me, but I like to think of sparring as claiming not only my own space, but taking yours, because by claiming more space, I not only protect myself, I force you to respect my physical presence. I exist, I claim space, I kiai.

And I’m not apologizing.

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