Columbia University Sensei Bonnie Baker


Ask Sensei Bonnie Baker about the Plexiglas® rod stowed up her sleeve and she’ll reply, “It’s for an art project,” but her karate students know what it’s really for.

plexiglass rod

“I practice dropping it and catching it in my hand,” said Sensei Baker. She can easily conceal the foot-long Plexiglas® rod she bought for self-defense and also wield it at the drop of a pin to open a major can of whup-ass. Luckily for all the villains out there, she has never used it.

Baker is a sixth degree blackbelt who has trained in Goju-Ryu karate for over 30 years and has taught at Columbia University for more than 18. She can be spotted in the Dodge Physical Fitness Center showing her pupils how to respond to a stranger’s “What time is it?” without regaining consciousness in the back of an unmarked white van and how to collapse a thug’s trachea with the spine of a book. Today, her hair is silver grey but her eyes are still clear and penetrating.

gi and book

When I signed up for Karate 101, I imagined my instructor warning the class, “Do not do this in the streets. If you find yourself in a street fight, just run and then call the cops.” To my delight, I was wrong.

One of Sensei Baker’s first assignments was for us to stand on the street, while channelling the mind of a criminal, and pick out innocent passersby for potential robberies, murders, and rapes. It was the most exciting homework assignment I’d ever received, and I carried it out with child like enthusiasm.

Indeed, how can a beginner not be awed upon entering world of martial arts? There is so much to learn.


Goju-ryu is Japanese for “hard-soft style,” a fighting method reflected in its combination of closed and open hand techniques, linear attacks and circular movements. Founded by the adopted son of a wealthy businessman, Goju-ryu was established by Okinawan Japanese, many of whom traveled to China to learn from Fujianese martial arts masters.

Like the style of karate that she has devoted much of her life to honing and teaching, Sensei Baker is firm yet compassionate. She doesn’t allow our heads to touch the ground while we do sit ups, but this habit will perhaps one day deliver us from harm as it did when one of her students fell from a ladder and remembered to tighten his neck upon landing. He walked away, skull intact.