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Women In Martial Arts: It’s Not About Self-Defense


It’s Not About Self-Defense

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It’s about discovery. It’s about healing wounds society has set up for us. Experiencing the physical, neurological and emotional benefits that come from being in a practice based in play, mindfulness and active engagement. It’s an opportunity to experience our wholeness. Our fear, strength, energy, focus, joy, brilliance and connection to others.

In short, it’s a therapeutic journey into what it means to be human.

Spoiler Alert: There’s a lot of joy.


F​inding Space To Process Anger and Embrace Strength

In society women are not given space to be angry. Any emotions expressed threaten to defend an age-old myth that women are unstable, weak or irrational. In reality, women are intuitive, strong, powerful and deeply intelligent. As our society journeys towards embracing this, women need a safe space to process emotions like rage, anger and aggression.

Physical resistance training helps to process these emotions and cultivate strength, both internally and externally. It helps you to become aware of what is going on inside of you and to nurture a positive relationship to your feelings. You hit, strike, focus your energy and let it flow through you in a sustained burst. Both relaxed and engaged you become like a brilliant storm lighting up the sky with your punches, kicks and take downs. The thunder of your emotions rumble through you and a shift happens. The heat breaks and everything re-balances as only storms can do. Tearing away the old and clearing space for the new.

As you practice, whether its based in grappling like Brazilian Jui Jitsu, striking and hitting like Jeet Kun Do or in internal energy such as qigong like Bagua, the fire that you have is given space to transform into a healthy life-sustaining force. Instead of stifled toxic one where it comes out in passive aggressive or deeply harmful ways to yourself and others you begin to learn how to channel this internal fire into a motivating, purifying, cleansing and inspiring force. As you become stronger a sense of stability and calm begins to grow. An ability to communicate clearer and from a place of relaxed strength starts to exist. And before you know it, like a phoenix, you have transformed through your own healthy expression of fire.

So. No. Women in martial arts is not about self-defense. It’s about self-empowerment.


T​he Art of Communication


C​ommunication is a complicated subject for women. Learning how to speak up for ourselves is important. Martial Arts studios are a beautiful space to practice this. And this is why…

T​hings happen when you are doing an active partner sport like martial arts. No way around it. We find our edges, what feels good and what doesn’t. It’s our responsibility to know what doesn’t feel good so that we can communicate it with our partner. Keeping anyone in the dark is a disrespect to your partner and puts you both at risk.

Effective communication isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity.


N​ote: While Martial Arts is a fighting sport and a good amount has to do with taking and throwing punches, kicks, and take downs we try to avoid seriously injuring ourselves or others. This communication has to do with making sure you stay safe as you practice rough.

1​. As you practice start cultivating your awareness to your emotional and physical boundaries.

2​. If something gets close to the edge hit the brakes on a physical movement. In martial arts we do this by tapping.

3​. If your partner unintentionally hurts you:

  1. C​ommunicate as soon as possible.

  2. B​e clear about what specifically happened physically and what you need in the future by making a request. This helps your partner know how to work differently and keeps you both safer.

  3. A​void blaming and shaming. No one ever means to hurt anyone else. Adding in emotions that are better processed by you or with the help of a professional is important.

  4. G​ive your partner the ability to practice being a good partner.

  5. Chances are they don’t feel great about it. We all unintentionally hurt others. Knowing how to move through tough situations is imperative for emotional growth.

  6. H​aving the opportunity to fix a mistake supports your partner in understanding mistakes are not end games but forgivable and can be a gateway to a sweeter, more compassionate and deeper connection between the two of you.

  7. It is empowering to be heard. It is empowering to have your requests honored. It is empowering to be able to move on in a better, more experienced way.

Rule of thumb for when you, inevitably hurt someone else: Listen, Apologize, and Shift.

B​eing able to express yourself effectively is empowering. So yeah. Let me say it again. Women in martial arts is NOT about self-defense. It IS, however, about self-empowerment.


E​mpowered Women Empower Women


L​ook. Whether you get down with evolutionary psychology stating that women are trying to do their womb a favor and get to the top of the crop where men are concerned; OR with feminist psychology which gets into the psychological damage that being valued only for our beauty creates. Women are pitted against each other.

It would be nice to believe that we are all beautiful empowered versions of ourselves. The reality is that most of us have areas where we can get initially triggered. Where our animal brain, or our society brain-washed brain has an initial fear response to a particular female interaction.

If we do not make an active attempt to A) Admit this B) Understand it and C) Empower ourselves we can hide behind our insecurities, anxieties and victim mindset that either subconsciously or consciously results in hurting other women.

Martial Arts can help you take an active role empowering yourself by:

1. Understanding and Cultivating True Power

  1. T​rue Power is a deeply rooted sense of self that can not be rocked by external circumstance. It can not be threatened. When you feel threatened learning how to connect to a true sense of power is integral to dissolving that fear.

  2. A​s we grow stronger physically we do so mentally and emotionally. P​racticing a sport that allows you to advance in ability and in skill has a naturally positive effect on your self-esteem, sense of self and self-confidence.

  3. A​s your confidence builds so does a sense of compassion. You learn the difference between erratic trigger responding and a relaxed and engaged sense of self. This allows you to be open to the reality that we are never in competition with other people, let alone other women but much more similar in our struggles which allow us to be a better cheerleader for each other in our victories.

2​. Connect compassionately to women

  1. W​hen women have to actively physically engage with other women there is no space for anything but feeling what your body is doing, your goal, your skill cultivating and keeping your partner safe.

  2. A​s feelings arise, they have space to process and release.

  3. Training together you have a common goal:

  4. Move through challenges as teammates, even though you are each other’s playground.

  5. You want your partner to succeed. You support them, and they support you with the challenges you both face.

  6. Confidence begins to grow and the myth of unhealthy competition begins to fade so that all that is left are the players, the tasks, the game and the true camaraderie that only comes from working on difficult tasks together.



N​eurological Benefits of Engaging in Physically Active, Iterative Play


Martial Arts is body chess. Tactical moves gained through training developed and deployed in an intelligent way to out skill and outplay your partner.

I​t’s a game. There are rules. There is an end goal. And on the way to that goal there are therapeutic side effects such as joy, body awareness, skill acquisition, and healthy physical touch that culminate in heightened cognitive function, greater sense of physical awareness, and higher self-esteem.

W​hen we practice fighting we mimic, subconsciously, the act of baby tigers. They gain skill and muscle by play fighting. I​n our society it is much more typical that young boys play fight and thus learn the skills and unspoken codes of conduct that come with active contact based play. It is important for women to practice this too. O​ur bodies need to move and work out in a way that our system was naturally designed for.

W​hen we play we experience joy which allows dopamine to be released. Dopamine helps us to learn better and increases our ability to focus. Reward centers are triggered in our brain and self-confidence begins to grow. As we continue to engage in iterative physical practice and play our creativity blossoms, executive functions increase, our motivation, memory recall and retention heightens and our over all cognitive function gets an upgrade as things like stress and outmoded thinking patterns begin to melt away.

B​ut like I said, it’s a game. And to play the game you need to be able to listen with your whole body.




Proprioception is the ability to sense your body, muscles and joints in space and in relationship to other people and things. To listen with your whole body is to be able to listen through the sense of touch as well as your other senses. To feel which direction your partner might go next. This is one of the tools gained from practicing martial arts. But it can be a complicated one for women.

L​istening with our whole bodies can be tricky, especially since the sense of touch can be incredibly loaded for us. One out of six women have experienced sexual trauma. The touch based boundary crossing that happens in our society and not just between men and women can compound this very real trigger making touch feel incredibly unsafe. Add to it centuries of sexualizing women with men in power based aggressive roles over women and martial arts can feel like a terrifying place…until its not.

T​he gift of martial arts training is that we have an opportunity to:

1. Understand touch in a different way.

2. Take back our power.

3. Allow resistance training to release unprocessed emotions.

4. Work with our energy (Qi) to restore balance and build up Wei Qi which helps us to create a protective covering for ourselves in this world.

5. Re-establish and rehabilitate the relationship we have with men and with touch.

H​ow This is Achieved In Martial Arts:

  1. C​hances are the studio you are in has cultivated a space in which there is deep respect, a focused work ethic and a deep understanding of what it means to listen and practice well within the group.

  2. This adds to the ability to have a safe relationship with any practice partner you may be working with.

  3. When we feel safe and there is trust the ability to work through things that are triggering or intense can happen. It may be slow. It may come in bursts. But happen it does.

  4. Because, when we touch one another, it isn’t to have power over the other person like the distorted power dynamics in society.

  5. It is to practice power and skill in a healthy way.

  6. It is to practice touch in a healthy non-sexualized way.

  7. It is to cultivate what healthy connection is and healthy boundaries are. All things that serve us well in the real world.

T​herapeutic Benefits of Touch:

  1. G​rappling sports like Brazilian Jui Jitsu have a lot of deep pressurized touch.

  2. D​eep pressure in a healthy way actually activates our vagus nerve and has positive cardiovascular effects.

  3. There is a reason I joke that Brazilian Jui Jitsu is just fancy hugging- it mimics hugging in a way that is therapeutic even though the game, the intention of the martial art is highly different, the pressurized movement and body contact is deeply therapeutic. Especially for anyone hoping to find a world in which touch can be safe in its active form.

  4. P​unching and Hitting: When we punch and hit we release qi, aka energy, in a way that is healthy.

  5. W​hen we receive a punch or a hit it actually activates our system in a way that lights up our body in a specific way. Engaging in a sport where you know what will happen in regard to getting hit or punched gives you much more control over an otherwise highly violent movement. It can be incredibly empowering to understand and feel this and to know where your edge is and how and when to keep going.




A​nd the gifts of walking through the gateway are:

  1. I​ncredibly deep, trusted relationships to a group of people who feel like family. Meaningful relationships can greatly increase mental health and help with anxiety and depression resulting in a sense of positive stability and tools to deal with hard emotions.

  2. Increased Cognitive Function, Executive Brain Function, Memory, Focus and Creativity.

  3. Higher C​onfidence and self-esteem.

  4. H​ealed relationship to touch.

  5. E​asier ability to clearly, compassionately and effectively communicate.

  6. H​ealed relationship to other women.

  7. E​mpowered sense of self.

  8. J​oy.

  9. S​tress Relief.

  10. P​hysical, emotional and mental strength.

  11. Better Mindfulness and Meditative awareness and function.

  12. P​hysical fitness in a way that our bodies were designed for.

A​nd. The. List. Goes. On.

S​o yes. Let me say it just one more time. Women in martial arts is NOT about self-defense. It IS about Self-Empowerment.


C​ome practice the grappling art of Brazillian Jui Jitsu with me and check out I​thaca BJJ:

Matt Lee is an incredible teacher and the community is phenomenal! Matt is brilliant and knows what he is talking about. He encourages a relaxed but focused environment that creates a lot of space for fun and encourages a deep passion for Brazilian Jui Jitsu in a way that is unparalleled to anyone I have seen. He is a brilliant martial artist and the way that he shares his knowledge and gifts are incredible. CHECK IT OUT!


Other Forms and Teachers In Ithaca:

I​nternal Martial Arts: No better teacher than Bryan Isacks who has a deep passion and joy for what he teaches. He can be contacted for private Bagua lessons which is an internal martial arts based on qigong and neigong. As a teacher he is deeply compassionate and kind. He sparks excitement for martial arts and encourages curiosity. He is also highly detailed in his approach to sharing knowledge about forms and execution of those forms. Beyond that he is an incredible acupuncturist. Contact Bryan here:

E​xternal Striking based Martial Arts: Centerline Martial Arts and Fitness is a great place to train and focus on your strength as you aquire skills through Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kun Do as well as Kuntao Silat and Kickboxing. Lead teacher Collin Lieberman has a wealth of knowledge about physical fitness and is gentle and kind in his approach making it a great and fun place to train! Check out their studio here:

A​ NOTE ABOUT GENDER: As I do not identify as trans, non-binary or anything other than a Cis, straight women I can not speak accurately to those experiences. What I can say is that anyone in our society who has been targeted, oppressed, marginalized or harmed, my hope is that when those folx step into a studio they get to experience the empowering effects of being heard, processing their fire in ways that empower them and are given safe supportive space to do so.

Side Note For Studios: Let’s also make a habit of asking people their pronouns and sharing our own.



Elizabeth Seldin is a trained physical theater artist, dancer, certified yoga teacher, martial artist, and qigong practitioner. She is the Artistic Director, Lead Theater Teacher and Content Creator for Clockmaker Arts; a theatrical training and performance company that focuses on the notion “healthy artists make great art” cultivating safe space, consent based and body awareness practices that support artists. She has received teaching awards and grants for her work in theater and with children. To learn more about Elizabeth please visit


The New York Times Article “Why Women Compete With Each Other.”

“The Science of Touch.” – Berkley University


The Nueroscience of Learning Through Play – LEGO

Your 8 Senses from the STAR Institute

A​rticle by Psychology Today: Want to Improve Your Cognitive Abilities? Go Climb A Tree

C​ognitive Neuroscience of Skill Aquizition- Science Direct

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