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Martial Arts for Women: Upon the Path, We Find Our Steps

by Sonya Haramis

Published Online

As I entered the embrace of Mount Madonna Retreat and Conference Center in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California — to attend the recent 25th Annual Training Camp of The Pacific Association of Women Martial Artists (PAWMA) — I was excited to be part of this international gathering of renowned women in martial arts. I had worked with the camp’s planning committee for the past year, and this year’s theme — Gathering Spirit — aptly described the overpowering feeling I experienced.

The rolling wave that was the road up the mountains challenged my resolve. But my heart and thoughts were looking forward to this special time of training and camaraderie with women I had worked with for over a year in planning the event. I also looked forward to meeting new friends.

Breathing in the mountain air, I was struck by the many layers of life which rested upon the same setting of Mount Madonna: the women martial artists who came to train in their arts; Baba Hari Dass, the master yogi and monk who has been silent since 1952 and his followers; and the inspiration for the Mount Madonna Center sponsored by the Hanumen Fellowship.

The scene was set: birds flying overhead, the beat of the Taiko drums, the crickets beneath our gentle steps, the kiai of female martial artists in the gym. As I walked the earthy paths of the grounds to observe different classes, I walked into another dimension. All of us were at Mount Madonna seeking something — peace, enlightenment, techniques, friendship, strength, and answers. I wondered if the animals were seeking answers with as much focus as we were…or had they already found their answers long ago and were watching us?

The PAWMA training camp affirmed the importance of martial arts in the lives of women for many reasons, especially today — physical strength, self-esteem, spiritual mastery and growth.

Danielle Smith Sensei, co-coordinator of PAWMA’s 25th anniversary camp, explained: “We are a full community, comprised of the wisdom and experience of the elders, and the enthusiasm and talent of the younger or newer members. People who had a month or less of martial arts training, to those with more than 30 years of training participated. We felt that there was something powerful in fostering a consciousness around the fact that all of us were co-creating this event and, indeed, what PAWMA is now. We carried the theme of co-creating to the instructor orientation — 36 teachers from around the world participated. By the completion of the orientation, they expressed an excitement that comes from the act of creating, of being part of a community.”

Danielle, who is also my Aikido instructor, has trained at Aikido of Monterey since 1973, and has been chief instructor since 1976. She also holds black belts in jujitsu and iaido, co-developed the well-known system of Model Mugging Self Defense and Empowerment,© and has recently been elected President of the California Aikido Association.

More than 65 classes were taught at the PAWMA camp by the finest nationally and internationally known women martial art instructors from a wide variety of cultures and martial arts styles. Classes included hard and soft styles, Chinese, Japanese (including Aikido), Korean, Filipino, and eclectic arts, as well as mat arts and weapons training, such as knife throwing, Maori weapons, Aikido, Indonesian knife techniques, Kyudo (archery).

All the techniques and martial arts were different, yet shared many basic elements. Each martial art aligned its techniques and power with breath, and the elements of nature — water, wind, fire, sky — assuming an alignment with nature and a connection to the Source of all things. Breath techniques, using our hips for maximum power and grounding, utilizing our entire bodies, and building a momentum which harnessed all of that power was the thrust of the Spirit that had gathered at this camp.

As women, this is where we tap into most of our power, when we can accept and unify all that is within us. Recognizing that we are never separate from this Power, the martial arts classes channeled this power and energy through different meditations and techniques, yet with different ultimate intentions. The indistinguishable power of the women at the camp helped all the attendees tap into our own power — the Power that lives within us all.

Molly Hale, one of the camp instructors, is a Sandan in Aikido despite being confined to a wheel chair since her car accident. She began teaching with Frank Doran Sensei in 1984, and teaches at Aikido West in Redwood City, CA. Molly welcomed her class with her gentle, loving presence, and taught us to fill ourselves with strength and peace by using our breath and inhalation. “We’re all here by Divine Guidance, not by happenstance,” she said. Molly taught us to build energy with our spirits, and taught us how to do this, practicing and calming our breath, and by doing so, calming others even though they may not be aware of it.

According to Molly, it is important for us to promote and generate peace and love, even if others are not aware of what we are doing. “The demonstrations at the camp expressed the passionate connection each woman has with her martial presence and with other women,” Molly commented. “The easy generosity of spirit moving throughout the dojo touched my emotions! The beauty of our collective spirits expressed in different ways, harmonious, powerful,” continued Molly. “This full of ‘heartness’ — this is the delight of connecting with PAWMA.”
Nicki Enrlich, also a camp instructor and committee member, holds her Nidan in Karate and nikyu in Aikido. She shared her thoughts: “The camp highlighted the spirit of friendship and willingness to share and learn. Women who were masters in their own arts were willing to be beginners in a new art, and this tapping into the beginner’s mind created a veritable fountain of youth for us all. We became immersed in the community of Yoga practitioners, Zen masters…we became one when we held hands in a circle in the gym…and one when we watched an awesome martial artist in a wheel chair dance.”

Sheila Haddad Sensei, camp co-coordinator, has been teaching at Monterey Budokan for 11 years. She has a 7th degree black belt in Seibukan Jujutsu and a 10th degree black belt in Bujikan Budo Taijutsu/Ninjutsu. She is also director of self-defense programs, a national and international teacher, and continues her personal training in Japan.

For Sheila, organizing the camp held one focus: “To bring the elders and new women together, for all of us to be re-inspired, renewed, and recommitted to our training, and to support each other as women in the martial arts. The experience of training with women from different styles is unique, not just from a style perspective, but from the energy of being with women. It’s just different than a mixed gender group. It’s refreshing, and a great place to really be yourself.”

“I felt totally uplifted by the experience,” said Danielle about the PAWMA camp, “and inspired by what we can create when we consciously align our intention. We had truly ‘gathered spirit.’”

Gathering Spirit was not only the theme for this year’s camp, but perhaps it could be the theme for the world today. If we can all gather and honor the spirits of one another, what a positive effect that might have in the world.

The Special Art of Aikido

Aikido, the art I have been training in for over two years, has had a profound influence on my life both within and outside of the dojo (place of the Way). What Aikido has meant to me is difficult to express in words because the experience of this art is internal and yet omnisciently external.
Aikido is the Japanese martial way founded by Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969). Its circular techniques blend with the energy of the attacker as a form of self-defense, and Aikido practitioners also benefit from certain values and attitudes that seek to make conflict unnecessary.

Aikido has also been described as the way of harmony with Universal energy. According to “O-Sensei (Great Teacher), “Aikido is not a technique to fight with or to defeat the enemy. It is a way to reconcile the world and make human beings one family.”

By joining with others in harmony, not in conflict, and by resolving conflict wherever we are confronted with it, we tap into the Ever-present Source of all life. Manifesting physically, this is a powerful art and path of life. I believe Aikido can have worldwide significance by manifesting peace. By creating a way for people to resolve the small conflicts that eventually evolve into large ones that threaten our very existence, Aikido can show us the way.

As women, we are the guardians of the earth for the generations that follow us, and of ourselves as the keepers of the family fires. It is up to us to guard and protect ourselves, as well as teach others by our example that there is an alternative way out of conflict. If we walk upon the path of strength, serenity, grace, and love…surely others will follow.

The theme for the next camp — Training Wisdom — was chosen to “honor our past, and share in the present, the wisdom gained through our own diverse experiences to a younger generation.” It will be held August 1-4, 2003 at Sonoma State University. Details can be found on