Fighting Back in a Dangerous World

At my first Yale Krav Maga class, I stood face-to-face with the instructor, flat-footed and wearing a nervous smile. Finally, he gave me a gentle shove; it was time for falling practice.

Most Yalies know that they live in one of America’s most dangerous cities. In consequence, several campus groups are working to teach New Haven residents to protect themselves. Classes range from Krav Maga to Payne Whitney’s “Self Defense” to diverse styles of martial arts. Those who teach these courses rightly call them a worthy form of self-protection — but how much training does a novice need to escape a violent situation? How can organized classes prepare us for unexpected criminal encounters? Finally, if Krav Maga is a real boon to wary students, why aren’t enough self-defense classes taught on campus for everyone to learn the basics?

To find answers, I recently tried my first session of Yale Krav — and found myself tipping backwards over and over, in search of a soft landing. That self-defense often starts from the ground seemed like a pessimistic viewpoint. Multiple experts in the field, however, assured me that most attacks are completely unexpected; if you go down and can’t get up, you’ve already lost. Retired police officer Craig Elkin, who teaches “Self Defense,” asserts that recovering from the shock of a violent act — without freezing in panic — is essential.

The current head of Yale Krav, who asked to remain anonymous for employment reasons, concurs. The class, which runs from 9 to 11 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays in the Slifka Center, trains students to handle attacks that restrict their movement. Undergrads learn to repel crushing bear hugs, aggressors seated on their stomachs and sudden choke holds — events that the instructor warned can happen at any time.

Krav teaches initiates to bend a wrist until it breaks, to deal serious damage with a palm to the face and to throw off-balance attackers to the ground — but only in order to escape. The best defense in violent situations, the instructor said, is to flee at top speed.

“We’re not trying to turn you into vigilantes,” he said. “I do this so I may walk in peace, and teach other people to walk in peace.”

For Elkin, Krav Maga is an entirely practical system. He called prevention the best defense against violence: you might never have to defend yourself if you stay aware of your surroundings and suspicious strangers.

Elkin also warns his students about behaviors that might lead to trouble. “When you’re walking alone at night, anytime you’re distracted or not showing confidence” are the situations that, in his experience, lead to most assaults. He added that the majority of such attacks involve an intoxicated party.

The techniques in Krav’s first level (which regular attendees can finish within a semester) also take alcohol into account, preparing initiates to ward off drunken blows or headlocks “from the guy at the next barstool.” Nine further levels cover more exotic situations, ranging from multiple attackers to defense at gunpoint. Still, the most useful skills can be acquired in the space of a few hours, though interested students can train for years with the goal of becoming teachers themselves.

Sam Taha ’13, who has trained with Yale Krav for over a year, hopes to make this transition. He switched from kickboxing to Krav Maga after high school because it seemed more practical. “In a street situation, there are no rules, like there are in kickboxing,” he said. “There’s no end in sight for me now.”

What about less dedicated students? Self-defense involves a few core concepts — be aware, react to danger, disable your attacker, run — but demands hours of practice to stay fresh in a student’s mind. After my first Krav session, I spent a few minutes per day mentally reviewing how to break a hold or block a punch. Still, my muscles soon forgot the necessary moves.

Jessica Yuan ’15, another first-timer, felt she would have to attend more classes in order to feel comfortable with the techniques. She knew nothing about Krav Maga before her roommate started training; when that roommate tried to drag her in for a class, she had to think it over before she finally took the plunge. “My mom thought it would be really cool if I could beat someone up,” Yuan said. She enjoyed her first lesson enough that she looked forward to returning.

Given the classes’ limited size (24 for Krav Maga and 15 for Elkin’s course), most students will not get the same opportunity to learn to defend themselves. Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry said he hadn’t considered making self-defense part of Freshman Orientation, questioning the time needed to train some 1,400 new students every year.

The New Haven Police Department doubts the need for self-defense lessons. “We do not teach it, nor do we necessarily recommend it,” NHPD spokesman David Hartman said. He added that people have a right to defend themselves but that any such attempt might introduce violence to a nonviolent robbery attempt. “We recommend getting away from people who may be attacking,” he concluded.

When self-defense classes fill up, students interested in martial arts have other options, from Yale judo and Shotokan Karate to kickboxing at Payne Whitney. None, though, are as casual or defense-oriented as Yale Krav or Elkin’s course. Elkin is also the sometime instructor for Shotokan, which captain Daisuke Gatanaga ’14 described as transcending self-defense to include creative and competitive elements.

“Certain “givens” in Karate … are just not realistic on, say, a street,” Gatanaga said. “If someone wanted to learn to defend himself, he could take courses specifically designed for that, as opposed to Karate.”

Some students, of course, do not feel the need to learn self-defense. Kevin Ho ’12 says he has never felt unsafe on campus. “That’s probably a false sense of security, though,” he said with a shrug.

For students who feel less secure, Elkin’s course will start anew in January, and Yale Krav always welcomes newcomers, however clumsy. At the end of my first class, I started what should have been a long sequence of punches and kicks by slipping and hitting the wooden floor with a dull thud. As I rose to my feet, my instructor never stopped cheering me on. “Keep fighting! It’s raining! The street is slippery! It’s ok if you fall down — this is real life!”

However realistic Krav Maga attempts to be, though, it will never capture the true terror of a surprise attack on a dark New Haven sidewalk. More often than not, a stranger who hits you from behind will still escape with your wallet or phone. But short of hiding in my room every night for the next seven semesters, I can’t imagine better preparation for a random act of violence than a hands-on course on defensive techniques which acknowledges its own limits. Whether they try Krav Maga, Elkin’s class, or independent practice with a friend and the Internet, Yale students who wish for more control over their safety in risky circumstances would be remiss not to spend a few hours learning something about self-defense.

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