Shihan Sandy Hayes: Femininity and Motherhood in Martial Arts

Femininity and Motherhood in Martial Arts; My Journey

Sandy Hayes – Australian Ryusei Chitokai Karate 2010

Writing any essay is a challenge, but I found this particularly difficult as I couldn’t determine my topic. My last grading was to Sandan Shidoin in 1999 when I was 32. We’ve since had 3 beautiful and healthy daughters. Brian my husband has had a major and painful career shift from one of being a high school deputy principal to one of being self-employed martial arts professional. We grew out of our original Karate style and thankfully found a better one in Ryusei. We quadrupled the size of our dojo, and have recently opened a second one. I’m now 43 and thinking that the last thing I could do is to write a technical essay about Ryusei Karate. The only thing that I feel I am at all qualified to write about is how my continued training and teaching over this decade has taught me to appreciate who I am as a female martial artist and the potential that our girls can reach in it. Martial Arts training enhances and permeates every aspect of our lives, and I was so fortunate to enjoy my Karate training during and after my pregnancies, and this is the topic I feel qualified and passionate to write about. My hope is that other women who train can read this and think, “Well maybe I can” and their karate instructors can also believe and support them through this amazing journey.


I’ve always felt inadequate and disadvantaged being a female martial artist. Never being able to match a man’s strength and always feeling that even when I was at the height of my competitive sports karate career when I was 30 and match fit, I could probably just hold my own against a fit male half or double my age. My husband, who is nine years older than I, could easily wipe the floor with me even at my peak. Muscle size, injury recovery time, power, agility, strength, are all compromised being a female and this is simply a fact of life albeit a hard one to accept. And the argument of “but you have to consider your strengths” does little to placate. I was also resentful during my rebellious teens that my brothers had no curfew yet I always did. As a parent I understand why, but for years I was resentful and felt cheated that I was born a female. This only worsened as I entered the workforce in British Columbia in the mid 90’s, and especially in my chosen field of study which was commerce and Japanese. I was very disheartened by the way I and other females like me were being treated in a largely Asian work environment. Being a university student, I found myself “rebelling” by dressing in mannish clothes, sporting a very short haircut, and generally eschewing anything that had to do with femininity. My mother’s and aunts reminders to “walk like a lady” only served to make me more annoyed at what I saw as oppressive expectations of how my gender was sentenced to behave. Karate in the 80’s suited my rebellious streak as I could “hang out with the boys” (when I joined I was the only girl in a class of 60 students) and turn my back on all the usual things that girls did. Although fashion wise it’s still arguable that I have grown out of army boots, cargo pants and “tuff” tank tops, I now have come to a better simpatico with my femininity through Martial Arts by having continued my training while becoming a mother.

Of course it’s cliché to say that motherhood changes everything, because we all know it does. A scene from the movie “Kill Bill” encapsulates it best where Uma Thurman’s character does the “pee stick” pregnancy test in a hotel room and coincidentally the moment upon which it shows positive she is attacked by a female assassin barging through the door with machine guns firing. Uma dives behind the bed holding up the pregnancy test like a flag of truce and upon reasoning with her assassin, convinces her of the validity of the result, upon which the assassin says “congratulations” and runs off. Women, if they are well, thankfully have an instantaneous hormonal response to protect and care for offspring.

In a matter of seconds ones personal universe shifts from

a.) single woman or

b.) married woman to become C

Although this is a hormonally supported instinctual shift of behalf of the female, for the male or husband, this may not happen so quickly or thoroughly. Off course being philosophical helps and it doesn’t help anyone to say that this shift has happened for as long as there are parents. Hopefully, if the correct partner choice has been made, like a fine wine, hubby will mature well and hold on to the thought that one day he will once again be the apple of his wife’s eye.

In discussing any training during pregnancy in any sport, especially one a misunderstood as Karate in its perceived contact violence, I realize I am entering highly controversial ground. I stress the caveat that I am only basing this on my research and especially on my own experience with my 3 girls. Each pregnancy is unique and Martial Arts training during this time is not possible for every woman. I feel that if it was an activity that had already been pursued for a period of time (probably for at least 1 year so as not be in the beginner phase where both injury


caused by the self and by others can be prone), it is possible to modify the training as the fetus develops with the guidance of common sense, Grandma’s congenital pregnancy and birthing experience, doctor, sister’s and aunties advice, instructors and training partners. Regardless of many amazing medical advances, I’ve found that an individual female’s pregnancy has already largely been experienced by her own mother as a lot of congenital factors come into play and this is probably the largest determinant of whether or not exercise is possible.

The thing to keep in mind is that pregnancy is not an illness. I’ve often heard the common phrase, at least in Australia, that “My wife fell pregnant” which to me sounds akin to “falling ill” and sadly a lot of people have the mind set that pregnancy makes one an invalid. Sadly I can recall at least a dozen fantastic female martial artists, coloured belts as well as black belts, that quit their martial arts training as a result of becoming pregnant and never returned to training even after having their baby as they had fallen out of the habit and it was all too hard. This is a real loss for any dojo as having female martial artists not only sets a precedent for upcoming females but it encourages a culture that is safe, supportive and inclusive. It can transform the ambience of a dojo from the stereotypical one of “angry young men kicking each others butts” to one of “this is a dojo where I feel comfortable bringing my child”. Not to mention that female martial artists make very patient, caring and attentive instructors especially with young children. This is not to say that a male dominated dojo can’t also do this, they just have to work much harder to instill this culture and trust in their community.


The First Trimester

But there’s another powerful source of influence you may not have considered: your life as a fetus. The kind and quantity of nutrition you received in the womb; the pollutants, drugs and infections you were exposed to during gestation; your mother’s health, stress level and state of mind while she was pregnant with you – all these factors shaped you as a baby and a child and continue to affect you to this day.

The notion of prenatal influence may conjure up frivolous attempts to enrich the fetus: playing Mozart to a pregnant belly and the like. In reality, the shaping and molding that goes on in utero is far more visceral and consequential that that. Much of what a pregnant woman encounters in her daily life – the air she breathes, the food and drink she consumes, the chemicals she’s exposed to , even the emotions she feels – is shared in some fashion with her fetus. The fetus incorporates these offerings into its own body, makes them part of its flesh and blood.
(“How the first Nine months shape the rest of your life” Time magazine)

Once the pregnancy has been established and it’s been determined on the first doctors visit that there should be no complications that would prevent healthy exercise, the dojo is a wonderful and supportive place to train! So many other Mum’s and female students get so excited in their empathy and where else is better to train (or work in my case) in a healthy, positive, smoke free environment! Even when socializing! I remember several times where other female martial artists and karate mum’s would cast dirty looks at smokers in my environ in an effort to shield me from second hand smoke and would even refrain from drinking around me at a BBQ in an effort to make me feel more comfortable in my necessary pregnancy choices. This social support is so critical and I feel it’s important for a sensei to be supportive and focus more on what the new Mum can do rather than what they can’t. Of course with the Mums permission, it’s important to let all potential training partners know as there must be no contact to the stomach or breasts and any throws that would land her hard on her back or make her dizzy must not be permitted. This can be such a joyous time and especially for a first time mum it’s great for her to feel the support and anticipation from the dojo.

The main considerations I found during the first 3 months were: Fatigue
Low blood sugarMoodiness Pre-occupation

Undeniably there is a need for increased sleep at this time, some times up to 10 hours per night and more on weekends. This was probably the most challenging time to push through with my own personal training as the last thing I felt like doing after a day of Karate teaching was to train myself. I felt the kind of fatigue that is more than just the grittiness or irritability I would usually feel after a late night, but I actually felt tired deep in my bones. I hardly felt like leaving my bed or walking up a flight of stairs. Yet on the outside my pregnancy wasn’t showing and I thought that all the other Black Belts must think me lazy. More than once the only reason I trained was because my husband or another female black belt would say “join in it’ll make you feel better”. The amazing thing was that it did. Stretching felt great and once I got moving, I felt my fatigue and even any moodiness dissipate. Going through my basics and Kata would sometimes bring on a state of meditative euphoria. Was this a dopamine release? Was it low blood sugar? I’m not so sure but it made me feel better, and perspiring in particular seemed to get any hormonal moodiness out. I could still perform my Kata with as much speed and strength as I ever had but of


course my Kumite and Bunkai had to be modified. I found that I was forming a very protective bond between myself and my baby. All mothers have fears and anxieties about having to defend a baby whether it is from dogs, car accidents, drowning, fire, kidnapping, etc. I would often have vivid gut wrenching nightmares about watching something horrific happen to my baby, but this is merely mental rehearsal necessary for developing and strengthening a motherly protective instinct. Martial Arts training over this time really helped me to allay those anxieties as I believed that I am the most capable of protecting my baby as I am physically strong and I have been trained in protective strategies all the time. This can be very reassuring to a first time mum.

The queasiness was a challenge, but thankfully I had understanding sempai who knew what to do when they heard me say “take over” as I was running for the toilet and the class would continue smoothly to the tune of my vomiting sounds. I would be able to return to the floor within minutes, but it was important to have immediate back-up on any class (and mouthwash in the toilet!) that I taught as for a period of about 4 to 6 weeks, the queasiness was omnipresent and I could still train with this, but the need to vomit would come in a very sudden wave but thankfully no more that once or twice a day. Being able to keep healthy and simple snacks (i.e. Crackers, dried fruit, carrots etc.) and water readily available would help to keep things on an even keel but sometimes due to heat, exertion, fatigue, or any irregularities affecting the smooth running and staffing of the dojo floor, I would find myself awash with a myriad of pregnancy hormones causing sudden vomiting.


The dizziness meant that any of the rinten and hanten spins had to be taken very slowly, and even my ushirogeri needed to be broken down so as not to lose my balance. Any inversion, even doing a standing toe touch, would make me feel like I was going to fall forward without control. I recall one instance where I was demonstrating a mae ukemi from a kneeling position to a beginner’s class and when I put my head down below my waist I actually lost consciousness for a split second and collapsed forward onto my face. Thankfully, nothing more that my ego was hurt. Once the first 4-6 weeks of queasiness were over, it was replaced by constant hunger! It’s and easy but unwise trap to think I could eat anything, so I would be especially mindful have lots of prepared healthy snacks in zip lock bags in my fridge at home and at the dojo. More than once if I mismanaged my blood sugar levels, some unsuspecting staff member or karate parent would suffer the vocal sharp end of my impatience and irritability. I still find it handy even now when I’m teaching anywhere from 2 to 5 classes per day to have quick snacks to hand. Thankfully, in one of my “nesting” moods I cleaned out the dojo fridge and vowed not to stock any fizzy or caffeinated drinks and re-stocked with fruit and vegetable juices, various waters and milks. I had to get rid of any chocolate bars we were stocking too as it was too tempting.

The moodiness is understandable given the increased amounts of hormones in body but staff, students, and training partners learn quickly to be tolerant. In one instance I remember giving a mat chat to a group of pre-school karate students of the topic of honesty and I stated “you must always tell the truth to Mums and Dads, even if it means you’re going to get in trouble, because there is nothing that you could ever do that is so bad that they could ever stop loving you” and I burst into tears! Pathetic! I also found a greater empathetic connection with my young students and their parents but sometimes I would “over feel” their pain. Sadly, in one case I had a mother of one of my five year old kindymite karate students relate to me the unimaginable horror that the daughter had been raped when she was three by a 13 year old maladjusted child next door. The unmitigated anger over the incident had torn the little girl’s family apart and her now single mother’s law career was at a stalemate. For about two or three weeks after the news I had a very hard time being professional in classes that the child was in because just looking at her or her Mum would make me sick with empathetic grief and my voice would sometimes start to shake. I would have to work very hard to focus and get my emotions in check.

The pre-occupation or day dreaminess was almost comical as my students would sometimes have to ask a question twice and staff would be forgiving if I was forgetful in my tasks. A lot of my pre-occupation was spent day dreaming about the upcoming role changes for me, my husband, my career, and our lives that the baby was bringing. I found that my athletic experience on the B.C. and N.S.W Karate teams helped me to positively visualize and project myself into these new roles. Sometimes this pre- occupation could take a negative turn and amplify any fear, anxiety, or uncertainty, founded or unfounded, that I felt. The focus that karate teaching and training demanded was excellent to keep me in the “here and now” and break or diminish any patterns of negative belief. The healthy and positive environment and the reassuring support network of the dojo made my first trimesters less of a burden and more of a joy to experience.

Second Trimester

This trimester was the best of all! The queasiness was gone, my mood was more sanguine, and I was beginning to look pregnant which made it easier to elicit understanding from others. I was glowing and I honestly felt beautiful and deeply connected with myself and my purpose. The moodiness was replaced by an amazing calm, centered, and contented focus. I could prioritize and be incredibly productive with my time. My clarity and drive was increased and I was nesting! Writing lists, ticking them off, cleaning out cupboards, preparing the baby room and the office at the dojo in every detail, you name it, and I was all over it! Whatever that hormone is, I wish it could be bottled!

The changes that I had to consider during this trimester were the physical ones, mainly:
Joint flexibility
Back and hip strain

Physically I found I had more energy but found the need to go at a progressively gentler pace. I could feel changes occurring in my posture and my back would get sore with excessive amounts of kicking. I could no longer use my hips in the method of hip vibration as there was increased fluid, weight and especially the often painful stretching of the supportive tissues in my lower abdomen so certain moves in kata had to be modified to a hip rotation action (i.e. The open hand shuto and nukite section of Bassai is a classic example). My joints were becoming more flexible, it’s the closest I ever came to doing the splits! I had to be mindful as my hips weren’t the only joints that gained flexibility. All my joints did and this would sometimes be pleasantly surprising but often dangerously de-stabilizing especially carrying the extra weight. I had a case once where I was doing number 3 of the seven wrist escapes (Te o doki no waza) and I had to tap out not due to pain, but at the shock of seeing my wrist at such an acute angle! I had to monitor certain Kuzushi positions involving joint locks as my normal pain barrier wasn’t there and I was concerned for damage caused to the


– 10 -surrounding ligaments by these hyperextensions. I could still do push-ups and sit-ups, but lower abdominal exercises such as leg raises were too much strain. I could still jog, kick to groin height and generally keep up a reasonable pace with the class. Of course, being the Sensei often gave me the flexibility to choose as to how I felt daily as to my degree of physical participation. If I couldn’t demonstrate a particular move, I could always highlight one of the seniors in the class to execute which was great for their sense of involvement. Training during this time was quite enjoyable as the weight/fluid gain was still moderate and I found it good for my general fitness and wellbeing. It helped me to sleep well, and the stretching especially the legs and lower back helped to ease any tension or pain there.

Third Trimester

This trimester was one of trepidation at the thought of the upcoming birth but a marvelous anticipation of being able to see the baby and start my new life. By this time I was largely mentally prepared for the upcoming shift in my role both at the dojo and within my family. The baby room was ready, the baby shower was upcoming (thanks to a wonderful karate mum who is now one of our leading senior instructors), and everyone was all buzzing about when the due date was. Gi’s are very ample in their room around the belly, however I often felt like a walking tent! Magically my husband honestly reassured me that I was beautiful and I believed him. Some loyalty hormone must’ve been working on him! The rapid physical growth occurring at this stage once again made me feel physically fatigued and sore; however my mental state was very sharp and clearly focused on the finish line.


The challenges of this trimester were much more physical than emotional.

Increased back and leg pain Rapid weight gain
Fluid retention
Shortness of breath

Being barefoot was customary for me, but being barefoot and pregnant in the dojo meant I had to be more careful with my stepping as not being able to see my feet under my belly coupled with the increased ankle flexibility made me often prone to tripping or twisting my ankles. My lower back and legs would fatigue when I was teaching for too long and sometimes (especially in summer) the fluid retention around my feet and ankles as well as my hands and wrists could become painful. Having a good sempai again became very useful as I would often take the time while they were doing warm-up exercises to sit down, stretch out, and cool down. The construction of a Karate gi means that there are 3 layers of canvas covering the lower abdomen, plus a heavy belt wrapped over it twice! Overheating the baby would become a critical concern and I would often train without a belt so as to let the top hang over and encourage airflow. I would’ve liked to wear my gi pants in the hipster style to allow for more cooling, but I found the drawstring pants wouldn’t adjust well and I’d embarrassingly have my pants fall down in class, so I opted for larger pants that I’d wear over the bump which my stepson said likened me to the Ronald McDonald high waisted look. Weight gain over this period was exponential (unlike the creeping weight gain one finds in mid life!) sometimes up to a kilo a week.


I would find my centre of
balance changing on a weekly
basis with affected my kicking,
stepping, and almost any
movement. I shifted my
kicking to knee height as I
found increasingly I wanted
two feet firmly planted as
much as possible. I felt self-conscious about slowing down the pace of the black belt classed in which I trained so I’d train at the back as I could only go at about 60-70% of the pace that the front row was doing and I would stroll through my kata rather than perform it at speed. The increased weight was directly over my tanden (imagine carrying a 10 kg water filled balloon under your belt!) so I came to a great understanding of “dead weight” in my stepping and punching. I couldn’t rely on any hip motion so I had to find my strength by using my momentum to fall forward and sink into it. My training partners would often comment on how low and centered I was. It was not a conscious effort as I would merely plant my foot and I was immoveable. Contrary to my expectation, I learned so much about my tanden feeling in my kata at this time, and I still get glimpses of that feeling today. All the conscious methods by which I knew to generate power i.e. – hip motion, physical strength, speed, were all inaccessible to me and I had to find my power simply by my intention, my focus, my breathing, and my sinking. One would think that being heavier and flexible would cause my stances to be deeper but it was more than this. My whole mass was relaxed and my source of power was unconscious. I felt like I’d slosh forward like a wave and sink like a tree trunk with deep roots when I stepped.

This is probably the most connected I’ve ever felt to the concept of “Jo Kyo Ka Jitsu”. Sadly simply getting fat doesn’t exact the same feeling as the weight distribution is even and gradual in comparison!


Along with overheating, shortness of breath and circulation impingement had to be watched. During this time I found my lung capacity was decreased (by about 30%) and also the heart actually turns sideways to make more room for the baby and so was not pumping to its maximum efficiency and the extra 1.7 litre volume of blood didn’t help. This could cause dizziness upon overexertion and also swelling of my feet and hands as blood wasn’t being pumped out hard enough. I couldn’t jog anymore as the “water balloon” over my tanden would bounce and the strain on my abdominal muscles was too great. I walked pretty briskly, but any drills that would have me cross over my feet would make me uncertain as I couldn’t see my feet either, and with swollen feet and flexible ankles I didn’t want to risk falling down. Push ups also became painful due to the strain on my abdomen and lower back, so I found alternative exercises to keep up my upper body strength. I also modified sit ups due to the bulk in my middle. The abdominal wall actually separates straight down the center to make room for the growing baby and coupled with my increased breast weight simply lifting my head and shoulders off the ground was enough to keep up strength there.


Birth is an ordeal for women everywhere according to a review of birthing patterns in nearly 300 cultures around the world by Rosenberg and colleague Wenda Trevathen, and anthropologist at New Mexico State University. “Not only is labor difficult,” Rosenberg says, “but because of the design of the female pelvis, infants exit the birth canal with the back of their heads against the pubic bones, facing in the opposite direction from the mother. This makes it tough for her to reach down and guide the baby as it emerges without damaging its spine-and also inhibits her ability to clear the baby’s breathing passage or to remove the umbilical cord from around its neck. That’s why women everywhere seek assistance during labor and delivery.”

Compared with humans, most primates have an easier time, Rosenberg says. A baby chimpanzee, for instance, is born quickly; entering, passing through, and leaving its mother’s pelvis in a straight shot and emerging face up so that its mother can pull it forward and lift it toward her breast. In chimps and other primates, the oval birth canal is oriented the same way from beginning to end. In humans, its flattened oval one way and them it shifts orientation 90 degrees so that it’s flattened the other way. To get through, the infant’s head and shoulders have to align with that shifting oval. It’s this changing cross-sectional shape of the passage way that makes human birth difficult and risky, Rosenberg says, not just for babies but also for mothers. A hundred years ago. childbirth was a leading cause of death for women of childbearing age.

(“The downside of upright” National Geographic)

Thankfully in all 3 cases I was able to teach and train right up to their birthdates (In the case of my first baby I did a McHappy day demonstration on a Saturday morning and the labour commenced on Sunday evening!). All three births were natural without complications and without any painkilling intervention. I found this to be beneficial as I could stay focused and connected with my body and have an honest dialogue with myself as to where my pain threshold was. I was able to use my breathing, my “Kiai”, my physical tone, and my stamina helped immensely. My abdominal and lower back tone made my ability to push very effective. I also managed to mostly focus not on the pain but on the dilation of my cervix like the opening of a lotus flower one petal (one contraction) at a time. Being able to vocalize with my kiai helped me to breathe more deeply with my diaphragm and the hara breathing also assisted during the contractions as well as keeping my mind away from

– 15 -the trap of anxiety and panic. This deeper breathing also helped me not only during the contractions but in between by oxygenating my blood so as to improve my mental focus and maximize the brief time to recover and gather my strength. All my births were in a shikodachi position with the assistance of a birthing stool (which is essentially a U-shaped stool) as I found this position most comfortable and the best angle to push from. It had the advantage of allowing Brian to straddle sit behind me and support me during contractions and especially in between when I would collapse back onto him. He was well placed for verbal encouragement and to translate what the midwife and doctor were saying. They did speak English but according to him, I was so deep in the “zone” that I wasn’t seeing or hearing them. The planning and mental rehearsal helped especially after the first one as I knew what I had to do. In fact, by the time Kaia was born, the midwife commented that she had never seen such a prepared team as Brian and myself. We worked so well together I felt we hardly needed a midwife at all.


My decision to continue a modified training program during my pregnancy paid off the most in my recovery time. In all cases I was back on the front desk in two weeks, back teaching in three weeks and back to training in four. Thankfully my bosses (my husband and myself) couldn’t tell me that I couldn’t bring my baby to work with me, so all were raised at the dojo. I would often have to breastfeed in between classes (the babies never minded a sweaty breast!) and Brian often would joke that the students would see more of my breasts than he did! The other Karate Mums were so supportive by holding or walking with the baby if they were fussing. One mum in particular whom we employed on the front desk from 3:00 to 7:00pm would swoop in and basically do everything but feed her. I would leave at 7pm as I wanted to get the baby home, feed, bathed and settled so it was necessary to stop teaching my evening classes and I do also recommend again having a sempai to back up any class I was on so that I could walk off the floor as necessary. As far as my own training, my breasts were full as I was breast feeding so I again continued in no contact, no throwing rule as my joints still felt loose, my pelvic floor needed to firm back up, and my abdomen needed to re-knit itself and regain its integrity. I was able to do push ups and sit ups again and I enjoyed my increased lung capacity but I had to gradually build my self back up as not only the physical effort of the birthing had taken its toll, but with breastfeeding and the irregular sleeping/feeding pattern I was tired. I had to be mindful of a healthy diet and found extra rebuilding by drinking a high energy milk drink called sustagen. At about the 6-8 week mark a sleeping/feeding routine was established and I was feeling great again! However with my lack of joint integrity and pelvic floor tension it took about 6 months before I felt like I could handle being thrown. Furthermore it took almost 12 months before my abdominal muscles knit and my posture corrected (as even though I was no longer pregnant I was often carrying the baby) so core strength took the longest to return. I am now hopefully moving on to the next chapter which will be called “everything I ever needed to be an excellent mother I learned in the dojo!”

The connection that I had by training during my pregnancies is one I’d never give up and I highly recommend to every mother. It so enhanced the whole experience. When I was sitting down working at the computer or answering phones, I wouldn’t feel as connected with the baby or myself as when I was up and moving, training, stretching, teaching and always communicating with and remarking to myself as to how I was feeling in that moment. Physical activity connects us to others but it especially connects us to ourselves and during the pregnancies I would also feel so connected to the baby. I felt like I was having an internal dialogue with her and “we” were in the moment not only during the quiet times of mokuso, but also while I was teaching, stretching, and doing my own training. I often see pregnant women walking around with their hand on their belly having an internal dialogue with the spirit of their baby, and this is how I felt all the time when I trained, connected and wholly integrated with her. I remember clearly one night before bed looking across at Brian engrossed in a Clive Cussler novel and I felt sorry for him that he had no idea of what the baby’s spirit felt like, and I had the marvellous opportunity to be in communication with her all day long. It was then that I realized that I no longer wished that I had been born a boy.