Thursday, March 11, 2010

My First Self-Defense Class


A few months after I started taking karate lessons, I attended a women’s self-defense seminar taught by Sensei Bobbi Snyder. I am not going to deny that I was nervous. I had never been to a self-defense seminar and I did not know what to expect. I was familiar with karate classes but somehow I knew this seminar would be nothing like the dojo.

The class was held off-site at a local university. There were approximately ten participants with various levels of karate experience. The session was in three parts…lecture, self-defense techniques and a discussion. If I would have to describe the class in one word, it would be INTENSE. I do not remember which techniques were taught. I am not certain about what was covered in the lecture. However, I remember almost every detail of the discussion.

You see this discussion forever change my worldview. I walked into the seminar a shy, slightly naive and somewhat sheltered young adult. I walked out of this seminar shocked and more aware. During the discussion, the women recounted stories of rape, abuse, incest, violence and victimization. I sat silently and my heart broke for these women.

I need to share something important. Despite the horrible experiences…these women were brave, strong and resilient. They sat among a circle of strangers and bared their souls. They were regaining control of their lives. These women were not victims...they are survivors.

I left the self-defense session emotionally drained. I remember calling my parents to thank them. I thanked my Dad for being one of the “good guys”. I thanked my Mom for being a strong woman and a role model.

It was a while before I attended another self-defense session. Through the years, I have attended my fair share of women’s self-defense seminars. I can even say that I taught a few.


No other session affected me as much as this first one.


Anonymous said...

Interesting story, I can imagine that class must have been a very intense & emotional experience. Violence, abuse & rape are an all too common occurrence and women tend to be singled out more often than men because they’re physically weaker and generally more easy-going/accommodating. As a man it’s revolting to me whenever I hear a grown man beating or abusing a woman: it’s cowardly and it’s completely contrary to the traditional role of the male as the defender. My ex-gf was regularly intimidated and even physically assaulted by a former boyfriend, as a result she lost faith in men and found it hard to trust them. Although we’re no longer together and we had our share of hardships I always treated her with respect and always valued her as a person and that helped her regain perspective and not give up hope on love and happiness. Nobody deserves to be treated like dirt (certainly not such a wonderful person as her), initiating violence is just immoral and hitting someone weaker than you is just despicable. Whenever I hear of a woman abused or raped I can’t help but feel a bit ashamed for my gender, even though it’s clear the vast majority of men are decent and well-meaning.

Anyway, this rather personal story is not the reason why I’m writing this comment. In the long run (after I’ve acquired some more experience and rank in the arts) I’d like to organize self-defense classes for women to help ameliorate this problem. However I am aware of the special nature of such classes as opposed to regular martial arts training, this is why I have a few questions for you.

1) Do you think it’s appropriate and conductive for a man to run a women’s self-defense class? I think it’d be difficult for women to relate such personal stories or overcome difficulties when it’s a man teaching. At the same time self-defense classes are not psychotherapy but I’d want the women to feel comfortable and safe, especially those who have had negative experiences with men in their past.

2) Can you recommend ways to approach women in order to accomplish that goal? Should men and women be treated differently in training and are there ways to better motivate and teach women? My experience in class is that it’s rather difficult to get women to put intent in their counterattacks and to deal with a higher level of intensity in attacks (they usually shy away), yet in order to successfully defend yourself you must become tough and be able to summon aggression in a heartbeat. Given the notorious problem of the incompatibility of male and female ways of thinking this puzzles me and to be frank I don’t really know how to deal with this. If I press the issue too hard I’ll be hated, if I let them continue they won’t be prepared for the reality of violence (sudden, shocking & ruthless). This would be an even greater problem if you only have hours to teach them something useful as opposed to months or even years.



Tom said...

My name is Thomas and I am Michele's husband. She asked me to respond to your comment because I have very strong feelings about domestic violence, teaching self defense, what’s appropriate and what is it to be successful. Besides teaching self defense classes for more than a decade I have been sought out by schools, womens groups, girl scouts to teach the way I teach. Any karate person can teach the physical movements of a womens self defense class but what makes it special and successful is knowledge and experience in what is real life dynamics and what is just "Womens self defense 101", the status quo.

Let’s start at the beginning, your heart is in the right place and I commend you. You know someone that was attacked, let your understanding and sympathy, your embarrassment by what our gender can do to drive you to make a change. For me it was a very close friend getting raped. Since then it has been the scores of women that I met that had been assaulted. I volunteered at a womens crisis center and became a certified counselor in domestic violence and sexual assault. Every man should have to do that.

Question #1 - to successfully teach a true womens self defense class you want them to walk out feeling like that there are things they can do besides becoming a victim, you build confidence, you let them know that they are worth fighting for, keep to the basics (if they can't remember it when they walk out then it’s not effective. I start each session off with a little about my background, why I have an interest in helping them, and although I obviously can't relate to what they have been through or what things they have to deal with I can reassure them that I will listen and we will grow together through it.

Let me sidetrack for a second. What we are dealing with is subtle and I could write a volume about. There are many trips and nuances. Ultimately, it’s for them and not for you so make sure they feel and know you are there for them. When I said you need to build confidence, I meant an awareness that there are things that will work and that they are not defenseless. Anyone being attacked should psychologically be prepared for some injury. The commercialized glam courses that I won't name make women feel like if a guy grabs them they will whip them just like the guy wearing all the body armor. Very Bad

Tom said...

Question #2
Do a lot of reading and understanding of what is real. There are different attack scenarios based on age. A quick example would be teaching younger kids stranger awareness, mindful of abductions and molestations. Teenage/college girls are more likely to be attacked by a "friend" or boyfriend, relative, rather than a complete stranger. Adult women need to worry about spouse/partner, co-workers etc.. So when you really look at it, the types of self defense moves that cause major damage are statistically ineffective because most of the time the person knows the attacker and is not going to fire off a primary strike. 90% of self defense is awareness, not putting themselves in high risk situations. The times that are physical are usually grabs, being pushed down and held down. I always ask the women what situations are they worried about. It’s all fine and good to teach what I have seen and understand but it doesn't help the woman that has something on her mind that we didn't cover because we didn't ask. Asking also opens up trust. I will teach a general womens self defense class with students around but if I am covering specifically sexual assaults all kids and men are out. Another major thing to consider is you will likely have someone there that has already been assaulted so don't force people into uncomfortable situations that could cause flashbacks. If you are doing something and you need to demonstrate and you are asking a woman/girl to help, before I go near them or touch I ask if they are ok with me touching them.

You raise a very valid point about getting them to have the internal spark to do what they have to in a moment of crisis. They will, most likely, in the 3 hrs say you have with them, always be shy about doing power techniques - it’s ok. Sit them down let them know that they can be the nicest, most gentle person in the world but when someone crosses the line you need to change your focus and go to some other place and it’s ok to do that. Let them know that it’s ok to be angry if they are abused.

You also mention the worry about if you don't press them they won't be ready for the (sudden, shocking and ruthless). Perfect - well stated point. But without years of physical training they can't get that way, you need to tell them that it is sudden, shocking and ruthless. Don't let them leave your building thinking if they get attacked they will get away uninjured. If they do get hurt the shock will shut their bodies down. It is a very well known tactic for men to just walk up and BAM crack their target hard so that there is instant compliance.

Tom said...

Every time I witness physical or verbal abuse of a woman, child, the elderly or even an animal I have stopped it. Every time I do it I expect to get hurt so then if I take a shot it’s not a surprise.

Traditional side note - been doing traditional 30 years and love kata, some people argue kata is useless. If you don't know how or why then it is but there must have been some reason all those great masters did it. For me the yoi position is my internal switch. I'm calm, casual but when I do kata and I hit that yoi nothing else exists but the defeat of my attacker. I have hard, powerful kata.

For me how that translates is when I did crisis intervention work and have been attacked its throwing that internal switch that saved me.

I don't care if it’s a gun, knife, mace, karate or whatever your weapon of choice is, if when the moment comes in crisis for you to act if you hesitate you lose.

I would be more than happy to share as much info that you want or answer any other questions.

If you don't mind me sharing some personal ethical perspectives.

I never charge for womens self defense classes because I feel hypocritical that money takes precedent over a woman’s safety.

I always allow anyone to come back for free follow ups or questions.

One day society needs to understand that there should be no need for womens self defense. They should have a given right to a safe, happy life. We need to teach all children in early health classes the rules of a healthy relationship dynamic. Tell boys it’s wrong to abuse. Its garbage making it a woman's responsibility to recognize an abusive relationship or learn how to defend themselves.

FredInChina said...

..."I do not remember which techniques were taught. I am not certain about what was covered in the lecture. However, I remember almost every detail of the discussion."...

Hummm, Sue, this is a very interesting topic you chose today and a difficult one too as most people are not ready to do what it takes to defend themselves.

I would like to ask you, very candidly, how this SD seminar and the following you attended or taught have helped you not becoming a victim should the situation arise?

(PS, I'd leave comments more often, except that I don't seem to be able to access your blog from China any longer; I get your posts from RSS... I am taking the chance that I am in Singapore on a short visit to participate in the discussion.)


Felicia said...

Excellent topic, Michele. Thanks, Thomas, for answering Zara's questions so thoroughly.

There was abuse in my first marriage and I was also molested as a child. I've only been training in karate for about 5.5 years, but the idea of teaching women's self-defense has been a strong one for me. In fact, I'm taking my first class in October. But I would love to come to your class, Thomas! You sound like an amazing instructor.

Appreciate you posting on this topic, Michele.

Narda said...

Good post and excellent responses.

In general, I was against martial artists teaching self-defense targeted to women because much of the martial arts that is 'out there' is... well... 'out there'. It seems logical that bad MA as a base can only result in bad SD.

As a female that has experienced real violence, I also initially had a negative opinion about 'just say 'NO' classes. *roll eyes* But after going through a R.A.D. class (put on by the local police dept.), my thinking has completely changed; Even with the limitations ('rape' parameter), I saw the value in these classes, and really encourage EVERYONE to take the time to consider self-defense.

Anonymous said...

Well Thomas, that was a very comprehensive & informative post. I think we are very much on the same wavelength when it comes to the subject and considering your vast experience there’s obviously a lot I can learn from you here. First of all I’d like to commend you for being such an honourable and caring teacher and human-being. That’s an important point since both men and women are human and in the end there’s more that we have in common (we all want to be accepted, loved, be happy and lead useful lives) than what divides us. Everyone deserves respect & there are basic human rights (the right to safety and protection from bodily and emotional harm for example) that are innate, meaning they can’t be taken away from us. Yet there are people out there (men more often than women but obviously women can be criminals too) who prey on the weak, who delight in causing others pain and who, as a consequence, can’t be considered fully human or worthy of respect and entitled to the rights mentioned above.

My position on this can be summarized by this old samurai maxim: “The sword that cuts down evil is the sword that gives life”. Violence in itself is morally neutral: it’s how it is used, by whom, for what cause and even more importantly against whom. While I agree peace is a very valuable commodity and should be promoted (I don’t go looking for fights to prove I’m good or whatever, I abhor senseless violence) it’s also obvious (at least to me) that absolute and unconditional pacifism doesn’t work lest you’d want evil to triumph. “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” (Edmund Burke). If the allies hadn’t made the decision to defeat Hitler by force and weren’t willing to both inflict and accept tremendous losses in terms of lost or broken lives and huge material damages we (at least us here in mainland Europe) would still be under the nazi jackboot and many more people would have lost their lives. No to mention Hitler and his ilk would be venerated as saviors and heroes (history is after all written by the victors) and we would probably be taught what a great and rightful undertaking it was to destroy the jews and enslave other peoples. Hitler wasn’t stopped by the righteousness of the free (and not so free, in the case of the Russians) peoples or by peace-marches and useless pacifist speeches but by blood & iron. By the mere fact the allies were able to produce and field more tanks, cannon, airplanes & warships and because they were willing to fight untill the bitter end to rid the world of tyranny and evil. ...

Anonymous said...

There’s an important lesson to be learned here (one you’ve obviously taken to heart): being right and fighting for a good cause doesn’t mean you’ll win, first of all you must be very strong and be able to annihilate everyone that stands in your way (obviously by annihilation I don’t mean you should kill or maim them, in most cases removing them as a threat is enough). In order to do that one should train hard and learn to become ruthless, aggressive and hyper-efficient in an instant (literally taking a stand as you said). This is how the paradox of the concept of the martial arts (learning to fight as effectively as possible and most likely inflicting at least some injury on the opponent) promoting peace is resolved: by weeding one’s garden and removing the bad seeds one allows useful and beautiful plants to grow.

I very much like the traditional idea of the male as the defender of the innocent and the weak (an excellent essay on this can be found here: meaning the use of the martial arts for good instead of evil. Yet I also realize we don’t live in the dark ages anymore and women are now as much an active part of society as men and thus run the same or even greater risks, this is where the concept and practice of self-defense comes in. Where men aren’t available to protect them (and I do think this is what we should actively promote among our young men: defend those weaker than yourself, don’t be a selfish jerk) women must be taught to fend for themselves and escape potentially nasty situations or at the very least draw enough attention to themselves so that they can be helped. I must admit at first I didn’t believe in the efficacy of the concept of short-term self-defense classes, let alone for women who face the added disadvantage of the obvious disparity in strength and size. After all: how can you teach someone to fight in mere hours while it usually takes years of dedicated practice to achieve this goal (at least in a traditional martial art), especially for the average person who’s generally averse to violence and rough physical contact? After I did some research and talked to a few people (including sensei Lori O’Connel at I realized it’s not so much about fighting and dominating/defeating the attacker as it is about creating opportunities to escape and drawing attention to one’s plight. In that context and with some planning it should be possible to devise a program that is easy to learn and helpful, obviously the emphasis should be on awareness and avoidance. Only if that fails fighting techniques come into play, they really are a backup and while they may still fail at least they can augment a woman’s chance of survival. Naturally if you get attacked by a madman with a knife in some back-alley only the most well-trained and experienced of individuals will have a chance to come out of that alive, as my old sensei (a then 8th Dan) said: if someone were to attack him with a hammer, standing behind a door, even he wouldn’t be able to evade the attack unless he had some prior knowledge or a reason to suspect foul play). In any case this has taught me self-defense, and women’s self-defense in particular, is a vast and complex subject and I definitely need to learn more about it. …

Anonymous said...

Another thing I learned, and it was quite a find since I was struggling with the problem of the great variety of ways we can be attacked and the difficulties of teaching defenses to all these situations in a relatively short amount of time, is that men and women do get attacked differently on the street. As official statistics indicate violence of men on men will most likely consist of punching & kicking (the infamous headbutt, a knee or kick to the groin and the old, yet so very inefficient, haymaker) or involve a threat or the actual use of a weapon (improvised or not). Women, owing to their inferiority in strength and size as compared to most men & the difference in intention and goal of the attacker, will most likely be attacked with some kind of grab (as you indicated) or choke attempting to control, force a submission and/or abduct. …

While it will take quite some time before I’ll be able to actually do this (in a few months I should have my black belt, then I’m planning on doing some more research on the subject and see if I can assist a few women’s self-defense classes to get some practical experience) I have made a general outline of what I think such a class or course should look like. First of all I think one class of a few hours is too little: I’m thinking 4 sessions of two hours each, this will give me enough time to show basic techniques (the usual suspects: the fingerjab, palmheel, groinkick, knee & elbow), let them practice on focus-mitts or kicking-shields & introduce about 12 basic self-defense scenario’s/attacks I think would be useful. The thing I’d stress is a simple, standardized response (selecting those techniques that can be used easily by almost anyone against almost any attack) repeated over and over again. I read a book about close-combat as it is taught and practiced in the army and while it’s obvious women should be treated differently than soldiers the basic idea behind it remains the same: make the defenses as simple and natural as possible (given the very limited time allotted to training) and drill them until they become instinctive. This would be my list of attacks:

1. wristgrabs (single, crossed, double)
2. frontal choke with 2 hands
3. frontal choke with one hand (with cover against an incoming punch)
4. bearhug from the front (including what to do when lifted)
5. bearhug from the back (idem)
6. bearhug from the front with hands free
7. bearhug from the rear, hands free
8. unwanted attention standing (hands probing, deflection + hits)
9. unwanted attention while seated (idem)
10. choke, attacker between the defender’s legs
11. choke, attacker seated on the defender
12. choke, attacker kneeling beside the defender

Anonymous said...

With four sessions there would be extra time each class for review of the previous techniques, the fourth session I’d try a sparring-exercise consisting of one person at a time in a circle with random attacks. This will show them to what degree they have internalized and mastered the techniques and what stress does to the body and the thought-process. Hopefully they’ll learn that a) they can successfully defend themselves using simple, reflexive movements and b) violence is not something to be taken lightly. If you know how dangerous it can be to be in a physical altercation hopefully you’ll think twice about taking risks or taking a stroll in places you really shouldn’t be at. With these classes I’d like to instill confidence in them (I can do something when attacked, I’m not a hapless victim) while at the same time make them more aware of the dangers of high risk behaviour (visiting certain bars or clubs in rough neighbourhoods wearing a miniskirt and a tank-top will greatly increase your likelihood of being raped or molested) and how to deal with potentially dangerous situations and people (running would be most appropriate here along with creating distance and trying to appease a potential attacker).

I do have some questions though:

1) What do you think of this list and my approach of the subject? Is this realistic and what can be improved?
2) How do you deal with defenses against sexual attacks? I haven’t read much about this and I’m curious how to best broach the subject. Being respectful and asking permission first before you demonstrate or attack them to check if their defense is solid is good advice. In a rape-scenario the assailant would probably be trying to remove parts of the victim’s clothing and force the legs apart, this would create opportunity for attacks to the eyes or kicks to the face but otherwise it’s still a bit hazy to me. Defenses against rape-attacks is not exactly material that is taught in a traditional martial arts setting.
3) Do you think it’s necessary to become a sensei first and teach regular martial arts before you can become a self-defense instructor? How does one become a self-defense instructor and where can I find more reliable information about the subject?

About your ethical concerns: I think there’s nothing morally wrong with charging a modest sum for teaching (there will be extra costs and I don’t see what’s wrong with getting paid for honest work) as long as you’re doing a good job and it’s affordable. I’m not planning on making a business enterprise of it but I don’t want to lose money either. I would however make an exception for underprivileged women & those that went through recent traumatic experiences: poor women of lower social standing & education generally tend to become victims far more often (you don’t need to be a sociology-major to realize this) and they’ll have less opportunity and access to help and ways to improve their situation. For them classes would be free and I’d try to help them in whatever capacity I can. If they’d need short-term protection while moving to a safehouse or talking to people that can help them further (social-workers, counselors, the police) I’d be happy to oblige.

In any case thanks for your detailed response and advice, I certainly learned a lot already.



Michele said...

Excellent discussion.

Fred, you asked about how this seminar helped me not to become a victim. This course was a huge eye opener. I think it removed the belief that "bad things don't happen". It changed my mindset.

Thanks again for comments.


Fred In China said...

Thank you Michele, appreciate you took the time to answer.

I must apologize for calling you Sue in my first comment though... I was on a blog viewing binge since I could access them all from Singapore (they are blocked in China) & got confused in the messy action...

I now purchased a VPN that allows me to burn through the Great Fire Wall; so I'll be back more often.


FredInChina said...

Sorry Michele, I don't understand how, but I messed up the IDs & my comment shows a link to a dead blogger blog

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