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Pacific Association of Women Martial Artists

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Growing My Cuong Nhu Tree

Rosanne Boudreau


Photo courtesy of Rosanne Boudreau.
The Cuong Nhu website details how the belt colors for kyu ranks metaphorically represent the stages of growth of a maturing tree: first there are the young shoots, represented by green, then the branches, followed by the brown of the hardening of the exterior bark. Black is the mature tree, and the red dan stripes are the fruits that grow out of the tree. In this paper I will address the continuing evolution of my martial arts training, and in particular, how my martial arts have become more integrated into my daily life since my black belt test. I want to look at what sorts of “fruit” are growing from my martial arts tree.

As I reflect on the last three years of my training since testing for black belt, I can identify three areas that are evolving into offshoots that are being nourished by my Cuong Nhu foundation or “trunk”: these include a closer appreciation and study of judo, greater participation in an organization that I care about deeply—the Pacific Association of Women Martial Artists (PAWMA), and the development of a self-defense course which I would like to share with the community at large. I see that the common denominator among these three areas is that I am evolving from being a student and shaped into a budding teacher who has something to give back.

Cuong Nhu is, and will always be, my foundation and my grounding force. I continue to derive valuable insight and learning from my wonderful teacher, Master Allyson Appen and my school Tuyê’t Tan. My dojo is my family, and I can always count on their support, encouragement, and suggestions for my evolution as a martial artist. They have and continue to help me thrive as a martial artist. Needless to say, I still train there, taking two classes per week, but now I also attend two judo classes per week, including one with an instructor who is an eighth dan in judo.

I decided to consult a judo specialist by attending some judo classes because the judo throws I learned for my third, second and first kyu self defense sets were hard to master, very difficult to teach, and nearly impossible to correct in myself—let alone in others, as an aspiring instructor. Through my partner, Laura, who instructs at a nearby community college, I was introduced to Dr. James Tanaka who is a former Air Force Captain and who trained at the Kodokan for many years while he was stationed in Japan. He is a man of many talents, but with regards to judo, he is, at near 80 years of age, one of the few 8th dan holders in the country, and has decades of martial arts experience under his belt (In addition to being an 8th dan in judo, he is a 6th dan in jujitsu, a 4th dan in aikido, and a 2nd dan in Shotokan).

Dr. Tanaka is truly the type of teacher I want to be when I have been practicing my martial art for 70 years! He teaches in simple, easy-to-follow steps so that on the first day someone who has never tried a given judo throw can do so correctly in a matter of an hour. He corrects with laser precision and in a way that teaches people how to correct themselves. He enjoys every second he is on the mat, and is genuinely proud of his students. When you see him, he is clearly the person having the most fun in the entire room—he laughs, cracks jokes, and makes sure his students are enjoying themselves as well. He emanates joy and freely shares it with everyone in the room.

From a technical standpoint—and this is something that I take with me and share in my Cuong Nhu training--Dr. Tanaka's strategy of breaking down each throw into three simple steps that are easy to grasp and perform is extremely effective. Each step he outlines is so clearly highlighted that one can easily spot incorrect technique and “fix” it immediately. Back at my home dojo, I was able to apply his teaching method to my instruction of judo and I was overjoyed to watch my Cuong Nhu dojo mates execute our judo throws with technically correct form: osoto gari, ogoshi, harai goshi, tai otoshi, etc.

Teaching has become one of my favorite aspects of martial arts because before I can explain a technique or concept, I have to understand it thoroughly; this attention to detail makes me, in my opinion, a more well-rounded martial artist. If I have a real grasp of the subject matter, I know I should be able to explain it in a clear and understandable way. With the help of all of my teachers over the years, especially Master Allyson, and now, with Dr. Tanaka's teachings, judo has become a joy to teach rather than a swirling mass of confusion.

A different aspect of teaching and learning that complements my love of the martial artists has come out of my involvement with PAWMA. The camps that PAWMA puts on are very similar to IATC in terms of quality of instruction and variety of martial arts classes. PAWMA and PAWMA Camps have been attended, supported and lead by female Cuong Nhu practitioners over the last 35 years. Master Mary Davis instructed at PAWMA camps. Master Terri Giamartino, Master Didi Goodman and Sensei Amy Weiner have been past PAWMA Board Presidents. Master Allyson Appen has both served on the board and coordinated several camps. I am very proud to say that I have followed in the footsteps of my Cuong Nhu “foremothers.”

My first PAMWA camp was one month after my first day in a Cuong Nhu class. I attended PAWMA Camp in the Santa Cruz mountains with Master Didi and I remember sewing on my first green stripe the afternoon we arrived at camp. I wanted to show off my new stripe! I think each of us is on our own martial arts path so I don't compare myself to anyone, but PAWMA Camps have influenced my martial arts practice from the beginning of my martial arts experience because of the other martial artists I met there. I was amazed by the caliber of women martial artists that taught and attended. The Camps let me know how awesome, how completely awesome female martial artists can be, and inspired me to push through my boundaries farther out than perhaps I would have without that exposure. With these role models, I really saw what my true potential could be. That exposure has had a profound influence on the goals I set for myself and on the ethics I have had throughout the years I have trained.

A couple of years ago PAWMA was on the brink of financial collapse so I stepped up and got involved because of what PAWMA meant to me and my training. I didn’t want to see it collapse into oblivion! In 2012, I was elected President and helped organize a very successful camp in Berkeley. It was a thrill to be so intimately involved given the role that PAWMA had played in my early days of martial arts training. I am happy to report that for the last two years that my fellow board members and I have served on PAWMA's Board, the organization has made a profit and we have brought it back from the brink.

Being PAWMA Board President broadened my trunk and matured bark all over my martial arts tree. Now I see new “fruit” and potential branches that are about to shoot forth as I begin to explore the "martial" aspect of martial arts by focusing on self-defense. I have enjoyed learning the “Do”— aspect of the “arts”; I can honestly say that I have a philosophical, ethical, disciplined practice with Cuong Nhu as the foundation. But now, in addition, I am interested in exploring the martial—or more “deadly” or “harmful” aspects of the techniques so that I can learn and teach others self-defense and self-protection. Specifically, I want to use my martial arts knowledge to “preserve life”--to help empower others around me.

I took a twenty-hour self defense class that included padded attackers called IMPACT in October of 2012 and have become an assistant trainer for the course. This was a deeply moving experience, as I and others in the class got a sobering dose of the “reality” of an attack or mugging situation, and the fear and mixed feelings brought on by the surge of adrenaline that gets triggered. This “impact”—physical and emotional—have motivated me to share self-defense techniques with more people.

With the help and encouragement of my judo instructor, Dr. Tanaka, I will be lead instructor in a self-defense series at a local gym next month, using the techniques he developed for unarmed combat self defense classes.

I feel much more serious about this self-defense project and training, even more so than coordinating a national training camp, because of the immense responsibility that is at stake: protecting life, minimizing violence, and even avoiding death. If someone has gone to a self defense class I have taught, I want them to walk out more aware of their surroundings, and to know when they should get out of a bad place. I especially want them to have tools that work if they do have to take action. The martial arts for me have aspects of self-fulfillment, awareness and growth as well as community and sharing. Self-defense on the other hand is just deadly serious. If I can help someone get out of a bad place, even once, I have perhaps given something life-saving to that person.

When I began my Cuong Nhu journey, I could not imagine where my training would take me. Now, as I reach for my second dan, I see some clearly-defined “fruit” beginning to take shape and ripen. I look forward to seeing what else is in store for this tree.

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