by Jacqueline S. Blackburn, Nidan
Hello, my name is Jacqueline Suzanne Blackburn and I am currently a 39 year old female Uechi Ryu Practitioner. I was asked to write a few words of what it was like to be a woman and train in Uechi Ryu. At the 1995 Tiger, Crane and Dragon Summer camp, I was awarded the rank of Nidan after being tested by Master George Mattson, Master Jim Maloney and Master Dave Mott.
I am a single parent with 3 children and 1 grandchild. I began my training in the martial arts 8 1/2 years ago. I am five feet tall and weigh 125 pounds. I am the owner/administrator for the Okinawan Uechi Ryu Karate Academy in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I teach two beginners classes and intermediate class each week. I also help out with the children’s classes.
When I began my training, I was the only woman in a beginners class of 25-30 men, who were 5 – 10 years younger than me. For the first few months of my training, I remained the only female within this group. As a matter of fact, the only two other women who were training in this dojo at that time was a Shodan (Roxanna Hall) and an Ikkyu (Helen). Both of these women may have been of small stature but they trained with such intensity and fierceness that they gave as good as they received from the predominately male student body. Watching these two fine examples of what Uechi Ryu had to offer women, I was able to overcome those doubting thoughts of not being able to compete on the same level as the men or of not being ‘strong’ enough. The reality of those early months of training was becoming accustomed to the constant physical touching/contact that occurs. Having a man (a female Sensei was -and still is- a rarity in Uechi Ryu), constantly testing your Uechi stance (checking elbows/latts/shoulders/buttocks) the arm rubbing and pounding exercises, punching and being punched, kicking and being kicked, Sanchin stepping exercises and the other various exercises one must go through can be a very intimidating experience for most women.
Usually women are not brought up to feel comfortable with this kind of physical contact or even to deal with feelings of aggression. Therefore, most women are quite inept in handling the intensity of emotions that can occur during workouts. The feelings of accomplishment when I became proficient in working out at the same level as the men started me on that path of personal internal/spiritual growth that training in martial arts brings one. When I first began working out with a male partner, they would hold back considerably until something was said or by my performing the technique and getting in on them with power and aggression. I also had to learn how to handle being muscled by some of the men who believed that women did not belong in Uechi Ryu and that martial arts was a man thing. Being treated in the manner mentioned above just made me even more determined to succeed. While working out with this intensity, I learned that women can sweat just like men. After the first few weeks of being ‘tested’ in this fashion, whenever I worked out with someone it was with full commitment, intensity and mutual respect. Earning the respect and admiration of your fellow workout partners is a fantastic boost to one’s self-esteem as well as one’s self-respect.
When I moved up to the intermediate class, unbeknownst to me there had been a woman, Mamie Jew, who had been working out in afternoon classes for a couple of months. Her work hours became shift time so she was able to begin attending evening classes. Mamie and I formed a strong connection which has lasted to this day. Mamie and I would work out together at least once every other week. She was constantly surprising her male partners with her physical strength. It was good to see the changes in their expressions go from “hohum” to “wow your strong!” Even when we had become members of different dojos, we would still arrange to get together to train. After six months of training in the intermediate class, I was awarded the Rokkyu rank – I was ecstatic! Even today in my mind, that rank holds special meaning to me as a major accomplishment. I can still relive the feelings that overcame me when my was shook and I was told by the Sensei – “Congratulations you are a Rokkyu”. I felt that not only did I overcome the biased view that women do not last through the beginner stage but also that I earned the respect of my fellow students. Also by this time, there had been three or four more women who had joined the new beginners class. None of these other women remained to earn their third stripe.
My next major challenge occurred when I was a green belt. During class one evening, I miscalculated my block and was the recipient of a strong front kick to my lower abdomen. I have a very high level of pain tolerance. So I was bothered by the little pain which continued to nag me over the next couple of weeks. Finally, I went to see the doctor and discovered that I had two hernias in the lower abdomen, one on each side. Apparently I had been born with the hernias but that they had decided to just flare up at this time. Actually, they were quite bad and the doctor was quite surprised that I hadn’t been bothered by them years earlier. The kick was not the cause but was the trigger that let me know something was wrong. I certainly did not look forward to going for surgery and I wondered how this would affect my karate training. I had all kinds of questions swimming around in my head. How far would the time missed set me back? Would I be able to train like I did before? Will this affect my strength and power? Would I even want to return? After a six month waiting period, I underwent surgery (they repaired both hernias at the same time) which meant I could not study karate (or work) for at least four months during the recovery period. It ended up being 7 months before I was able to return to my karate training because my sciatic nerve had been damaged during surgery, especially on my left side.
Although I had not trained physically during my time away, I found that I had still grown in Uechi Ryu on another level. This was due mainly to the fact that I had been very fortunate to obtain a dear close friend, Derick Bagogloo, who also trained in Uechi. Actually, when we met, he was a Shodan and I was a 2-striped white belt. He was and still continues to be instrumental in my training and understanding of Uechi Ryu. He has helped me develop holistically as well as physically. Looking back over the years, I believe that when we are beginner-intermediate students we are so busy concentrating on the physical and mental challenge of learning that we are totaling unaware of the spiritual internal growth that is occurring at the same time. As you become a senior student, it is like a series of little light bulbs going off inside. Your understanding and acceptance of your own self as well as others grows and comes up to the surface. This helps improve your understanding and knowledge of your karate. Performing your katas with spirit and onemindedness gets the chi to circulate freely inside of you. You feel grounded and yet able to move freely and flowingly. Derick was instrumental for the realization that although I could not work out at the physical level that I was used to, I could still train internally and begin my way on the path of knowledge for the soft side of Uechi Ryu. When I returned to train at my dojo, there were only a couple of original students remaining from when I started. Most of the intermediate students were now strangers to me. Also in the interim, Roxanna, Derick and Mamie had left and joined a new dojo across the harbour. I felt disconnected for awhile until I got to know some of my fellow workout partners. This could have been discouraging but my love for Uechi Ryu helped me to continue to train with intensity and determination. Because this dojo emphasis was on the “physical growth” aspect of Uechi Ryu, I felt that I needed to make up for “lost time”.
My next major challenge occurred in Uechi Ryu a year and a half later when I was promoted to Brown Belt. During an advance class which took place in my original dojo (where at that time blackbelts from all over Nova Scotia came to train once a month), my partner was a visiting blackbelt who I believe was a Nidan at that time. I had been a brown belt for approximately only four months. We began working out on the advanced dan kumite – 10 point . Before we began, I explained to him that I had just been taught the last set of movements – the takedown – the week before and was still basically just walking through the movements. His response was “no problem”. I performed the takedown first. When it came time for my partner to perform the takedown, he attacked me with such intensity and speed that I began flying backwards from the shoulder strike so that when he applied the knee strike and ankle pull on top of it, my head was slammed into the floor with such force that I suffered a concussion that lasted two weeks (concussion was diagnosed by the emergency doctor at the hospital the following morning).
Because of the pain medication for the concussion and my not realizing the internal damage that had occurred, I continued training for the next two weeks. I finally visited my own doctor because I was not sleeping well and I generally felt out of sorts. I explained the takedown to him and he called the ambulance and had me rushed to emergency for x-rays where we discovered the extent of my injuries. The muscle from the midpoint of my skull to the middle of my back had been torn along my spine plus I was suffering from reverse whiplash. Because of the severity of the damage, he informed me that it would be a couple of years before I could go back to training in karate. At that moment I felt totally discouraged by this challenge. Uechi Ryu had become such a significant part of my everyday life and after being away from my training when I was a green belt, I knew that two years would just be too long a time for me not to train. I turned to my friend and mentor Derick for advice and solace. After speaking with him, I made the decision to take at least six months off and not do any karate, not even a Sanchin step. I followed the doctor’s prescribed physiotherapy plus shiatsu therapy which I would continue to do for the next two years. Because of the mishandling that occurred at the time of my injury at my original dojo, I talked it over with Derick and made a decision to join his dojo (which he had been operating for a year). Six months after becoming injured, I began training at Derick’s dojo under the explicit understanding that I was not to do any of the exercises that involved a partner. I was to break off from class and work on my stance, techniques or kata by myself. Even the warm up exercises became quite the challenge to get through. Having a neck injury affects everything you have to do. I learned a tremendous amount by just concentrating on my form, stance and techniques. Everything had to be done with absolutely no power (or even stretch) whatsoever as it caused extreme stress on the left side of my neck and shoulder. By very gradually increasing the intensity, after a year I was finally able to work out at almost the same level of power and focus as before my injury. It took two years for me to do a complete circle block with my left arm.
A year and half later, Sensei Derick Bagogloo had the wonderful opportunity of spending an extended period of time in Okinawa, Japan. Our dojo switched hands and we had three new Instructors. Six months later, I was recommended for my Shodan. Mamie and I trained hard to prepare for this ranking. During the changeover of instructors, I began teaching beginners and intermediate classes on a regular basis. I found this aspect of Uechi to be very enlightening. Showing others and explaining techniques helped reinforce Sensei Bagogloo’s teachings. This contributed greatly to my performance at the Shodan testing. We had the honor of Master Mattson attending our grading. The congratulations and compliments hat I received from everyone for my performance encouraged me to continue growing and to look forward to the knowledge that is gained by continuing to study Uechi Ryu.
Before I finish here, I just want to stress a few points. During the early stages of our martial arts training, a strong emphasis is made on the physical aspects of what Uechi Ryu has to offer. There are many times when you have feelings of giving up, feelings of frustration, weakness, dumbness and woe strike you at the oddest times of your training. These all become forgotten a little at a time when you continue your training and that feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction envelops you when you are able to move that big guy, that block, that kick or that punch. The knowledge gained by overcoming the obstacles that can take place in anything you do means you gain in the long run. My Uechi Ryu training has helped me take those experiences that I have had and helped the internal growth begin in a very positive and lasting way. This internal growth helps increase one’s understanding of the physical movements of Uechi Ryu. I believe this is where the soft side of Uechi begins to blossom. I would like to tell women that when they get beyond those challenges at the beginning stages of Uechi Ryu training, that the internal and spiritual growth that occurs is well worth all the hard work. Uechi Ryu is not only a test of strength, but also of values and respect. Uechi Ryu has also brought very significant people that have tremendously enhanced my life that maybe I otherwise would never had met. I also strongly recommend Uechi Ryu as the most realistic self-defense art a woman could learn. Remember, Uechi Ryu is effective and (if you choose it to be) quite deadly. Uechi Ryu is a very fulfilling way of life and needs more women in it to appreciate its beauty and to show its beauty.
copyright 1996 Jacqueline S. Blackburn