TELL SELF-DEFENSE instructor Carol Middleton that you can’t handle the physical demands of her class and she’ll likely describe a former student in her 70s who had recently undergone quadruple bypass surgery — but still managed to punch and kick her role-playing attacker. Take that, skeptics.

“The biggest misconception about self-defense is that you have to be in great shape,” says Middleton, director of D.C. Impact Self Defense. “You don’t need to be.”

Rule No. 1: You can learn self-defense skills if you are overweight, uncoordinated, injured, frail or all of the above. “You don’t have to be a martial artist,” says Lauren Taylor, owner of Defend Yourself, which offers classes in various D.C. and Maryland locations. “They think they’ll have to kick in the air and look like Michelle Yeoh [of James Bond movie fame]. They think they need to be a super-athlete, that they can’t be small, weak or disabled.”

While martial arts — like judo, krav maga, karate, tae kwon do and jiu-jitsu — are types of self-defense, instructors point out that not all forms of self-defense are martial arts. In the D.C. area, several classes specifically teach students to protect themselves from would-be attackers. The courses cover prevention, awareness, assertiveness, verbal self-defense and physical self-defense. Students who have completed the training often say the experience was life-changing.

Some of the classes also allow men or offer parallel, guy-oriented courses. But Middleton, who has studied martial arts for decades and is a seventh-degree black belt in tae kwon do, says 95 percent of her students are women. “Men are more interested in competing and combat,” she says. “In class, we talk about what it will be like emotionally if you’re attacked. Men don’t want to hear about that. They just want to whack things.”

Women who take self-defense classes are a microcosm of the overall population, Middleton says. Some have been attacked. Others live alone or travel solo. Others simply feel they should learn to fend off potential assailants.


One of Middleton’s students, Jeanine Braithwaite, 46, took the 25-hour Impact class in 1989 and then took it again with her 16-year-old daughter this summer. “It’s a wonderful set of skills,” says Braithwaite, who lives in Derwood, Md., and travels extensively as an international developer. She says the moves and sense of confidence have stuck with her. “It gives you a sense of relaxation from the ever-present worry that most women have — what will I do if something happens? Well, now I know.”

Braithwaite says one of the most valuable components of the class was hitting the men who don body armor and pretend to be attackers. “I’d never hit anyone before,” she says. “As women, you’re not socialized to do that.”

Instructors teach students which parts of an attacker’s body are most vulnerable (nose, eyes and throat), plus how to strike those areas. They also show how and where to hit and kick. Taylor says kicks to the knees are quite effective, because knees injure easily and then the attacker can’t run after you as you flee. Stomps to the foot are also good, for similar reasons.

But there’s more than kicks and stomps. Classes designed specifically for women’s self-defense tend to focus as much on verbal and psychological strategies as on physical skills. The goal? To avoid the assault completely or to end it before it turns physical.

“Almost every scenario starts with verbal,” says Middleton. “There are usually conversations before someone starts punching you. The main thing about self-defense is not physical techniques or ornate martial arts moves. It’s understanding what the dangers are and knowing how to diffuse and de-escalate (which can include lying your way out of a situation), or how to get help so you don’t have to handle the situation by yourself.”

Christie Lutsiak, 34, has had two back surgeries in the past couple years. She took the Impact class this summer. She found it challenging due to her back, but she still learned skills and gained confidence. “By the time the class was over, you’ve done dozens of practice muggings and attacks,” she says.

Lutsiak, a cancer researcher who lives in Gaithersburg, says she was surprised that the class was so emotionally draining. “Your adrenaline is flowing, and the male muggers are very good actors,” she says. “I didn’t think they could re-create real-life scenarios, but when you’re standing there and someone is yelling insults and attempting to remove your clothing, it doesn’t matter [that] there’s an instructor standing nearby. It felt real, and I fought off the guy. By the end of class, I was physically and emotionally exhausted.”

Self-defense classes borrow many fundamentals from martial arts — the mind-body connection, the concept of taking advantage of your opponent’s (attacker’s) weaknesses rather than your own strength — but there are many differences. Martial artists generally study for years to become proficient, while self-defense skills can be picked up quickly.

Trevor Crowley, 38, a financial adviser who informally teaches self-defense to small groups at World Tae Kwon Do Masters in Rockville, has been studying and competing in martial arts for five years. He says women learning self-defense don’t necessarily need to keep practicing the skills, but they do need the techniques to become second nature.

“In martial arts, there is something called ‘wei’ — doing a movement so often that it’s committed to memory,” he says. This muscle memory will help a woman know how to respond instinctively if someone grabs her neck, wrist or an article of clothing.

Some instructors, like Jeremy Lafreniere, who owns the Capital Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Alexandria and teaches a one-hour She’Safe seminar, still stress that it’s important to train often to keep on top of defensive skills. “You need to practice,” he says. “It’s not how much you know; it’s how well you know what you know.”

But Middleton disagrees and says she wouldn’t want to teach self-defense that students had to practice. “We assume you don’t know anything when you walk in, and that you never think about it after you leave, but you know what to do if you’re attacked. It kicks in as if you’d learned it yesterday.”

Lindsay Conn, 40, a life coach who lives in Silver Spring, took Taylor’s class last year after going through counseling at the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. She was raped in 2000 while vacationing in Jamaica and says the course was invaluable in building up her confidence.

“The first lesson was to learn to say ‘no’ and to learn to say ‘stop’ in the face of someone saying or doing something to us that simply did not feel comfortable,” Conn says. She believes the course made her aware of an internal power she didn’t know existed. “That came as a surprise and changed my life around,” she says.

Written by Express contributor Melanie D.G. Kaplan
Photos by Lawrence Luk for Express