Monday, February 1, 2016

2016 Women's Self Defense

Once upon a time, I took my first ever Women’s Self Defense Class. My perspective on personal safety got flipped-turned-upside-down, thus starting the process of moving me from the Potential Victim category over to the Might Actually Be Able To Take Care Of Self category. That class inspired me to start training in kung fu, and everything’s been coming up roses ever since. Sweaty, bruisey roses.

So now, nearly a year later, my fellow Women’s Program students and I get to help out with the 2016 Women’s Self Defense class.

(Minor tangent, here, but if I promise it’ll make sense in a paragraph or so will you bear with me? Okay, here goes …) I’m a bit of a lapsed theatre kid. Which is to say, I have a degree in theatre but haven’t actually been involved in a theatrical production in years. Enough years to forget just about everything but the magic.

See, there’s this thing that happens in live theatre, a kind of spell - woven of effort and skill and talent and energy - that can draw the audience out of their seats, out of reality, and into the world of the story. It’s not actors up here on the stage and distant observers down there in their seats; it’s just everyone learning and growing by living in this moment together. At the end, when the curtain closes and the house lights come up, the spell is broken as everyone just kinda looks around, out of breath and full of heart, wondering where the time went.

It’s a uniquely human kind of magic that feels like flying, and it’s exactly what is happening in the 2016 Women’s Self Defense Class.

For women, by women - that’s how this class works. Because those of us who move through this world as females often do so at our own peril, in a society that bends the full weight of its will to shape us into soft-handed non-confrontational people-pleasers, so if we’re going to grow into badasses we need to start from a safe place. A place where we can hone our awesome to a razor’s edge because we’re comfortable with looking silly or getting overwhelmed or failing a few times before we get it right.

That means no dudes. 

Sure, we have guys to help with the drills, really great guys full of that special kung fu blend of calm-helpful energy, but they wait patiently offstage until we need them. The majority of the class time is spent in a room full of women, every size and shape and age of us, all working together. Ladies teaching, lady kung fu students helping, ladies learning.

There's just a few women involved, is what I'm saying.
The first class started off about like one might expect from any self-defense course. A general discussion about avoiding dangerous situations and being aware of our surroundings, presenting ourselves with confident body language and Using Our Words. The kind of stuff that we all know we should do but mostly forget to do because it’s uncomfortable or exhausting or just, ya know, life. But this is not a school that talks when we could be doing, so the discussion quickly turned into pairing up and practicing.

It’s remarkably difficult to maintain eye contact with someone who is walking towards you aggressively; even more so to put your hands up and order that person to stay the hell out of your personal space. But if someone out there in the world is coming at you with bad intentions, this is exactly what needs to be done. And so we practiced this in the safe space of the class so that we’d be able to do it in the uncertain space of the world outside. It was awkward. The room was full of the shuffle and nervous laughter of comfort zones being tested. Gradually, over the course of the exercises, that chorus of awkwardness was replaced by the sure steps and quiet chatter of a group at work. Folks got comfortable with each other and the practical aspects of the class.

And then ...

“You will be hitting someone tonight,” says the instructor.

A collective flicker of surprise rippled through the students. A few of them flinched. This was not what they were expecting - it’s supposed to be a self-defense class, not a hitting-people class. And if they would be hitting, would they also be getting hit? No, of course not, but the question alone was intimidating. They were there to learn how to protect themselves, not how to hurt somebody else. Little did they know just how much of the kung fu defense is a good offense.

If you go to a kung fu school to learn self-defense, you’re going to learn how to throw a punch. And then another punch. So many punches, a chain of punches, one after the other, over and over and over again. Because if the first one doesn’t hit then the next one might, or the next; however many it takes to make an attacker back off while deeply regretting their life choices.

So, for a little while we were back to awkward, operating well outside of many comfort zones. The lesson was starting to look a lot more like actual violence than most folks were comfortable with, but nobody shied away from the punching. The class had proven itself to be honest and safe up to that point, so why not give it a try? All of the students stepped up to learning how to form a fist that’ll strike solid and true, then hurling those fists through the air along the centerline a few hundred times.

But, hitting the air is very different from hitting a person. 
And, you don’t want the first time that your fist feels impact to be when your life is on the line. 
Sooooo … that’s when the guys joined the class. 

All the ladies had the choice of either hitting a pad held by one of us women-students or punching one of our kung fu brothers in the chest. Hit whatever you’re comfortable with, was the general instruction, but do try hitting something. A lot. Over and over. Chain punch till your arms fall off.

WSD punch.jpg
Line up those knuckles and punch punch punch punch punch BREATHE punch punch.
Thus the first class ended. Smiles and fistbumps all around, we said our goodbyes and settled in to wait a whole week to find out if anyone would return for the second class. Like actors backstage during intermission wondering if the audience will bother to come back to their seats and yes, I’m still trying to make this theatre metaphor happen.

A week later, the second class convened and - to! our! delight! - damn near everybody came back. They trusted the safe learning space we had made for them, trusted our instructors to teach them, and we met that trust with an eagerness to deserve it. That’s when the magic happened.

From that class through to the next classes, all the way to the end of the month, we flew through the rhythm of training, the inexhaustible time-devouring stride of Instructor Demonstrates Technique/Students Practice Technique A Bajillion Times.

WSD demo choke.jpg
Demo how to get out of a chokehold ... practice getting out of a bajillion chokeholds

WSD demo grab.jpg
Demo how to get out of a sideways bearhug ... practice getting out of a bajillion sidways bearhugs
The repetition is crucial; gotta embed the technique into your muscle memory, because if an attack does happen the muscles will react to protect you while your brain is still trying to make sense of what’s going on. Every student in that class knew it, and were totally on board with doing the techniques over and over, and a few more times after that.

An absolutely vital component to this phase was having the men to partner with in class. Now, I’ve made quite the fuss about how great it is to have a women’s-only class for women run by women omg women, but this class would not have worked as well as it did without those guys. At no point in the class do we tell women to fear men, or to view only men as potential attackers. Everything is geared towards defending oneself against any attacker. It’s just that odds are good that, as women, if we’re going to be attacked it’ll be by someone who is bigger and stronger than we are. The easiest way to simulate that size and strength difference in the lovely safety of a class space is to work with a dude.

So the guys integrated with the class as we got into more confrontational drills, with the full-on grabs and the chokeholds and such. These were guys who we lady kung fu students know and trust; they’re our kung fu brothers. We’ve worked out with them, we know they’d never try to hurt us and we trust their skills to keep from hurting anyone accidentally. As the guys demonstrated techniques with the instructor, or paired with a few of us kung fu ladies, the women in the class could see how we trusted them and choose whether or not they wanted to work with them. By the end of the month, almost every woman had trained with one of the guys at some point.

I’m a semi-pro worrywart, though, so I checked in with some of the students after class to see how they felt about working out with the guys, just to make sure everybody was still comfortable and cool with the class and blah blah fussy fretful blah. One of them smacked my worries down with some good ol’ common sense:
WSD chat.jpg
Well. Alrighty then!
Mind you, it wasn’t all just the Women’s Self Defense Class students learning from us. Oh my dear sweet goodness, no! Training works both ways. We were all in this together. We all dealt with the very scary idea of a potential attack; for every time we grabbed a student to simulate an attack so that they could learn how to defend against it, we would also have a turn to get grabbed. Every one of us, regardless of how much kung fu we might have, had to confront not only the idea of what we might do if someone tried to hurt us, but also how easily we could be hurt. 

That’s some heavy baggage to lift, but it’s lighter when you’re all lifting together.

Personally, I could not have been more impressed with the ladies in this class. I met women half my size who, completely untrained, could throw punches hard enough to rock my stance. Some of these ladies had the most wily wrists I’ve ever had the misfortune to try and get a grip on. I worked with a few of the ladies who had flinched at the mention of punching in the first class, who were deeply uncomfortable with the physicality of the drills, but they gritted their teeth and powered through, and good lawd by the end of the month they were stone coldest bruisers in the bunch.

We all flew through that month of classes, swept along on our own little magic spell of strength and the evolution of each other’s courage, a little high on the breathless laughter of folks learning how to be badasses together. Just walking in the door on that first day of class took guts. And to then stick it out for a month of ever-increasing challenge? Well, let’s just say that it’s my hope that those ladies will go out and face the world every single day as brave and powerful as they were in that class. 

Because WOW, will they ever be a force to be a reckoned with.

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