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Instructors Billy Austin (L) and Christopher Gagre teach Krav Maga, a form of self defense that originates in Israel, to a class at Wu Xing Martial Arts, Toronto Ontario August 26, 2010. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Instructors Billy Austin (L) and Christopher Gagre teach Krav Maga, a form of self defense that originates in Israel, to a class at Wu Xing Martial Arts, Toronto Ontario August 26, 2010. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Sweat

Kick butt like an Israeli soldier Add to ...

Rarely, if ever, have I been so excited to show off my bruises.

They are normally proof of my clumsiness; I'm pathetically prone to tripping, walking into things and inviting minor comedic calamities.

But the nebulous splotches of purple, blue and green that I currently sport with pride are the result of Krav Maga class, a form of self-defence that does double duty as fitness conditioning.

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Krav Maga (Hebrew for "contact combat") was introduced in Czechoslovakia nearly 80 years ago by Imre Lichtenfeld as a way for the Jewish people of Bratislava to protect themselves against anti-Semitic groups. After the state of Israel was established in 1948, he began instructing the Israeli Defence Forces and gradually, the training spilled over into the realm of law enforcement.

These days, a third level, geared toward civilians, appears alongside more traditional forms of martial arts as a way for non-G.I. Joes and Janes to learn response techniques to realistic threats while allowing them to work up a sufficient sweat.

In less time than it takes to draw money out of an ATM, I learned just how intensely physical Krav Maga can be. At Wu Xing Martial Arts, a surprisingly inviting training school in downtown Toronto, instructor Chris Gagne throws beginners together with advanced students.

Paulina Devon (L) and Elisa Lewis practice how to repel a knife attack while learning Krav Maga, a form of self defense that originates in Israel, at Wu Xing Martial Arts, Toronto Ontario August 26, 2010.

Within the first 10 minutes of my first class, I was on lying face-up on a mat, trying to prevent someone from choking me. To Mr. Gagne's credit, this approach prevents any opportunity for nerves to set in; I had no alternative except to figure out how to release myself from my pretend attacker's grip and subsequently throw the person to the floor. "I think it's nice for beginners to see how good [they]can be," he says.

It's intimidating but a total adrenalin rush. I hesitate to say that rubber guns and knives are cool but, well, they're certainly more fun than free weights. What I kept reminding myself, though, was for all the hypothetical set-ups, Krav Maga is designed for scary real-life situations, whether a drunken knife fight outside a club, muggings or sexual assault.

Physics and biomechanics play into Krav Maga and you can spend hours watching videos online - from the amusingly amateur to professional segments taped for TV - all showcasing limitless techniques. Really, though, anyone with a gun pointed to his head in a constricted space (picture a parked car and a wall) does not have the luxury of thinking about the academic aspects; speed is critical as is anticipating the attacker's moves. "We want you to go from 0 to 60," Mr. Gagne says.

That's why we repeat drills to the point that they become reflexive (Mr. Gagne says this can take up to six months, which is fast compared with more artistic forms of martial arts).

Yet he makes sure to emphasize randomness, as it's unlikely that any hostile situation would play out like a choreographed action movie. Once we spend enough time repeating the moves - switching sides and introducing additional elements of surprise - Mr. Gagne divides us into two groups. Victims stand (or lie) scattered around the room with eyes closed, awaiting attacks from the remaining classmates.

For any number of reasons, I found that my male counterparts went easy on me (grabs felt like hugs) until I urged them to go harder. Hence the bruises.

But the risk of injury is minimal, says Mr. Gagne, who has been teaching Krav Maga for five years. For some, the more uncomfortable aspect to class may be the close contact with sweaty strangers. In a different context, being straddled and strangled might border on foreplay, but I never got the sense that anyone was thinking beyond how to create enough space to breathe, protect important body parts and, finally, strike, punch and kick (men are advised to wear cups).

Skeptics of Krav Maga say that it's not something most people will use beyond a class setting. I'd counter that a) you could say the same thing about step aerobics, and b) wouldn't you rather be armed with some knowledge of self-defence rather than face the alternative?

There's a lot to the practice that I don't feel qualified to explain, let alone do. One wrong move and I could slash my own throat, not deflect the knife. I've not reached a level where I could disarm someone and I'm not even sure I could take on those kid actors in Kick-Ass.

Still, as Ali Siadatan, owner of Wu Xing, points out, "It gives you some teeth right away. You take an idea away that immediately begins to build your defensive shield."

If it's cliché to use the word "empowering," then so be it. I hope to never have to use what I've learned. The founder's guiding principle was "walk in peace." And barring a swift kick to the groin or jab at the eyeballs, there's always another option: Run.

Follow on Twitter: @amyverner

 

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