With 38 years of martial arts under (several) black belts, Gillian Booth is one of the highest-ranking shidoshi in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu. She is also surely one of the most deadly, as a former national champion of Judo and 15th Dan rank in Bujinkan, along with yellow belts in a smattering of other martial arts. This is the woman that Buffy has nightmares about.
In the first part of an interview with Aileen Power, she spoke about her training career in Judo and Bujinkan, what inspires her, and why we should use the force – but not too much.
Gillian is not the first instructor to find Bujinkan via a career in Judo. She may be one of the most interesting though.
Her martial arts career began with the sport martial art – and almost finished with it. She admits it’s “a very harsh sport”.
“It’s a bit like rugby – only you can’t run away with the ball. You just have to keep holding on – tackling each other, trying to throw each other. I mean, how many 35-year old professional rugby players are there? You’ll find few people very active in Judo in their thirties. Most are a bit broken and injured and can’t continue to train.”
After fifteen years and two serious injuries, she found herself in the “bit broken” category and retired from Judo. Her addiction to the feeling of flow and nagare – “the battle of wits and minds and bodies” kept her flirting with martial arts, picking up grades in Hapkido, Kung Fu, and Aikido.
By the time her partner recommended she try Ninjutsu, she was almost ready to hang up all the belts.
“I said ‘no no, I’m a mature woman now, I’m over my adolescent martial arts phase’. But I went along, and sure enough I loved it.”
She found a lot of parallels between Bujinkan and Judo.
“There was a lot of similar feelings; a lot of similar angles and timing and distance and rolling and ukemi. Bujinkan gave me the opportunity to use everything I had ever learned in Judo, but to also have a curriculum that was inexhaustible. There was so much to learn.”
The was also a stark difference at training level:
“In Bujinkan there was a little bit of discomfort and inconvenience and injury risk, but it wasn’t like being run over by a bus every time you went to training”.
The physical impact on the body came down to the different use of power and force. “The striving we have in our art is to always look for that sweet spot using the least amount of power – it’s not how you can force the sweet spot with a lot of power.”
It’s the sweet spot that explains how those with less traditional strength can be so powerful at Bujinkan.
“There are people still training who are 70 or 80, and women training, who’ve been able to find their way in the dojo by using less energy, less power and being smarter about how they move.”
It’s encouraging talk for anyone who is not 22, 50% muscle mass and able to bench press twice their weight. In fact, employing your natural strength could ultimately be counterproductive, she says.
“Whenever you’re training and you feel like you have to use power to affect something – try use less instead of more. Think ‘how can I cut back the power and get this to work instead of trying harder?’ Or ‘how can I manoeuvre my body or manipulate the timing or the distance so that I use less power?’”
Her simple advice is “don’t try meet force with force, or strength with strength. Redirect that force, and if you can get that mental mindset and adapt that to your body movement, not only will your skill level sky-rocket, your longevity will also increase.”
There is no higher example than 81-year old grand master Hatsumi Sensei, who she describes as an “amazingly inspiration” along with his senior teachers.
“They’re very inspirational, not just because they’re great at budō, but because they are creative human beings and old men who are still very active and still enjoying what they do. They’ve still got that sense of childlike fun in what they do.”
As she enthralled her audience of students at the Dublin seminar, kyu grades and 15th Dans among them, it’s clear she is still enjoying herself too. After 38 years of the male-dominated, injury-prone and challenging world of martial arts, she still manages to stay inspired and in turn be inspirational.
Those who she used as uke at the seminar told me they barely felt pressure from her fingers as she twisted and threw them into submission. She told us that, on a 1 to 10 table of force, her teachers in Japan seem to work at a zero. She considers herself only able to manage one or two.
With her ‘use the force – but not too much’ mantra, it’s clear she does practise what she preaches. Let’s hope she continues to do so for another 20 years.
In the second part of our interview with Shihan Gillian Booth, she talks about the experience of being female in the “boys’ club” of Bujinkan and what an all-female taikai can achieve.
Female instructors are in the minority in Bujinkan, and certainly few have risen to the rank of 15th Dan. Having been through plenty of ‘only girl in the room’ moments myself, I wonder how it must feel for someone who has gone through 38 years of it.
“There are probably 5 or 10 women in the world who are amazing practitioners, at the top of their game. Us others are working to keep inspired by that, seeing models of other lone wolves”.
And when lone wolves come together?
“The energy was electrifying,” she says of the all-female Kunoichi Taikai in Germany in 2010.
“All of those one or two women from hundreds of dojos – the black sheep – they all got together. It was a very consolidating time for everybody.”
She explains that Soke wanted women to find their own space within the Bujinkan.
“He felt it was really important that women had that feeling of not being alone. He really wanted them to have the feeling of connectedness and congeniality and consolidation. That they were not just one in every dojo – they were hundreds.”
Instructors reported their female students returning to dojos expanded in “their spirit and their confidence and their attitude.”
She shakes her head. “Even a very supportive teacher can’t inject that to a student.”
I ask for her tips for an injury-free career.
“As a smaller person it’s important to say, ‘you cannot apply these techniques in training with the same force that you would on a big strong fellow’. It’s okay to say ‘that’s too much for me’.”
It reminds me of the advice from Marie-Valerie Saumon at the Kunoichi Taikai: “Don’t think you’re a man. You’re a woman – be proud of it”.
“It’s not a level playing field,” she nods.
“If we try and compete and emulate how much energy or strength it would take to compete with a guy, we end up sending too much energy out and end up robbing our own energy and immune system.”
“Soke talks about ‘take this Taijutsu, take this movement, and make it your own’. And that doesn’t mean trying to do it exactly the same as the person who’s demonstrating it, or exactly as the person who’s 6ft 4 and weighs 100 kilos would do it. It means own it. How do you do it for yourself in a way that’s sustaining for you, not draining for you?”
Before I leave to have ‘sustaining not draining’ printed on twenty black t-shirts, I ask what lessons she is keen to impart to her own students.
“Well Soke talks about this principle of ‘one thousand cuts and no surprises’. What it means is if something happens on a one-off basis, you’re likely to be immobilised or frozen or not quite know what to do. But if in our training we continue to get exposed to variables that we don’t always know the answer to, then eventually everything becomes like a walk in the park.”
The key, she says, is to get exposure to things that we’re not necessarily always in control of, walk through the variables and collect them all.
“I think it is a really important metaphor for not getting our boat rocked in – or out – of the dojo.”
This exposure is why some women get involved in martial arts in the first place, and, indeed, why this author feels every woman should.
Many high-ranking female instructors have had connections with women’s self-defense initiatives. Sheila Haddad and Cathy Lewis are board members on women’s self defense associations, while Frances Haynes is a consultant to governments on interpersonal violence and Natascha Morgan teaches self-defense to womens’ groups.
Gillian is keen to differentiate between budo and self-defense though.
“The basis of women’s self defense is not getting out of strangles and arm bars and kicking people in the groin. It’s actually a spirit and an attitude. Being able to show ‘I’m not going quietly – I’ll fight every inch of the way’. That’s the thing that defuses many attacks in the first place.”
She tells me that if someone approached her and said something leading or offensive, her first response would be put her finger in their face and shout ‘DON’T FUCK WITH ME!’
The words – dripping with intention and aggression – seem to shake the table. It’s a scene I have recounted excitedly to many women since.
“That’s the basis of most women’s self defense: the psychology and not being a pushover. So everyone who can project an attitude of ‘I’m no pushover’ is in a better position to not attract that domination in the first place.
“There’s a lot of evidence that the people who mug, rape and steal are actually shrewd about their victims. The people who they think are not just going to crumble when they’re challenged are less likely to be attacked than the person who is not aware of where they are, or is sort of slumped in their body language.
“I think like many lessons in life, it’s really important to be able to say No, and to be able to say No with a really loud voice. If you haven’t had exposure to standing your ground and saying No, you can actually learn that in a training environment”.
Suddenly the News of the World hack in me comes out and asks whether anyone has ever been stupid enough to try something on her.
“Yes, I met somebody who did karate at a party. He kept wanting to know ‘what I would do if he did this sort of karate kick’, and I said ‘no, no, don’t do that’. And he did that. And in front of a crowd of people, he just ended up flat on his back with my hands around his neck.”
I ask for some final advice for the women of Bujinkan.
“Keep going, but keep going on your own terms. Don’t try and keep going in the terms of the bigger, stronger person.”
Black sheep and lone wolves – we’re all stronger than we look.
Link to Part one of the Interview here
Link to Kunoichi Taikai homepage here