Coming out of the shadows

By Manon Soavi

I discovered late in life that I was a girl. Of course I knew it, but it did not matter, it had no impact on my life, the way I would get in touch with other people and practice Aikido. I was not aware, unlike most of my fellow women citizens, that I was a “girl”, before being an “individual”. Part of the explanation for why I grew up outside of these ubiquitous schemes is that I’ve never been to school. My parents had chosen a different path, it was a revolutionary decision, it was disobedience to “compulsory” schooling as Catherine Baker recounts in her book [1]… Of course this conditioning of women does not only take place within the school environment, but also within families, social circles, the media and culture in general. In families , it’s always the little girls who are told that they are “so pretty, so cute”. Whether with a judo Keikogi or a pink tutu, they are being dressed like dollies. This is so present, as plain as the nose on your face, that we no longer consider it a problem. What’s wrong with complimenting a little girl, a baby, on their clothes, their curls or smile? Well, precisely because the current importance of beauty and appearance is learnt during early childhood, and because this will brand them for life. It’s with all those remarks and comments, these pink toys and these smiles that future women are being taught their traditional role: to please, and to enjoy pleasing. As writer Mona Chollet puts it: “ the consequences of this alienation [for women] are far from being limited to a loss of time, money and energy. The fear of not pleasing, not meeting expectations, the subjugation to others’ judgments, the conviction of not being good enough to deserve love and attention from others both reflect and amplify a psychic insecurity and a self-depreciation whose effects reach every area of women’s life.” [2].

In my case, I was preserved from this situation in my early childhood, I only discovered it during adolescence, I got shocked when I became aware that I was regarded and talked to, first and foremost as “a girl”! Of course I could not bear it and rebelled, as many other women did, against this treatment. But unfortunately no one ever fully escapes a culture, a society, I am part of it and I was affected by it too. The situation of Western women is obviously not to be compared with that of other countries where women have no right. Yet can that be a reason why we should not get things to progress? Because, even though women suffer from this situation, which they themselves perpetuate by raising over and over their daughters and sons to reproduce the same schemes, it is actually humankind as a whole which loses out from this imbalance. If men can be perceived as “oppressors”, I think women have the keys to get our society out of this impasse. Kobayashi Sensei’s saying “Freedom is expressed by moving where it is possible” (3) supports my thought that it is for women to exert their freedom. It is our responsibility not to reproduce over and over this story. And this is where, precisely where, that for me, this issue connects with Aïkido.

Aikido, a third path

Aikido can be an answer to this “fight or submit” impasse which women have to face. Because Aikido is a martial art which has nothing to do with fighting. May one dare use the word “non martial art”? Many Masters and great experts repeat it (again recently Steve Magson, student of Chiba Kazuo Sensei, in Aikido journal): it is ridiculous to raise the question of Aikido’s “efficiency” in a “real fight situation”. It is meaningless (which of course does not mean that one should do anything). But while a high level martial expert can write this without the value of his Aikido practice being questioned, a woman saying the same thing would immediately be suspected of not being up to it, not being capable enough. This issue however precisely concerns women, because we face very acutely the question of fighting as a dualistic situation. Even if it is not about fistfighting but rather cultural and social fighting. In addition, we are as soon as we are born potential victims of violence. Maybe we will escape it, but it will then be an exception. All women live knowing they will be a victim one day or another. And when we wish to express ourselves, get a job, again we are obliged to demonstrate our value, our right to stand where we are, all along our life. And, precisely, Aikido falls completely outside this framework! There will be no winner, nor loser. Aikido is like another dimension where our values no longer hold. If practiced in a certain way, it can be a tool to practice, human being to human being, without any distinction. Régis Soavi Sensei writes about Aikido that it is “a school for life, a school that arouses the life of those who practice it. Far from being just another string to our bow, it questions the fallacies and subterfuges which our society offers” (4). I’m also inclined to think that Cognard Sensei follows the same line when writing about an Aiki ritual that could change us so much as to overcome history that has been legitimating violence for centuries (3). It is a pity that women do not take hold of this tool, this art, in order to escape submission, without imitating men in position of power, but rather by entering a third path. Where no one expects them.


Following this third path has always been my direction since my childhood, by walking, of course, outside of the school system, but also by practicing Aikido since I was 6. I am not saying that I always manage to find the right way, but I’m working on it. Daily reviving the practice of going down another path, of getting out of situations differently. I consequently practice with my own father being my Master. At the same time, it’s a chance and it’s not easy. I have always seen him ahead of me, on this path. He has been walking for a long time, before I was born, and I sometimes had the impression he was an unreachable horizon in Aikido. Benevolently, but with extraordinary firmness, he guided me, held my hand, without overlooking anything but letting time work. Now I walk by his side, I also teach Aikido myself… and I can better see how fortunate I am. I wish I could prompt other women (without excluding men of course) to practice this art with the state of mind I have experienced, the one of the Itsuo Tsuda School. And to practice it long enough, because it takes time, one cannot change one’s culture in a few years. One can acquire a few techniques, some self-confidence maybe. But really deciding for a different life course will require more time. The first step is daily practice, at least regular practice, which brings us back to ourselves. Writing on a seemingly completely different topic (calligraphy), sinologist J.-F. Billeter gives us a remarkably vivid account which strikingly resonates with Aikido practice:

“In the current world, practice also brings us back to ourselves by reintroducing us to the pleasure of gratuitous gesture. Dictated by machines, our daily activity more and more shrinks to moves that are programmed, domesticated, produced with indifference, without any imagination nor sensitivity taking part. Practice remedies this gesture atrophy by arousing our stiffened abilities. It restores the pleasure of playing, it brings back to life capacities which, even though not immediately “useful”, are nonetheless essential. As the most evolved among animals, human beings need more playing than any other species to maintain their balance. Practice also affects our perception of time. In our daily life, we keep going back in time and projecting ourselves into the future, leaping from one to the other without being able to stop at the present time. Because of this, we are haunted by the feeling that time is slipping away. By lining up with ourselves, practice on the contrary suspends the flight of time. When we handle the paintbrush, the present time seems to detach from the string that tied it to the past and the future. It absorbs in itself all duration. It amplifies itself and transforms into a vast space of tranquility. It is no longer governed by the flow of time, but it resonates with moments of the same nature which we experienced yesterday, the day before yesterday and the days before. These moments get threaded to each other, they create another continuity, a kind of majestic avenue that travels across the disorganized time of our daily activities. Our life tends to reorganize around this new axis and the inconsistency of our external activities stops impeding us. Daily practice performs the function of a ritual.” (5)Manon Soavi Jo stage été femmes aikido

Restoring sensation

But how did we get there? According to Tsuda Sensei, today’s world tends to favor cerebral hypertrophy and voluntarism at the expense of the living. He said about it: “I don’t refuse to understand the essential character of Western civilisation: it is a challenge of the human brain to the order of the world, an effort of the will to extend the boundaries of the possible. Whether it is about industrial development, medicine or Olympic games, this character predominates. It is an aggression against nature. Superb human acts, yet without knowing it, against nature. Life suffers, despite our increased knowledge and possession.”

There also precisely lies the matter. We disconnect from our sensations, from the sensation of living inside us. It is also because women no longer feel their needs, their profound natures, that they let themselves carried away into situations that do not suit them. Too busy with acquiring and fighting, their instinct which should safeguards their life no longer reacts. It got atrophied. Even with their babies today’s women struggle to feel, to know what to do and turn to science and books to dictate them how to behave. Listening to their baby and listening to their intuition is outdated, it’s archaic! And after centuries when being a mother was the only horizon for respectable women, we have nowadays achieved the feat of strength of reversing the imperative. Now, being “only” a stay-at-home mother is shabby! What a breakthrough!

Here also Aikido brings us back to our sensations. One cannot mentally compute a move. Upon an oncoming attack one has to move, it’s too late to think. One has to sense one’s partner in order to move in a right, appropriate way. We (men or women) are often like the famous overfull cup in the Zen philosophy, which spills out when more tea is added. We are too agitated and too full of ourselves to be able to perceive the other. Let’s not even talk about understanding them! This is also the meaning of the Non-Doing Tsuda Sensei was talking about. We need to be empty, we need to start by listening. Women first should start by listening to themselves. Listening to their own body in Aikido everyday is rewriting their own experience. Relearning to trust themselves, restore the confidence in what their body says. Hino Sensei makes the same observation, he writes about humans who have become “insensitive and incapable” (6). He deplores the blatant lack of perception of what happens in the other person. Whether we grab his/her wrist or discuss with him/her, sensation is broken off. Intuition no longer works. We content ourselves with “Hi, how are you? – Fine, how are you?”, how superficial! If one is sensitive, it just takes a simple look to feel the other, to know whether they are happy or sad, whether they are half-asleep or on top form. But because of repeated stereotyped relationships we lose sight of authentic human relationships. Here again some masters have left us guideposts to reconnect with ourselves.

Tsuda Sensei used to talk about intuition and authenticity of the relation we have with our child. Because, if when searching for intense sensations and experience some martial arts practitioners fantasize about past masters’ uchideshis, about experiences one can live under an icy waterfall, about the total availability for the Master, etc., there is one extreme experience which a woman can go through, a life experience rather similar to what Noro Senseï recounts, he who once was Ueshiba Moriheï’s Otomo. I can attest to it, it really feels like this: “If s/he sleeps, you have to watch over her/his sleep. If s/he wakes up at night, you have to be ready to satisfy her/his needs. If s/he gets bored, you have to entertain her/him. If s/he gets ill, you have to take care of her/him. You have to prepare her/his bath, her/his meals, and clean everything up as soon as s/he changes activity. […] It is obviously about adapting and even about becoming capable of anticipating the very precise desires in order to remain, day and night, awake or not, in total harmony.” (7).

In total harmony with whom? With one’s newborn of course for a mother or a father! But why should one choose such a treatment? While there are so many solutions to relieve us from the burden of having a child. It is like slavery! Yet, for those who live this experience of a unique, wordless communication with a human being, it is an inestimable teaching. It is most likely when this state of fusion with the other person was reached that the genuine transmission from the Master, the transmission of the spirit of an art, could be achieved. Martial arts practitioners are looking for this life intensity! Unfortunately, when a woman experiences it with her child, this is relegated to a mere domestic task, which could be done by any underpaid nurse. Tsuda Sensei used to talk about childhood as the only area where one could still live such an impossible experience. He was even saying that “knowing how to take care of a baby was the acme of martial arts”! Here again, if women became aware of this, would they realize the potential of hidden power they have? Would we then stop aiming at equaling men as the only path towards self-realisation?Manon Soavi Iai - femmes aikido

Living in this world, while still being in another


If the purpose of our practice is human evolution, I believe the Dojo to be its casket. A Dojo can be a microcosm where we let go our social conventions, even temporarily. Through his books and calligraphies, Tsuda Sensei prompts us to question the established order, to look further beyond the social organisation. If we practice in a certain direction, we can forget with whom we practice. If, and only if, we leave behind our social reflexes. It is obviously very difficult at the beginning not to bring in with us our baggage. It is as difficult for men as for women to forget who they have become in this world so to focus on what they are inside. Before any distinction, of sex, color, age, fortune, culture, etc. Looking into ourselves for this shared humanity requires from us a voluntary act of breaking away from codes. The Dojo, its atmosphere of serenity and concentration (which cannot be found in a sports hall), the feeling of an intangible dojo, all this brings us into a certain state. The sequence of a session, with its first part of individual movements which brings breathing back to the center, followed by the practice with a partner, the harmonization of breaths, the attention to sensation. A combination that allows the Dojo to be a little bit “outside” the world, which prompts us to let go so to get into a different state during practice. Ivan Illich mentions such a state of consciousness when saying: “I don’t wan’t anything between you and me. [I am] afraid of the things that could prevent me from being in contact with you” (8). In a dojo, we sweep these things away, conventions, fears, which stand between one another. It is not about abandoning our culture, no, it’s simply about abandoning the manifestations of the social being in order to find each other so to walk along together.

For this to happen, we need women to wake up and come out of the shadows.

Article by  Manon Soavi published in Dragon Magazine (speciale Aikido n° 22) october 2018.

Vous souhaitez recevoir les prochains articles ? Abonnez vous à la newsletter :

Notes :
1) C.Baker Les cahiers au feu Éd.Barrault, 1988
2) M.Chollet Beauté fatale, Les nouveaux visages d’une aliénation féminine Éd. La Découverte, p.8
3) A.Cognard Rituel et Symbole Dragon Magazine Spécial Aïkido n°19, janv. 2018, p. 22
4) R.Soavi Mémoire d’un Aïkidoka Dragon Magazine Spécial Aïkido n°19, janv. 2018, p. 60
5) J.F.Billeter Essai sur l’art chinois de l’écriture et ses fondements Éd.Allia, 2010, p. 164
6) H.Akira Don’t think, listen to the body! 2017, p. 226
7) P.Fissier Chroniques de Noro Masamichi Dragon Magazine Spécial Aïkido n°12 p.77
8) I.Illich Mythologie occidentale et critique du « capitalisme des biens non tangibles » Entretien avec Jean-Marie Domenach dans la série « Un certain regard » – 19/03/1972.