I heard somewhere that having her first child is the closest thing a woman gets to experiencing a midlife crisis. Not only does she have to redefine herself in her new role as a mom, but she also has to come to terms with her changing body. Before giving birth to Kale in November 2001 at the age of 35, I had no problem keeping in shape by religiously walking on the treadmill twice a week. Once he was born, though, exercise became a low priority. After a year of pampering the baby and neglecting myself, I was ready to mourn the firm, fit body I used to have -- until I took up judo.
While attending the Spring Festival at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto, my husband, Mark, who is Japanese, and I happened to meet Gerald Okimura, a slight, muscular, moustached black-belt instructor in judo. He mentioned that he was starting the first female-only judo class in Ontario. What perfect timing: by then, my muscles had become weak from inactivity. Anxious to get fit again, I signed up right then and there.
Our teacher wasted no time
The following Sunday I showed up at the dojo (a martial arts training room that's covered with a floor mat). Our sensei, or teacher, wasted no time. He led a warm-up of somersaults, cartwheels, mat crawls and other tricky exercises. He explained to the seven women in the class that each exercise would help us gain the necessary skills to execute judo techniques. I thought, There's no way I can do this. Judging by their nervous looks, the other women were just as hesitant. Our group ranged from a math professor and a psychologist to a housewife and student. Our ages were as divergent as our shapes and sizes.
When my turn came to do a left-handed cartwheel, I froze. I was so terrified of hurting myself that I actually started laughing nervously. But the girls cheered me on. I felt their camaraderie that first day when I plunked my hands down and clumsily kicked my legs over. I wasn't sure if I had it in me to get through the class, so when I did I was on a high. I left feeling invigorated.
As the weeks and months passed, I looked forward to working out and chatting with the other women. After class we'd sometimes meet for a cold drink and a yak.
As my friendships grew, my arms, legs and stomach got stronger than ever. I started to feel like myself again: confident and brave. And best of all, the energy and feeling of peace that I get from practising judo makes me a better mom to Kale.
When I received my yellow belt after nine months, I felt as proud as I did after graduating from university. This past August I received my orange belt. There are three more belts to get before the black one. Each belt represents a progressively more difficult degree of knowledge, training, leadership and ability. Dare I think that I can become a black belt in my 40s? I wouldn't have thought so a few years ago, but now? You better believe it, baby.
The gentle way
Martial arts can be a fun way to get fit after you've had a baby, says Tina Takahashi, world champion, member of the Judo Hall of Fame and former Olympic coach. It's also a great approach to developing confidence and meeting new people, adds Takahashi, who practised judo after the birth of each of her three boys, aged six, eight and 10, and still teaches at the Takahashi dojo in Ottawa, where the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau trained for his black belt.
Although all martial arts can help you regain your fitness level postpartum, judo is particularly good because it uses all the muscles, including those in the stomach, back and legs, which are most affected by childbirth, says Takahashi. Judo is Japanese for “gentle way” and is appropriate for any mom, no matter what her fitness level, she says. “We have people who are 16 and 60,” says Takahashi. As with any new fitness program though, you should first consult your doctor.