Music filled the room, but I hardly noticed the beat. Darkness covered everything in a thick layer of tension, and from behind my eyelids, the world was blackness. Heartbeats throbbed in my chest and adrenaline thrummed through my veins, but all my senses were focused on him. He would attack, and I had be ready. He swept by me, circling close and then backing off, taunting me with whispers and brushing me with his shoulders. My fists coiled and I bent my knees, ready to strike the moment the threat became real. Even with my eyes shut, I saw it all- heard his quick steps, moving close and cutting left and sweeping behind me, felt his presence as he stood next to me, smelled his hand as he flicked my hair and whispered his threats. My whole body was taut, waiting and watching with every sense. I felt his footsteps as he came closer, and then backed off. In that moment after he stepped away, there was nothing but stillness, and I knew. Half a second later, he was on me, arms around my neck and squeezing tighter. I exploded with every ounce of adrenaline-laced energy and pent-up instinct. In two seconds and a tangle of limbs, he had me on the ground, but even in the frenzy of striking and scrapping and scrambling, one thought remained clear in my mind. This is it. If I wanted to live, I had to fight. So I fought. And I didn’t just live – I came alive.
You know that saying, “I’m a lover, not a fighter?”
I’m the exact opposite.
I’ve always been feisty and scrappy and physical. Maybe it’s the Irish in me – I didn’t get the green eyes or freckles, but I got the temper and the fighting spirit. My dad dragged me to a few judo classes when I was 11 or so, and I hated them because I was painfully shy and absolutely terrified of failure, so trying a new activity in a new place surrounded by new people was agonizing. But I must have retained a few of the things from those three Saturday classes, because when a catty girl in my 6th grade class shoved me on the playground, I flipped her onto her back with a quick o soto gari…and then ran like hell and locked myself in a bathroom stall when she got up a minute later and came after me, claws out (literally- homegirl had freakishly long fingernails and had scratched other kids on more than one occasion). When I played recreational soccer at 13, and then again at 18, my best and possibly only skill was my dogged determination to barrel into the players on the other team and leave them on the ground. I was like a really slow human pinball, zipping around and shoving myself into anything I could find, and I was called by more unrepeatable terms of “endearment” by opposing players than I can count. But in spite of all that, I never got into more contact sports like rugby, lacrosse, or water polo. I just kept myself busy in the gym, working out alone and enjoying feeling stronger and knowing I was doing something good for my body, but always feeling like I wasn’t quite there. It was good and I liked it, but I didn’t love it, and I needed something more. I felt drawn to a number of other physical endeavors like dance, acrobatics, tumbling, wrestling and any kind of combative sport, really, but never pursued any of them. I was too old to start it, too fat to have a real shot at it, too weak to be any good at it, or just too damn scared to do it.
Until last night, when I dragged myself and my middle sister to a women’s self-defense class. I say “dragged,” because neither of us wanted to go, and I had every excuse in the book for why I didn’t want to go.
I was tired after being awake since 3:00.
I wasn’t feeling well.
I could learn this stuff some other time.
I didn’t want to spend the money.
I’m getting my concealed carry permit, and that should be good enough.
The only reason I ended up going was because my mom handed me a check for the entrance fee, and I could hear my dad’s voice telling my sister and me how important it was for us to learn how to defend ourselves. With my beautiful, sweet, and often far-too-trusting sister heading back to college at the end of the week, I wanted to make sure she was at least a little more equipped to handle any threats that came her way. So I hauled myself into a sports bra and drove over the hill to West Coast Martial Arts, wanting to just get it over with and get home. I prayed it wouldn’t be too cheesy and prepared myself to endure what I was sure would be several hours of boredom, at best.
Once we finally found the studio, we headed in, signed some waivers, and headed through to the back room where the class would be held. Looking out at all the open space, the mats on the floor and the pads and other equipment lining the walls, I was at ease. Sure, I was still a little nervous with not knowing what would be coming next, but this place was bursting with space and possibility and movement, and with that came a small, strange sense of “home.” Within a few minutes of the introductory speech, we were partnered up and practicing techniques for escaping a front choke. From there, we moved into techniques for dealing with a front choke up against a wall, then to rear chokes, and then to defending ourselves from the floor. Most of the class was striking combatives, with a little bit of grappling (floor work) involved, and it was nothing like what I had expected.
“Battle wounds” aside, I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed the class, and even more so by how easily it seemed to come to me. The technique was not necessarily natural, but the instincts were. I’m naturally on the more paranoid/guarded side, and my Army dad has always drilled into my mind the importance of situational awareness (For example, he’ll question me after going out for dinner to see what kinds of details I noticed about the other patrons, the potential threats, the escape routes, etc.). I’m basically the life of the party when I go out – not only do I not drink all that much (someone needs to be sober, right?), but I spend the majority of my time scanning the room, analyzing the crowd, picking out threats, and determining escape/defense plans. My natural tendency is to be guarded, suspicious, and skeptical, and that night – for the first time I can ever remember – someone besides my dad affirmed that instinct. I was shocked to hear the instructors say things like, “You’ve got good instincts,” “You’re really strong,” or “You’re a natural.” Hearing that I have a natural ability for something physical is not a common occurrence in my life (I’m about as clumsy as a drunk baby panda), and it was so wild to me to realize that I doing relatively well on my first try at a new physical activity. Practicing striking and escaping over and over was exhilarating, and I felt alive in a way that I rarely have before. And more than that, I felt free. It was as if I had been waiting for that moment, to step on the mat and have space and be given permission to just go, to give in to those instincts and to use my strength. So often in the fitness community, the focus is on aesthetics. (Heck, much of life in general is focused on aesthetics.) Even though we enjoy talking about measuring fitness in terms of performance, it’s still based on something like lifting a heavier weight or running farther or faster. But for what? Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy training for the challenge it provides, the health benefits it accrues, and the strength it builds, and there is a huge sense of accomplishment that comes with setting PR’s or crushing hard workouts. But on the mat, I got to put that strength to use. I’m not quite sure how to describe it other than finding something I’d been searching for without quite knowing what it was, and a feeling of “This is it.”
The finale was the opportunity to experience a simulated one-on-one attack from one of the instructors. You stood in the middle of the room with your arms at your sides and eyes closed, then the lights were shut off and music was blasted (to interfere with your ability to sense what might be coming), and you had to wait for the designated instructor to attacked. At that point, the lights would be turned back on and the music stopped, you could open your eyes and were supposed to use the technique’s you’d just learned to defend yourself and escape. It was nerve-wracking waiting there in the dark and feeling vulnerable, but it was also thrilling. And the moment I was attacked, I let go and let my instinct drive me. It was terrifying before and after to think that if the situation were real, the stakes would be life and death, but in the moment I didn’t think. I dug in, I defended, and I fought like hell. This was it. This was the bottom line, not performance or aesthetics but survival, and I wasn’t giving a damn about anything but escaping. And the moment I did, I ran like hell to the other side of the room. Instinct. I was given the freedom to fight, and I did just that.
The bottom line is that the experience was a wake up call. Not in the sense that my eyes were opened to potential threats I’d not yet thought of, and not in the sense that I’m now much better equipped to know how to react should a threat arise (although that is certainly true!). It was a wake up call in the sense that it made me realize what I’ve been missing. For all the training I do, I don’t have any real physical outlet that is for the pure sake of enjoyment. It’s something I’ve wanted (see “Making Fitness Fun”), but never seriously pursued. I thought I’d found a little bit of that freedom and that joy when I began more seriously practicing yoga. I know better now. My first taste of combatives awakened me to the fact that there could be a purpose and joy in my training that did not include “health benefits” or “squatting my bodyweight” or “sculpting an ass that stops traffic.” In a funny way, it’s for the same reason that dance appeals to me as a physical outlet – the purpose is greater than the performance. For dance (at least the way I see it), it’s storytelling; for combatives, it’s survival. It makes sense to me now why I’ve never felt very competitive in sports, or really like an athlete at all. I was going about it in all the wrong ways. For me, the way I’m programmed as an individual, I don’t care much whether I can put a ball into/over a net. It may be entertaining, but it does not feed my soul or give me a sense that I am using my body for what it was intended. Combatives did that, and it resonated deeply with me. There was joy and purpose and freedom in those movements and on that mat, and I knew clear as day – this is it.
It’s not really that I want to go back for more…It’s that I don’t know how to keep myself away.
For any local friends interested in taking a self-defense class (or any martial arts class), I cannot recommend West Coast Martial Arts enough. The instructors, led by Gary Merlo, were knowledge, passionate, encouraging, and empowering. The experience was an incredible bargain, and so very much worth the time. The next women’s self-defense class will be in October sometime, but they offer adult and child martial arts classes year-round. If you are not local, I would still highly recommend finding a self-defense/combatives class to take (and then follow up with regular refresher classes). Even if combatives is not your sweet spot, the techniques are critical for everyone to know…after all, when the situation and the threat are real, the stakes are life and death.
In the meantime, practice staying aware of your surroundings and do not make yourself a target. I’m collaborating with one of the female martial artists from West Coast Martial Arts on a series of posts on self-defense. She will be sharing her personal experience with the importance of self-defense, as well as practical tips that you can use to avoid dangerous situations, defend yourself against threats, and prevent yourself from becoming a victim. If you have any particular questions you would like to have answered in the self-defense series, please let me know either in the comments below or by emailing me at eatprayliftblog [at] gmail [dot] com.