I was asked the following question by an online fellow-walker of The Path:
“Can you share any thoughts or ideas concerning how a dojo can retain/encourage women to remain in this art?”
The question was posed in response to a photo posted on the Senshin Center Facebook page. That photo is the cover photo to this blog entry. The context of the photo should be noted:
The photo was not taken to show the number of women currently training at Senshin Center. Afterall, the photo does not capture that total. Rather, the photo captured those deshi that were showing the kind of discipline that is necessary to train under my tutelage – the kind of discipline that creates space for daily training. In fact, the photo was taken not so much to show who was there on that particular training day, but rather to show those who were not there that they were not there when others were. It was a message to my other deshi – other women, other men, and even two of my other children - people that opted to stay in bed that morning instead of training. In particular, the main target for the message was my youngest son, truth be told, as he is in the process of learning how training cannot be dependent upon the desire to train. He is learning that he is not his desire and that a warrior cannot limit him/herself to such an identity. This is a universal message, a universal lesson, I feel, so the photo was shared with other members and then with followers of our Facebook page.
Without assuming the motivation for the asking of the question, let it be said that my approach to training in the art, and to teaching the art, is at odds with the progressive and/or post-modern discursive context, the context that usually supports questions along gender lines. This is because in many ways the progressive agenda is an extension of what historical Budo would label “spiritual immaturity.” The progressive agenda has at its core the assigning and aligning of an identity, a dichotomous and antagonistic experience of the world, and it posits that the locus of experiential control is located external to the subject, not internal to the subject. Budo, in contrast, sees all of this as delusion, as the unconscious functioning of the Ego-Tripartite, and Budo takes as its aim the deconstruction of this tripartite – not its unquestioned and continuous functioning. That said: The dojo’s main training program is currently 59% women Aikidoka. A caveat is order then: It is likely therefore that the progressive reader may like our achievement by not like how we achieved it. Please therefore read the following with a grain of salt and, hopefully, with open eyes and with an equally open mind. And, please note that one must do something differently from others in order to achieve results different from others. At Senshin Center, we do most things differently from what is often done in contemporary Aikido.
As a start to what follows, here is a summary of our women Aikidoka demographics: Currently the dojo’s main training program has 13 women and 9 men. Of these women, like all our members, most train daily, two to four hours per day. Two women members train about half that much per week; two women members currently train considerably less per week. Our women members are now mostly professionals or students, more highly educated than less educated, and currently have a surplus income. Three are married, one having no children, two having more than one child – all or half of their children train in the dojo. Three are not married with children: For two, all or half of their children train in the dojo; for one, her children do not currently train in the dojo. The remainder are single women without children. The women Aikidoka in our dojo’s main training program currently range from 11 years old to 52 years old. Most of them are under 40 years old, with over half in their 30s and younger, with most under 30 years old being under 24 years old. All, as a result of their training, have an operational strength-to-weight ratio, and are either highly objectively mobile or highly mobile for their age and individual situation. Racially/ethnically, eight are White, three are Asian, one is Black, one is Hispanic. Some practice a religion, some do not, some are secular, some are not.
Through the years, our dojo demographics generally demonstrate this 50/50 split along gender lines. Sometimes, there are more men than women, and sometimes, as now, there are more women than men. However, the difference is never a great one. In my mind, in an art claiming to be “The Universe,” in an art based upon Yin/Yang Theory, this 50/50 split is indictive of a dojo soundly on The Path. I would caution any dojo to relook at itself, at its alignment with The Way, if it is dominated by one gender over another. Any great difference in percentages is likely indicative of a dojo off of The Path, and may be indicative of dojo unwellness. For me, the same thinking would apply to a radical split in age: A dojo dominated by either the young or by the old is likely an unwell dojo - a dojo off of The Path. Such a dojo is operating too far outside of the universal and has become overly specialized in whom and in what it addresses. Such a dojo, therefore, should heed the caveat holding that any specialization denotes great ignorance.
What follows will consist of three parts: First, I would like to give the reader two sets of examples of program elements Senshin Center has in place to address some aspects of recruitment and retention overall. These program elements may work to address two common obstacles to training, and these obstacles may be more difficult for women to overcome than for men to overcome. The obstacles in question are the financial obstacle and the social obstacle. In providing these lists of examples, I will only provide those program elements that in my experience are not commonly practiced by most other Aikido dojo – thinking this to be of more interest to the reader. The lists in question therefore are not exhaustive lists.
Second, I will discuss my personal assumption on why Aikido as a whole sees less practitioners every year, particularly less younger practitioners. This by extension would mean, I am hypothesizing, less women Aikidoka overall as well. I will posit that this overall decline in practitioners is something that has to be addressed either before or alongside any effort to increase the number of women Aikidoka. For, at least from a progressive point of view, it seems absurd to ask or to expect women to train in Aikido when nearly no other demographic wants to outside of older white men. My theory is that Senshin Center’s training program is doing something different from most other training programs in contemporary Aikido, and it is this that is being reflected in its crowded mat and in the makeup of its crowd. (For additional information on this position, I recommend listening to Episode 44 of our podcast: Budo: The Way of the Warrior – available on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Spotify. The tile of the episode is “Chiba Sensei ‘In His Own Words’ & Aikido Journal’s ‘Special Report.’”)
Lastly, and primarily as a means of testing my own theory, I went ahead and reached out to my female deshi after having written the first two parts of this blog entry. I asked them to submit “one to two paragraphs on why they train at the dojo.” Not all of the women training at Senshin Center have responded to my request by the posting of this blog entry, but enough have so as to provide the reader with a sense of motivational cohesion regarding how the dojo’s program elements and philosophical orientation may be working to support a 59% women Aikidoka majority in the dojo. It should be said that many of the respondents stated they felt constrained by the “one to two paragraphs” and that they could not adequately express all of the reasons why they train under that format. Nevertheless, I believe it is reasonable to conclude that the “one to two paragraphs” parameters functioned to denote their strongest motivations for why they train – which is what seems most relevant to this discussion here. I will present their submissions anonymously, without editing, and without commentary. It will be up to the reader to make any interpretive assumptions, working hypotheses, and/or theoretical conclusions.
Part One: The Financial Obstacle
Senshin Center has program elements that address the financial challenges of training. It is reasonable to assume that these elements benefit those younger people not yet having a surplus income, people from a single income household, and/or those in the process of developing themselves professionally, etc. Women in the process of completing their education and/or professional training, single mothers, recently divorced women, etc., could fall into this group. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that women could be aided at a practical level by these program elements. Here are some of the elements Senshin Center has in place to address the financial challenges of training:
- Our dojo allows for people who do not find themselves with surplus income to train at the dojo. They train without a Dues Responsibility - free. This also applies to their child/children.
- The dojo has a wholesale discount that is passed on to every member. The dojo does not seek profit from any of the equipment, uniforms, and/or items it sells.
- If a person cannot afford equipment or uniforms, the dojo will provide them to any of its members.
- Our monthly Dues Responsibility, especially in light of allotted hours of instruction, is significantly lower than that of other dojo and other martial art schools in our area. (The dojo offers approximately 6 hours per day of training to 4 hours of training per day of training - depending upon the time of year. Additionally, every member gains their own dojo key and is permitted and encourage to add their own training hours to the daily training curriculum.)
- Non-Member parents of child members are permitted and encouraged to train alongside their children in the Introductory Children’s Program. There is no Dues Responsibility for this involvement.
- The infant and toddler siblings of child members and the infant and toddler children of adult members are permitted and encouraged to participate in the Introductory Children’s Program. There is no Dues Responsibility for this involvement.
- Senshin Center’s training facility includes a full weight-lifting and fitness gym. Access to this facility comes with no additional Dues Responsibility.
- The parents of child members who are not themselves adult members of the dojo are permitted to train with the dojo during its Physical Training classes. These classes are held Monday through Friday.
- The children of adult members who are not themselves child members of the dojo are permitted to train with the dojo during its Physical Training Classes. These classes are held Monday through Friday.
- The dojo is an independent dojo. The dojo has no Federation membership fees and no testing fees. (The dojo does not have promotional tests or ranks.). The dojo has no other fee associated with training but for the monthly Dues Responsibility.
- The dojo’s Dues Responsibility functions without contracts of any kind, using more of a donation model for collecting funds.
Together, these elements work to save money for individuals and individual households while at the same time they work to integrate the larger family unit into the member’s training. Making family integration not cost prohibitive may be very important for women Aikidoka in general, but perhaps most so for single mothers - both of whom may not be afforded or may not want to be afforded the “escapism” culturally, emotionally, and financially afforded to male martial artists. These elements work together to stand in contrast to the “man cave” your average dojo or martial arts school often becomes and unknowingly supports.
Additionally, having such a full training schedule, plus the addition of full dojo access at all times, also supports the chronological problems of being unable or unwilling to escape from familial obligations. Combined then, these elements lower the financial barriers to training, but what may be important to note is that they also work to deconstruct the material supports for male recreational space. It may not be at all coincidental and/or unique that most of my male deshi that train at the dojo either have no familial obligations, limited familial obligations, or do not fully partake in their familial obligations. The same cannot be said for most or many of my female deshi. What may be manifesting at a psycho-sociological level is that larger social inclusion is more vital to the woman Aikidoka than it is for male practitioners. If larger social inclusion is cost prohibitive or even socially prohibitive, all other remedies meant to address an increase in female membership be moot.
Part One: The Social Obstacle
Senshin Center operates through the historical Budo social model of Teacher/Teaching/Community. Through this model, all aspects of human behavior (i.e., thoughts, speech, and action) are problematized according to the tenets of The Way and thus all aspects of behavior become a part of one’s training. While this of course brings a depth to one’s training overall, socially, this creates a training environment of awareness, acceptance, compassion, ownership, and mutual care through the practice of service. In the end, the community rule holds that no one falls socially below the teacher, and that the teacher, as well as other community members, practice self-displacement in the face of each other and in the practice of service toward all. Training, therefore, is not reduced and restricted to the mat or to Aikido waza. This allows for a social support system to be manifested, one that aids in member recruitment and retention, and one that also works to lower the social barriers to training.
This social model allows for members to support each other in things as mundane as childcare, transportation assistance, financial support, and to support each other in education and professional development, etc. Of course, this social model also allows for profound support to take place at an emotional and/or at a spiritual level, which is a necessary part of true Budo training. Another byproduct of this social model is that it works to curb asocial behavioral tendencies very common to the dominant demographic that looks to train in a martial art: Males 18 years old to 28 years old, as well as males that have not spiritually matured beyond their boyhood.
This social model, as with the financial support elements listed above, may also work to support women in the process of completing their education and/or professional training, single mothers, recently divorced women, etc., by providing them with “the village” we all need to train and to train successfully. Meaning, training can occur but not at the cost of any other aspect of one’s life. Through this social model, the burdens of time constraints, limited resources, and social isolation, for example, are lessened. Additionally, women come to secure a training space free of the harassment, prejudices, as well as free of the sexual and gender politics commonly held, consciously and unconsciously, by the dominant training demographic - boys.
Here are some of the elements Senshin Center has in place to address the social challenges of training:
- Senshin Center does not allow walk-in memberships. All adults must first gain and pass a Trial Membership. The Trial Membership lasts four-weeks and is without a Dues Responsibility - free. The Trial Membership can be extended in duration as deemed necessary, or suspended as necessary, as determined by the Dojocho. All equipment and uniforms are provided for the trial member during the Trial Membership. The dojo only allows five Trial Memberships to occur at the same time, and therefore holds Trial Membership periodically and on limited basis per year. There is generally a three-to-six-month duration between the commencement of new Trial Memberships. The main determinant for passing a Trial Membership is trainability. (For more information on what is considered “trainability” at Senshin Center, I recommend listening to episode 45, “Definitions,” of our podcast: Budo – The Way of the Warrior. The podcast is available on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Spotify.)
- Senshin Center’s children’s program is a three-tiered program consisting of introductory training, intermediate training, and advanced training. While the division between classes is not aged-based but rather skilled-based, generally, by the time a child reaches the advanced training program, and is thereby required to train in the main adult program, these children are socially responsible, emotionally intelligent, and able to fully contribute, if not lead, in the development of the above-described social environment.
- The young children of adult members are at all times permitted in the dojo and on the mat during any class. Adult members of young children are permitted at any time to leave the mat to see to their child’s/children’s care and needs.
- The dojo’s etiquette is clearly spelled out and used as a Vinaya Code. Expectations, plus outlines for remedial training, behavioral corrections, as well as the processes for dojo suspensions and dojo expulsions, are clearly delineated.
At this point, it should be said that the above elements are not the products of social engineering, though obviously they can function as such and likely do. In reality, both lists are the practical manifestation of a spiritual path, one based in the skill of self-release, in the achievement of freedom from a dichotomous worldview, and in the practices of self-sacrifice and service. They are as much the worldly result of the deconstruction of the Ego-Tripartite as they are the cultivation of a spiritual maturity that is gained through that deconstruction. However, it is the latter that holds significance at the dojo. For example, in the first list of elements, it is not the lack of equality in dominant cultural roles between men and women or the unfairness pertaining to how many modern married women are now expected to work AND keep their traditional roles as household manager that is being addressed. Rather, it is the “escapism” under which many men, and even some women, currently train in Aikido. It is the superficiality of a practice that has no larger social aspect or that functions primarily through an egocentrism that is the main issue being addressed.
Spiritually speaking, that escapism notes an egocentricity that is totally at odds with the spiritual maturity Budo seeks to cultivate. That escapism notes a superficiality in one’s Budo practice, as no Budo practice can be considered deep if it does not reach off of the mat and into those areas significant to our lives – such as family. Like I find the male-dominated dojo off The Path, I find, for example, the practitioner whose children do not train equally suspect, and this is often the case for the man that escapes his familial obligations to go train. He trains, not so much out of the great discipline he tends to think he is capable of but rather because he takes advantage of a whole support system of people that do not or cannot train so that he may. This is very much at odds with The Way. If he was truly disciplined, if he truly practiced his art at depth, it would be him that serves that support system, he that sacrifices himself for them, he that supports their own training along his own.
Continuing, the dojo’s financial elements are also not social engineering elements: They too are spiritual truths put into practice. For example, ask and answer: Can Aikido truly be the way to reconcile the world if it can only do so for a fee? How can Aikido be the way of non-contestation and of communion if we allow others to fall below us in the meeting of their daily life? Most Dojocho will think, “Why should I let people train for free?” but I propose we think “How can I not train you simply because you cannot pay me.” Like this, all of our social program elements are aimed at some cultivation of spiritual maturity, spiritual consistency, and spiritual authenticity. As that is achieved, the Universe manifests itself according to its own laws, and mats become 50% women, 50% men; 50% young, 50% young.
Part Two: Aikido’s Declining Membership
Senshin Center addresses financial and social obstacles to training as a spiritual practice, one not having as its goal earthly equality or equity. The goal instead is the extending of one’s spiritual maturity into the cultivation practices of another’s spiritual maturity. Like this, the dojo is a true Sangha. This is vital to note because it is what allows these elements to bring a truer, a deeper, and, most importantly, a practical end to training. And, it is this practicality, more than anything else, that brings people to training and keeps them training - both women and men. Inversely then, I would suggest, it is contemporary Aikido’s lack of practicality more than anything else that drives away and repels people from Aikido today. Conversely, I see that Aikido does something for my deshi. Training produces some thing – something real, something having a utility. Aikido as Senshin Center is not theory-based, it is not this airy abstract thing that exists only as an analogy or as a metaphor or at best as a feeling. Aikido is practical, and I challenge you to find anyone more practical than a single mother.
For me, as an instructor, what plagues Aikido most is this loss all utility. People, in general, are not attracted to dead things, and things that have lost all practicality are akin to dead things. This is true on both the martial front and on the spiritual front for contemporary Aikido. Echoing Nietzsche, contemporary Aikido is dead. On the martial front, so-called martial Aikido consists mainly of big men overpowering smaller people while performing forms. Due to an ignorance concerning Aikido’s internal aspects, an ignorance of its overall strategic paradigm, an ignorance of its underlying Yin/Yang Theory, so-called martial Aikido is only practical when you are facing a smaller, weaker, slower, less-skilled opponent. It begs the question then: How practical is this martial Aikido for women? Answer: Not very often, and this is before one even points out that contemporary Aikido has lost all means of transcending form and of moving deshi from form to practical application!
“Big Man” Aikido also makes one wonder of the social environment wherein this type of training takes place. Ask: What must it be like subjectively for a woman Aikidoka to train in a place where men who outweigh her only work to overpower her? Or: What must it be like subjectively for a woman Aikidoka to train in a place where her technical success comes only at the mercy of men that hold back their strength and weight? Would or could such a woman Aikidoka really feel she was doing something practical at a martial level? I imagine some could, but they would be in the minority, and this may explain why most dojo, including dojo ran by women dojocho, are predominantly made up of men.
Spiritually, contemporary Aikido is a best a poor-man’s therapy. At worst, as stated above, it is only an analogy or a metaphor for current socially approved paradigms and political correctness: It is spiritually impractical. The best it can do is cultivate a fair-weathered wisdom and/or self-transformation, but a wisdom or a self-transformation that is dependent upon fair-weather is not real or useful. Ask: What is the demographic effect of such artistic spiritual degeneration? Follow the money: Who has the means or the resources to add a poor-man’s therapy to real therapy? Who has the means or the resources to replace a real therapy with a poor-man’s therapy? Who has the means and resources to risk little to no self-transformation? Who really has no difficulty or hardship for staying unwise and untransformed? Would it not be the person with the most means and the most resources? Would it not be the person already at the top of the social hierarchy of means and resources? Would it really be, for example, the single mother? Now, you know why the mats look like they look in contemporary Aikido.
Like the death of Nietzsche’s god, the animus (in the Roman sense of the word), the catalytic potency, of contemporary Aikido has been dissected out of the art via an unconscious adoption of logocentrism and a prioritization of the intellect – which are also social markers for its dominant demographic. Like that dead god, contemporary Aikido no longer has the power to transform the individual through the ecstatic experience or to make the intangible tangible. An impracticality sets in – a dead art. Sociologically, as stated above, as an impracticality, this makes contemporary Aikido a luxury practice at best, and, like with all luxuries, only those with a resource surplus will be drawn to it. Again – is this women in general? Is this most women? There’s more: Psychologically, in a Jungian sense, it may very well be that women, beings perhaps more able then men to comfortably walk that line between spiritual ecstasy and tangible materiality, would look at contemporary Aikido and be repelled by it. Its fakeness, its inauthenticity, its impracticality outside of its luxury status, may actually be more psychologically detestable to women than to men. For what it is worth, it is usually my women Aikidoka more than my men Aikidoka that exhibit a deep and negative gut reaction to videos of fake Aikido.
The answer then, in my opinion, is not adopting more progressive solutions, themselves a continuation of logocentrism and a prioritization of the intellect, but rather to rediscover, in an archeological sense, the animus of Aikido, to bring Nietzsche’s god back to life, so to speak; to rediscover Aikido’s practicality, both martially and spiritually, to make and keep Aikido a living art. Aikido must rediscover or reclaim its Budo roots in order to address its declining population. It must rediscover its martial practicality and that rediscovered practicality must be used to help Aikidoka discover their true self. Like this, Aikido does something; Like this, Aikido some thing worth doing.
Part Three: Women Dojo Member Submissions
What follows are the above-mentioned requested submissions. They are pasted here without editing or commentary – for the reader to draw his/her own conclusions:
- I first came to the dojo for my children. After observing Valadez Sensei with the children, I immediately knew I wanted them to be taught by this man. I watched every single children’s class my kids attended and after 4 yrs I felt a very strong pull to begin training myself, even if I didn’t understand what I was seeing in the adult classes. I knew it would be a long and difficult path, but I knew commitment and knew once I started, I would be in it for the long haul. I train to be a better mother, sister, daughter and human being. I train to learn the most difficult art there is, to release the self and ultimately, find union with God. I train at Senshin Center exclusively because here all aspects are on the table; heart/mind, body, spirit. The lessons are so profound and all encompassing that one learns not only Aikido as techniques are concerned but learns to go beyond them. Also, learning the history, martial viability, religiosity and spirituality. All aspects of the self are addressed and problematized as I learn to let go of what I think I am, to become and do things I never imagined possible. I have now been training 10 yrs and my daughter continues to train as well.
- I initially came to the dojo because I wanted a career in law enforcement. I wanted to get stronger, I wanted a challenge, and I wanted to learn how to “defend myself.” However, I realized fairly quickly the ignorance of these “wants,” and that there was much more to the dojo and the training. I currently train to be a better version of myself. To work on spiritual maturity, letting go of the physical (material) world, and ultimately letting go of my identity. It is from my understanding that from this, you are forever free, unbound, and able to love unconditionally. The dojo is a life long training - it is a path you follow until you die. This is why I train, and will always remain training.
- I train because you saved my life. While I am better than I was before, after training more, I realized that I still have a long way to go. I want to become like you, and you are willing to help me get there, so I train with you.
- I train at our dojo for wellness and discipline. To have somebody hold me accountable. To face my fears. To have something to measure myself by. To reflect on my life and the choices I make in it. I train to maintain good mental health and physical conditioning. I train to keep good relationships with the people in my life. I train to try to become more like you.
- On a physical level, I train because I want to be well and stay well. On a material level, I train because I want to win, and because I do not want to be taken by the world as many people around seem to be. On a spiritual level, I train because I want to be enlightened, but my desire for enlightenment, that itself sounds materialistic, so I train to rid myself of the attachment to this desire.
- I train at the dojo to maintain mental, physical, and spiritual wellness not only during training but in every other aspect of my life as well. I train to maintain fitness and mobility, and to keep good relationships and manage conflicts in my life according to the way. I train to improve my fear reconciliation as well as develop the skill of meta-cognition. I train to learn how to live my life properly and according to the way.
- I have been training since I was 3 yrs old. I was raised in this dojo. For me, it is important to be strong, strong of body/mind/spirit. Training helps keep my mindset in check and keeps me on track so I don’t veer from the path. To help keep us on the path we use the 4 disciplines; diet, sleep, exercise and world view. When I feel myself struggling with something, I go back to these disciplines to help get me back on track. Training helps me see past everyday distractions and not get caught up in the drama of my school peers or others my age. Training helps me prioritize things that are important and keeps me less stressed. I feel better when I train and I enjoy being surrounded by like minded people.
- I do not train for any reason other than not to train is to die. I train to become physically strong, flexible and agile, for otherwise the body withers, weakens, and decays with age and unuse. I train to become mentally sharp and challenged by continuous learning, deliberate practice and striving for improvement; not to do so is to let the mind soften, atrophy, and become unwell. I train to become aware, compassionate, and loving, not to be one who pushes, controls, or causes suffering; not to do so is to let the spirit sicken and to become separated from others and from God. Through daily confrontations with my limitations of self-displacement, fear-reconciliation, and ego-detachment, I train so that I can hope to become the best version of myself that I can be. I train to release myself from the chains and bonds of my sex, age, history, or culture; unburdened and freed, my heart is lightened, and laughter, joy, beauty, and peace rush in like a wave. I train so that my death will be another step of my training. Through training, and in training, I find life. Not to train is to die every day until death. I train with sensei because he understands, sees, and knows. He has been to and through the depths, practices what he preaches and teaches, lives the path, and sets an example of how to be in the world but not of it. his wisdom and compassion and capacity for love are not of this earth or of our time. to paraphrase a quote by max lucado: sensei loves us just as we are, but too much to leave us that way.
- I train at the dojo to gain an understanding of awareness, strength, and value. Through Sensei I was able to learn all of these, and I’m still currently trying to improve them. Through awareness training, I’ve become more conscious of my surroundings. With strength it helped me improve much more physically. For the longest time I wasn’t able to do chin ups, but through the techniques and training, I’m now able to. As for value, through Sensei’s words I’ve gained a deeper understanding of the meaning of the way of the warrior, life, and much more.
- I train because I want to get stronger and increase my awareness more. Senshin Center is a training facility but it's also a family. Sensei knows his students inside and out. Here, the training is more personalized to the people who are in class that day and their skill level, and I want to improve in the art.
- Training at the dojo is a way of addressing all of the baggage that you have accumulated throughout your life. You don't even realize how lost you are until you start training and make the commitment to change. And strangely, you don't realize how much you are changing until you look back. I have found that training in Aikido challenges you to confront all of your emotions and helps you to reconcile those emotions by learning to acknowledge your fears, frailty, lack of humility, and general "lameness". Over time you become stronger, less fragile, more humble, giving, and less afraid. It gets to the point where even though it can be hard to stay committed to your practice, you realize it's completely necessary for your overall wellbeing. Another benefit of training in a traditional dojo is that you are training with others who are also committed to their practice, so you are surrounded by people who are strong, humble, and genuinely caring and giving. I have found that these characteristics are almost impossible to find in people outside of the dojo.