Strength through softness:
Being a Goju-Ryu female budoka
by Katarina Lezova (2015)

I read recently about military force multipliers that allow a smaller force to defeat a larger one. I instantly thought of myself and the importance of these elements in my own karate. One of these forces is considered speed – if a smaller force moves with a greater speed it can take advantage of an opening. By combining speed and accuracy one can be a step ahead of the opponent. Another contributing element is intelligence. Learning about yourself and your opponent, having an overview and being open minded to discover and apply new things including being aware of your potential can put a smaller person in a favourable position. In addition, if one adds concentration and uses the momentum to act before the other person realises it – one gets an enormous advantage. One thing that they all share though is that they require constant development and I think that they are all particularly useful for a female practicing karate.

Karate as a budo path is for everybody who is patient, committed and prepared for an endless journey full of discoveries that sometimes come rather unexpected and often after a longer waiting. However, we are all different and one size does not fit all. What works for one person doesn't work for the other and this applies particularly to women. I have learnt – and it has taken me a while to understand it – that as a woman I have to focus on different things than other rather big man would do and that I cannot rely on my strength. I can never be as strong as these men but I can aim to be the best possible woman budoka.

Having had the privilege last year to train with sensei Sue Eddie I came across an example of a woman whose strength is incredible yet she still keeps her female beauty and softness. She has been a true inspiration for me – a female budoka who lives her life by example. When I did kakie with her I was struck by her power. But it was a different kind of power – not forceful but penetrating, soft but unbalancing. She said during the training that "there are no limits". It's really up to us what we want to achieve and how far we want to go as it's really us who set the limits. I have learnt a lot from training with her. For me as a woman this meeting was really crucial – to see and experience a real female budoka with character and a beautiful approach to life in general. But there was something also about her attitude.

In 'The Guardian', one of the best movies I have seen, the rescue swimmer Ben Randall says that the difference between a survivor and a victim is in the attitude. I think that for women in particular, attitude plays an even more important role. Attitude – that is confidence in one's abilities and the faith that we will win no matter what. It is obvious that this goes beyond the dojo – as our approach to training in the dojo mirrors what goes on in our lives and vice versa. During the past years I have started to think more deeply about what I am doing and why. In addition, having always an intention changes everything. One thing that I as a female need to pay more attention to is being more effective. In other words, learn how to use fewer steps and punches, and simply less time to overcome an opponent and if possible avoid the fight altogether. Simplify and not overcomplicate.

With years passing by I have recognised that I will never be as powerful as a man and I eventually accepted it and stopped trying to be somebody I can't ever possibly be. However, I have realised that I have potential to develop certain qualities that would give me an advantage in fight and this includes for instance also the earlier mentioned speed and accuracy. Knowing where exactly to strike and what to strike with changes everything. For me this has opened a path that I am currently engaged on. I have been very lucky to have a sensei who recognizes and encourages this kind of development and who has helped me over the years to realise that learning how to use my palms, hands and fingers effectively and how to evade an attack can put me a step ahead. Also, I am more aware that I need to work with all my body weight. My engagement with the opponent needs to suit my body type and structure as otherwise I would be going against the flow. Using neko ashi dachi is particularly useful as it allows swift change of position and lighter foot work. Two animals that would best represent the earlier described characteristics are a cat and a snake.

I am continuously learning and I have understood that I need to develop further the natural qualities that I possess as a woman. Hard physical training has been necessary particularly at the start of my journey and it is always good to go back to it. I had to push my boundaries, experience pain and sometimes approach my limits only to understand that I can take it and I can do more than I thought. I had to toughen up a bit but this hasn't necessarily meant that I had to become more masculine. I think that this is an important thing to consider – for a woman to be as good as possible in karate she doesn't need to go against her physical nature but has to find ways how to make the most of her body structure and explore what works for her. She needs to turn her weaknesses into strengths and make the strengths that she possesses even stronger. Also, in a woman's case it's less about muscles but more about developing tendons.

About a year ago I started to practice Taichi and it helped me to explore softness. I have very much benefited from it and importantly, learning a different martial art has also allowed me a different perspective on karate. I have also learnt that if something is too hard it can break but you can't break softness. Importantly, I have felt how the softness transcended into my karate. I have a long way to go but through becoming softer I have been actually able to become stronger. I guess it's one of those things that one has to feel and experience. Water has been probably one of the elements that most vividly represent what Taichi is about. Water is also the only element that can take three different states – solid, liquid or vapour. It changes and adapts to the environment.

I have also realised during the Taichi practice that when I thought that I was soft and relaxed I was actually still tensed and it was just another form of hardness. Once, during the practice we discussed three levels of performance in Taichi. During the first, one tries to perform as if s/he would be in a pool surrounded by water, then the practice changes to performing as if the water would be inside us and finally, when one reaches the last level s/he becomes one with the water. With karate we aim to achieve the same, so that we become one with the kata that we perform, blend with the technique, round the edges and bring more circles into the practice. I definitely won't get bored in the next years to come and have personally plenty to work on. When I practiced last year with my then Taichi teacher Master Yang Yu Bing – it felt like I am pushing a cloud, he was so relaxed and appeared to use absolutely no effort. The best thing is to go out and cross hands with different people as that allows us to learn about ourselves and learn from others. Particularly for a woman it's important to train with men – mainly those who are stronger – because that's the only way how to learn about using momentum, taking advantage of a gap and at the end of the day, if there's a need to engage in a fight it's more likely that we will face strong men. For me it has always been important to train with male budoka because it has challenged me and I have tried to match more their strength and as a result, I tried to push myself more so I can do better. Importantly, I have also started to look into other ways that I could use more effectively fitting better my body structure. Physical conditioning has been necessary but there has to be a balance between the hard and soft aspects. However, I have realised that it is the softness that will take me further. So it's not just about taking in the punch and blocking it but also learning how to evade it.

Water

I continue walking on the martial arts path with the aim to become a better budoka by learning new things and thinking more openly, by trying and experiencing. In life, we all go through stages. As our roles in life change, so does our karate. We adapt, change perspectives and this all reflects in our training. I think that particularly for women it's important to adopt the "what if I do this" approach. We all have to learn 'how', so that our karate stands on correct principles and has a good structure but where we take it from there is up to us. At the start we master the "how to do things" and then we are off to explore the "what ifs" and see what works for us.

Katarina Lezova
April 2015

“No matter how you may excel in the art of Karate, and in your scholastic endeavors,
nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”