A few months ago I started taking weekly classes in hand-to-hand combat. I needed some exercise, hate gyms, fantasize about being an action star, and “have a lot of aggression,” so it seemed pretty logical. I’ve also been assaulted in real life and nurse an obsession with horror films and literary thrillers; I am fully alert to the presence of danger! walking down a city street and have a tendency to plot evacuation points whenever I am in a room for a prolonged period of time, so why not put all this occasionally justifiable paranoia to use and actually learn how to defend myself rather than just fantasizing about it?
The classes have been everything I hoped for and more. I mix it up by attending beginner’s-level classes to work on my basic skills and advanced-level classes for variety. While already outnumbered 10:1 in beginner’s, I am usually the only woman in advanced classes, and I thrive on it. Aware that I may be regarded as weaker, more delicate, and less intense (and therefore an undesirable sparring partner) intensifies my aggression and need to prove myself.
I am not just a girl, I think, I am a threat. I may be physically weaker, but I can be faster, smarter, and unexpected, and that is what makes me more dangerous. It’s getting into a mindset that I think will serve me well in life in general. Focus, train, emphasize your strengths, protect your weaknesses, and if ever cornered and in doubt, go for the balls. Hard. (Note: That’s not the playground tip – read on).
Particularly in the advanced sessions, I am often outclassed by people who have been training months and even years beyond my experience. Almost all these guys are gracious partners and, while still challenging me, offer useful tips and assistance. In turn, I do my very best to learn from them and give them the opportunity to get the training they are paying for by being a good partner (and it is a lot easier to attack than defend, so I think I do alright).
And sometimes I get the shit kicked out of me, if it’s a good class. What follows are a lot of pictures of bruises, and a few thoughts on the nature of injury.
I have a lot fewer bruises than when I first started training, thanks to *slightly* better skills and the purchase of arm guards, not to mention the less intense beginner’s classes (I jumped right into the deep-end with the advanced, two-hour Thursday class by accident). But in a way, I miss the battle scars of my first couple of months training because I am very, very interested in my bruises, and I want to show them off. I quickly discovered that class was one of the few times my brain was shut off entirely from work and life stress and I was completely focused in the moment. I mean, you have to be when you are dazed and feel like puking from cardio already and there’s some guy coming at you with a rubber knife and if you can’t lay him out on the floor, what are you going to do if it was a real knife?
So when I was in work the next day, every muscle aching to the point that walking down stairs made me gasp, the brown bruises manifesting on my arms and shoulders and knees were something to be proud of; I worked hard for them. When I have a fever, even though it’s not earned, I still want someone to place their hand on my forehead and exclaim. It’s not as much a need to demonstrate and receive commendation about what a brave wee soldier I am as a need to say, look what’s happened to my body! It’s weird! Validate my experience through observation!
There is something very satisfying about visual confirmation of an injury, and likewise something fascinating about the body’s ability to be injured and then set about the work of healing itself. It’s that same compulsion that drove me as a child to show off my scab – see what happened to me! – and then to slowly peel it off with the edge of my nail, blotting the blood in fascination and wondering at the unreal brilliance of its color. Injury brings shocking revelation of the corporeal, and ruminations on my own fragility. It also brings comfort that, with time, these minor injuries heal themselves, albeit with a scar or a bent joint to serve as a reminder.
Beyond the pleasure or preoccupation it is natural to feel in healthy transformation, I’ve also begun to think about the satisfaction found in physical manifestation of psychological injury – weight loss after heartbreak, or circles under the eyes after a sleepless, anxious night. I’m not going to go so far as to compare this to mental illnesses like eating disorders, or self-harm like cutting, but I am aware of some correlation. Trauma is both fascinating and repulsive. I will admit that this class I attended last Thursday was an emotionally charged one for me, as I am dealing with some issues in my personal and professional life. Far from taking my mind off of things, as usual, my frustration with my failures in class grew and grew and became, in my mind, related to my personal failures. I was one of the few who hadn’t learned proper defense against shin-kicks, and these pictures illustrate what happened to my shins, with only about four or five contact kicks. It was the only time I fought against crying, not because of the physical, but because I felt I couldn’t do anything right.
The pain was so bad I had to walk around in a circle with my hands on my hips, audibly sucking breath in and out, to keep from lying on the floor and howling. It was the first time in five months I’ve asked my opponents to go easy (they were all more experienced and wearing shin guards, which I am investing in PRONTO). I ended up wrapping my arm guards around my ankles for some protection. I am embarrassed to confess that the thought – my outsides look how my insides feel – crossed my mind. But that is not why I go to combat class, and self-pity (especially due to my own lack of preparation) is not going to be a helpful emotion.
So here is the promised playground tip, ladies: Should you ever be attacked, you should not only go like a wild animal for his eyes and groin (and if you know how, angle a sharp poke to the throat), but also kick him in the shins. I was kicked in the groin the other week and have been choked, punched, and elbowed, but nothing has taken my breath away so much as a kick to the shins. And I have the bruising to prove it.
The very best thing I’ve learned so far is how to turn off my hesitancy to hurt someone. When someone moves to punch me and I block their throw with a deflection from my arm, and it hurts, there is no half-second’s pause in my counterattack. I have never been in a real fight, due in as much part to my own fear of injury as to my fear of injuring someone else. It is very possible to punch someone in the head the wrong way and kill them. This understanding is intrinsic to my training, and I appreciate it; I now think I could hurt or disarm someone without seriously injuring them, and I am glad for the distinction.
But my dread of harm applies just as much to my fear of psychological or emotional attack as it does physical attack. While combat class may make me physically tougher, there’s still a lot of work to do in general. In the meantime, it’s good to have a punching bag.