Strong Women: ‘I have dedicated my life to martial arts and I have no regrets’
By Natalie Morris, Senior lifestyle reporter Saturday 1 Jun 2019 10:00 am

So many women are put off from sport and physical activity because they don’t look a certain way. In fact, a study by Sport England found that 75% of women avoid being active due to a fear of judgement. Strong Women is a weekly series that aims to normalise diversity in the world of sport and fitness and reaffirm the idea that women of any age, size, race and ability can be fit, strong and love their bodies. By showcasing the wide range of different women who are achieving incredible things, we hope to empower and inspire underrepresented women. Martine Niven is a Shaolin kung fu disciple – it is something she does full time and she has dedicated her life to the practice.

Martine performing at Chinese New Year Celebrations in Southampton (Picture: Martine Niven)

Tell us about your relationship with martial arts I became a Shaolin Kung Fu disciple in 2012 after training with my teacher, Shi Yan Ming 34th Shaolin Warrior from Shaolin Temple in China, for four years in the UK. When I met my Kung Fu Master – ‘Shifu’ in Chinese, which means ‘a great master with expert and skillful knowledge’ – I hadn’t practiced martial arts for a while. In my late teenage years and twenties, while most young people were out clubbing and getting careers and families I was inside the kung fu hall, sweating and training, constantly feeling the pain. My teachers expressed daily ‘no pain, no gain!’ – at that time it felt more like pain than gain. I have no regrets from my path. I feel nothing but respect, great honour and privilege to have had the opportunity to train with many great masters, teachers and friends, who were so kind to me and had the patience and time to guide me on this path. What does it actually mean to be a disciple? Being a disciple means you have made a commitment to dedicate your life to the martial arts practice. You have made a commitment to master the skill and to share this knowledge with future generations. I always felt there was something missing from the other marital arts that I had previously studied, this I realised later was the internal aspects which help to balance the body, mind and spirit. I was introduced to practices like Meditation, Qi Gong and Tai Chi as well as continuing to practice the more external martial arts like san da (Chinese kickboxing), kung fu and weapons, this was a great balance.

Martine with her master Shifu Shi Yan Ming (Picture: Martine Niven)

Later on in my thirties I went on to specialise in Traditional Shaolin kung fu. Sometimes the paths you take uncannily lead you back to where you started. Being a woman and training, you can be faced with a number of extra challenges. You are always carefully balancing your body’s needs, losing energy every month and then having to build it back up, the process of progression can take longer and for me personally has been extremely frustrating. I have had to learn to be patient with myself and to accept what and who I am. Life is smoother when you’re not always fighting to be something else or trying to prove you are someone else. It can take courage to follow a difficult path but the rewards can be greater in the end. It takes great strength of mind to choose to face yourself with acceptance and love. How does martial arts help your mental health? Your mind is an extremely important part of the martial arts development. Having a positive mind effects everything you do. I learnt this the hard way and in my early training years I was very self-critical. I would chastise myself daily for not achieving what I wanted, but I slowly realised this was unproductive and futile. The process of martial arts is gradual, a difficult concept to accept in a world of rapid results and instant gratification.

(Picture: Martine Niven)

I see this a lot in my younger students when they don’t see instant results. They want to give up. We live in interesting times with our youth. They face so many difficult challenges with social media pressures and many device distractions, they need something like martial arts and its underlying philosophies more than ever. This fast-paced lifestyle is not helpful for our self-development, it is short-lived, temporary and eventually unrewarding. It bypasses important life lessons and learnings. Struggles and difficulties are important in life, to feel hardship can in some instances actually be a good thing. The Chinese have a saying ‘to eat bitter’, which means at the time it is not pleasant, like a bitter taste in the mouth, but the bitter taste in Chinese medicine is said to help strengthen the heart. So this is how we learn, grow and gain wisdom. If everything is fast and easy we are missing out on important realisations and deeper understandings. Martial arts helps to gain deeper awareness of the body and mind to feel disharmony and then to have the knowledge and strength to make changes. Experiencing all of these benefits, how could I not want that for others? What does training bring to your life? When I first started learning martial arts, I loved how confident it made me feel. I felt strong and able to defend myself. I loved the culture and learning about the deep underlying philosophies. Everything was new and exciting. Over the years, your awareness changes, your wisdom grows, you face more interesting challenges. You learn about yourself and others. You hit many walls. And every time this happens your awareness deepens and the practice becomes you. You are not separate from it. It is you. Through this you develop a great gratitude and compassion for yourself and others. The self-discovery is profound and life changing.

‘The best way to see if you will like something is to be brave and try it’ (Picture: Martine Niven)

When I am training I lose all sense of self, any ideas of image, gender, ability, race, all seem to vanish. I have no concept of these things, my focus and attention is solely on the movements I am trying to do. It is a combination of breathing, movement and intention. All time stands still and the body and mind come to a single focus point. For that moment I am free, connected and peaceful. The realisation is greatly rewarding. I spent many years trying to find the wise master to show me the way, but realised it is you who has to become the master of yourself. Why should more women get involved in martial arts? Working in schools and universities with young women, I have noticed there are many pressures and stresses that they find difficult to express and deal with. What we teach is a way to help them to balance their lives. The underlying philosophies that come out of the training helps them to become more self-aware, confident, relaxed, centred and balanced. They are slowly able to let go of stresses and strains of everyday life and be at ease with themselves and others. Most people/women come to martial arts because they want to learn how to defend themselves and of course this is the main function, but through this practice you develop so many other skills, developing strength of body, mind and spirit. What would you say to a woman who might be intimidated by the idea of fighting? A lot of women feel put off because they may feel the classes are mainly attended by men, but this is not the case we have a great mix of students. When looking for a class and teacher, do your research. Do not be fooled by appearances, finding a good teacher can be tricky.

Martine in the Song Shan Mountains in China (Picture: Martine Niven)

Some teachers are great for some people but not for others, it’s a personal experience, so be brave, try a class and if it doesn’t feel right go try out another until you find a place you feel comfortable. I think a good teacher needs to be patient and tolerant, knowledgeable, humble, and kind hearted. The best way to see if you will like something is to be brave and try it. It can be a bit intimidating and sometimes scary trying out something new but it builds great strength of character and it could be the start of an amazing journey.
This is not the Shi Yan Ming that was on our cover with the RZA.