Eight or so years ago, Janet Sleigh stood in her kitchen, -bemoaning her whacked-out hormones, her arthritic fingers, and her squishy postpartum belly of two years. A friend who was a frequent health-and-fitness confidant suggested she get back into yoga. Or go to the gym. Or had she ever considered karate?
Living in England at the time, the then 47-year-old Sleigh balked. “I said, ‘Are you kidding? Do you think I would put myself in a room full of sweaty Englishmen, grunting around?’” Her friend, Paul -Laviola, reassured her that the karate master he had in mind was -different: Paul Perry’s 8th dan black belt Shotokan karate practice was precise, disciplined, and spiritual.
Laviola dialed Perry then and there, and the sensei immediately honed in on Sleigh’s hormone situation. “I thought that this guy must really be something if he was talking female hormones to me,” Sleigh recalls. “English men of any description just don’t!” By the time they hung up, Sleigh had an appointment with her new karate instructor.
Her path to physical and spiritual healing had just gotten much clearer.
Early in life, Sleigh recognized that she was a deeply sympathetic and empathetic person. “I was very intuitive and I didn’t know what to do with that,” she recalls. “My parents noticed that I was like a magnet for people in need, and that it was a great gift . . . it was something I should cultivate.” But Sleigh had no idea how to do that, and she spent much of her life feeling out of place. She said a voice in the back of her mind would say, “Janet, there are other people who are happy; you can be happy, too. There are other people who have your gift who find out what they’re useful for; you can do it, too.”
It was Sensei Perry who accompanied Sleigh on a decade-long quest to discover how to use her emotional gifts. Now, she instructs women in her own dojo in southern Vermont.
“What I now know is that when the body makes perfect movements, with power and unity, we can unlock and unblock years of emotional gunk,” Sleigh says. “This is living, breathing psych-physical therapy. . . . The movements, pure and beautiful to perform, react with the nervous system, which in turn releases the muscles and the constant brain talk.
“You have to be so disciplined, firstly, to want to keep moving toward a sense of wholeness and freedom in your body,” Sleigh explains. “You have to work very hard at connecting the body system as a whole. As you free your body, you free your mind.
“Emotions tend to clog up around the hips and shoulders, and nothing moves in between. If you are not encouraged to work and move and unite the hip and shoulder girdles, spiritually you can’t move on,” Sleigh says. She and Sensei Perry worked those areas of her body extensively. “We would get into the shoulders and hips and into an emotional state pretty quickly,” she recalls. “For the first four years, I cried a lot. I had all sorts of crap that was coming up: emotions about myself, my marriage, my husband’s working and my having to stay home.” Sleigh worried that she might reach the point where she’d have to tell her husband, Russ, she wanted out of their nearly 20-year marriage. “That was really hard. I wanted to be free from the emotional stuff. I knew I could either shut the door on it, or move through it and just be brave. Every step of the way, my husband was right behind me, nudging me, telling me we’d work with it.”
With support from Sensei Perry and Russ, Sleigh rooted out long-buried demons, skeletons, and shadows from her past. She trained intensely, sometimes mostly talking, other times pulling the emotional debris out of her body with one controlled, powerful movement at a time. “I was so much freer — emotionally free. I wasn’t afraid anymore.”
Eventually, Sleigh began to feel like a mythical phoenix — crashing, burning, then rising again from the ashes of old emotions purged from her body and her heart. Each time, she felt a little better. In time, she grew comfortable with the intuitive ability that had so awkwardly defined her teen years. Sensei Perry and his wife, Michelle, began to train Sleigh to become a teacher through his Jin Sei Kai organization.
The martial arts are about letting go of energy, and that means connecting to your emotions, says Sleigh, who has taught at her own dojo for two years. “As a woman, you can’t use your hands and arms to do your pounding. You can’t beat a man, muscle for muscle. I am five foot five and 117 pounds, so I have to be technically precise and in alignment so that when I punch, it is with energy more so than with body mass. Every martial artist attempts to free [himself] to such a point where [he] can build energy from the ground up, through the legs, the torso, and out through the arms.” Women, Sleigh has noticed, are especially adept at accessing this kind of power. Three days a week, she works with a group of mostly 40-something women at her dojo Jin Sei Kai, sharing the expertise of her 2nd dan belt, as well as training her students in yoga, Pilates, and weights.
Sleigh says of her journey, “I was so keen to get out of my body and into my spiritual side, but you can’t do that because you inhabit a physical body, and you live a physical existence. I learned to open spiritually and gained the most amazing amount of conscious awareness by doing a very physical activity that had a spiritual drive behind it.
“Big emotional stuff tends to sit in the hips and shoulders. As women, especially after having children and after 40, we hold ourselves in by our tummy. But you have to relax the tummy to get oxygen into the vital organs there. When that begins to happen, the body loosens, old emotional stuff is [released], and that tends to clear up a lot of psychological stuff.”
And that’s when the really good stuff starts to happen, Sleigh says. “Then, you can begin to free the spirit.”
Jennifer Derryberry Mann writes, edits, and teaches yoga in Athens, Georgia.