"It will forever change your life and the way you think about self defense," said my instructor, Bonnie Thiel a fourth degree black belt in Kyuki-do (a martial art that combines Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido, weapons and Judo) and owner of A.K.F. Spring Grove Flying Dragons. The women's self defense course she teaches out of her school is called Women Initiating Safe Environments (WISE)*.
It was neither asked nor told why any of the women in the class had made the decision to be there. Our purpose was not to discuss or rehash the past, but to make us better equipped for the future.
The six-week course covered written material and hands-on instruction of various self-defense techniques such as kicks, strikes, blocks and ground escapes. Each woman underwent a simulated attack for the final exam.
"It's one thing to THINK you can defend yourself and another to KNOW you can defend yourself," said Thiel on the first night of the class. "If you skip the last class, you won't know what your are capable of doing."
The written material defines self defense as a process consisting of increasing awareness about patterns of assault, taking reasonable precautions to avoid attack and preparing for the possibility of it by not only learning techniques, but also by developing the judgement necessary to respond appropriately to different attack situations.
The class offered self-protection tips to be used on the street, at home, in the car, on public transportation, in elevators, in the office and in public restrooms. Being confident and being alert were at the top of the list for each situation.
The "common-sense guidelines" included the following advice: react instantly and act calmly without panic; stay in control, including breathing, voice, emotions; use simple, direct, fast and easy techniques that work; never look away from a potential attacker; go to anatomically weak areas such as knees, groin, nose, throat, eyes and ears; gouge, scratch and bite if necessary; remember that most people who are attacked are victims of opportunity.
"Trust your instincts," said Thiel. "Many victims didn't listen to that little voice inside that told them things aren't right."
Myths were dispelled and replaced with facts. In an unarmed situation, a woman's best strategy is to resist rape. According to the written material, most rapists are looking for an easy target and will pass over a woman who is uncooperative. It said, "Resistance can be as little as refusing to cooperate with strangers asking for directions, by yelling or running."
In more than one section the material says, "Always put everything into your techniques. A slap will just serve to increase hostility. If you are going to defend your life, fight like your life depends on it."
Hands on training felt a little like boot camp. We were required to keep our fists up in the guard position whenever we were on the mats, and forbidden from turning our backs on the only man in the class: Ron Thiel, Bonnie's husband and designated bad guy (and second degree black belt). He yelled at us to kick and strike with our full power and chastised us when we failed to do so for the purpose of teaching us to act and react under stress.
In turn, we yelled back "NO!" as loudly as we could with every technique we used. In addition to being a good deterrent, it is necessary within Illinois law for this word specifically to be used if a case is ever brought to court.
The first five weeks were necessary to prepare us for the final night of class, but it was that final night that proved to be the most educational.
What we knew of our simulated attack beforehand was limited. We knew we would be taken into the darkened school one at time by Bonnie who would stay with us throughout our escapes. We knew there would be a safe zone for us to go once we were free. We knew there would be an extra person present as a safety precaution. We knew Ron would be padded from head to toe so that we couldn't seriously injure him. We knew Ron would not strike us. We knew our hands would be placed in Ron's and then Bonnie would tell us to begin.
We pulled numbers from a hat to determine our fight order. I drew number one.
Though I was very nervous being led into the school, I never expected the attack to be as realistic as it was. My emotions raced and my adrenaline soared in ways I didn't even know were possible.
My escape took about a minute, the slowest minute in my history. I remembered some techniques and forgot others. I was ashamed at the waver in my voice as I screamed "No" or "I got your eyes," when I knew this was a controlled situation and I would not be hurt.
Several things struck me as I watch the other nine escapes that followed mine (we all escaped, with most of the escapes occurring in well under one minute).
Five of us were so disoriented by the time we escaped that we couldn't find the safe zone, a designated corner in a virtually empty rectangular room. I found this particularly unnerving as I easily spend seven hours a week at the school for my regular martial arts training. My eyes welled up with tears when I watched the woman who immediately followed me turn the wrong direction, and away from the safe zone.
At least three of our knees buckled when we stepped off of the mats and onto the carpeted area when the escape was completely over.
Not one of us went for Ron's knees - the first place we were taught to counter attack - even before the groin. A kick to the knee is more likely to immobilize an attacker than other techniques.
Though it took me a day to realize, the most dangerous thing I did during my escape was holding back on one of my techniques. I was initially grabbed from behind, and I pulled Ron's pinky finger down to release the hold as we had been taught. While I was able to break the hold, I stopped myself so that I wouldn't hurt Ron, one of my martial arts instructors and a person I genuinely like.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association via the web site for Women Against Abuse, domestic violence is the single greatest cause of injury to women. Every 15 seconds a current or former husband or intimate partner (someone who may genuinely be liked by the victim) beats a woman in this country.
The extra safety person took notes on each escape, and we went over alternate techniques and areas of improvement. Bonnie and Ron stressed that these responses need to be practiced to become automatic. The woman with the quickest escape was also the woman who has taken this course more than once.
To punctuate her final thought, Bonnie told a story she had read about where a college girl's life was saved by the small act of her father putting an extra car key in her purse. This extra key allowed the girl access into her car as her set of keys had been lost during a foot chase.
"There are a million situations that could happen, and each one of them is different," she said. "It's our hope that if you are confronted with one of them, something you learned in this class will come to you that will be the one thing that will help you make it through."
*W.I.S.E. was created by Master Larry Klahn of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, a fifth degree black belt with The American Kyuki-Do Federation.
"As a police officer I see a lot of situations where women are battered and lack self-esteem and confidence to protect themselves. I have a number of 'tools' I can use as an officer however your class added to that list. I thnk your self-defense class is wonderful for women of all ages...As a citizen and especially as a police officer I would recommend your class to anyone. This class is a testament to your care and concern for the safety of all women. I would like to personally thank you for making this class available to women of this community." -- Sheila Osborn, Corporal, Spring Grove Police Department
"Bonnie's presentations are upbeat and positive. The participants feel empowered not only in personal safety, but also knowing they have choices in life." --Candace Spasojevich, Director of Prevention, McHenry County Youth Services Bureau
"I currently work in a police department where I see and hear of many domestic and non-domestic situations, some more violent than others. But unfortunately, many situations are not reported. I would highly recommend your class to all young girls, teenagers, and adult women. ALl women sometime in their life will be in a situation where the knowledge of self-defense will help them through the situation and or possibly save their life." --Donna Czarnick, Spring Grove Police Department
"Having completed Bonnie's self-defense course, I am confident that I can defend myslf against a would-be attacker. More importantly, I am now very aware of potentially dangerous situations and making smart decisions to avoid trouble before it happens." -- Diane Gray, Research Consultant and Co-President of Stand Up and Sprout, Inc.
"It's an eyeopening, life-changing experience. There is not any type of female that is exempt from benefiting from this class. Whether you are strong, meek or fall somewhere in between, the amount of knowledge and self-assurance you gain is absolutely incredible. You will learn how an dwhere to most effectively strike an attacker and how to get out of dangerous physical situatoins that you may have thought impossible. Every woman will walk away from the class with so much more than what the ybegain with." --Lisa Davison, former security officier and current proud mother of Emily
"I highly recommend the Women's Self Defense class taught by Bonnie Thiel of the AKF Spring Grove Flying Dragons to every woman, high school age and older, that i can. As a mother of a young girl, I feel that it is so important to equip young women with the awareness, the fundamental skills, and the confidence that may someday prevent a rape or mugging, or even save their life. As a working professional who has traveled frequently for business and felt somewhat smug in my "safety sense," the first night's lecture alone was an eye-opener. Bonnie taught us that awreness of our surroundings and simply avoiding certain situations was the first step to safety. Sure, it sounds like common sense, but to hear BOnnie share several poignant personal experiences, to hear the examples of women who have been vicimized made us realize that a dangerous situation could present itself even where we feel mos tsafe... going to the store, walking in our quiet neighborhood, even in our own homes, and with people we know. But awareness that leads to prevention may not always protect us, and through several nights of intense lessons we learned skills that empowered us to devend ourselves. And, more than that, we gained confidence. We learned how not to be a victim. What a difference that can make!" --Enza Hill, President and Founder, E-Tech Team, Inc.