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22 November 2022

Nadine Champion is a Teacher

Nadine Champion is not my friend. She is my teacher. I first met her 14 years ago, at Boxing Works in Sydney. Within the Boxing Works constellation, Nadine was at the peak of her fighting career and one of the few fighters in the gym that every other fighter respected. Thirteen years ago I mustered up the courage to ask her if she would teach me. She would have taught me longer, had it not taken me so long to ask.

Nadine has taught me the physical side of Ukidokan kickboxing, making me feel physically fit and strong and realise that my body is capable of amazing things. When I became pregnant unexpectedly, she allowed me (with great care) to continue training, and in doing so gave me a sense of agency over a situation I was terrified by.

When Nadine was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma mid-2013, I was afraid of losing her. I am grateful to Sensei Benny — Nadine’s teacher — who held space for us all during a training session to tell her out loud that we loved her.

Thirteen years ago, I didn’t know that falling in love with Ukidokan meant entering deep and turbulent emotional water. The more I learn, the deeper and more uncomfortable it becomes; the pain is physical and emotional. More than once I’ve needed help to be put back together and for this I am extremely grateful to have a Sensei to help me confront and fully experience myself — the good, the bad and the ugly.

So it is with greatest respect that I don’t consider Nadine Champion my friend. She is my teacher, and I am proud to share our conversation with you.

This story originally ran in issue #71 of Dumbo Feather

JESS MILLER: Let’s start at the beginning. Why martial arts?

NADINE CHAMPION: Being a physical little kid, a tomboy up trees, in the pool, running around, riding bikes, I was always going to lean towards something that came in a physical package. Then, my brother was getting bullied, so when he started high school, my parents took him to martial arts class. It looked magic to me. And it came naturally and was the right level of spiritedness and physicality. The way I explain it, the martial part of it wasn’t that relevant for a 10-year-old. The art part of it was what I saw. It looked beautiful and exciting and fun to me.

This story originally ran in issue #71 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #71 of Dumbo Feather

Did you feel it was something you were allowed to do as a little girl?

No. My mum used to joke she was going to put a pink ribbon in my hair. But when the class finished, the instructor brought me over to my mum and asked how long I’d been doing martial arts, and she said I’d never done it before. He told her I was a natural and I heard him. I could feel that what he said sounded amazingly kind but also, he put words to what it felt like in my body to do it.

It feels really good, doesn’t it? Hitting something can feel amazing.

It can be cathartic. It’s a good expression, in martial arts it is an expression of your energy. As a kid, in martial arts I got to put all my effort forward into something that suited me. I wanted to be able to teach little girls to yell, and fully experience what their voice sounds like when it’s loud.

Recently at a leadership bootcamp I taught a group of 15 women how to yell. I began by asking the question, “Do you have a fighting spirit in you?” Initially, no one put up their hand. Their perception was that I was the only fighter in the room. Then I asked, “What would you fight for?” In changing the question, the context shifted, and these women were given permission to imagine a scenario where they would speak out, or physically intervene to protect themselves or someone or something they cared for. Many people haven’t experienced that part of themselves; it’s a feeling that sits deep down and they can’t imagine fighting unless you really push them to.

If you’re a bloke, you’re kind of expected to fight. But as a woman, if we speak up or out, we often get shamed for doing so. Or told that it’s not okay in that context – think of all the ‘Karen’ commentary. But in martial arts, fighting is okay. Do you find freedom and liberation in that?

I’ve been told all kinds of things about whether it’s okay to be who I am. Martial arts is a big part of who I am. I’ve been asked why would I want to get good at hurting people? And I explain, martial arts aren’t about hurting people.

There’s another side to martial arts. It has made me more peaceful, more relaxed, more myself, more vulnerable, softer. More open. In martial arts it's okay to express that side too.

Now as women get older, they care less and less about being told how they should be. They care less so they say more. That’s not necessarily going to be a popular thing. Our society is structured in a way that says, “Get old gracefully,” rather than, “Get old and have more to say about what is and isn’t okay.”

From my own experience, I know that often when I’m complaining about something – it’s easy to blame rather than address the problem internally. How does kicking and punching people help address that?

A big part of martial arts is about self-control. If you lose a fight and blame everyone but yourself, it’s not a good look. If you can’t remain focused in the ring and get caught up and captured by your opponent’s energy, you are easy to overwhelm. It doesn’t matter how good you are at the physical stuff – the ‘external’ part. Controlling your reaction and emotions means doing the work within yourself – the ‘internal’ work.

This internal work in martial arts can be much more important, because it means I have better control over me and how I react to you. It carries over into life, because having done this work and keeping my side of the street clean, I ask myself, What is it that they want? What do they want from me?

It’s this internal training in our style of martial arts – Ukidokan – that makes it special. It’s not something you often see in a gym. How did you find it?

Ukidokan is a cerebral approach to martial arts. It’s well thought-out, studied and considered. Instead of what is so often the case in martial arts and in so many pursuits in the sporting world or in the professional world, where questions aren’t asked of a senior, or it’s seen as disrespectful. Ukidokan belongs to my Sensei (Teacher) Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. It’s his style of martial arts and teaching, and is open to change and learning and growing, and that suits me perfectly.

In my early 20s, when I was working as a security guard, I got into a physical altercation and came off second best. That made me realise that the kind of martial arts that I’d been doing and had made such a big part of my identity was great in an artistic sense, but not so effective in the martial sense. Things got real for me in that physical situation.

I realised that not everybody plays by the rules — some people fight really dirty. It's the same in business, in relationships — some people will hit you below the belt. My first instructor didn't tell me that it would be like this. So it was an education. That day is burned into my memory because I had no choice about whether I would let me sense of self crumble.

My sense of self and confidence was based on being good at martial arts. Even though I was a high rank, what I knew was theoretical, and didn’t help me in a practical situation. What I knew was controlled and confined – the world isn’t like that. I could give up and walk around fearful for the rest of my life because of one bad experience. Forever, every time someone would talk about martial arts, I would cringe and say, “Oh yeah, I used to do that.” Or I could start again.

Luckily, I found Sensei Benny. He teaches in a much more realistic way. Ukidokan is threefold. Firstly, it is to teach traditional martial arts. So, we wear the gi uniform, there is formality – bowing, addressing the teacher as “Sensei,” the coloured belts – all those things. Secondly, to create someone who can do the sport: full-contact kickboxing with other people which gives you experience of yourself under pressure. And thirdly, to create someone who can defend themselves in real life, where there are no rules, no referee.

This is the reality of it. Can you handle what happens to you emotionally when someone confronts you? When there’s no mouth guard in, no uniform and no protective gear? What do you do when someone steps into your physical space? How do you react when someone’s looking at you and making you feel uncomfortable? How do you feel when someone is speaking to you in a way that’s aggressive? Can you handle the emotions that come up? What is your experience of a physiological fight-or-flight response? Or do you freeze? Are you someone who will use your fighting skills against someone because you lost your temper?

I wanted a teacher who knew the reality of how to protect themselves – I’m only five-foot-six – but I also wanted someone who could teach me how to rebuild my sense of self after it had been so rocked. And that’s what I’ve found in my teacher, Sensei Benny.

Your choice was to fight for it.

I didn’t want to keep feeling how I was feeling. I didn’t like how that external situation made me feel about myself, about my place in the world. I want to move in the world unhindered and live my life feeling safe. I want this for everyone. There’s physical safety, but also learning how to use my voice. I think it’s something that you have to learn and practise so that when that moment comes when you really need your voice, it comes out. You know that dream when you’re trying to yell, and nothing comes out?

Where you try to scream. Yeah, absolutely.

Think of how often we’re taught don’t be rude, don’t be loud, if you speak up then you’re a bitch…

In many ways the simple act of using your voice is the opposite of generations of women who have been told to be quiet. I’ve heard it said a lot, but what does being in your power really mean to you?

Being in your power looks different for everyone. I know that part of how I move in the world is that I expect my voice to be heard. I expect my physical boundaries to be respected. I have no problem asking for my opportunity to speak. If I feel physically uncomfortable, I have no problem asking someone to make room for me.

I have no problem speaking up because I have that internal power. It also helps that I have confidence that I can physically move someone who is invading my space. That energy has a different feeling. I have no interest in overpowering anyone, but I won't be overpowered.

What you teach isn’t the stuff you learn in school. I’ve been your student now for around 13 years – that’s like having a favourite teacher from kindy to year 12. How did you learn to become such a remarkable teacher?

I value learning and I have an excellent teacher in Sensei Benny. I’ve been his student now for more than 25 years. I’m still realising how much he taught me: much through osmosis. It’s special to have somebody who is wise and values teaching that much. He loves what he does so much that I always felt how mentally, emotionally, physically invested he is, and that this love is shared through teaching and in creating a depth of understanding in others. I like the way he explains things to his students and encourages us to ‘test the theory’ through our own experiences instead of the old-fashioned attitude of, “Well, this is just how we do it, because that’s how we do it.” He encouraged me to ask questions, be creative, understand, not just copy.

From a technical martial arts perspective, he would show me a technique – say a kick or combination. But then he’d show me all the colours of it, all the ways it can be applied. He talks about the physical – the external – aspect of something as well as the internal aspect. When you’re learning about life and you’re learning about you, I would rather learn about those things from someone who has done the work themselves. I’ve had that feeling of getting to the point where I’ve learned everything that a person has to teach me, which is gratifying but leaves me hungry for more. With Sensei Benny, there’s always more to learn.

[In Japanese-based martial arts, the word “Sensei” means teacher. In Ukidokan, being recognised as a Sensei formalises the student-teacher relationship.]

We had been training together for a few years before I began calling you Sensei Nadine instead of Nadine, but I don’t remember how it happened. When did you go from seeing yourself as a student of Ukidokan to a sensei of it? How does that formality happen?

When Sensei Benny recognised me as Shodan (black belt) level and people started calling me Sensei, it was in recognition that I know enough Ukidokan to teach it. By wearing the black belt, people should be looking to me as the example of how the technique should be done correctly, or someone who can answer questions. But I felt that it was something that would take a long time to grow and mature into. The first thing Sensei Benny said to me when I got my black belt was, “It’s given to you, but it can be taken away.” Don’t rest on your laurels, don’t think that you’re done. Through teaching, I understand myself better, my technique better. Teaching is satisfying and fascinating and helps me understand other people better. If you want to call me Sensei, sure – but it’s something that you feel. It’s not something I demand of anyone. I know who I am.

You have a reputation as a fighter, as well as an exceptional teacher and trainer in kickboxing, boxing and karate. You’ve gone from the gym to the TEDxSydney stage, written a book, and are now sought after for talks and workshops all over the world. How does your teaching and experience help people who have never, or would never, consider doing martial arts?

Fighting is a male-dominated sport, yet a lot of fighters would come to me to train. Looking back, I think it was because I taught students how to experience themselves physically as well as emotionally. At its foundation level it’s all the same. I hit the same nerves that I used to hit physically, but emotionally. Sensei Benny taught me to ask good questions: Who are you? Do you like you? Do you believe in you? What are you fighting for? What are you willing to do to get what you want? What do you need to work on? What’s holding you back? What are you afraid of? All these things come up in training, especially under pressure – you can connect mind, heart and body, all in one experience. Everyone has moments of confidence, moments of doubt. Fighting is a pressure situation that tests your belief system. What you think is possible for you, who you believe yourself to be: that creates your reality.

How do you know?

I’ve been testing the theory for years now. Watching the look on someone’s face when you ask them something that’s so simple, but no one’s ever asked them. Don’t ask 10 complex questions, ask one pointed question and then listen. That’s what gets people. The good bit for me was always the internal training. It wasn’t until I got cancer and the physical aspect of training was taken from me for a while, that I realised how much so. Watching people’s confidence grow, not just physically, but their ability to speak kindly about themselves and to forgive and let go of things. To get out of their own way and be a little bit braver.

We often think of teachers as people who exist mostly in schools, but what about outside of them, and after formal education?

There are so many different types of intelligence that shape what people believe about themselves. I learned the importance of education through feeling like I didn’t have enough of it. I left high school without finishing and went into the working world. After I got my black belt, Sensei Benny asked me, “Where are you holding yourself back? Now that you’ve achieved this thing, what else can you achieve? What do you want?” That’s one of the hardest questions to answer:

What do you want? What I wanted was a university degree, so that was my next achievement. I see that so often with people. Life has turned out a certain way but isn’t what people want for themselves. They’re capable of more. That’s where, as a teacher, I start fighting for people. I often fight people for themselves.

Wait, you fight people for themselves? Explain that.

I know you’re capable of more. You know you’re capable of more but maybe you’re afraid to admit it out loud. It’s easier if I don’t admit it. Even to myself. It’s not about achievement, it’s about being someone that you love to be, that you’re proud to be, that feels good to you. Or are you pretending not to know that you could do, be, feel more? That you deserve better?

That’s a scary question, I can see how people would resist that.

Yeah, it is. It’s confronting. Which is perfect for being in the ring.

The intensity of that experience is such a gift. I don’t think there’s a more honest place on Earth than being in a ring with another person. Don’t get me wrong, it can absolutely suck – but it’s so rare to really test yourself.

I call it the unequivocal truth. You can say whatever you want about how big and strong and tough and fast you are. But that is a place where you find out what you’re capable of. It’s easier to live in how you’d like to perceive yourself, but I think there’s real value in having the courage to face it. I know when I’ve run from myself, run from my truth, run from speaking the truth to others, it doesn’t get me anywhere good. I feel good in my life today. And that’s why I am happy to fight for people.

As big and tough and scary as UFC fighters look and sound, they often have an incredible sense of self that’s more akin to a yogi. Can you explain the Daily Five as a tool or protocol that anyone can use to develop that sense of self?

It’s a morning mindset set-up to establish your energy for the day. That’s the fight we were just talking about – you’re fighting for you. I’m going to go to bat for me. I’m going to actively do something to improve my state, which means I’ll improve my connection with those around me, with the world. I’m going to bring my best self to the front and move around as her today. The five things are simple. Deliberately so.

Number one is to say, “Thank you” out loud. You’re setting up your body chemistry. And not just repeating the words but connecting mentally to reasons to be grateful. I’d been doing that for a long time.

When I got sick it took on a new meaning, "Oh, thank you! I get to wake up today. I get to breathe today. I'll probably make it all the way through the day. And I'm well today." Being grateful for the most basic things, let alone all the good stuff. And fundamentally knowing that its hard to be sad, mad, bad, when you're actively grateful.

The second is asking for courage. You can ask yourself, your maker, the universe – whatever it is. It’s a reminder to be a little bit braver today by choice and not put off until tomorrow what you could do today. You do what you put off yesterday and lighten a weight you’ve been carrying.

That’s probably my favourite one of the Daily Five. I’ve used it when I’ve woken up and gone, “Yep, today’s the day.” And then follow through and it’s such a relief because the thing that you thought was scary, once you do it, it’s not that scary.

I’m known for talking about courage and resilience. As a little kid I’d swim alone in the pool and look behind me like there was a shark at the other end. I’m well placed to talk about courage because I have experienced my fair share of fear.

Wait, really?

Ask my wife! Oh, my goodness. I’ve always been cautious. I’ve always been risk-averse. I’m naturally geared to be aware of threat. I had to deliberately turn off my hyper-vigilance postcancer treatment.

Wow, okay. I’d never have described you as fearful.

Being hyper-vigilant made me good at things like body guarding. But I did have to learn to turn it off. Living in the city, life can be stressful and busy. And after the treatment I had to think about what I valued, what was worth fighting for. My priorities changed. What I was grateful for changed. The kind of courage I needed changed.

And the third of the Daily Five?

I had to really look at the third, which is forgiveness. Am I holding onto anything that is keeping me in a state of hyper-vigilance? That’s keeping me stressed? I don’t invite anyone into the shower with me.

What do you mean?

Are you ever in the shower, trying to go to sleep or washing the dishes when realise you’re arguing with someone in your head?

Mmm, yep.

You know, when you realise, Hang on, you’re not in the shower with me. Why am I bringing up that conversation from last year? Last week? When I was 10? Why am I bringing this back into the moment of today? Which is why daily forgiveness is so important. Forgiving yourself first and then forgiving other people. Because we’re all unsupervised little adults running around.

A good friend of mine often reminds me that nobody is allowed to live rent-free in my head. Is forgiveness about sending the eviction notice?

That’s it. I’ve got big feelings – if I’m mad, I’m mad. If you hurt me, you really hurt me. Forgiving myself and others daily is a tool that helps me let go of frustration with people, let go of hurt with people. But it starts with me first, quietening that inner voice. So often, the fight that I’m in with people is about protecting them from their own inner voice.

We say meaner things to ourselves than we ever would to other people, right?

My inner voice would beat me up over things. I see it constantly, especially with women. Recently someone was talking badly about themselves, and I had to interrupt and say, “Hey, don’t talk about her like that!” I said it in a joking way but also to make her aware that I would never speak to her that way. That ideally, she wouldn’t let other people talk to her that way, and question why she thinks it’s okay for her to speak to herself that way.

It often strikes me that the people who have a beautiful sense of self possession, really owning themselves, are the ones who have worked hardest for it. They’ve gone through hard emotions and tough experiences. They’ve won, they’ve lost, they know how to let go. They’re my favourite people.

There’s a big difference between people who face something difficult then learn and grow, rather than face a challenge and talk about what it cost them for the next year. Letting go of the pain and carrying the lesson takes work.

What’s number four?

Number four of the Daily Five is asking for clear sight – to see the good in me and in others.

Getting Hodgkin's Lymphoma in my 30s was not in my plan, but I don't take the sad story with me. The story that I choose to tell all the time, the conversation I have with myself, is about what it taught me. It's not about glossing over it. It's not about making it saccharine-sweet for me. It's about looking for the good in it. Looking for the good in how it changed me and how it changed the way I move in the world, and focusing on that part of it.

I clearly see the good in a situation that may have been challenging, rather than doing what our brain is conditioned to do – focus on the negative bits.

The first time I heard you say, “Don’t throw the pity party,” it resonated. Catching that feeling before showing up to the party can be really hard.

It’s self-awareness.

And the last of the Daily Five?

That is to have impeccable intentions. Move in the world with good intentions, heal yourself and other people. Try not to cause harm. Have we all done harm? Of course we all make mistakes. But the intention behind it matters. If your intentions are good, you learn from it. Or are you repeating mistakes over and over again? If I can learn a lesson, hopefully I can teach myself a new way of being. I can evolve, I can level up. I can share that a lived experience with other people. It’s up to them to work out if it’s right or wrong, or true for them.

What a fantastic gift as a teacher, not just to give the answer, but to provide the tools.

But how frustrating is it, Jess? Time and time again, the ones who are here for a good time won’t stay long enough if you don’t give them the answer, and that’s okay. The ones who are hungry to grow will stay through the frustration. Will ask the question 25 times and not be given the answer. And on the 26th time they figure it out for themselves. It’s so hard-won that they’ll never forget it.

 

But it’s so sweet when the penny finally drops, right?

The perfect example of that was when I was young, small and again a woman in a male-dominated field, I wanted to hold my own and be good enough. I was in front of one of the best fighters in the world and wanted his approval and hoped he would give it to me. I was used to being told I had some talent, and Sensei Benny didn’t do that. The more I wanted to know what he thought of me, the less he said. Imagine starting a new job in a high-pressure situation. You’re working with the best in the field and you’ve been there a year and the performance review rolls around. Instead of them telling you what they think of you, they ask you what you think of you. But they’re the best and you want to know, Am I good enough? Do I cut it? It was natural, especially when I was 22, to want that from someone who was considered an elite.

The more creative I became in seeking his approval, the more he just kept turning it back to me about whether I had my own approval. What I came to realise is, he loves what he does, and he loves me. And if he didn’t care as much as he did about building me and helping me to grow, he would have just given me what I wanted, which was his validation. But then that would have meant that my sense of self was based on his validation. Which means he can take that away from me as well.

That is real mastery.

When someone you deeply respect takes away your sense of self, you crumble. I’d already had that experience with having my sense of self broken down from a negative experience. I was taught how to build myself up from within. That way I didn’t need his approval any more. I knew within myself what I was worth, that I was good at this thing, and to what extent that mattered. After that it didn’t matter so much what he thought. And then it became obvious what he thought. He was complimentary when it didn’t matter any more.

What a perfect lesson. Thank you, Sensei.


Hear Dumbo Feather Editor Kirsty de Garis in conversation with Nadine Champion at the launch of Dumbo Feather issue 71 “Beyond Ego” on Tuesday 6 December in Sydney. RSVP essential.

Read the stories of other trailblazers reaching beyond our individual lives to deeply consider the wellbeing of the collective, the planet and all living things in Issue #71 of Dumbo Feather or find us at your local independent retailer. 

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