Our Namesake’s Roots in a Flexible, Unorthodox Art

If you have wondered why our program is named “Elemental” and what that means, you are not alone. Many of you who read these posts have a background in martial arts from the east Asian traditions, and, although you may know how elements play into understanding of problem-solving strategies, may wonder why it would be important for a sexual assault protection program to carry that title. In contrast, those who have interest and expertise in the science of sexual assault understanding and prevention may wonder what “elements” are and why we have found the model useful.

Different philosophical traditions—particularly those that are tied to ways of truth-seeking that predate modern scientific methods—have modeled the irreducibly fundamental components of the universe in different ways. For example, in the traditions of the ninja warriors of the Iga region of Japan, the energies of the universe could be conceptualized as five basic elements: earth, water, fire, wind, and “ku” (the last being a “great emptiness” from which the others are derived). For our purposes, each of these elements is associated with a different attitude and motion that is used in the course of solving a problem. If one is operating from the earth element, one is confident, commanding, and holds one’s ground. In contrast, if one is surprised, perhaps a bit unsure of oneself, and needs time to step back and strategize to respond to a problem, one is operating in water. If one is engaged, can see where things are headed, and knows what will happen next so well that moving forward and consuming space allows oneself to “snuff out” the problem before it grows, then one is operating in fire. If one is so compassionate that one is willing to abandon space in order to achieve one’s goals, then one is operating in wind. It is important to be able to pick the best solution to the problem based not only on one’s own feelings, but on the characteristics of the threat. After all, holding one’s ground (even if one’s usual, most comfortable operating mode is earth) would be a terrible idea when faced with a swinging wrecking ball or a speeding truck. Regardless of which element is chosen, the way in which that element is manifested need not be violent. The path to the ultimate goal may not require brutality, and, as such, focusing on the best way to attain that goal becomes most important. This makes right-mindedness—rather than physical technique—most critical.

One of the many things that we find fascinating about this is that, when it comes to teaching self-protection from sexual assault, we understand that students have different attitudes and the situations that they encounter have different requirements. Some students are confident, others need time to think and react, others are very engaged and are apt to recognize and shut down a problem early, and others just want to vanish in the breeze when trouble comes. An element-based art recognizes that all of these responses are valid and potentially effective. As such, both in word and in action, we feel that students are more apt to find parts of the curriculum that resonate with them (and with the needs of the situations that they face) when they are afforded flexibility and choice in response mode instead of being told that they must do defense “B” when faced with situation “A.” Moreover, because we focus on giving students the tools to accomplish their own ultimate objectives using nonviolent response options, they are empowered to try things that they are more likely to use. Moreover, they develop the sensitivity to deploy tactics earlier in interactions in order to avoid escalation to emergency levels. The goal, after all, is to empower students to find consent in their relationships and, when that is not possible, still return home happy, healthy, and safe.

~The Directors