Ashley Stiles swings arm during martial arts exercise.
Ashley Stiles swings arm during martial arts exercise.

At 14, Ashley Stiles has four years of teaching martial arts under her (brown) belt. It’s a discipline she has practiced since she was 7.

“At first it was honestly the cool display in the window and a wicked fun game of Monkey Tag that interested me in martial arts," says the strong, wiry Stiles, a freshman at St. Mary's Academy. "I loved it from the beginning. It feels good in the studio — it feels like love and joy and strength. I love the smell and the sound and ... everything about it.”

Her favorite type of martial art, because of its form and emphasis on collaboration, is called Poekoelan Tjimindie Tulen.

Tulen is a team sport in a world that's usually individual.

"We support each other, teach each other, practice with each other, encourage each other and push each other to be the best that we can be,” Stiles says.

She received her brown belt at 11 after a rigorous 24-hour test including 12 hours of physical activity, followed by 12 hours of meditation.

She was worried at first, but at four hours in, she stopped thinking and worry about what would come next and focused on the present.

"I felt the most amazing feeling of love," she says. "I had something amazing to offer the world, and even though other people could do the forms, no one else could do the forms the way I was doing them because I was the only me."

The next thing she knew, the instructors were wrapping the brown sash around her waist.
Stiles is preparing to test for her black belt this fall, which consists of a 48-hour test with 24 hours of physical activity followed by 24 hours of meditation. She is apprehensive, but hopes to find the same love and joy to bring her through.

"I know the self-discipline, strength, practice, perseverance and patience will help me face any challenges I might have at SMA," she says of her first year at the Catholic school for girls.

She chose St. Mary's because she wanted a place that would allow her to be creative, athletic and continue to work in social justice.

Stiles last summer made a two-week trip to South Africa as a student ambassador. This trip included working in one of the poorest areas of the nation with orphans and street youths.