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Self-Defense: Losing Battle or Worthy Fight?

By Loren Cecil

Woman boxing

Pixabay via Pexels

In Amy Schumer’s latest Netflix stand-up special, she references a study that found violence to be what women fear most. That same study found that men are most afraid of ridicule. These facts lead her into a sarcastic bit about men crying over a little “jokey” while her constant reality involves literally running home from the subway every night. Equally scary, right?

Any woman who has ever walked alone on a street in New York or through a parking garage in Alabama can probably relate to Schumer’s point. We’re taught from a young age to be aware of our surroundings, to travel in packs or keep keys between our fingers just in case. Since nobody seems to be teaching men not to attack, we must know how to protect ourselves.  

The recent refocus on the power of women and fighting back got me thinking about the physical aspect of that fight, often thought to be best learned via the self-defense class. My skepticism about the value of such classes always deterred me from trying, but if there was ever a time to test out any means to feel safer, it’s probably now. I set out to determine what these classes have to offer and which, if any, are worth our time or money.


“Common sense is the first defense”

Chinese Hawaiian Kenpo Academy

If you’d like to stand around for an hour and twenty minutes listening to a man who goes by Grandmaster Sifu Jack make bad jokes about Brooklynites and brag about how tough he is, by all means attend one of the Smash! Free Women’s Self-Defense Classes offered Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at the Chinese Hawaiian Kenpo Academy.

The class consisted of seven women, two female assistant instructors and the Sifu himself. In between speeches, we played around in pairs attacking each other with rubber knives. The emphasis seemed to be on how to attack someone with said knife, which felt strange because I don’t generally keep a knife on me nor do I plan on being the attacker. I was baffled that two of the women in attendance were returning students and thus clearly felt they were benefiting from the class. My partner was one of these returning students, yet I did not feel that she could realistically defend herself from me, the attacker. Our homework was to practice slicing through a banana with a Metrocard.

Takeaways: Sifu Jack makes $500 an hour as a professional witness, has been shot ten times and (claims to have) trained the stuntmen for Black Panther. He did encourage us to have common sense, as common sense is the first defense. Unfortunately, common sense cannot be taught, even by someone as wise and experienced as Sifu Jack. Not addressed were any techniques to defend myself or ways to prevent becoming a victim, as advertised on the website.

Cost: Free.

Worth it? No. The Sifu would have to pay me to go back.

“Aggression will save your life”

Krav Maga Academy: The Method (Women Only)

I was completely unprepared for what I was getting myself into when I strolled into this class, lacking sleep and hydration on a Sunday afternoon. Coming off of my experience with Sifu Jack, I was not expecting much physical activity. I blame Sifu Jack.

First, I had to rent gloves for $2. Not boxing gloves, but the kind they apparently use in Krav Maga, with cutoff fingertips and a thick layer of padding along your lower knuckles. There were over 30 women spread out across the mats in this basement studio, and it seemed that most were regular attendees. The warm-up, led by an extremely toned woman with cropped blonde hair, had me sweating almost instantly. She emphasized that we were there to get stronger, which makes sense in improving one’s ability to defend oneself.

After 30 minutes of grueling conditioning, the other female instructor took over to take us through the self-defense portion. She reviewed proper punching stance and form, and ran several sequences that involved both punching and kicking. Then we were given mats and partnered up to try punching and kicking something other than the air. I ended up with my evidently experienced neighbor who made “shoop” sound effects with each attack. She warned me that her front kicks packed a punch, and though I appreciated the warning, I still feared for my well-being and the ability of this mat to protect me.

The finale involved escape tactics where we took a hold of each other’s sweaty necks or arms and practiced potential means to free ourselves. In the last few minutes, they had us gather around to ask questions. The blonde instructor told us that self-defense is really 90% aggression and 10% skill (a revelation they conveniently save for the end). She said that aggression is what will save our lives and gave some more general information about sensitive areas of the body to target.

Takeaways: Building strength is probably helpful in protecting yourself from an attack, because most of the skill will fly out the window in a moment of panic. Also, be aggressive?

Cost: An intro class was $20 and subsequent classes are $40. They also offer a variety of membership options.

Worth it? Potentially, if you’re looking to develop long-term strength and fighting skills.

“Self-defense is a willingness to defend yourself”

JCC Self Defense Workshop

At first, this class seemed to more closely resemble my experience with Sifu Jack than my intense foray into Krav Maga. Eight women including myself were gathered in a small workout studio at the JCC on the Upper West Side with a gentle-mannered taekwondo expert named Nir. He told us about his background, which was reasonable and respectable and the first way he deviated from the Sifu. He also explained the purpose of this 3 part self-defense series and how he hoped to make it a regularly occurring event.

After a brief warm-up that was manageable even for the tiny yet hip woman in her seventies wearing Lululemon sweatpants, we got into some technique. Nir introduced us to a common word or maybe just a sound (KEE-YAH) that they use in taekwondo and made us yell it with every movement. All eight of us joined together in creating the necessary support system to power through our discomfort.

From the beginning, Nir was very clear about the fact that summoning your spirit is going to offer you the best shot of defending yourself against an attack. He said that showing a willingness to fight will make you less of a target, and while he did give us one-on-one opportunities to practice our punching form, most of his feedback involved yelling and getting angry. My persistent smile proved to be my downfall and I was told to be meaner.

I suddenly felt much worse about internally mocking my Krav Maga partner’s voluntary sound effects. Nir didn’t just encourage making noise, he demanded it. Despite being quite skilled in this martial art himself, he seemed aware that all the skill in the world may not get you out of a bad situation. Showing ferocity and aggression might.

Sadly, my greatest takeaway was realizing how strongly women are socialized to mute themselves and appear only as docile, harmless creatures. We were all so obviously struggling to suppress our smiles and channel our anger, because it’s not cute for a lady to yell. My second greatest takeaway was that I need to learn how to break that social construct, because unless you’ve mastered Sifu Jack’s Metrocard slicing method, your voracious spirit may be the best weapon at your disposal.

Cost: $90 for JCC members, $105 for everyone else.

Worth it? I’d say yes for the kee-yah’s alone.