Over 40 years ago, Jaye Spiro was a victim of violence. As with many survivors, it changed her in ways she couldn’t imagine at the time. In fact, it decided her entire career as a martial artist.
“My first interest had to do with self defense,” Spiro explains from her home in downtown Ferndale, just minutes from her studio on Nine Mile Road.
“I was not satisfied living in fear, but I was very, very afraid after I had been in a situation in which I was injured. I looked to the martial arts to increase my confidence and reduce my fear.”
But her practice of the art went much, much further than that. Fear gone, confidence up, she began a journey of mastering karate and modern arnis – a type of Philippino stick fighting – that would lead to owning her own studio, Mejishi Martial Arts, where she has been teaching others for over 30 years the things she knows so well: self-empowerment, determination and appreciation of the people around you, no matter how different they may be.
Spiro has both a great understanding and a great love for martial arts, which makes her the perfect teacher to inspire those qualities in her students. But, now in her 60s, she realizes that not everyone comes to Mejishi to earn a black belt. “People who come for self-defense want something short term, usually, like I did,” she says. “You’re afraid, you want some tools and self-defense basically gives you those survival skills – like taking a first-aid class.”
Self-defense tools are important, says Spiro, but something much more powerful also happens when practicing at Mejishi: “People think you do martial arts to learn to fight, to defend, but then it develops into learning how to have control of yourself in all kinds of situations; understanding what you can’t control, that there’s things you have to accept and look for the freedom – not only physically, but mentally and emotionally – that exists whenever we’re confronted with situations in our lives.”
The mental component of martial arts, explains Spiro, creates both inner peace and control, as well as peace with the world around you. Like yoga, or running, the meditation that comes with practice is an unexpected benefit. “It has a very strong connection with Zen Buddhism, which helps people just to breathe and be in the present moment and be alive and aware and deal with their fear, their anger,” she adds.
That fear and anger spawns hatred of and prejudice toward others. Understanding that helps to see why a practice like martial arts – and a place like Mejishi – creates a sense of community that rarely exists outside of our purest hopes for society. It’s a place where black and white, gay and straight, young and old co-mingle; friendship is never forced, just formed, and diversity is a fact instead of a goal.
And it’s what Spiro always hoped for in her studio, which bears the sign – figuratively and literally – “You are welcome at Mejishi Martial Arts.”
“It’s very important to me that I have a diverse community,” she states. “Mejishi has a large African-American population that attends and I like it like that. I also want to have straight people. And I really love teaching children.”
At the heart of it all is a largely lesbian staff, including Spiro and her partner, who often greets students and parents at the door of Mejishi. Though straight employees and students are in abundance, Spiro sees the lesbian leadership – and the gay students who master the art – as both a sign of competence to the martial arts world and a proud component of the LGBT community.
“There’s a very strong lesbian leadership at Mejishi … and I think that there are role models there for young dykes,” Spiro says. “I have my first gay male black belt now, and I think that seeing proficient gay people who are competent black belts is good for the community, and younger gay people feel like they have something to aspire toward.”
Even if students just want to build confidence or get in shape, there’s no telling where one karate class may lead.