On any given night at Emerald Necklace Martial Arts in Boston’s Allston neighborhood, the adult students can be found in their crisp white karate uniforms, moving up and down the training floor. In summer's brutal heat and in winter's bitter cold, they punch the focus mitts and kick the padded shields with impressive force. Working in pairs, they throw each other to the ground. They yell a lot, too.

Seriousness fills the air as people strain and sweat. The students are disciplined, and they’re growing evermore capable and confident. They really push themselves. And they’re tough. Every once in a while, someone gets hurt. It's never anything severe — perhaps a bruise, or a rougher-than-expected landing on the padded floor. It’s this element of real danger that keeps everyone focused and fully in the present. But things aren’t too serious: the heavy mood is broken frequently with smiles and laughter.

These are my students, and I’m proud of the progress they are making. On the surface, this looks exactly what you'd expect to see in any urban dojo (training hall) where traditional karate is taught and practiced. However, there's just one thing that jumps out at you while watching a class at Emerald Necklace Martial Arts:

Fully two-thirds of the members who train at this dojo are women.

This, by any standard, is unusual. Men — and all too often, the male ego that tends to come along for the ride — seem to dominate most karate schools. I asked my students why they thought things were different at our school, and what keeps them coming back.

"I think a lot of women start training in the martial arts for the self-defense aspect," Said Angela D., a Brown Belt at the dojo. Angela has been training for nearly four years. "But there is also a mental toughness that develops from studying karate — not giving up, trying one more time, nothing is impossible. There are still barriers and stereotypes for women to face in the real world, and I for one appreciate learning to be more assertive and determined."

“I see what the advanced students do, and I think, ‘I want to do that,’” says Jen V. a Green Belt student. Jen has been training at the dojo for two and a half years. "The group of people in the dojo is really a big reason I keep coming back. Each and every person involved with the dojo is an interesting, well-rounded, fascinating individual. I consider myself lucky to be part of such a group, and I value it highly.”

“I think I am more confident in certain areas of my life now,” Jen continues. “I don't necessarily walk down any dark alleys, and I don't think I was fearful before, but my attitude is different now when I walk to my car in a parking lot.”

“One of the aspects that I enjoy the most about the martial arts is that gender plays no role.” Says Joe P., a male Brown Belt at the dojo. “If we're doing things the right way, we should not be using upper body strength to perform our moves. We're supposed to rely on proper technique, which can be as easily achieved by women as men.”

“Working with women has changed my preconception of the art, as I always thought that only men were drawn to it.” Joe says. “I don't really look at my dojo mates as men and women, but as fellow practitioners.”

Outside the dojo, Angela is a graphic designer and mother of two. Jen is a librarian. But you’d never guess their real identities by watching the two of them work out on the dojo floor. (Joe, incidentally, works in real estate.) Everyone goes through the same training, regardless of gender, and the criteria for rank advancement are the same for men and women. While self-defense is a big part of what’s taught, our dojo focuses on building character and serving others in an environment of mutual respect. The men in the dojo don’t treat the women any differently — and the opposite is also true!

As for me, I’m really looking forward to the day when someone observes one of my male students and says, “Man, he sure hits like a girl.” What a great compliment that will be!

Author's Bio: 

Jason Gould (jason.gould@karateinboston.com) is the Chief Instructor at Emerald Necklace Martial Arts in Boston. www.karateinboston.com, 617-230-1973.