We caught up with our women’s sport beneficiary, Camden Shorinji Kempo, to find out more about their martial arts group, and their longterm ambitions for the club.
What is Camden Shorinji Kempo?
Ofelia: Shorinji Kempo is a modern practical self-defence martial art. Founded relatively recently in the 1960s, it combines many different martial arts aspects, including karate punching, kicking and blocking and grappling. It's rooted in strong philosophies too, so it's a well rounded martial art. You can expect a little bit of everything. Practising Shorinji Kempo involves an understanding of physiology and tactics in addition to the moves. You're not only learning self-defence and getting fit but also developing mindfulness and focus.
We decided to start a club that was explicitly for women and the LGBTQ community because we felt like we needed an extra space. Not that the spaces that existed weren't welcoming, but we needed an area where we could actively promote the less-heard voices.
We had also noticed that there weren't many people of colour amongst the senior instructors, and there was only one woman – so, we wanted to even out the playing field a bit.
In 2019 we created the Camden Shorinji Kempo club, and then things snowballed and here we are!
How did Camden Shorinji Kempo get started?
Kavita: I had been training in Kensington for about ten years, and when I moved across London to Camden, I found that there wasn't a club in my area, so I founded the Camden group. Establishing this club was actually the third attempt to create a club as two other clubs hadn't worked out, so I really wanted it to succeed when I set up this club. I chose to partner with someone to establish the group – someone I knew was a really inspiring black belt (Ofelia) – and thankfully she said yes!
That grounding allowed us to get set up, we then galvanised support around us and then got accredited by the British Shorinji Kempo Federation: https://www.bskf.org/. I created some flyers and on it stated that we were LGBTQ+ friendly and after they went out we had enquiries from the community about whether we were 'friendly' or trying to create a safe space for LGBTQ+ people. Those questions then prompted us to work to receive accreditation by Out For Sport, and that certification changed our club hugely.
Ofelia: All the clubs that we know of in the UK are LGBTQ friendly, but it's not necessarily plastered on their doors, or they're not members of Out For Sport, or they don't necessarily work actively to cater for that audience. And that's true of creating a woman-friendly space as well. That being said, they do work with individuals to make them feel safer if someone needs it, but it's on an individual basis when necessary, whereas our club actively invites everyone from all backgrounds from the start.
Last year, with the rise of the BLM movement and greater awareness of racism and actively being anti-racist, it raised a lot of questions and highlighted being as inclusive as possible. For example, you can't just say 'I'm not racist', you have to actually take the time out to reflect on how active you are being in trying to stop that inequality. We believe that whether considering race, gender identity or sexuality, that our club should actively be as inclusive as it can possibly be. We discussed how our club is run, what we do and how we do it, how we are talking to our members and how we can adapt this. We want every member to feel safe, and we want to encourage more people to take part.
What is a martial arts class at Camden Shorinji Kempo like?
Kavita: The first things to know about our classes is that we train in a pub! We're upstairs above a pub where there had previously been a yoga class, so that's really unique about us!
When you come through the door, you'll notice that we have many Japanese-style formalities and use traditional greetings.
The class is broken down into four sections. We start with a standard warm-up, so just limbering up and raising everyone’s heart rate. We then have what we call 'basics' – if you've ever been to a Boxercise class, it's exactly like that. You'll be punching and kicking the air, and just getting a feel for how your body moves, and how you physically move to get the right trajectory of your punch or your kick.
We then have a meditative section of the class – we look at philosophy and emphasise controlling the mind by sitting down, practising meditation and repeating mantras.
Finally, we end the class with practical self-defence – if you watch our videos, you'll see that we grab and tackle each other, and that's where you build up this repertoire of actually interacting with another human. This part of the class gives members the chance to build up confidence and how to react and defend themselves.
And then obviously because we're in a pub we go straight for drinks!
How have you managed classes during the COVID-19 lockdown?
Ofelia: The classes have been shorter as people are usually tired of sitting in front of the computer – even if they're standing it's still tiring to be on a call – so our sessions are an hour-long (they would usually be 1 1/2 to 2 hours). We start the same way, with a warm-up. I'll usually try circuits because everything is a little bit shorter and as we have less time. Following this, we'll run through the same basic moves that we would usually do in face-to-face classes; that's the one thing that we can maintain in the same way, as it's all done by yourself.
Following this, we will pick a technique to practice. It's tricky at the moment as we're home by ourselves in lockdown, we're only able to practice on 'an invisible enemy'. The positive here is that you can focus on specific aspects of your technique, so we're concentrating on extreme details like foot placements, alignment, and timing.
For the last 10 minutes, we usually practice meditation and mantra, and we also discuss the philosophy, and how it applies to our lockdown lives. And then lastly we find that everyone usually has a lot of things they want to talk about! It isn't necessarily related to the class, but the last few minutes gives everyone time to catch up, which is also an essential part of socialising, especially when we’re all so isolated during the lockdown.
It was a very quick decision for us to move classes online as soon as lockdown happened. We knew we wanted to keep training and to stay in touch with everyone from home.
How many members are there in the group?
Kavita: Currently, we have ten members. Ofelia has brought nearly everyone who trained in the first six months, and then we've grown organically as people have gravitated to us for our style of martial arts.
How do you recruit new members?
Kavita: We are listed on the inclusive ticketing platform Outsavvy, which helps us reach new LGBTQ+ members. We also have a network across all sorts of things like drag shows and LGBTQ+ events, and so that brings new people organically. We feel we could do more to get more women into the club, so we've been looking into new poster campaigns and marketing.
There have been some unique ways that people have joined our group. We had one young woman who had been attacked in the street last year and wanted to learn martial arts to defend herself, so she'd asked around her community in North London, and her friend's dad said that he practised Shorinji Kempo in the 60s! She ended up bringing along six women to the group, who then joined us for a few months of training. One of those members is still practising – she's just got her first belt and is completely addicted to it.
Another member was transitioning; she had previously done martial arts, which had given her greater confidence and, therefore, wanted to pick that up again. She found us from the Outsavvy platform, and the sport has really supported her to find strength during such a difficult process.
Circumstances like that make it much more than a sport; it becomes more about community and support than about the activity.
What would your advice be to someone who wants to start martial arts?
Kavita: My advice is always if you're in a privileged position where you can try a few different types of martial arts, then try all of them! If your local clubs are giving free sessions, just go along for one trial session, as each martial art is incredibly different and there will be a style for you. The styles that we want to try are Capoeira as it focuses on dancing, or Aikido, which has such soft, beautiful aesthetics. I think these are all incredibly different art forms, so there's going to be an art form for you. Just try them until you find what works.
What do you think would be some of the greatest successes that you've had as a club?
Ofelia: Getting to be on the big screen at Piccadilly Circus for Pride! We couldn't get there in person, so we watched it on a zoom call, but it was still impressive!
A video of ours was also shown on the BT Tower. It was during lockdown, but it's not far from where we are in London so we walked to the tower. We then had to sit on a bench and wait for about 50 minutes for us to show up on the screen, but it was worth the wait! It was about 30 minutes between any two rotations so it felt like we were there all afternoon, but we were quite excited so we stuck it out – plus that was the first time we left the vicinity of our houses after lockdown so it really was exciting!
What are the greatest challenges or setbacks you have experienced as a club?
Ofelia: Being in lockdown has been really hard, that has undoubtedly been a challenge for us. However, I think that the club has been a huge support. Having this community around and the feeling that we're going through this together has helped everyone in the group enormously.
Kavita: Because we're an intersectionality-club, being women of colour and working in the LGBTQ+ community, means that sometimes it's difficult for one single community to take us holistically. We also feel that larger organisations could do more to promote women's sport.
I previously worked for the Olympics, and on the campaign to get women's boxing into the Olympics for the first time at the London 2012 Games. This equality of getting women into sport is a passion of mine, but then when you add the intersectionality element of LGBTQ+ into that, it becomes more challenging, as usually those spaces are already owned by men. I feel like we need to do more to enable each other as a group, to transcend those barriers that are there.
What will the Boudavida donation help you to achieve in the future, and what would you like to put the money towards?
Kavita: First of all, we have to thank anyone who donates! It's hugely generous and especially during these difficult times. We're not counting chickens at this stage, but we are really ambitious as a club, and there's so much more that we want to do. We want to increase our marketing and get more women and more diversity within the club.
We run a six-week self-defence course that we created last year, and once we come out of lockdown, I want to run that again for more people to participate.
We normally run a summer camp for everyone in the UK to get together, so we'll be looking to do this when we come out of lockdown.
Funding also helps us with anything to do with our running costs and the ability to offset some of our technology costs so we can keep video calls running has been great.
What are your long term ambitions for the club?
Kavita: Firstly, we would love to become a recognised sport in the UK. Currently, Shorinji Kempo is a recognised sport in lots of Asian countries but not here in Europe. As a club, I'm interested in helping federations right across Europe get accreditation by the national governing bodies.
Secondly, we want to get accreditation from Sports England. That will come once we have increased membership, and so that means more marketing.
There's the equivalent of the Commonwealth Games for martial arts in Asia, and it's especially popular in places like Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan. On that basis, we are on a trajectory to becoming a widely accepted sport and an Olympic sport, and so I would love to be in a position to be able to help train the next women athletes to go to the Olympic Games – that would be amazing.
Find out more about Camden Shorinji Kempo through the links below:
Youtube: Camden Shorinji Kempo
Tickets: Camden Shorinji Kempo on Outsavvy