Tai Chi and Women

Like just about every other male-established institution in the west, the martial arts world has yet to decide whether it's totally comfortable with women participants. Of course, individual schools and teachers vary widely in terms of how accepting they are of women students, how willing they are to train them, how far they'll allow them to go, and whether they'll train them equally alongside male students.

I know this topic is a bit of a can of worms. For every woman who has suspected that her male sparring partners go too easy on her, there's another who suspects that she's getting put through the ringer a little extra hard. For every woman who is treated like a freak because she likes to fight, or wants to train, or desires, more than anything else, to experience the profound depths of meditation, there's another who is given nothing but respect for these pursuits. There might be a few of you, men and women alike, reading this and thinking, "Wait a second - isn't feminism over? Didn't we already go through this? Of course men and women can both do martial arts." More than likely there are a bunch of you also thinking, "But women just aren't as strong as men. They can't fight as hard or train as hard. Full stop."

Because I train in tai chi, where the main rule of sparring is, the softer you are, the better you fight, you would think that women would dominate the field. And it is true that if you go into any tai chi class in North America, you'll probably see many more women students than you will men. Because most women don't have the same upper body strength as men, are more open in the hips and pelvis, and have softer muscles in general, you would think we would be naturals when it comes to tai chi, which requires you to use the naturally strong structures of your musculo-skeletal system to apply techniques, rather than using sheer muscle power.

Even so, in the group I train in, even though women far outnumber men in the class as a whole, if you look at people who have achieved an advanced level of training, men are very well represented. Our group has also seen quite a few women who were on the path to excellence suddenly drop out, or choose to step back their training, or decide to switch to a less intense class with less knowledgeable instructors.

But I'm not the first one to notice this phenomenon. Chris M. at the awesomely comprehensive, hilarious, and amazing Martial Development, asks the question, "Why Are Female Martial Arts Masters So Rare?" He observes:

I have attended classes where men outnumber women 10-to-1, and I have attended classes where women outnumber men; in both environments, the average female student seemed to absorb and master new material faster than the average male.

But he later notes:

Despite all this, the male gender holds a trump card: willingness to expend overwhelming effort towards mastery of an impractical skill. Am I right, ladies and gentlemen?

This is a good question, and I suppose there's some truth to his proposed solution to this conundrum. There are a lot of other factors that could be at play here.

Privilege is the most obvious one. Omnia vanitas, one of the commentators on Chris's post, pretty much nails this point to the wall, and I couldn't say it any better:

I just want to say that the reason there are so few female martial arts masters is the same reason there are so few black philosophers or politicians. Bigotry. A history of bigotry. Women under the oppressive conditions of male supremacist patriarchy are valued more for their sex appeal–for how they can please men–than for who they are as a human being or for their skills. It’s total bullshit, but there you have it. If you don’t believe me, go ahead, google “female ninja” and see what images come up. Or go to youtube and search “amazing female athletes.” It’s propaganda and it’s time it stopped.

There's another reason why women can hit a wall, especially with a soft martial art like tai chi, beyond institutionalized sexism and its ravages. It has to do with the energy composition of men and women, and what happens when you begin to work on projecting energy from the inside out, especially if you're working with yang energy.

Men and women are composed differently on an energetic level. While both genders (like every single object in the material world) contain yin and yang energy, men carry their yang energy on the outside, while their yin energy is on the inside. Women are the opposite: yin on the outside, yang on the inside.

Women are like a steel rod inside a pillow; men are like marshmallow in a steel drum.

What this means is that when it comes to certain techniques, like learning how to apply an effective strike with yang energy, women have to move the energy from the inside out. You know what you tend to hide on the deepest innermost levels of your being: the dirtiest secrets, the nastiest memories, and the deepest, most profound shame and self-doubt. These stale, stagnant emotional energies are inevitably intertwined with the yang energy you're trying to conjure in order to perform techniques. To advance in tai chi, you have to confront all this crap.

Every single woman I know, including myself, who has trained intensively in tai chi, has hit an emotional wall. For a lot of us, that wall meant anxiety symptoms, profound emotional upset, panic attacks, and generalized horrible feelings every time we practiced.

How did we get through it? Sheer perseverance. I cried it out, and then kept practicing. Other women who I've taught or who were learning alongside me and my peers had the benefit of knowing those of us who had hit the wall and gotten through it.

Once you're on the other side, you've faced your demons and sent them packing. You're on much more stable ground, and you know you can move forward. That's when you can really begin to kick major boot. Getting to the other side is a matter of being gentle with yourself and knowing it will pass.

So, for those women out there who are contemplating quitting tai chi because you're hitting the wall, or you're wondering about why so few women in your class truly excel, or you want to know what the tai chi path holds for you, I say:

Keep going. Keep training. Be soft, be focused, and push through. Whatever comes up that's negative, project through it, and let it go. The wonderful thing about tai chi is that it's not therapy: you don't have to comb through every negative emotion in order to get rid of it. You can just allow it to pass through.

What lies on the other side is so, so good.

To any male instructors or students who are watching female students or peers slip away: remember that, while tai chi may be much harder for men in terms of developing flexibility and performing techniques correctly, generally speaking it is harder on women emotionally. Understand where your female students or peers are coming from, and respect that their journey may be different from yours. If you let them train, and help them continue to move through the angst, you'll be gaining powerful allies as you walk the path together.


Delphyne said...

What a wonderful article! I started Tai Chi back in 1985 and stayed with it for a few years. I hit that block when my marriage dissolved and never returned to practice.

I kept what I learned about Tai Chi and its principles, however and they helped me tremendously in processing some of that hidden stuff. I feel ready to go back to Tai Chi now and am looking for a teacher in NJ, where I presently live. The style I learned was Cheng Man Ching's.

Looking forward to reading your other articles!

Dr. Melissa Smith said...

Thank you for commenting and sharing your experience, Delphyne. It's very common, I think, for women to hit a wall in tai chi training when something big comes up in our personal lives. Sometimes those negative emotions get rolling and they just won't stop.

I'm so glad that you're contemplating returning to tai chi. Best wishes in finding a class and teacher that's appropriate for your highest and best.

Confidante said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Confidante said...

Very interesting observation about an emotional effects of Tai Chi on women. Thank you.
Have you come across any research or other resources available on the subject.