Refresh your self-defense skills

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Jessica Kiefer/

Pepper spray hurts, and I found out the hard way. My own pepper spray keychain had been left in my car on a hot day in June, only for me to pick it up and put it back in my purse hours later. After touching my eye not long after, I soon regretted ever carrying the defensive spray which leaks when left in extreme temperatures.

But the incident posed a question worth consideration: how effective is pepper spray when it spends its time sitting in a purse? The small cans or keychains give a sense of security to many women, but such defenses can be relied on too much.


While pepper spray can be a useful defense, André Parker, instructor and president at Cross Roads Martial Arts in Indianapolis said people need to keep in mind that such defenses are no guarantee.

"Any defense you use can also be taken and used against you," he said. This is why he said he recommends learning alternative skills, although he's had to cancel a number of self defense classes recently because of low attendance. He said the majority of his business is mothers and children who take Taekwondo classes. He attributes the attendance drop to the tough economy.

"I think a lot of people are looking to get more for their money," he said. "People want more value, something more substantial."

Along with stress and unemployment, the current state of our economy could also be blamed for a recent spike in domestic violence crime in Indianapolis. As WTHR recently reported, domestic violence calls are up 12 percent from 2008.

The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department's crime trend reports a 21-percent increase in total murders and non-negligible manslaughters, an 81-percent increase in rapes and a 279-percent increase in residential burglaries in the Indianapolis area since 2001. Between 2006 and 2007 alone, rapes reportedly increased by more than 50 percent. And these only take into account those crimes that were reported.

But Parker said television news reports and crime shows are not the sole motivation for women to seek self defense training.

"I think it's a closer connection," he said. "Not like they just saw an article about a lady they didn't know. Some close personal tie to an incident sparks a concern."

If not action, the numbers should promote awareness. According to Parker, when it comes to learning how to protect themselves, most women have one question: What do I do if?


I personally got to experience a short self defense lesson with Parker, in which he described teaching everything from dirty tricks to deadly maneuvers in order to escape an assailant.

Things like fake keys, or even fake money, can be thrown in the opposite direction you're planning to run, presenting the attacker with a choice and taking advantage of criminal instinct.

As far as physical techniques, the main idea is to cause trauma. "That shuts down their brain, and puts you back in control," Parker said.

In a demonstration, I was instructed to turn my body sideways and punch my attacker's throat, conveniently avoiding Parker's black prop knife coming toward me.

Armed next with a threatening orange rubber gun, he held it to the back of my head and asked me the million-dollar question: "What do you do?"

For all the confidence I've had when yelling at television's crime show characters for being "stupid" and taking action that ultimately results in their victimization, I was no more impressive. I stood there, clueless and thankful for the fact that it was a fake gun.

But in a real situation, the gun won't be orange and it certainly won't be rubber. Parker advises putting your hands up, but seizing any weak moment of distraction the attacker may have. Acting deliberately is imperative, and quickly turning around with your hands up and striking the attacker's eye with your thumb will likely catch them completely off guard.

"You can't beat a bullet, but you can beat the mind," he said.

Some additional tips:

- Aim for sensitive areas that will fire lots of nerves (nose, chin, groin, top of the foot)
- Always use the heel of the foot or heel of the palm
- Aim for the ankle or knee to throw an attacker off balance

Thinking about it

A lot of the time, it's simple science behind a defense. Parker demonstrated this when he gripped my wrist, telling me to widely open my hand, flex my arm muscle and pull upward, allowing me to free myself. "It's using big muscles to attack little muscles," he said.

But Parker said the first and most important thing he teaches in his classes is situational awareness. "It's about how to not let yourself be put into a bad situation, or let a bad situation take control of you," he said.

As his demonstrations posed mock threats toward me, Parker revealed something most would-be victims may not think of: Once someone is close enough for you to reach them, things change.

"They can touch you with the weapon, but you can also touch them," he said. "You have to figure out at what distance you want to take control of the situation."

Exercise the skills

Parker offers self defense classes in a series of four seminars that get more involved with each meeting. Available discounts and special offers keep people returning, and Parker said an emphasis on practice is the only way self defense should be taught.

"Like everything, you need to maintain it," he said. "You can't be shown something one time and expect that four or five years later when you need it, it will be in your brain ready for you to use."

Parker said one class is not going to be good enough to last the rest of your life, and suggests people who learn self defense come back at least twice a year to refresh the skills they have learned.

And this studying is not homework-free: Parker asks his students to watch crime shows on television at home, and pinpoint the exact moments when the soon-to-be victims lost control of bad situations.

As for pepper spray, it is a useful defense -- but Parker said people should keep in mind that no canister lasts forever. Over time, pepper spray loses its strength and should be swapped with a new canister after the expiration date passes.

After acquiring a few self defense skills myself, I think I will continue to carry my (newly purchased) pepper spray keychain and avoid leaving it in my car, but I will work on advancing alternative methods of defending myself. After all, not only will it get me in better shape, but my physical skills aren't likely to be left at home when I need them most.

Shattering the Silence on domestic abuse - Learn to spot signs of abuse and find out what to do if you or a friend needs help.

Cross Roads Martial Arts - For info on local self defense classes and other techniques