Nina Henrikson: Crafting An Alternative Life Path
“I always say if my life ends tomorrow I have no regrets.”
This is a story about sticking to your guns.
Last month I sat down for a video hang-out with Nina Henrikson, martial arts instructor, and listened to her remarkable yet completely ordinary story of self-heroism. “Hero” isn’t a word she uses to describe herself, but I do.
Her heroism is the I-will-trust-myself-come-hell-or-high-water kind.
The hero in her is always brewing beneath the surface, always working and always looking forward, never willing to betray her own intuition.
Nina shared with me the story of the challenges she faced starting as a young girl- challenges similar to ones many of us have faced- how they shaped her, how they frustrated her, how she followed her heart in spite of them, and how martial arts became her ultimate path.
Ever since she escaped a dangerous situation using what she’d learned in martial arts classes as a young woman, she’s dedicated herself to teaching martial arts. “Get ‘em young” is her mission. She teaches kids and adults the skills and wisdom that she knows are essential to holding your own in life.
At first glance you might assume Nina had it all. She grew up in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, a wealthy community. But her observations will disabuse you of any misguided beliefs.
“It was such an intense session in money does not buy happiness,” She says. Where there was money, there was also painful disconnection, unmet needs for love, and mental illness all around.
In the mid-eighties in Cape Elizabeth, divorce was still something people whispered about. When Nina’s parents split up, she was eight years old. Unable to focus during school, and without effective enough supports to process the loss and life change, she was quickly mistyped as “learning disabled” and taken out of her class from first to fourth grade.
Placed in a small group of children with different learning needs, she wore dresses every day to school, hoping to convince everyone around her (and herself) that everything was just fine.
But Nina wasn’t learning disabled, and being placed in that class excluded her and made her (and probably the others too) feel alienated. She began to see herself and someone who just wasn’t smart.
“I look back now and I’m like of course I couldn’t think, nothing was stabilized at home.” But meanwhile, she was routinely asked to teach the lesson to the other kids in the room.
“The teachers were like, well, Nina’s got it, let her share it. The other kids seemed learn it with more ease, because I was their age and could relate to them.”
“I remember I was in the third grade… [with] one of my teachers yelling at a kid when they got something wrong, and thinking, ‘that is not going to help them.’” She laughs. She recalls how at that age, she knew she wanted to be a teacher. Her dedication to teaching is obvious even in her journal writing at the time.
“I think that’s one piece that’s kind of a common thread through my journey.”
Her sense of being an outsider- or not quite being the right fit- ever since she was taken out of her class- is also a thread. Gradually, through time, and by following her inner voice, Nina grew from feeling casted as different to knowing her strengths and finding where she and her gifts belonged.
The seed of martial arts was planted early. As a youngster, she read books like “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” by Dan Milman. At that age, she was drawn to the teachings of martial arts- not yet through classes, because she hadn’t been exposed to them- but the wisdom behind it. She craved it.
“When am I gonna find my teacher?” She thought. “Like, I need a teacher, I need that guide. And, I knew it was way beyond my parents, I knew it was beyond who was in my life a the time, as teachers and leaders in that way.”
Later on, in high school, after she had become a committed and highly valued soccer player and diver, a martial arts studio opened up right down the street. She felt the pull.
Even then, before having started taking classes, she could tell the difference between her dedication to soccer and diving and her overwhelming draw toward martial arts.
Nonetheless, she decided she had to follow through on her prior commitments. “In the back of my mind there was this wanting and yearning to do the martial arts, but I didn’t give myself permission… and it wasn’t until I was getting ready to go off to college that I took an aerobics self-defense class.”
That’s when she learned about the Three Circles of Awareness, something that eventually gave her the conviction that teaching martial arts was her path in life. As I listened to her describe this, I immediately saw how useful it is, and wished I’d learned it at that age, too. The Three Circles of Awareness is a teaching metaphor trademarked by Riverview Martial Arts.
“Your first circle of awareness is your gut feeling, or your intuitive circle,” she says. “That’s when the hairs go up on the back of your neck.”
It’s like when you’re watching a movie, she says, and when “that music comes on, you know something bad is about to happen. But it doesn’t have to be bad, it could be something really good is about to happen.”
“The intuitive circle has no boundaries,” she says. It’s those moments when the phone rings and you already know who it is. Whether good or bad, your first circle awareness is an alert system to listen to.
Your second circle of awareness is where you get confirmation of your intuition. It’s what you can see and hear; it’s objective reality. Seeing your aunt’s name on caller ID, confirming your intuition that it was her calling, would be your second circle of awareness.
Within your second circle, you have choices. You can choose your actions based on confirmations you get.
And your third circle is your wingspan. Material reality within arm’s reach. When a threat breaks through your first circle and your second circle, you need to move, or defend yourself.
At eighteen, Nina used the three circles of awareness to get herself out of a potentially dangerous situation, one night when she was at a bar with friends.
She was traveling in a foreign country with her competitive soccer player boyfriend. It was late, and she and her friend at the bar wanted to go home. They needed a ride, and asked the bar keeper to use a phone to call a friend.
Two guys brought her and her friend to the back of the bar, through a private back door that visually blended with the wall, concealing the fact that it was a door.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” she says, because I needed to use the phone… but the lighting was different, the feeling was different, and there were these red lights, and then I started having these flash images, I was seeing things that were really not cool, and when I turned around to leave, there was no door knob. Where I had entered there was not a door.”
“I panicked, and some guy was like ‘she’s no fun, get her out of here.’ And to me, that was my second confirmation. That was my second circle of awareness… That was confirming that my gut feeling was right.”
“And then I kept my arms length- my last circle of awareness that hopefully you’ll never have to use- and I got my last circle out of that dangerous environment.” She banged and kicked at the door until someone let her out.
If she hadn’t known about the three circles before she left for New Zealand, she says, she wouldn’t have trusted her intuition. Many of us don’t do it enough.
“I think that for women, a lot of times we get pressured by energy, verbally or physically, and we don’t feel like we’re allowed to move. We have to stay there and take it. [But] we can leave. We can move. We can take a step back, we can take a step to the side, just enough to get us out of that feeling of vulnerability.”
After that experience in the bar, she knew she had to commit her life to sharing this knowledge.
But landing a sustainable career on this path didn’t come immediately, or easily. There was no path in front of her that felt right. She knew in her twenties that teaching was her calling, and went back to school for sociology after taking time off.
There, as she learned about school systems in America really worked, she felt herself hitting a dead-end. Her impression was: “well, that’s not me. I can’t do that. I can’t fit into that cookie cutter. I don’t fit.”
And yet, that seemed to be the only path in teaching available to her, except for one alternative- Riverview Martial Arts.
Her instinct was that this was the right fit for her, and her conviction was growing, but there were no paid working opportunities there, only teaching roles filled by experts with ten to fifteen years of experience. “They’re just these amazing people, I could never been one of them.”
But she found her own way to stick with it. “I’m gonna try to support them,” she decided.
She involved herself however she could. “I volunteered to help with all the community service events, I volunteered to help clean the place, I stayed after to clean toilets, like I did anything I could to give back, to support that mission.”
Her paid career in teaching Martial Arts may have been out of reach, but she acted on her heart’s calling in any way she could.
She also taught through their after school program, which was state funded. “I’d nanny all day, 7-2, and then I’d was off to teach from 2:30-8:30 at night. I was just like everyday, volunteering, and teaching all the classes I could, or assisting them at the time.”
Fast forward ten years, during which her dedication remained and she continued to volunteer. In that ten years she’d learned exactly why teaching in the system was not for her. Although she’d successfully launched a community learning center and had become a valued employee of the state, she’d experienced the flaws in the system first hand.
She couldn’t shake her frustration, thinking “It’s not enough money, the kids need something different, you’re making the people your’e paying do all this extra work so they’re not connecting with human beings… it was just horrible.”
“But then I was able to understand why my teachers were the way they were… So I started having compassion and understanding for the adults I was in judgment of when I was younger.”
Still, she was indignant. She couldn’t skip over the glaring, basic human needs that were not being met. Her kids were hungry. Their families couldn’t afford to feed them well enough. The system did not make sense to her, and she knew she could be making a much bigger impact on these kids.
Finally, after over a decade of sticking with it, yet not abandoning her heart’s mission, she reached a critical fork in the road. Even though she felt the system wasn’t a good fit for her, she’d excelled in it, and also held it accountable.
After an arduous and conflict-ridden appeal for funding where she proved herself more to be more than a worthy leader, she was offered a position by the state.
And that’s when things opened up for her at Riverview. She’d put in so much time, and nurtured relationships there with such sincerity and integrity that they didn’t want to see her go, and she felt no desire to go deeper into the public education system. So what did she do? She partnered with the organization to create a position for herself.
The fire inside her had been burning so long, and she’d accumulated such valuable knowledge and experience in her decade of navigating the education system, that she knew exactly what programs Riverview needed and that she wanted to start.
She’d learned the importance of early childhood education, and so she created a youth program to “get ‘em young.” She started the Tiger Tots for children ages 18 months-3 and L’il Dragons, for ages 3-5. She also used her observation of parent interests and needs (they needed marital-arts based exercise classes) and created a program called Chi Life for them, too.
When I spoke with Nina, I felt her fire. This is someone with incredible passion and endless energy now that she’s built a career for herself that is the exact fit for her. And she’s making the impact that she is uniquely capable of. She is brimming with wisdom. I’m blown away by her.
“One of the gifts of the martial arts is that it allows you to focus on the positives. Focus on your strengths and what you can do to make them stronger,” she says. This isn’t only ancient martial arts wisdom. It’s also a good summary of her life so far.