“When someone grabs your neck,” Lisa, a mom with a Barbie-like face who looks down at me as she grunts out push-ups, “What are you going to do? You’re going to put your hands up.”
Lisa tells me she was drawn to take the Krav maga class here at Focus Self Defense in Culver City, “because it’s raw; there’s no dancing to it. There’s no special balance. It’s strictly what you would do out of instinct.”
Krav maga, the system of self-defense, was developed by the Israel Defense Forces since the 1940s, but has also become a expanding fitness industry in Los Angeles and has been officially adopted by police departments like Santa Monica and Los Angeles Police Departments. At Focus Self Defense, which fourth degree black belt John Whitman opened in 2008, there are at least 400 students, while Roy Elghanayan’s Krav maga LA just opened in March and now boasts 70 students. These instructors acclaim Krav maga as a system developed from a common sense understanding of those instinctual aggressive reflexes that we all have in our everyday reserve.
For the same reason, Officer Scott Alpert of the Los Angeles Police Department spearheaded a yearlong process of approval, so that Krav maga training was finally inculcated into the regimen for new recruits at the LAPD training academy in Inglewood last November of 2009.
At the Arrest and Control/Physical Training Unit at Ahmanson Recruit Training Center, I asked Officer Alpert to demonstrate an old move that he used to teach new recruits, that was replaced by a Krav maga technique.
He said, “Imagine you are an LAPD officer, and a suspect comes at you with a gun, and yells, ‘Put up your hands!’ What are you racing?”
I didn’t know the term ‘racing,’ and he explained that the goal was to get at the trigger and change the line of fire as soon as possible. “Well,” he said, “What’s the quickest way between two points?”
Alpert said that an officer would be taught to put up both hands, and then, subsequently, try to swat at the assailant’s weapon with either the right or left arm, depending on which arm the assailant was using to hold the gun.
This required too much thinking. Moreover, Alpert said that by raising one’s hands before approaching the gun, “I’m telegraphing my movement, so that the opponent will easily be able to see and read what I’m trying to do.”
Alpert demonstrated the Krav maga technique he has been teaching recruits that lets them disregard which hand goes where, and instead, utilizes the inclination to bring one’s hand up; “swiftly grabbing the gun on the way up.”
LAPD Media Relations was tentative to leak too much about the police’s techniques, but at Focus Self Defense in Culver City, John Whitman (aged 43, who has taught law enforcement Krav maga in places like Japan) teaches Krav maga as a recreational activity for Angeleno civilians so they too can build on instinctual aggressive reactions already natural to any human being.
“It is hard to fully comprehend until you really experience it,” Whitman tells the class, “but no matter how good of shape you may be in, you will get exhausted within a few minutes of being in a fight. The stress, adrenaline, and excitement will wipe you out within the first few minutes. But you have to train to work through that fatigue and never give up.”
The class separates into pairs and we practice driving our knees into each other’s chests. He instructs us to just grab our partner’s shoulder for now, but in a real fight, as we bulldoze a knee into their chest repeatedly, we should also “claw their skin from the back of their lats so you literally give their butt cheeks a face lift.”
We split into groups of three. Lisa, the mom with a Barbie-like frame, is held back Paula, a more heavy-set mom with a strap around her hips, while I stand in front of Paula holding a black pad on my chest. Paula is instructed to go at me with “a flurry of punches.” Paula’s gentle and friendly smile disappeared when the instructor yelled, “Go!” and she was suddenly a wild bull, while Lisa goads her, “Come on Lisa! Give it to her! Give it to herrrr! Yeah, hammer it! Hammer it!”
I am stunned as I stumble backward, winded. And… I’m laughing?
I realize that as a woman I’m used to smiling, being cute – and growling or showing intense aggression seems unbecoming, but I have to disregard that in order to get in touch with the aggressive instincts that Krav maga is said to develop.
Later at Roy Elghanayan’s class in Santa Monica, the same idea applies that this is a system that can be applied even in the messiest of circumstances; as instructor Roy Elghanayan takes on blindfolds and invites students to come at him from any direction.
But overall, the style in which Elghanayan, an Israeli-American who taught krav maga to IDF marines, is much more aesthetic; as he arranges students according to height and gender, and has them line up at the mirror with their fists to their chests while they watch him perform demonstrations. Elghanayan emphasizes that he is offering the “authentic” Krav maga, which brings him clientele ranging from young Jewish graphics design students to actresses on Hollywood television who want to be prepared for stuntwork.
In a time in Los Angeles when yoga and krav maga are two recreational fitness offerings on the rise, one could argue that they each offer an outlet for those parts of ourselves that the middle-class American lifestyle does not conventionally afford us: while yoga offers the “shivasana” space to be quiet, peaceful, and accepting, the music, the adrenaline and the drills of Krav maga offer a chance to take on a growl, and let out a raging and aggressive side. Both seem useful to surviving the modern day Los Angeles experience.