On the first Friday in September, six Mo Duk Pai students from the Academy Kung Fu – myself included – amassed an artillery of snacks, piled into a single van, and ventured north to Seattle. There we gathered with nearly a hundred other martial artists
who’d traveled from California, British Columbia, Minnesota, Texas, and elsewhere, and who represented an array of styles including Aikido, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Kajukenbo, Taekwondo, Tai Chi, Wushu, Wu Chien Pai, and others. For three days, we beat on each other with sticks, wrestled, sparred, and pushed each other into walls (oops— we even broke one in the process.)
We awoke before dawn to exercise our bodies and expand our minds. We battled in a gang-style knife fight (despite Michael Jackson admonishing us to “just Beat It.”) We did all of this with huge smiles on our faces and love in our hearts. What? How? Why? Because we’re chicks who love to fight, and this is the true story of PAWMA Camp 2011!
PAWMA is the Pacific Association of Women Martial Artists, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting women and girls’ participation in the martial arts. Mo Duk Pai’s own Tracy Reith is the current Board President, and Sifu Patty O’Linger is a Board Member and 2008 recipient of PAWMA’s Martial Artist of the Year Award. Their elbow grease and expert planning resulted in this 34th annual Training Camp (Theme: “Spirit Rising”), which I consider to be the BEST. PAWMA. CAMP. EVER. But as LeVar Burton used to say, you don’t have to take my word for it…
“Every single class on offer was intriguing and every teacher was amazing.” — Joanna “Healing Hands” Burgess
“It was magical.” – Jaydra “Jackrabbit” Autrey
“Exhilarating!” –Michelle “Quickbooks” Johnson
“I was absolutely overwhelmed by the energy, and really proud to be a member of our AKF group.” –Allison “MacGuyver” Stickles
“I came back from camp renewed and energized and happy to call myself a martial artist.” –Cheryl “El Capitan” Teigen
Yes, PAWMA Camp is for ladies only. No, there was no mud wrestling and barely any pillow fighting. Instead, there were 13 sessions offering a total of 29 classes, ranging from Qigong to Fighting Off Your Back; from Hubud Lubid to Letting Your Kicks Fly High. There was also a demonstration, bazaar, dance, and plenty of late night socializing. But camp is about so much more than what’s in the program booklet.
“PAWMA Camp for me is a place of possibility, connection, and growth. It’s about women co-creating a powerful space of community and support,” says Joanna, who attended camp for the first time this year. She cites that sense of community as a major factor in her persistence with martial arts. “From my very first night at AKF, other women welcomed and encouraged me. Their support played a key role in keeping me coming back to the training floor. Upon learning of PAWMA Camp’s existence, I was an immediate YES!”
With an unprecedented number of AKFers in attendance, we were a major force of positive vibes. “I really liked letting go of the notion of rank within our group of six AKF students,” says Michelle. “On the ride up to Seattle in our street clothes, we were just a bunch of friends in a car, and we held on to that friendship and camaraderie without formality for the whole weekend. I think it made for a really special experience for all of us.”
The heart of camp is its teachers, and we found much to admire about each of them. “Every year I come back having taken more classes than I thought was possible for my body to handle,” says Cheryl. “I just couldn’t say no to the opportunity to learn something new from the amazing martial artists who teach at camp.”Shifu Koré Grate – with her tattoos, short sleeved black gi, and luminescent smile – is the apex of cool. Sifu Sonya Richardson embodies the principles of yin/yang: she’s tiny but tough; friendly but fierce; hard but also soft. Sensei Kristin Allott seamlessly incorporates philosophy, psychology, and metaphors for life into her Aikido lessons. Our Kajukenbo Auntie, Professor Barbara Bones, has a presence that is imposing and yet unassuming at the same time.
Master Uyen Pham is the reigning queen of creativity. About her Confined Area Tactics class, Jaydra says “I got a lot of little insights about how to use my environment as leverage against my attacker.” Me too, Jayd! Take, for example, the way I think about the walls of the AKF training floor. Before, I’d always tried to avoid going anywhere near the wall, considering it an inherently bad place to be. But Master Pham showed us that there can be advantages to having your back to the wall, such as the ability to keep alignment of your ears, shoulders, hips and knees (per the principles of physiokinetics), and thus avoid going to the ground. My favorite new strategy is pushing my attacker up against the wall: with no space behind him for his body to move, every strike or kick I land causes more damage.
For Allison, one memorable class marked the beginning of a love affair with nunchucks. “I’ve always thought of weapons as tense, aggressive things,” she says. “It blew my mind that I could only really get the flow of nunchucks if I relaxed and quite literally let go. It was a feeling I’ve never had with a weapon before.” Both Allison and Jaydra are now the giddy owners of 12” foam ‘chucks. Cowabunga, dudettes!
We were all in awe of Taiji teacher Sana Shanti. (Perhaps none of us more than Cheryl, who took all three of her classes!) At the demonstration, Sana performed a Chen style Taiji form that left us gobsmacked. Her approach to Taiji (“Don’t do the movement; allow the movement to happen,” she says) reminds me of Michelangelo (the artist, not the ninja turtle), who — when speaking about his sculpting — said that he didn’t actually create images; he just released them from the stone. Watching Sana perform Taiji feels like watching Michelangelo sculpt. “I have never seen relaxation look so utterly powerful,” says Allison about Sana’s demo. “I really didn’t think it was physically possible until I saw it in person.” Michelle and Jaydra were able to tap into a morsel of this elusive power during Sana’s blending class. Michelle tells the following anecdote:
Jayd and I were partners. We were practicing “finding the earth” to generate our power. I was applying pressure to Jayd’s body while she practiced allowing her own energy to be grounded instead of bracing against my push. There was a long moment when her energy was so clearly rooted, so pure and strong, that my hand gently popped off of her. In that moment both of us felt the chi radiating from her body, and both of us let out a breath of awe.
About that moment, Jayd says “The spookiest and most awesome part is that it didn’t feel like I was trying at all; it just happened.” Now that she knows what’s possible, Jayd’s eyes are open to a whole new aspect of her power.
One of the best parts about martial arts camp is being wearing gi pants during every waking moment. Another perk of such a prolonged, intense period of training is that it usually leads to at least one “aha!” moment. Allison’s occurred sooner than most: in Professor Bones’ Opening Night class, during a discussion about compassion. Allison realized that when she’s trying to exercise good control, she’s motivated by fear of hurting someone, which doesn’t always yield the best results. “I’ve always wondered why it was so easy for me to be in full control with the kids, but so much harder with the adults… the difference is the compassion I feel for the kids. That was a huge revelation for me.”
Here Michelle describes her major eye-opener:
In fighting I’ve practiced focusing my energy out, and making that energy an aggressive, “don’t mess with me” energy. That works well in some situations, and I think it’s important to be able to manifest. However, a theme that kept coming up for me over and over again was to offer compassion to others within conflict. I tried this a few times over the weekend and since I’ve gotten back from camp: When conflict is arising, I listen and put myself in the place of the person I’m in conflict with, and come to understand who they are in that moment. Rather than letting my little voice say, “I disagree!” or “I’m scared!” I let it say, “offer compassion.” I find that this resolves the conflict within myself powerfully and quickly, and eases tension in myself and others involved. From there I’ve been able to work out issues more calmly and directly. I’m looking forward to finding how I can use this mindset in my training.
More than just lessons gleaned from classes, PAWMA camp is invaluable for the exposure it provides to female role models. In a system dominated by men (no matter how wonderful those men are!), as a woman it can be hard to find someone to emulate. “For the past year, I have been struggling to improve my street game,” says Jaydra, who feels she’s been coming up short in her efforts to cultivate her ‘mean face.’ “I’m so glad I went to PAWMA Camp because I got to see so many really tough women, each with their own unique style of toughness. I realized I don’t need to try so hard to put on someone’s else’s mean face; I can just let mine come out in whatever way it wants to.”
I had my own epiphany related to this idea. At the previous PAWMA camps I attended (in 2008 and 2009), I remember being intimidated by how extremely badass many of the black belt instructors were (hello, Kajukenbo cousins! You’re scary!) Sure, I admired them—but I couldn’t identify with them. This year felt different. I could see a little bit of myself in even the fiercest of women, which I take to mean that I am getting tougher. It was very cool to see my own growth reflected back at me in this way, and exciting to think about where it will lead.
Just as exposure to these awesome role models deepens our self-awareness, exposure to so many different arts enhances our understanding and appreciation of Mo Duk Pai. “Camp showed me how well our style prepares us for different types of training,” says Allison. “Going into an Aikido, Judo, or BJJ class, I felt I already had some of the basics, and certainly knew enough to keep myself and others safe. That foundation allowed me to focus on the lessons and stay in the moment.”
Michelle agrees. “PAWMA camp helps me realize that I love training in Mo Duk Pai because it is so eclectic and leaves so much room for creativity. At camp, I noticed that some practitioners have a really hard time trying a new style, but because our style is already so mixed, picking up a different style doesn’t seem too far a reach for me,” she says. “I also love that if I learn new things that work for me, I’m encouraged to incorporate them into my training right away.”
Cheryl has returned to her training at AKF “with renewed intent. One more gift from PAWMA.”
Joanna sums it up beautifully: “Our style is complex, creative, dynamic and powerful, and we are respected by other martial artists. Seeing this reinforced my commitment and passion for Mo Duk Pai, and I felt tremendous pride to be a representative of our style and our school.”
Late Sunday night, we piled back into Cheryl’s van for the trek home to Portland. Our minds and hearts were full, but our bellies were empty. As we passed around what was left of our snacks, we fervently replayed our favorite memories from the weekend. For over three hours, we talked non-stop about camp: what we learned, what we loved, what we ate (Jamaican tofu wrap, I will never forget you!) It was clear to all of us that our training had changed forever, and in the best possible way. We not only felt more connected to our school, our system, and to each other, but to the greater community of female martial artists, which has no geographical or generational or stylistic boundaries. We are each a unique part of a great tradition. We are carriers of the flame.
With love and gratitude,