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Monday, April 8, 2013

Wax On, Wax Off

A few weeks ago I went to meet a writing client in her store, and I noticed that next door was a karate studio, or dojo. They had pamphlets out about their free women's self-defense classes, and I just had to check it out!

I know next to nothing about the martial arts. Like many other people, what little I do know comes from movies and TV. In other words, my prior knowledge of the subject consisted entirely of, “Wax on, wax off.”*

So when I recently discovered that the local dojo holds a free, monthly women's self-defense class, I wondered whether it was even something I could do.

Certainly, it seemed like something I should sign right up for. After all, I'm a small woman (5'2” and 95 pounds) who often runs around town by herself – shopping, doing errands, meeting clients, and so forth – and so I'm often in a potentially vulnerable situation. Let's face it, all of us are inevitably, at least occasionally, in a position to become a victim.

And I do not want to be a victim.

On the other hand, I had some reservations. I also have some injuries from an auto accident that left me with some weaknesses – a serious spinal injury for which I've had surgery and pretty severe psoriatic arthritis (a cousin to rheumatoid arthritis). I really wanted to go, though, and so I did, figuring that at the very least I could observe and see what was involved before deciding to participate.

There were a few other people there in addition to the instructor, but they seemed to be more advanced students who had just come to help out, in addition to the man who was playing the attacker. However, besides myself, there were only a couple of other students.

So, I took the plunge.

I informed Sherese, the instructor, of my injuries and that I might not be able to do everything, and she said we could work around it. And we set to work.

I had no idea I was going to get such a workout!

It wasn't long before I was breaking the grip of Arthur – the lovely man who was playing the attacker – and striking back with hands or elbows, kneeing, or kicking him in places that are vulnerable (and not necessarily where you might think!). You see, the goal of this class isn't necessarily to learn a particular discipline, such as karate, or even to learn how to fight. The goal is to avoid being injured: in other words, the goal is to get away.

Remember that saying, “She who fights and runs away lives to fight another day”? That pretty much sums up the philosophy here.

We went through several scenarios of how someone might attack and strategies for responding. And as it turns out, “wax on, wax off,” isn't really that far off. 

The principle it works on – muscle memory – is valid. Or, in other words, you need to practice. Having competed in figure skating as a teenager, I am very familiar with this idea. If you do something over and over again – such as a long program, or, in this case, the basic response to any physical aggression – it becomes second nature. Something you can almost do in your sleep.

I can't count the number of times that I ran through my skating programs in an early morning practice without actually thinking about it, suddenly finding myself at the end. Ever drive somewhere and then not remember having done so? Only knowing that, well, there you were?

Same idea. “Autopilot,” they call it.

You just have to keep practicing until you do it without thought. You should just react.

This being a new discipline to me, I had to acclimate myself to the positions involved. Balance is very important, and I kept feeling like I was not in a stable enough position to step forward and use leverage to break Arthur's grasp. So I asked to go through the moves in slow-motion to figure out what foot to put where so as not to put myself in a position to end up on the ground. Another thing you want to avoid is getting too close; stepping forward can be aggressive, but for someone my size, it's an invitation to get picked up and carried off. These things were demonstrated with great patience by Sherese and Arthur many times over.

Because of my injuries, I was worried I wouldn't be able to do much at all. But it turns out that an elbow is just as effective as a hand, and in my case, even more so. And from first ballet, then skating, and now the walking I do every day, my legs are in pretty good shape, so I learned how to use them.

We went over different attack approaches, and how to thwart them. Twist out of a grip, knee in a thigh, elbow to a bicep. We were practicing, and I had Arthur as an opponent. At one point Sherese stopped what she was doing with another student to come over to me. Apparently she had heard the noise it makes when you hit someone in exactly the right spot on a muscle. She said she hadn't made that noise herself until she had faced an opponent in competition.

Now, I know a lot of people who are afraid of really fighting, lest they injure their opponent, “the attacker.” I am not one of those people. Firstly, Arthur is much taller than I am, and a conservative guess would mean he outweighs me by a mere 50 pounds (and since muscle weighs more than fat, I would think he weighs more than . . . well, than I think). Secondly, he was wearing protective gear, and I felt that there was little, if any, chance that tiny little me would do anything more than get in a lucky shot and give him a moment of discomfort. And thirdly, I had come there to learn how to defend myself and to get away, preferably without anyone pursuing, as well as without bodily injury. How would I know if I were doing it right if I didn't really give it my all?

So I did give it my all. And I was extremely sore the next day. But I don't care, because if I ever need to use what I learned, a few bruises would be a small price to pay. I don't pretend to be ready for a fight, but at least if I ever am attacked, I have some idea of what to do, how to do it, and what to aim for, as well as what my goal should be.

I would love to be able to go back and practice. I don't know that karate, or any martial art, would be for me. But I would highly recommend to all women – especially those of us who are small and therefore might be mistaken for a good target – to go check out your local dojo. Perhaps you have a branch of the one I visited (United Studios of Self Defense) where you live. And even if you don't, you still might find a good self-defense class. Take advantage of it!

Disclaimer: If you have a spinal injury, or some other injury that might affect your ability to do this, or might be affected by it, I have to stress that you should check with your doctor before doing anything like this. But, assuming you do get the okay, let the instructor know. They can help you compensate and figure out how to work around it.

*Note for anyone not recognizing the quote, it's from the classic 1984 film, The Karate Kid. Everyone should see it at least once. It had a couple of sequels,The Karate Kid, Part II and The Karate Kid, Part III, which were actually pretty good as sequels go.  Both worth a viewing as well, if you haven't seen them.

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