Fitness: Just for Kicks with Lydia Parkin
Lydia Parkin heads to a martial arts class expecting spinning kicks, karate chops, and black belts. What she discovers is a group of fearless females breaking down barriers, smashing stereotypes and uniting women across Cambridge
I remember watching the taekwondo at the London 2012 Olympics, when the brilliant Jade Jones won gold. I was immediately transfixed by this kick-ass but strangely elegant sport. The spinning kicks and brutal blows; the incredible cheetah-like agility of the athletes; the nerve-jangling tension as the competitors hop around the mat, waiting for the right moment to land that killer kick. It’s great fun to watch, but giving it a go myself… this scaredy-cat wasn’t convinced.
Yet, on a Friday evening last month, that’s exactly what I found myself doing. Jade Jones eat your heart out.
I turned up to the MAUL (Martial Arts Uniting Ladies) taekwondo club at Queen Edith Primary School feeling a little apprehensive, trying to push an image of me cowering in a corner as a leggy blonde woman in a yellow jumpsuit wreaks havoc to the back of my mind. Okay, maybe I’ve watched Kill Bill one too many times.
I’m greeted warmly by the instructors Fatima and Jenny, who are both wearing black belts (but not wielding samurai swords – phew), who reassure me that, no, I will not spend the next hour being kicked in the head or cowering in the corner. This class, they say, is for ALL women, no matter your ability or background, and is all about developing confidence, forming friendships, and having fun. Oh, and you also learn how to break boards. Sweet. Always wanted to do that.
So what exactly is taekwondo? It translates as “the way of the foot and fist”, and is a Korean martial art which, you guessed it, mostly involves a lot of punching and kicking. The MAUL taekwondo club practice a mix of World Taekwondo and International Taekwondo Federation styles with
influences from other martial arts such as Muay Thai, Karate and Jiu Jitsu. As a workout, it can build strength, stamina, and flexibilit but the group are keen to point out, you definitely don’t need to be some kind of super-fit gym bunny to take it up. “We rather pride ourselves on being the type of people picked last in gym.”
MAUL was founded by Wendi Bacon in 2013. She wanted to smash that stereotype of martial arts being hard-hitting, male-dominated and aggressive, and build a place where women could reach their potential alongside other women. An environment which was supportive and inclusive, with no fear of judgement. MAUL is run entirely by volunteers and provides classes for free for women who need it, so everyone, no matter your circumstances, can have the opportunity to train. There’s a particular focus on increasing participation amongst women over 50, teenagers, women with disabilities and women who are homeless, Wendi tells me.
The session begins with us all forming a circle and reciting what is something of a student oath, promising things like humility, integrity and self-control. “We promise we’re not a cult,” one lady laughs. A short warm-up follows, involving jogging around the room, high fives and hip bumps, and then we all come together for stretching. It turns out taekwondo makes you really flexible. As I huff, puff and curse my creaky joints, I look around to see some of the ladies sliding straight into the splits!
Next up we learn some of the different taekwondo kicks, before pairing up to practice them on the pads. I’m not exactly a natural. It all feels a little alien at first; my body doesn’t want to get into the positions I’m asking it to and my kicks are embarrassingly weak – I think a mouse could generate more power. But with practice and repetition (“There’s a phrase don’t be scared of the man who knows 10,000 kicks. Be scared of the man who practices one kick 10,000 times,” Fatima tells me), I start to improve, buoyed by the instructor’s comment that with my height and long legs, I could “definitely land some good head kicks”. I start to actually hit the pad with some power, rather than brushing it tamely with my toe, and the thwack it makes is rather satisfying.
We move on to practice a set of choreographed sequences, consisting of a series of blocks, punches and kicks. Each move is a response to an ‘attack’ from an imaginary assailant. A jab in the face here; an elbow in the stomach there. (“In the groin is also effective,” my partner says with a chuckle.)
As the session comes to an end, I can’t help but feel uplifted. The camaraderie, the positivity, the constant encouragement… this is what sport is all about. When I chat to the other women, asking what they love most about it, ‘family’, ‘friendship’ and ‘community’ crop up a lot. Just an hour in the company of this inspiring group has me feeling very much part of the MAUL community too. Ladies, give it a go – and prepare to feel empowered.
MAUL Cambridge run regular sessions on Tuesdays and Fridays, 7.40-8.40pm at Queen Edith Primary School. The group also run regular beginner taster sessions across Cambridge. See maulcambs.co.uk.
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