Practicing taekwondo has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I’ve changed inside and out, and I feel like a million bucks. Women, however, are still sorely underrepresented in martial arts, so I’d like to encourage all the ladies out there who want to do something healthy, challenging, and fun to give it a try. Here are a few reasons why martial arts is especially helpful to women:

1. Confidence
This is a tried-and-true benefit of martial arts, but it’s worth repeating. Practicing martial arts develops the mental discipline one needs to stay focused and present, and also to be persistent. You learn not to give up so easily and to not doubt your intuition and your choices. My confidence soared as a result of taekwondo, and it’s evidenced in the way I interact with people and how I carry myself. My family has noticed a change, and even my boss noticed too. Even on my bad days (and I’ve had plenty), I know that I will not give up and will show up ready to work at the next class.

A coworker once asked if taekwondo gave me “peace of mind.” He was referring to the fact that I knew how to physically defend myself. I interpreted it differently. Yes, martial arts does give me peace of mind…meaning I’ve made peace with my mind. I accept myself for who I am and focus more on what I can accomplish rather than judging myself for what I’m not able to do.

2. Upper Body Strength
In just about any martial art, whether it’s a striking art such as taekwondo or a grappling art such as judo or Brazilian jiu jitsu, upper body strength is key to becoming a proficient fighter. Legs seem to get all the attention with kicks, sweeps, and submissions, but if you stick with martial arts long enough you’ll be handing out free tickets to the “gun show.”

You don’t have to think about working out particular body parts in a martial arts class as you  might when you’re lifting weights at the gym. Trust me, it’s a full body workout! Sure, we like our push-ups, but most of the time our upper body is curled into a fighting position and we’re either striking or throwing opponents to the ground. You’ll be working your arms before you know it.

For a woman my size, I already have a strong upper body due to genetics (thanks, Dad) and a lifetime of swimming, but I became even more toned with taekwondo. My shoulders and biceps are more rounded, and my abs are tighter and more defined. Plus, it’s nice to know I’m working on my bikini body while I’m beating someone up.

3. Healthier Body Image
In martial arts you’ll become amazed at what your body can do rather than how you measure up to other women. As your confidence develops (along with your upper body and legs), things like the numbers on the scale, your so-called “problem areas,” and what you look like begin to matter less.

You begin to see your body as an ally rather than a foe, and you treat it with more respect by eating healthy foods and getting plenty of sleep. There’s no 100% guarantee that one’s body image problems will completely go away, but at least when you’re in a martial arts class, you gain a healthy perspective and better sense of priorities.

Who cares if you’re not a size zero when you can do a wicked arm bar? What’s the point of starving yourself when you know you need fuel to keep up with the teenagers in sparring class? Isn’t it nice that you get to roll around in a comfy dobok or gi (uniform) rather than worrying about your cellulite showing through spandex stretch pants? (But see item #2—it does get you in killer shape, so it’s a win-win!)

And if you’re still feeling bad about your body at least you know you can beat the crap out of the little size zeros in yoga class.

4. A Supportive Community
There’s a sense of camaraderie I’ve found in taekwondo that I’ve never been able to find before. I’ve also noticed this bond in friends who practice other martial arts, such as BJJ. I’ve gained a group of new friends who have become my second family. We’re a tight-knit bunch who just happen to enjoy kicking each other and throwing each other on the floor.

Respect for yourself and for others is ingrained from the beginning, and it is not just showing respect to instructors or higher ranking students. This type of respect carries an air of humility. I greet everyone with a respectful bow and a handshake, whether they are a seasoned black belt or a brand new white belt. Taekwondo has taught me to show reverence to all people, regardless of their age or status.

Oddly enough, a somewhat violent contact sport has made me more nurturing, patient, and caring, especially with the opportunities I’ve been given to coach and teach. We (instructors and students) are all bound together by something we love—martial arts—and even when there’s healthy competition, we want to see each other succeed and will do everything we can to make it happen.

5. Self Defense…But Not in the Way You Think
I didn’t start taekwondo because I wanted to learn self-defense. I started because I was living a very unhealthy lifestyle and knew I needed to do something wholesome and good for myself to stop the downward spiral.

That being said, it’s good to know that I can get out of a dangerous situation. I’m small and female, which makes me Target #1 for attackers, be they serial killers or douchey frat boys who want to show off in front of their friends. I can defend myself if I have to, but more importantly, I know the best self-defense technique of all: prevention.

One of my instructor’s favorite phrases is, “Don’t let it escalate.” This can be applied to any interaction, whether there’s an element of danger or not. Most of the time, a confrontation is not worth it. As my high school theater teacher would say, “Paint it grey and walk away.” My knowledge of taekwondo has had a calming affect: I’m less defensive (on an emotional front) and less intimidated by people. I’m a big fan of talking my way out of a situation…but I have no problem jabbing someone in the throat either.

Here’s an example of how self-defense begins in the mind:
Recently I was walking to the dojang from my car for Saturday class. I was dressed in gym clothes and had a workout bag slung over my shoulder. Out of the corner of my eye I could see two older men lumbering towards a parked red pickup.

“HEY!” a loud voice called behind me. Oh brother, here we go. Redneck men in Texas are an odd bunch. They can be the most respectful, chivalrous gentlemen one minute (opening doors, tipping their hats, calling me “ma’am”) and annoying, harassing assholes the next minute. You never quite know which version you’re going to get.
“Yes? Can I help you?” I said sweetly as I turned around.
“You goin’ ta TAH KWON DO?”
“Yew think yew can kick our asses?” he shouted. I smiled and waited a beat. Hmm, how to respond?
“Well…I don’t want to,” I replied. Immediately the man started laughing and walked up to me to shake my hand. (I was relaxed but I did have a few strategies in mind in case he tried anything funny.)
“Good answer! Well, girl, you go in there and you kick ass!” he said. I nodded and hurried inside the dojang before I burst into laughter.

Had I been self-conscious or confrontational, that interaction might have turned into a shouting match. Most bullies and loudmouths are really just scared and insecure. Using humor and kindness, I hopefully showed the man that he didn’t need to pick on a random stranger to feel better about himself.

So give it a try ladies. Sign up for that taekwondo class or judo lessons or even just a beginner self-defense class. As my new redneck friend would say, go in there and kick ass, girls.

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