Before they begin their classwork, the students and instructors sit
in a circle, sharing their reasons for being there. Then they get up,
go to the mats, and beat the hell out of guys wearing padded suits.
About half of the students who enroll in the Women’s
Self-Defense courses at Impact Bay Area Training Center
(1724 Mandela Pkwy., Suite #1, Oakland) have survived some kind of
assault, says the center’s executive director, Erica Neuman.
“Typically, they’ll say they’ve been to therapy that dealt with
healing their minds,” she says. “This course helps heal their bodies.”
Once learned, physical self-defense tactics “go into your muscle
memory, and stay there.” In case of an assault, “your mind might
freeze,” Neuman says, “but your body will remember what to do.”
Impact’s program is based on research showing that the vast majority
of assaults on women are perpetrated by men, explains Neuman, who has
written sexual-assault-prevention curricula for Planned Parenthood. So
it includes grappling and “street-fighting” techniques for besting
opponents larger and stronger than oneself. Although the course was
developed by a karate expert, it presents more realistic scenarios than
are found in traditional martial-arts classes.
“In karate,” Neuman explains, “you spar with partners. You never
land punches. You’re never grabbed. You’re never taken by surprise.” In
Impact’s courses, such as the one that begins on Saturday, August 15,
students learn full-force hitting and kicking. They learn to deliver
knockout blows, practicing on instructors who wear $1,400 padded suits
while acting like authentic assailants: sneaky, aggressive, strong,
“We start with slow drills in the air,” then work up to contact
fighting, Neuman says. “Once the suits are out there, the adrenalin
starts coming.” Students can even request “custom fights,” in which
they outline an imagined assault — “where and when and how it
would happen, and what they want the attacker to say” — and then
act it out on the mats. Often, students choose to re-enact actual
assaults that they have endured, but whose outcomes are different in
the re-enactments, thanks to their new skills.
“Most people never get the chance to hit somebody as hard as they
can,” Neuman says. This is especially true for women, who are
socialized never to hit anyone or anything at all.
Assaulted as a teenager, Neuman ventured into her first self-defense
class many years later. “I wasn’t that physically fit, and as a
plus-size woman I thought I couldn’t do anything physical.” She soon
discovered otherwise. “I learned that I was really strong. Being a
bigger person, I can’t run fast, so realized that I’d better be good at
fighting.” Now she is.
But the best self-defense involves not fighting. “Research
shows that 80 to 90 percent of attacks on women can be stopped by
verbal means alone,” Neuman says. So the Impact program teaches
students what to say to assailants, how to say it, and how loudly. “A
very effective self-defense technique,” Neuman points out, “is
screaming your head off.” Noon-6 p.m., $495; scholarships and
interest-free payment plans available. ImpactBayArea.org