Despite operating a martial arts school for decades, practicing various forms for almost 50 years and pioneering early self-defense courses for women across the U.S., Central America and Europe, Ferndale Meijishi Martial Arts founder and instructor Jaye Spiro is kept on her toes by her students. Most recently, when a 17-year-old black belt decided to offer a self-defense seminar in her own high school. Something Spiro said she would have been terrified to do at her age.
“If you put yourself out like, ‘I’m going to teach self-defense,’ at your own high school, you’re going to be harassed. People are going to be threatened,” she said. “And as has happened to me and any other women who have done it, as soon as we’re going to stand up and do it, somebody will come up and say, ‘Well, my friend over here is a third degree black belt and whatever. Can you beat him up?’”
And just as Spiro predicted, her student was challenged.
“She stood up there without even batting an eye, looked at the whole audience and said, ‘If you’re interested in that, you should leave right now, because I am here to help people, and specifically women and girls, who need some tools for empowerment. I’m not here to be challenged or to get involved in beating people up,’” Spiro said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God. At 17?’ I mean even 10, 15, 20 years ago [that wouldn’t have happened]. I did coach her that people will challenge, but she just wasn’t having any of it.”
Spiro said that experiences like that bring her joy not only as a teacher but as a woman who fought hard for women’s empowerment since the early days of the women’s movement. Now in 2019, decades removed from the start of her own martial arts practice, Spiro’s school is set to celebrate its 40th anniversary in October. In honor of both that milestone and the upcoming pride season, Spiro sat down with BTL to reflect on the advances in both women’s and LGBTQ equality in martial arts, how she uses her school to promote peace and how she got her own start as a martial artist and activist.
Humble Beginnings and Lessons Learned
Among her other qualifications, Spiro is a seventh-degree back belt in ai mute shotokan karate, a sixth-degree black belt in modern arnis and a student of the balintawak escrima style. However, ask Spiro directly what her greatest takeaways are from her long and storied career and she’ll remind you that martial arts is a practice; as in, it’s not so simple as that.
“So, it’s not like you get something and you’re done, you have it. Like, you know, you bought your car and then now you have your car. As you train and practice and teach, you’re constantly growing. I mean, the martial arts originally are very connected to Buddhism and the practice of Buddhism is to lead to enlightenment and I’m not quite there yet, you know,” she said with a laugh. “But I think that you really learn how to grow with other people and people are always helping, presenting new challenges, ideas and how to keep growing.”
Though she knows that now, Spiro said she didn’t go into martial arts with a goal of pursuing it long-term or perhaps finding something as seemingly abstract as inner peace — though she said she’s since attained that state. Her reasoning was simple: she didn’t want to be scared anymore.
“I started in the early days of the women’s movement and in so many cities there were women just like me who were going, ‘Wait a minute, I want some personal sense of empowerment. I’m afraid,’” she said. “Now, we do have empowerment self-defense classes for women and especially for other marginalized groups. However, back then there was only martial arts so that was the only way to learn confidence, but it’s different than studying self-defense. Self-defense is pretty short-term whereas martial arts is a lifelong, long-term practice.”
Beyond not having places to go and learn self-defense generally, Spiro — who began her own martial arts training in 1971 — said that being a woman was an added obstacle, too. She remembered that many of the already few women involved in martial arts during that period were forced to clean up after the male students and common public “debates” were had “about whether it was safe for women to do pushups or whether it would hurt their bodies.” Even students at martial arts schools weren’t always fair to their female counterparts.
“There were the ones that would baby you when you sparred with them and there were the other ones who would just pummel you, you know?” she said. “But my teacher wasn’t like that. He had enough sensitivity.”
His leadership and foundational lessons provided Spiro with a good enough basis to eventually start teaching herself, and in 1979 she opened up Meijishi Karate Dojo.
The #MeToo of the ’70s
Though small at first, the collection of women interested in the martial arts in the ’70s began to overlap with those in the women’s movement. Eventually, those pushing for overall equality aided in the formation of the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation. That organization is now over 40 years old and its mission still reflects the intentions of the women who formed it: to share skills, resources and to promote excellence in martial arts for everyone involved, regardless of “lifestyle, sexual preference, race, color, creed, religion, class, age or physical condition.” Beyond the formation of that organization with her women’s empowerment peers, Spiro pursued the development of self-defense courses that could be used by women around the world to not only protect them but empower them, too.
“Empowerment and self-defense kind of goes hand-in-hand with martial arts,” Spiro said. “But a lot of the people who teach self-defense aren’t necessarily martial artists and people who teach martial arts don’t necessarily always understand empowerment self-defense which has to do with no victim-blaming, and it has to do with understanding the dynamics of power.”
In many ways, Spiro said she was part of the #MeToo movement of the early ’70s, leading with a judgment-free mindset in all self-defense courses and martial arts classes.
“We didn’t have the internet but we started Sexual Assault Awareness Month,” she said. “You know, we were connected with these women and we were these women. Some of us were doing martial arts and some of us weren’t and many of us were lesbians. And so, we were sort of on the cutting edge of women in the martial arts, women teaching self-defense, women doing anti-violence.”
And though anti-violence and martial arts might not seem like natural companions, Spiro said that her practice has helped her not only become “a better person” but learn “how to interact with others.” Part of that positivity, she said, is because the martial arts community is a very strong one, and in her school, an intentionally diverse one.
“The Meijishi Martial Arts community, it’s touched people; whether they’ve come and stayed or moved I think they’ve taken from this a sense of how to connect well with other people and also to be disciplined and focused,” Spiro said.
However, she does admit that many people don’t come into martial arts with a peaceful mindset, saying that she’s “constantly” fighting against misconceptions surrounding the practice.
“I had a call the other day from somebody and they wanted aikido for their child and they wanted aikido because their perception of karate was that karate was aggressive and that aikido was more cooperative and it depends on how you practice it, it really does,” Spiro said. “Fighting has to do with anger, I think, and self-defense, you may not feel angry at all. You may feel afraid, you may feel neutral, but it’s about taking care of yourself, and it’s not about punishing others.”
And those who practice martial arts to “punish” their enemies don’t tend to stick around too long, either.
“It’s too hard,” Spiro said with a laugh. “It’s too demanding to stay in it for revenge, you know? And those people will end up going out and buying a gun or doing something that they can feel like then they have more power than whoever it is they’re afraid of. I think my instructor showed me right away that it wasn’t just kicking and punching. I mean, from the beginning, you’re breathing, and the breath is the central practice of any meditation. That is incorporated in our classes at the beginning and end of every class we stop and we breathe together.”
That breathing, she said, makes martial arts as effective as any other meditation practice. And in fact, Spiro’s approach over the years to empowerment and peace earned her national recognition in 2016, when she was chosen along with hundreds of other activists across the U.S. to participate in the first ever Summit on The United States of Women, sponsored by the Obama administration and the Aspen Institute.
What Confidence Means
Today, Meijishi Martial Arts occupies a large space in downtown Ferndale — a significant jump from her original space in a church basement — housing Karate classes for both adults and children, modern arnis — a Filipino martial art — for all ages and even a Brazilian capoeira martial art club. Spiro said she takes pride in the fact that she’s created an inclusive environment that has “always been welcoming to men and women.”
“I had friends who had women-only schools and still do, but I always wanted a community that had men and women and I mean the men who come here and commit and have stayed long-term, I think are here because they understand sexism and women’s oppression and they’re excited to be allies and they really are,” Spiro said. “They’re committed to being allies, even though they still slip up. I mean, sometimes they do, it’s almost in our water supply, sexism, racism, but men and women, the way that they are culturally indoctrinated is different.”
Still, despite occasionally confronting some of those familiar battles, Spiro said she’s seen marked progress in how accepted female and LGBTQ people are within martial arts. And with that comes confidence that she sees in those students, like with her 17-year-old black belt and even in younger ones, too.
“I had a whole conversation with a 13-year-old girl and a mother about what confidence looks like,” she said. “And that you don’t have to be perfect to be confident.”
And with confidence in onesself, Spiro said, comes strength.
“And Meijishi, this is a strong school,” Spiro said. “It’s very community-based. It’s really different than I think any other school you’re going to find. I never did this for the money, I keep my prices low. I want diversity, I want racial diversity, I want sexual diversity, I’ve always thought that that made us so much better and stronger and so I’ve always tried to promote that kind of community.”
To learn more about Meijishi Martial Arts visit meijishi.com.