That was all Sitpah Selvaratnam could think of when she received her black belt (1st dan) in aikido earlier this year. She’d done it!
And even though she’s an accomplished lawyer – many of us would remember her as the lawyer who led the team that successfully executed the arrest of Jho Low’s yacht Equanimity (and its eventual sale for US$126 million (RM514 million in 2019) – the achievement of being awarded a black belt in the Japanese martial art was in a league of its own, she says.
“All I could think was ‘Whoa. I did it’. It was amazing. I mean, I’ve achieved quite a few things in my life but this was a personal satisfaction on a whole different level. I’ve pushed myself beyond the limit for this, overcame my fears and danced with all these shadows that I hid within myself, so I felt tremendous satisfaction and achievement.
“And I felt strong. Really strong,” says Sitpah, who is 58.
“I also learnt that I am the oldest (in the group) to receive a black belt!” she says with pride.
She posted some photos of her black belt ranking assessment on her Facebook page and was pleasantly surprised to read the many positive comments.
“I didn’t even know they were taking photos but when I saw the photos, I was pretty impressed with myself. I didn’t look too bad. In fact, my form looked quite good,” she says with a laugh.
Her gratitude, she says, goes to her sensei, Sonny Loke, who believed in her even when she didn’t.
“I started learning aikido 13 years ago. At the time, I was taking my son to join a dojo (training school) but when I saw the mats, I got excited. It took me back to when I was in university – 25 years ago – when I learnt karate. So I decided to learn aikido with my son, especially since I saw some mature ladies doing it. I was 45 years at that time,” she shares.
Taking a back seat
In 2018, she stopped her training because she was bogged down with work – she was working on the Equanimity case. It turned out, she took a four-year break from the sport she loved dearly.
“I was so busy with work I stopped training. And then, because of Covid-19, I ended up stopping for four years. I could really feel myself getting physically weaker, maybe combined with ageing as well. The turning point which made my eldest daughter suggest I go back to aikido, was when we were on a family holiday and I couldn’t even pull my luggage. And I’m usually the person who is very energetic. I can pull my own bags without any trouble. This time, I pulled but the bags didn’t move.
“So with a lot of trepidation I went back to the dojo. I was older and I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to get back into it. But my sensei was brilliant and he gently guided me back,” shares the mother of three.
When she resumed training, she didn’t think she would go for a black belt.
“I just wanted to get stronger. At the time, I was at the 3rd kyu (brown belt) with three more steps to get a black belt. But, my sensei believed in me and somehow, I did it in 1.5 years. That gave me so much confidence and now, I feel that I can take on anything. I feel that I will be able to manage any challenge and situation that comes my way,” she says.
One with the art form
When she first went on the mats in 2013, she didn’t know much about aikido other than that it was one of the gentler martial art forms which didn’t require physical strength.
“It uses the energy of your opponent which you receive and then turn it back on them. Well, that’s about as much as I knew about aikido then,” she says.
Her aikido journey wasn’t easy, she admits, because she had to overcome some of her own fears.
“There were lots of challenges and at times, I thought maybe this wasn’t for me because of my age. I was never a sporty person. I sucked at sport. It was only when I did karate that I found I was good at it.
“However, at 45, I was not agile, my stamina was not good and I had a fear of rolling over my head and other fears that I had to overcome. But slowly, with the encouragement of my sensei, I progressed. It still is challenging but I find it quite thrilling to have someone come at you and not run away, as you normally would instinctively. And it’s also thrilling to learn how to receive the attack and ‘blend’ with the person.
“There is really so much subtlety to aikido and I suppose that’s why it takes years to master,” she says.
Aikido, she stresses, isn’t a form of martial art that relies on physical strength. In fact, you basically ‘smile’ at your opponent. You disarm them, receive their energy, harmonise it, blend it and send it back,” she explains.
According to the Yoshinkan Aikido Malaysia , the most fundamental concept of aikido is “harmonising” with an opponent. What this means is that an exponent of aikido will use the force of an attack against the aggressor to apply a lock, throw or pin.
When pulled, the aikidoka (practitioner of aikido) moves forward in the direction of the attack. When pushed, the aikidoka pivots out of the way. Aikido enables one to redirect the force of the attack until it is no longer a threat. In this weakened position, the attacker then becomes vulnerable to various forms of throws or controls (ways of directing an attacker to a final pin).
It sounds very contradictory and even mystical, but Sitpah says that therein lies the “magic of aikido”.
“The principles of aikido really resonated with me and taught me how I could handle myself in my profession and life. Its philosophy is everything that I aspire to be: firm and yet a soft and kind person with a heart. This is the practicality of aikido, to be firm and to relax. It is a juxtaposition, contrast and contradiction that works.”
“I mean my job is all about disputes and resolutions and although applying harmonious confrontation in court is hard, I try to employ these tactics so that I still say what I want to say, in a nicer way,” she says.
Aikido, she reckons, is very suitable for women of any age.
“Aikido is absolutely perfect for small people. I am less than 1.5m tall and I am not physically strong and yet, with training, I have the confidence that I can control any situation. Even with simple techniques – because even one technique is enough to save you – you will have that confidence and strength and, of course, if you keep training, you will be more confident in mastering this energy..”
“Men tend to rely a lot on strength and force which women don’t really have, but we can rely on our inner strength which is what aikido is about,” she says.
Aikido, she says, has also helped her gain her self-belief and confidence back post-menopause.
“I never understood the ageing process until very recently. I never appreciated when my mum or sister were ageing but ageing makes you lose sense of who you are. You are not the same person both physically and also in terms of mental alertness. I value my inner wisdom more and aikido has helped remind me of my inner strength. We don’t have to keep doing what we did before or look how we did before to be strong, beautiful and graceful.”
Sitpah still trains two to three times a week.
“Now is when the subtle training begins and I am looking forward to it. It has been 13 years, and despite the breaks and bumps, I keep coming back. It is addictive to challenge yourself, to get better, stronger and more confident. Plus, it is an art of self-defence which is very important.” she concludes.