Threat and Sweat

Fitness and self-defense in one class? Try Krav Maga.

A woman — not 100 pounds soaking wet — is standing in the middle of a studio with her eyes closed, surrounded by six men and another woman. The people in the circle take turns attacking this woman with various choking techniques. Each of them, one by one, is deflected aside in a matter of seconds. The woman, you see, is practiced in Krav Maga.

The brainchild of Imi Lichtenfeld — a native of Slovakia trained as a boxer and wrestler — Krav Maga (Hebrew for "contact combat") was created in the 1940s as a tactical defense skill set for the Israel Defense Forces. Now taught by the likes of Patrick Terry here in Memphis (at Mid-South Krav Maga in East Memphis), Krav Maga is based less on techniques than on principles. Its most distinguishing element from martial arts? There are no rules.

"Even with my background in traditional martial arts," explains Terry, "I didn't feel like I had the tools to win a fight on the street, in a practical scenario. Krav Maga is based on instinctive movements, things people are likely to do under stress with minimal training." There is no scoring, no competitive or arts component to Krav Maga. It's a system for self-defense training that teaches you how to, yes, win a fight.

"A technique is a solution to a problem," says Terry. "If the problem changes, you have a different technique. Krav Maga gives you one defense for any number of problems, or styles of attack. It's something you're likely to do under stress anyway."

Terry sees many students arrive with physical fitness on their minds, then watches them leave safer. Or vice versa. Krav Maga manages to provide an intense, hour-long anaerobic workout, all the while teaching self-defense skills that can be incorporated in the most dire of circumstances. A class begins with a 15-minute warm-up session, which is followed by 30 minutes of combat training, then closes with 15 minutes of self-defense instruction. The idea is to create a high-stress scenario that safely replicates an assault. Asking fatigued students to fend off multiple choke-holds — with their eyes closed — accomplishes the trick.

Rubber knives and handguns become a threat in the arms of a training partner playing the role of an assailant. And assessing the threat is the first instinct Terry would have any student take from his studio. "If someone is choking you," he explains, "the first threat is not the attacker, or even his hands. It's the inability to breathe." Regain your breath — by removing the attacker's arms — and the fight is a step closer to being fair.

Various pads and props are utilized in Krav Maga, a chief point of emphasis being to use any and all objects available in defending yourself. Purses, car keys, an umbrella . . . you'd be surprised what can be used to disarm an attacker. (Terry advises anyone walking through a parking lot alone to have his or her keys in hand.)

Getting started in Krav Maga is easier than you might imagine. "The things that you learn in a beginner's class," says Terry, "are the foundation for what you learn when attacks become more aggressive. You'll learn how to defend against knives long before the knives ever come out. The same goes for defending against a gun in your face."

Training partners are chosen by skill level (there are four at Terry's studio) and body size. But there are cases where physics take over, irrespective of size advantage. Late in one class, an instructor straddles that same woman as she lies "defenseless" on the floor. He outweighs her by at least 100 pounds. In two motions, the woman removes his arms from her neck and sweeps him to the side, to the point where she is on top of him.

No rules. Krav Maga.

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