Post-election, my world is on fire with people looking for self-defense classes as we see more and more reports of violence. I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, but this seems like the moment.
First, self-defense and martial arts are different things. They share some things in common, but studying a martial art is not necessarily going to prepare you to defend yourself. Think of it like studying Latin versus studying Spanish. If you are going to a Spanish speaking country and don’t speak the language, you want to take a conversational Spanish class, right? Studying Latin may give you a deeper understanding of where the language came from, and if you wanted to become a professor of Spanish at a university you’d probably want to take Latin, too. But if you’re spending your vacation in Mexico you mostly just want to be able to get around, be polite, and order food.
Self-defense is a lot like that. You don’t need to be a martial artist or fighting expert to learn basic and effective self-defense skills. Is there more you could learn? ALWAYS. But getting a few basic skills under your belt and practicing them enough to feel secure that you can whip them out if you need them is the first step. If you love what you are studying and want to learn more, there are always more classes to take. Start with the basics.
Martial arts are great, but most incorporate all kinds of etiquette and stylized forms that are not particularly relevant to self-defense. Don’t get me wrong, studying martial arts has all kinds of great benefits, some of which like increased fitness and strength may be beneficial in a self-defense situation. But they are not the same thing.
Look for a class that offers a spectrum of skills, not just physical skills. The truth is that a lot of self-defense does not involve physical skills at all. It involves honoring your instincts, paying attention to your surroundings, and removing yourself if a situation seems to be getting dangerous. If there is a confrontation, often words are enough to end it. But you have to know what to say and how to say it. A good self-defense class will give you practice using verbal skills in a variety of scenarios so you are prepared when you need them.
The class and the skills should be available to almost everyone. You don’t need to be in great shape or even particularly good shape to be able to learn skills that will serve most people in most situations they are likely to encounter.
It matters who is teaching the class. You want an instructor who will honor your experiences of violence and your fears. You want a class that will teach you skills and let you practice problem solving with them in your own way. Ask if instructors ever “correct” students or tell them what they “should” do in any given situation. Both of these approaches are disempowering. The authority lies with the instructor. The problem with this is that the instructor won’t be with you when you need the skills, and the instructor isn’t in your body and doesn’t know what works for you. If an instructor told me, for instance, that if someone got in my face the first thing I should do is to yell at them loudly to “get out of my way,” that’s not how I roll. I’m never going to be comfortable with that. Instead, I have figured out phrases and strategies that I am comfortable with and that work for me. And I have stuff to go to if those don’t work.
In general I think it’s great if women take classes from women and men from men, simply because women and men tend to have such vastly different experiences of violence. This isn’t to say you cannot find a good instructor of a different gender, it’s just more rare.
If you are interviewing an instructor or school and get the feeling that they are talking down to you, find another school.
If you have a trauma history, look for an instructor who understands trauma. Simply put, studying self-defense can be triggering for people who have been victimized in the past. A self-defense instructor should never blame someone for a crime that was perpetrated against them, including telling them that “if they had done x, y, or z” they would not have been victimized.
But more than that, a good instructor will know how to support and assist students who are triggered during a class. Self-defense classes need to be physically AND emotionally safe for students.
Weapons are a whole ‘nother thing. If you want to carry pepper spray, mace, a knife, or a gun, that’s always an option. I would encourage you, though, to learn to use the tools and weapons you have with you all the time: your voice, your elbows, your knees, etc. Also, learn some adrenaline management before you start carrying a weapon that can be dropped, used against you, or accidentally harm someone you didn’t intend to harm.