- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2003

After a full day hitting the books, Howard University student N’cole Merritt likes nothing better than punching herself out of breath at her Krav Maga class.

Wearing oneself out — and then fending off a simulated attack — is part of what separates the self-defense technique from other martial-arts workouts.

Krav Maga is a fighting style born in Israel more than 50 years ago but with very modern applications. Students are taught to fight off attackers with simple, instinctual movements. They wear different-colored belts to mark their progress, with the black belt being the highest standard, but the exercises aren’t bound by stodgy rules or historical underpinnings. It’s far more pragmatic, more applicable to today’s world.

It’s also more aggressive. Students are taught to exploit any weak spots in their enemies.

Hollywood already knows about Krav Maga. Kristanna Loken studied its fighting techniques before taking on Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.” Actresses Angelina Jolie, Cameron Diaz and Shannon Elizabeth all have taken up the combat form for film work and overall fitness.

Krav Maga, which means “contact combat” in Hebrew, is the brainchild of Imi Lichtenfeld, who helped train the first generation of Israeli fighters. Traditional martial arts could involve fighting sticks, swords or other such weapons. A Krav Maga class might focus on defending against a knife or gun attack.

Krav Maga’s domestic headquarters is in Los Angeles, but the fighting techniques are spreading slowly eastward.

Ms. Merritt, 30, heard about Krav Maga watching Jennifer Lopez’s 2002 film “Enough.” The movie casts Miss Lopez as a woman fighting back against an abusive beau.

Now Ms. Merritt is learning the techniques Israeli military officers have counted on for decades.

“I’ve always liked kickboxing, but you never really hit a target. You’re just punching in the air,” Ms. Merritt says.

The movements “are based on what your body would naturally do” in a moment of stress, she says.

“If someone’s choking you, the natural response is to grab at the hands around your neck. This shows you how to bring those hands to your neck in a way to alleviate the danger.”

John Whitman, president of Krav Maga Worldwide, a California-based company that licenses Krav Maga programs nationwide, says Mr. Lichtenfeld developed the exercises to help train an Israeli army from scratch. He needed techniques that would work for the average farmer or intellectual as well as trained warriors.

“The whole point was to bring them to a high level of proficiency easily,” he says, “with no expectation of retraining.”

Interest in the classes began growing after the September 11 terrorist attacks, he says.

“More than anything, people want to take a little more control of their lives,” he says. “It gives you the real sense that you have some tools to defend yourself.”

He says nearly 200 centers in the country are licensed to teach Krav Maga. Locally, students can take lessons at Krav Maga D.C., which has two District locations. Virginia residents can visit the Greater Washington Institute of Massage in Fairfax or Capital Krav Maga in Falls Church for instruction.

Students generally fall in the 25-to-40-year-old age bracket, but it’s something older students can try, too. The movements don’t demand extreme flexibility, and students are encouraged to go at their own pace.

Krav Maga classes often leave the confines of the studio or gym.

Mr. Whitman says a class might take people outside to parking lots to give them a real sense of an attack. Teachers also can turn out the gym lights or spin students around to make them fight through dizziness.

Darren Levine, the L.A.-based chief U.S. Krav Maga instructor, says every time a high-profile violent crime occurs, interest in Krav Maga rises.

“People want to take responsibly for being able to defend themselves,” says Mr. Levine, who trained under Mr. Lichtenfeld.

His mentor “always was talking about doing the least damage possible; that was his motto,” Mr. Levine says. “‘Learn Krav Maga so you can walk in peace.’”

He says the self-defense techniques may be 50-plus years old, but the methods constantly are being evaluated and updated.

“It’s a modern system based on modern threats,” he says. “Some systems want to remain pure by staying the same. Krav Maga is exactly the opposite.”

Carol Middleton, director of Krav Maga D.C., says students take her courses for exercise, self-defense or a combination of the two. She teaches a fair number of law enforcement officers as well as lawyers.

Metropolitan Police Officer Timothy Dumantt, who teaches his fellow officers Krav Maga, says the exercises are easy to learn and adopt.

“They’re not something you have to practice a whole lot,” Mr. Dumantt says. “A lot of the strikes focus on natural body reactions.”

With some other martial-arts techniques, “by the time you finish the training, you forget what you’re supposed to do [in an emergency],” he says. That could be trouble for an officer in a real-life crisis.

District resident Hiram Puig-Lugo, 42, took up Krav Maga to bone up on self-defense.

“It’s very proactive, very straightforward,” says Mr. Puig-Lugo, who adds that some of his classmates came because they had been assaulted in the past. “Instead of 100 ways of doing the same thing, these guys find the three or four more efficient ways to do it.”

That doesn’t make the lessons easy.

“The idea is to have you operate under stressful conditions,” he says. “Certain drills you do with your eyes closed, and when you open your eyes, you have to respond to an attack you don’t know where it’s coming from.”

With more than a year of instruction under his yellow belt, he says: “You feel more at ease and have a sense of generally how you’d react [in a crisis]. What you want to do is put an end to it and get to safety.

“The training is very aggressive,” he adds. “The instructors are very focused on safety, but every now and then you get knocked around.”

Going through the bumps and bruises in a group setting makes the lessons easier to digest.

“That we’re all together helps … encourage you. It’s inspirational,” he says.

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