Three men storm the gym and force us to the ground: Our hearts race as they press mock guns to our heads.
But as students of LARAM, we know we have options. We have tools to neutralize our aggressors -- during this in-class drill and during true-life attacks.
LARAM, derived from the Hebrew phrase Lechimat Rechov Meyuchedit ("Specialized Street Combat"), is a self-defense system based on Israeli Special Forces counterterrorist tactics. LARAM teaches students they have choices in dangerous situations; it arms them with a battery of skills and knowledge that can deliver them safely out of peril. Skills many Angelenos pursued post-Sept. 11.
After the terrorist attacks, Los Angeles citizens took a pro-active approach to safety. "The Sept. 11 tragedy brought on numerous requests for self-defense classes," said Cara Williams, general manager at The Meridian Sports Club. In response, The Meridian offered weekly LARAM classes. "We've had high enrollment numbers and students keep returning," Williams said.
LARAM is an intensive, but pragmatic approach to personal safety.
"LARAM isn't pretty, it's practical," said Aaron Cohen, LARAM founder and instructor. "It doesn't teach you to be a commando, it teaches you to get away."
Cohen, a Los Angeles native, volunteered for the Israeli Defense Forces after graduating from Beverly Hills High. He was quickly selected for the Army's specialized Counterterrorist Unit, where he learned the self-defense system he now teaches his students.
Cohen, who also owns Israeli Military Specialists, a Los Angeles celebrity security company that also provided security at the April 21 Israel Festival, views safety as a universal right. "Feeling safe shouldn't just be for stars who use my security service," Cohen said. So he teaches LARAM students the very same practical applications of military tactics he teaches his security staff.
This extreme training approach veers from traditional martial arts curriculum. "A student needs to study coordination, balance and speed, and then learn to apply that to the moves," said Preston Ducati, owner of United Studios of Self Defense, a martial arts school with 12 Los Angeles locations. "We teach students to run before they walk," Ducati said.
But the running start appeals to LARAM students. "You don't have to take it forever to learn it," said Anthony Pachero, a criminal defense attorney.
"I've tried boxing, wrestling, other martial arts. This just seems more efficient and more effective," he said.
This jump-start method reflects LARAM's emphasis on instinctive reactions. The fighting system relies on the intuition and natural responses students bring to class; so, it's not only for the athletically inclined or well-coordinated. "It's for anyone who can move their arms and legs," Cohen said.
After a 10-minute cardio warm-up, instruction quickly shifts to combat techniques. Tonight, students learn to react to a close-range gun attack: obstruct the mechanism, pivot out of range and de-arm the assailant.
"Echad, shtaim, shalosh." Instructors count in Hebrew as students practice in pairs. Students, who wrap their hands and pad their knuckles before class, are encouraged to use their full strength during these drills. "You will get bruised in my class," Cohen said. All part of LARAM's reality training.
LARAM's focus on urban survival skills makes it an appropriate class for any metropolitan area. But Cohen specifically chose his native Los Angeles. "I wanted to take what I learned in the Israeli army and teach it to people who drink the same nonfat lattes as me," Cohen said with a smile.
The class attracts professionals: film executives, publicists, lawyers. Many who have felt anxious and inspired by the World Trade Center attacks. Marlene Capell, an artist and fit Jewish grandmother of four, sees the class as a physical challenge. "Men spend their lives rumbling with each other, but women back away from contact. This class taught me that I have the ability to fight back, too," Capell said, overcoming her sparring partner, a male student twice her size.
Classes, limited to 15 students, are taught by Cohen and two assistants, both members of his unit. (Unlike other martial arts, one cannot train to become a certified LARAM instructor. Only Israeli counterterrorist soldiers can teach the system.) Instructors take the time to adjust a student's angle or straighten a leg, ensuring that students execute moves properly and effectively.
LARAM teaches mental, as well as physical, self-defense. Students learn to detect high-risk situations and to remember that self-defense is not the mere application of rote movements. "It's your brain, your smart reactions and quick thinking, that will get you out of danger," Cohen said.
A lesson that doesn't escape the students. "You learn to switch from an everyday mentality to a defensive-aggressive posture in a second's notice," Pachero said. A skill that seems particularly valuable to Americans in the wake of September's tragedy.
"Israelis have always been more aware of their danger. They take responsibility for their own safety. I'm trying to teach people in L.A. to take that same responsibility for themselves," Cohen said.