"You can study abroad under one condition: You must take a self-defense course." So said the author's father as she was making plans to attend college in France. This is what she experienced on the mat.

“Watch the movie Taken!” were the first words out of my parents’ mouths when I told them about my plans to study in Paris. They weren’t trying to scare me out of going (although my dad might have been); they simply wanted me to understand the dangers a girl faces when living alone in a large foreign city. Being my teenage and carefree self, I blew it off.

Time passed, and although my departure was still six months away, my dad insisted on my participation in a self-defense class. I mumbled. I grumbled. I pouted. I didn’t want to go. I could not have cared less about learning how to throw a punch or how to scream “No!” and run away. And I certainly didn’t want to spend five hours learning those things when I could just as easily be watching YouTube videos.

But I went.

Meredith Gold, the self-defense instructor who ran the course.

My dad and I arrived at the studio after driving for an eternity. It was hot, and I didn’t want to be there.

We were the first ones at the school, and as my dad chatted with the owner about a bunch of martial arts hullabaloo, I amused myself on my phone. I noticed the padded floor — great! That probably meant I’d be expected to perform some kind of self-defense move.

One by one, women trickled in until we were six, and my dad took his cue and left. The teachers — Meredith Gold and Mike Belzer — joined us, and before long, we were all sitting cross-legged in a circle. Inwardly, I rolled my eyes. I wasn’t thrilled to be mock kicking butt in front of a crowd, but I also wasn’t thrilled to be sitting in a circle, holding hands and singing Kumbaya. But as I had no choice, I listened. And what I heard was actually inspiring.

We talked about what we hoped to gain from the class. A point recognized by Meredith was that we all wanted to get a better sense of personal security and strength. She explained how the class would help us obtain those things and that it was a shame that because of our gender, we had to waste an entire day learning how to protect ourselves.

She said the class would spend time on the establishment of boundaries. Most conflicts can be avoided, she explained, if we establish clear boundaries. Are you kidding me? This was supposed to be a self-defense class, and we were going to learn how to talk our way out of a potentially problematic situation? I sighed. I whined. I groaned. I rolled my eyes again. Inwardly, of course. Then we began.

Meredith outlined the importance of speaking firmly and clearly and meaning what we say. Predators and other evildoers can detect a lack of belief in oneself. Therefore, it’s necessary to set personal boundaries and express those boundaries in a nonconfrontational yet effective way. This can be conveyed via body language:

Stand with your feet planted, roughly shoulder-width apart and staggered — this makes physical defense easier, should it be necessary, she said. Shuffling away from the adversary is generally discouraged, although a moderate amount of repositioning is OK. Continually sliding away from a potential attacker can be interpreted as fear, she said, and that’s the opposite of what you want.

If the situation escalates, your hands must be in front of your upper body to ward off the attacker, Meredith said. She noted, however, that this protective stance can be assumed without stiff arms and flat palms, which communicate insecurity through overcompensation. A more relaxed state is less confrontational and less likely to infuriate the aggressor.

We stood up and practiced.

Mike and his assistant donned caps and glasses, posing as shady men. One by one, they would approach us, sometimes saying vulgar things and other times asking for assistance. It was our job to clearly communicate when a decent amount of personal space had been breached and say we’d be happy to assist from a safe distance. We were told not to apologize unless it truly was necessary because an apologetic state conveys vulnerability.

Sometimes, the aggressor would grumble, call us names and sulk off. Other times, he’d become frustrated and start yelling. My scenario unfolded like this:

A man approached me, excited. He cried out, begging me to help him because someone had been hurt. He inched closer until I put my hands up and said, “Stop!” He halted in his tracks.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked. “Someone is hurt!”

I responded with “If there’s been an accident, I can call 911 for you, but I’m staying right here.”

With that, he became frustrated: “No! You have to come with me! Right now!” The stress of the situation and the supposed danger made it difficult to say no.

Generally speaking, I enjoy helping others, especially those in need. But we must always be skeptical, Meredith said, and in cases like this one, that means offering nothing more than to call 911. Exasperated with my refusal to follow him, the man stomped off.

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This exercise opened my eyes to the possibility of being attacked in even seemingly normal interactions. For example, when a role-playing opponent approached Meredith in a scenario, he simply asked for the time. She responded, and he crept closer, complimenting her on her watch. Meredith laughed nervously, thanking him. By then it was too late for her to establish a boundary, and he got her in a chokehold. I sat and stared, dumbfounded.

Situations like this have happened to me — minus the chokehold, thank goodness. Not once did I even consider that the person could have malicious intentions. I thought about how easy it would have been for those situations to go south and promised myself I’d never let that happen again.

The physical aspect of the class came as expected. Growing up with a father who’s worked in the martial arts world forever, I’ve learned a few of the weak spots to target, and Meredith reiterated them: eyes, groin, head (in that order).

She had us focus on power. We were taught to use certain body positions to exploit the strength of, let’s face it, our usually smaller and weaker bodies. When gouging the attacker’s eyes, she said, aim for one eye and use all five fingers to really drive it in.

When kneeing the groin and the head, she said, use your hips to build momentum for a more resonating blow. Make contact with the lower part of your thigh (just above the kneecap), she said, because it’s a sturdier weapon that results in minimal pain for the defender.

The shady men then donned insanely thick padding, complete with a football helmet decked out with even more padding. We were told it was OK to go full out because the men couldn’t feel a thing. Their reactions would be theatrics intended to communicate the effectiveness of our strikes. All right. Cool.

We took turns “nailing” them — and were timid at first. Our attacks were often met with a “Harder!” or “HARDER!” until we were all certain the men weren’t getting hurt. Then we really let loose. There was screaming (“No! No! No!”) and kneeing and gouging. It was beautiful. In the heat of the moment, some women forgot the exact routine (eyes, groin, head) but were able to improvise simply because they knew which tools to use.

Sweaty and out of breath, we sat back down in a circle. This time, we actually did sing Kumbaya. Only kidding. We discussed what we’d learned — the most surprising things and the most empowering things. For me, it was the power of setting boundaries, something I’d have never even considered a viable option. How could talking stop a man from attacking a woman? Well, like Meredith said, most predators are looking for easy prey. They don’t expect women to be prepared and engaged, so we need to catch them off-guard and deliver the message “Hey buddy, not interested — take it somewhere else.”

I walked away with an all-but-lost voice and a better understanding of the power of knowledge and what it means to know that, should a situation turn ugly, I now have a chance. I possess the skills necessary to deal with an unexpected or uncomfortable situation. I have the power: raw power.

But I think that, more than anything, I now possess an awareness I never had. I acknowledge that I’m in potential danger at all times, and while paranoia might not be the most enjoyable thing, it’s certainly better than any of the states I could end up in should I be victimized.

Wherever I go, I make observations. I look for exits, for helpers, for danger and, yes, for weapons. Wherever I go, I am ready. Wherever I go, I am aware.

Story by Erynn Young • Photos by Rick Hustead

Meredith Gold, the primary instructor for this course, was Black Belt's 2003 Woman of the Year. Visit her website here.

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