Monday, February 25, 2008

Project Confidence: Become Someone the Spirits Want to Protect

I took an Aikido seminar this past weekend with Mary Heiny Sensei, a sixth-degree black belt who began her training in Japan in the late 1960s.

In addition to the greater understanding of Aikido that I gained in my body -- there's nothing quite like moving to demonstrate what you understand and what you don't -- I increased my awareness of Aikido as good self defense.

Heiny Sensei told us something she had learned from one of her Japanese teachers. The Japanese phrase for self defense is go shin jutsu. "Shin" in that phrase is generally written to mean "body." But one of the real entertaining (and subtle) things about the Japanese written language is that many Japanese kanji are pronounced in the same way while meaning different things.

When O Sensei -- the founder of Aikido -- wrote go shin jutsu in kanji, he used the character pronounced as "shin" that means "kami, or spirits." His interpretation of self defense was something like "be someone the spirits want to protect."

Now O Sensei was a religious man, but I don't think even he meant that phrase in a purely religious sense. I interpret it as act with integrity -- both in how you move and how you deal with others -- and you will be protected.

I'm using the word "integrity" because it is a core principle of Aikido and encompasses both physical integrity and the concept of ethical conduct. I could say Aikido principles, but explaining that will take me much more space than a brief blog post, and integrity is a good fit.

Integrity underlies a lot of what I mean when I say project confidence, but it also includes the concepts of flexibility and calmness, not to mention paying attention and trusting your instincts. If you move through this world with that sort of integrity, you will be protected simply by being who you are.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Learn to Fight: Upcoming Classes in Chicago

A recent comment gave this blog a rave review and the person who posted mentioned that she was about to relocate to Chicago. So as a thank you, here is some information about upcoming self defense classes in Chicago.

Impact Chicago has scheduled core classes on March 8 & 9 and 15 & 16 (Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 5) at JCFS, 3145 W. Pratt in Chicago. Their next session will be a one-weekend class May 16-18 (Friday 5:30 to 9:30 and all day Saturday and Sunday) at Belle Plaine Studio, 2014 W. Belle Plaine in Chicago. They also have classes scheduled for July, September, and October.

The class costs $395. Registration information can be found on the core program page. The phone number is 773-338-4545 or you can email for more information at

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Learn to Fight -- But Not From Bad Videos

According to the Dallas Morning News, there's an armed serial rapist attacking women in the greater Dallas area. In what I'm sure is an effort to help women deal with this threat, the newspaper posted a video giving advice from a police officer and a couple of self defense experts. (Note: the video plays with Flash or the Windows Media player -- it doesn't work with Quicktime.)

Unfortunately, the advice on the video is all but useless to an untrained person. In the first technique, a woman is trapped under a man who is trying to undo his pants. The video shows how she twists her hips to get loose, and then kicks the man.

While this is a good ground technique -- often taught in the Impact and Model Mugging classes -- it's not something you can pick up watching a video. For one thing, you need to learn how to stay calm throughout an attack so that you can identify those moments when an attacker -- even an armed attacker -- is vulnerable. Responding at the wrong time can be dangerous, but if you're calm and relaxed, you will see a good opening.

Secondly, it's not the first technique taught in self defense classes. You work up to material like this. Further, it's useful to practice it in a safe class setting before trying this kind of move. You need to let your body learn that it can do this kind of move before trying it for real.

But what really worried me is that the video contained a couple of scenes showing defense against a gun. Again, these are legitimate techniques, but they're not techniques for beginners. The first one involves moving inside against an armed attacker; the second showed a similar defense when the gun is held at your back.

I might try either of these moves, if I sensed an opening or felt like the attacker was going to kill me regardless -- if you're calm, you'll be aware of these things. But I've spent 20 years in Aikido learning how to enter against an attack. In my experience, most beginners don't do this right immediately.

Not only do I think this video showed techniques that are too advanced, I also think it picked ones that are too intimidating. I would guess -- and I'd love to have readers look at the video and share their own reactions -- that most people would look at these techniques as shown and immediately say "I could never do that."

That's not true -- most people can do these things. But they need to learn them gradually, not be confronted with the scariest techniques right off the bat.

I grant it's better that the police are acknowledging that women can defend themselves. It wasn't very long ago that the standard police response to rape attacks was for women just to go along and not try to do anything.

But I don't think this video is going to help anyone who hasn't had any training. I suggest women look for a good self defense class instead. I'll be providing more links to upcoming classes soon and I'd be glad to post links to training available in the Dallas area specifically, if teachers will send me information.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Protect Yourself: Hide From Men or Learn to Fight?

Mexico City has established women-only buses to protect women from gropers. This isn't a new idea -- in a comment posted to the Ambling Along the Aqueduct post on the subject, Vandana Singh notes that New Delhi ran a few such buses when she was growing up. And I've heard of them in other countries as well.

This doesn't strike me as much of a solution. As Jessica Valenti observes in The Nation, "I'm all for safe spaces for women, but is segregation really an answer to sexism?"

Singh noted in her comment that getting on the woman-only bus was always a relief, which I can certainly understand: When I was in law school, we had a women's lounge -- a restroom that included a large area with couches, comfy chairs, and tables -- and it was always a relief to hole up there to study. We weren't hiding from gropers (though there may have been a few), but from the pressure of continually fitting into what was decidedly a male-dominated world -- our class was about 10 percent women.

A recent study highlights the fact that women are still in a double bind when dealing in the world: do things the way men do, and you're labeled unfeminine; do them in a more feminine style, and you're too soft. Just ask Hillary Clinton. So the occasional respite into a woman-only world does provide some relief.

But protecting women by segregating them from men leads to protecting them by keeping them out of some professions and public spaces. It reinforces the idea that women are helpless. And it limits the lives of the victim of abusive behavior, instead of stopping the abuse.

Besides, the bus isn't the only place where women get harassed. The Washington Post reports that a man -- or perhaps, judging by the varied descriptions, several men -- has been been attacking women in Northern Virginia. The police haven't caught anyone, and women are responding by taking cabs and giving up walking. Of course, cabs are expensive and walking is good exercise, so fear is taking a large toll on these women's lives.

I haven't noticed any cities declaring streets off-limits for men.

Judging from the description of the attacks, I suspect most women could fight this particular attacker off if they had a little training. He's apparently not using a weapon. But the article doesn't even mention learning how to fight as a solution to such attacks. It's not the only answer, of course -- good lighting, regular police patrols, and a societal decision to take such attacks more seriously can all improve safety.

But women can learn enough to protect themselves from such attacks, just as they can develop skills to deal with gropers on the buses. In Singh's comment, she noted that she developed a tough style when riding on mixed buses in New Delhi (though she found it a relief when she didn't have to do that). Making a scene is also a reasonable response.

Women taking action to protect themselves, whether from gropers or rapists, will eventually provide more safety than token respite on public transportation. After all, as the Valenti article notes in a quote from Katha Pollitt:
Obviously, there would never be enough women-only space to accommodate all women all the time - half the subway cars or half the hotels …Women-only space is just a little breathing place for a few women every now and then.

Relocation: I've Moved to Austin, Texas

The blog has been silent for several weeks because I've been moving from Washington, D.C., to Austin, Texas, and dealing with the logistics took all my time and energy. I'm starting to get settled in, though, and I'll be posting more regularly.

I'm on the lookout for self defense resources here in Austin. There are certainly lots of martial arts schools. I'll add resources as I find them.

By the way, I drove by myself from D.C. to Austin. I didn't run into any problems on the trip. The weather cooperated and even the traffic wasn't bad most places -- and I was much more worried about traffic accidents than other possible problems.

I'm a practical traveler: I have a cell phone and AAA, and I keep my car doors locked. And I had the car serviced before I left. But the most important thing I did -- as a driver and when I stopped for meals or the night -- was to pay attention. That's the key to both self defense and road safety.

Here's a view of downtown Austin from the south side, not too far from where I live. The "Live Music Capital of the World" is certainly getting to be a big city.