Equality...and other tales from the dojo
My sensei (karate teacher) is in her early thirty’s, is of Greek-Macedonian-Canadian heritage and recently obtained the Renshi teaching designation. My sparring partner is in his mid-forties and is of Italian descent. I asked a 14-year-old 2nd degree black belt of Indian-Canadian descent for help with my sai kata and I showed a 7-year-old Muslim girl how to tie her belt. This is a pretty typical day of diversity at the dojo.
“One of the most striking features of karate is that it may be engaged in by anybody, young or old, strong or weak, male or female.” -- Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan Karate-Do
The dojo where I currently train is in York Region and is a place where inclusion and belonging are an organizational norm. In my experience, once you step on the dojo floor you are treated with respect and are expected to treat others with respect regardless of age, ethno-cultural background, ability, religion or sexual identity. I imagine that when students line up in preparation for the class, if we were all to identify ourselves – based on our many identities -- the diversity would mirror the diversity demographics within York Region. I often look at the class and am amazed by the diversity of ethno-cultural backgrounds and ages –children, young people, and more mature adults-- who are here for a hard workout and to move closer to their goal of Black Belt Excellence.
The core values of karate and other martial arts includes respect (for one’s self and others), courage, understanding and sharing knowledge, self-discipline, and self-discovery. All of these values are fostered and embedded within a positive and safe learning environment.
So what does this look like and feel like? For me, there is a great sense of belonging and camaraderie. We all wear a uniform, we all say the student creed, we are all working towards similar goals – Black Belt Excellence – or more broadly a healthy active lifestyle.
There is also a culture of collaborative learning that exists. Need help with a kata? Want to practice your basic self-defense? Confused about one of the weapon katas? Help is available and can come from a variety of people. We all understand and respect that it takes dedication, hard work, loads of practice, sweat and grit to succeed, and we respect each other for trying. We all understand that a little encouragement and a kind word goes a long way. When I was off with my back injury, many of my karate partners encouraged me to hang in there and reminded me that my journey was my journey alone, and not a race, but a marathon. These words kept me hopeful and are still motivating me to show up each week. Although we might be separated by the colours of our belt, we all remember what it was like to be a white belt, and we encourage and motivate each other to show up and move forward.
The positive learning environment also includes gender equality. The dojo is a healthy and safe space for girls and women to practice courage, work on building physical strength and their mindset and to do something out of their comfort zone. This is particularly valuable for girls and women. Where else are you encouraged to yell louder, punch harder or kick higher? I would love to see more girls, young women and mature women (like myself) try karate, it really is a fabulous opportunity to build confidence, improve endurance, and learn valuable self-defense techniques. There are many strong, kickass girls (including my 11-year old daughter) and women at the dojo that provide me with inspiration to keep going – especially when I feel clumsy or out of sorts.
I love it when our sensei reminds us, “regardless of your size and strength, learn this technique and you will be able to take down someone twice your size.”
At the dojo, all students are welcome and given the same opportunity to train, learn, grow and excel, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. The question now is…how can we replicate this outside of the dojo? Likewise, how are we contributing to equity of opportunities, inclusive and welcoming spaces in our homes, schools, and workplaces?