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, intoxicated, crazed.
"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