I’ve been Martial Arts training from the happy age of 5 (picture above), telling myself one day I will meet Yip Man and become his protege (irrespective he had already passed away by the time I was born). Back then, I trained in a long artillery hall where people practiced how to shoot guns, bow and arrows and gymnastics. Sometimes we would use a huge community hall for practising large group attacks on one person, blind folded.
We had a hardcore ethos; a traditional one — no food, no drink, no protection. We trained bare knuckle in the heat and in the cold, and we were not allowed to stop for water. Training sessions were an hour and a half long, practicing weapon training, mild gymnastics, forms and fighting. We knew how to do forms forwards and in reverse, all language was in Japanese, and on my black belt grading at the age of 13, I vomitted quite beautifully on the floor, and carried on.
My first ever teacher taught me how to meditate, he taught me focus and respect, he showed me I was capable of taking on a 6ft 10stone man and protect myself at the same time. I practiced everyday, my parents took it about as seriously as I did and were always there to support me and nurture my passion for Martial Arts. I practised whilst walking, I practised in bed, I practised in my living room, outside, I practised in Malaysia, in the shower, I still practised when I had a severe bone/muscular issue with my legs and was confronted with surgery. On days where I forgot the tiniest thing by over-thinking a move or a simple brain-fart, I’d hang my head in shame and be told off by my teacher.
Out of all the incredible gifts 8 years of training with him had given me, as well as the immaculate amount of luck I had in finding the right teacher for me, I wasn’t prepared for what was one of the biggest life changing issues that dominated my life. Throughout my training, I was completely unable to defend myself from the one thing that I believed I should have done — abuse. For years I have lived with an overwhelming amount of guilt that I should have and could have stopped it. I knew how to fight. I know how to disarm or knock someone out cold. But when faced in situations such as abuse… My body froze.
I said nothing for years. I was abused for 8 years and said nothing and did nothing. Even when I was beaten up by some kids once, I simply stood there and took it. I didn’t fall to the ground, I just stood and stared at them blankly until my friend told me to run as fast as I could. I was about 13, and I remember thinking that if I even touched one of them, I’d get in trouble… but then again, that could’ve been the message that my abuser had put into my head.
So I stopped training for 2 years, and I got very, very depressed. Although at the time I couldn’t link two and two together — I didn’t realise martial arts was actually saving my psychological and physical state all along. That every time I was training, it was helping me deal with the emotion and trauma I had to hide so perfectly.
When I was 15 I decided to take up Karate again and found a teacher in a nearby dojo. I observed his class and disagreed with the way he taught. His passion for Martial Arts just wasn’t there, so I left. My grammar school was also sending me to Kick Boxing classes, which I hated with a ‘this is killing my soul’ sort of hate. It was run by a woman who suggested we pulled hair and used sovereign rings to punch people in the face. I ended up teaching most of the students (my classmates from school) how to actually kick and punch someone properly. The instructor invited me to join their national Kick Boxing academy. I swiftly declined.
Feeling pretty unfulfilled yet knowing that martial arts certainly made me feel a bit better (even though I had also punched my class mate on the nose and broken it during a training session and was banned from going anywhere near her by her mother), I was still severely depressed. One thing led to another, and I had a break down. It all came out, my secrets, everything. And bam… along came Child Protection, Psychiatrists, Psychologists, Psychiatric Medicines, Anger Management and a whole load of guilt and blame from not only my own head, but also from my parents. Their overarching question was, “Why didn’t you defend yourself? You knew how to.” Being from a Chinese background, my family held a lot of pride and warned me about speaking of what had happened to me and that it would bring shame upon the family.
Fast forward to 21. I had finally gotten out of the hellish mess I was in and moved house. I was dating a martial artist who brought back my passion for it all over again. His passion for martial arts got me thinking, and so I began to search for a good martial arts school yet completely unsure of what art form I wanted to train in. I didn’t really want Karate anymore, I wanted to be able to merge Buddhism with martial arts, which thus led me to Shaolin Kung Fu.
A few years later I stumbled upon a famous Shifu who had just setup his own school in London. I did my research and agreed to meet him at his school. I observed a lesson and was absolutely head over heels in love with what I saw. Shifu didn’t speak a word of English yet his teaching methods were completely coherent and his students were so on-point it was like moving powerful poetry, it was practically home away from home. I decided I wanted to join. Two nights later, a man came into my home and assaulted me, smashing my head on a door frame and bruising my brain. I couldn’t train and spent the next 3 months in and out of hospital with this other guy on a restraining order. Another month later, I was beaten up by a man outside my home.
So I moved house, another few years passed and my mental health became pretty low. Again, fuelled with guilt and pretty much a whole bunch of hatred for myself, I started seeing a Psychotherapist again. But that just wasn’t cutting it. I knew Martial Arts would make me better. I knew I had to prove to myself that I can fight, that I have confidence and that I can take on these sorts of people; men who lack self-control, who intimated women, who use their body weight and force themselves upon a woman believing it’s their right to do so. Men who wish to silence women. I had to teach myself that I had every right to protect myself.
Since then, I have moved county completely as I felt my mental health needed to be somewhere that had space, countryside and a kinder community. I found the UK Shaolin Temple had a branch all the way in a tiny community hall in the beautiful countryside, ran by one of the first Western disciples who had become a 35th generation Shaolin monk (pictured above).
Since living in here I’ve been training with my Shifu and it has been quite possibly one of the most life changing experiences I’m going through. There have been lots of tears leaking from eyes, during moments where I suddenly realised how terrified I was of sparring with another man. I happily did it, but the alarm bells in my head were ringing saying “Okay, you can do this now, but what if he was actually trying to harm you?” and to be honest, I had no answer. For days it just swam around in my head. I couldn’t figure out if it was unprofessional of me to speak to my Shifu or to see how it was all going to pan out and hope for the best. Until one day, my Dad visited me and asked the penultimate question, “So, do you think if a man did something again, you could protect yourself?” That was enough for me to know I should speak with my Shifu. And it was quite possibly the most nerve wracking yet relieving thing I’ve done.
I genuinely feel like I’ve had a second chance, and not a single day goes past where I don’t feel grateful for the time and knowledge my Shifu spends with me. I feel understood, and that I am in the most perfectly capable hands, surrounded by other practitioners who believe in compassion yet strength and protection.
My conundrum with the majority of my abusers has been that I do not wish to hurt them. I have been a practicing Buddhist all my life, and I have never wished harm upon those who have abused me simply because I know they are suffering already to have done such a thing in the first place. However I DO wish I was able to protect myself, not disembowel them or murder them, or chop their balls and hands off, but to be able to put a STOP to a situation — to hit them hard, break a leg maybe, but not kill them. All of which I have always been capable of doing, but have never had the belief and inner strength to do it, to save my own life.
I write this because I know I’m not alone out there and there are hundreds upon thousands of women who have been in situations of abuse and have been threatened or made to believe that they are unable to defend themselves as this is usually followed by a god awful consequence upon their life. Or women who have been abused as a child and made to believe that if anyone ever finds out, something very very bad will happen — what that ‘bad’ thing is, is sometimes not said, but you end up growing up living in deep anxiety of never sticking up for yourself, or worse, never physically being able to protect yourself.
Getting the motivation, the encouragement and the hope and strength to be able to say something and learn to defend yourself can take years. I have not been a practicing martial artist for the past 21 years just for self defence, for me, it is different as it has always been a way of life. I have always lived and breathed Buddhism and Martial Arts together. However, as a method of learning about your body, your strength and applying that strength by cultivating your body’s inner energy, then THAT will help you conquer your mental battle and physical battle. I hope that if I ever have to defend myself again in such a way, I will no longer hold back. That I respect myself enough to protect myself and allow myself to let my true strength and ability show.
Overcoming that hidden wall is so difficult, but I honestly urge any woman who has ever thought of taking up martial arts or self defence, that you do, and that you take time learning about yourself, your fears, the breath, your physical and mental strength, and learn to believe in yourself again.