Martial arts focus on developing strength in mind and body. These skills can be empowering for women who have experienced abusive relationships and trauma.

Learning to block

Amy Nash, CEO of the consulting agency Lioness Creative in Fargo, ND, recalled eight instances in which her ex-boyfriend hit, kicked, or punched her. She suffered in silence. 

The ninth time her then-partner tried to strike her, Nash raised her arm above her head in a firm block, fist clenched. It was not a conscious move, but it was enough. Her abuser walked away, startled by her defiance. She said, “It was at that moment I thought, ‘You got this. You can handle this for the amount of time it takes to break up with him and get out.’”

Regaining control through martial arts

Intimate partner abuse is common, and women are frequently the victims. According to the World Health Organization, 27% of women (age 15-49) worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from a partner. As many as 38% of female murder victims are killed by a romantic partner. Lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic increased the risk of domestic violence. It also made it more difficult for victims to access services. 

Yet for those who have endured this kind of trauma, martial arts may be a path to empowerment. Although research on this topic is sparse, some experts such as Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, psychiatrist and author of the book The Body Keeps the Score, suggests that activities such as martial arts can help abuse victims regain control of their bodies and minds. Trauma-informed martial arts—from jiu-jitsu to Muay Thai—are gaining popularity in countries like Australia

The merits of martial arts

There are a wide variety of martial art styles including judo, aikido, karate, and kung fu to name a few. Some involve weapons while others focus on hand and foot techniques. Martial art forms that originated in East Asia incorporate elements of Daoism and Zen Buddhism, which teach mind-body connection. They also emphasize values such as respect, self-control, and confidence.

Nash practices Songahm Taekwondo, a form taught at an American Taekwondo Association (ATA) school. Introduced by Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee in Omaha, Nebraska in 1969, Songahm Taekwondo has 18 ranks or belts, each of which focuses on a different set of movements or “forms.” According to the ATA website, forms teach physical skills (i.e. kicks, blocks, stances) as well as increasing mental focus and coordination. Students also learn sparring, weapons, and board breaking.

Songahm Taekwondo aims to develop core strength and speed in the arm and leg muscles, allowing one to take on larger opponents. These techniques can be especially helpful for women who are typically smaller than men.

Kicks with confidence

Amy Nash has been practicing taekwondo on and off for the past two years. She started at age 45 with her then-boyfriend, excited to learn alongside him. Little did she know this decision would save her life. It was only a few weeks into her training when her partner became violent again.

Nash recalls that her defensive block was not exceptionally strong, nor was it in proper form. However, it gave her enough confidence to scare off her abuser. She said, “There’s something that [martial arts] instills in you that makes you feel strong and just taps into the unconscious when you need it.”

When she first joined an ATA school almost a decade earlier, Nash said she showed up once and didn’t return. Her mother had recently passed away, and grieving made it difficult to stay motivated. Nash also admitted that she lacked self-confidence. She eventually built the courage to try again, this time with a trust in the Senior Master and owner of the school. Once she began practicing regularly, the community became a refuge, her “rock.”

“It just felt like this family culture where your journey could be your own journey,” she said.

Her motivation for joining taekwondo was to immerse herself in a positive environment; taekwondo also helped her realize her full potential. It pushed her to set increasingly ambitious goals.

“I went into it knowing I didn’t want to spar and being nervous about that . . .” she confessed. “ And now as I get stronger and get a little more balance and learn a few more techniques, I want to get faster and I want to kick harder and I want to kick higher.”

Amy Nash at the 2021 Regional Tournament in Sioux City, Iowa.

To your health

In addition to boosting her confidence, taekwondo also helped Nash take control of her health. She says that when she started, she was overweight. While she was already running and lifting weights, she wasn’t incorporating balance or flexibility into her routine. Taekwondo, as an activity that emphasizes strength, flexibility, and balance, was challenging.

Nash explained, “It was a hard wakeup at first. Like man, I thought I was doing well, but then I got to taekwondo and I was like, I have some work to do.” Despite this demanding lifestyle, taekwondo has helped her achieve things she never thought possible. 

Martial arts training pushed Nash to learn more about her body and health. During practice, Nash developed back pain, which initially made her consider quitting. Fortunately, she decided otherwise. Instead of giving up, she studied to become a certified personal trainer and a nutrition specialist. Nash did not do this for career purposes. She wanted to rehabilitate her body—and continue taekwondo.

“I adjusted the things I needed to do to get strong so I could just try everything, and I feel good about that at 47. I probably will squeeze [out] a few extra years of doing this,” she said.

Witnessing people in their 50s and 60s compete in taekwondo tournaments with the same physical strength and flexibility that those decades younger possess inspired Nash. “It was fun to see how flexible and advanced and what good posture [the older people] had . . .” she commented. “All the things you think about for aging and older wellness were living right in front of me.”

Trust and community in martial arts

Martial arts provided Nash with a safe community. She came back every day because her taekwondo peers showed her kindness. She talked to her fellow martial arts students about her abusive relationship before she shared it with most other people.

Nash elaborated, “The caliber of people who join a martial art and their intention behind it is so good that I trusted people that I met enough to have scary conversations and those scary conversations were the eye-opening things that made me start realizing that I needed to get out of the denial that [the relationship] was toxic.”

Another reason martial arts often fosters community is its core value of respect no matter rank. In Songham Taekwondo, this value is embedded in the student oath:

“I will practice in the Spirit of Taekwondo, with Courtesy for fellow students, Loyalty for my instructor, and Respect for my juniors and seniors.”

White belts and black belts alike welcomed Nash. She said, “It’s about finding your fit and finding your family in it. Everybody is so encouraging of each other’s steps and journeys and I think that that makes all the difference on the planet.”

The sun is rising

Amy Nash has since ended her toxic relationship. She tries to attend taekwondo every day it is offered, sometimes even showing up to multiple classes in a single day. Her crescent kicks, once her weak point, are now her strongest kick. She can hold a plank for 90 seconds. She even joined the ATA Legacy Program, which will allow her to teach taekwondo to others. 

Nash has upgraded her stiff white belt to a one of bold orange, which represents the rising sun. But perhaps more important than the strength she acquired from pushups, sit-ups, and kicking drills is the inner strength she has developed to block out negative forces and deliver a punch when needed.

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