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The art of self-defense

  • 5 min to read

Someone comes up behind Renee Duvall, putting her in a choke hold. Without thinking, Duvall turns, puts one of her legs behind the person and takes him down to the ground.

In this case, it was just a practice partner at a Jiu Jitsu self-defense class. But if it had been an actual attacker, the move would have given Duvall enough time to run way — possibly saving her life.

Local women are learning how to defend themselves in a self-defense class at Gracie Jiu Jitsu. Jake Whitfield has been teaching the class in Goldsboro for 10 years, and taught in Durham for four years before that.

The class is for any female, from young to old. Whitfield has a class for children 5 and 6 years old, and the oldest woman in the adult class is 60. But he has had students who are even older than that.

He explains that Jiu Jitsu is different than some other forms of martial arts in that it’s designed not to fight force on force.

“In Jiu Jitsu, we learn how to protect ourselves and how to neutralize the other person coming after us,” Whitfield said.

“And we learn how to control the attacker using technique instead of fighting.”

He said self-defense is different for a woman because she is usually attacked from behind.

“Men have this ego thing where they get in each other’s face, yell and then a fight starts,” Whitfield said.

“For women, it’s much more likely to be a surprise. Somebody just comes up behind you and grabs you.

“The attacker wants something easy. If you fight back at all, every bit that you fight back makes them question if it’s worth doing. The thing that Jiu Jitsu gives you is an element of surprise on an attacker because they’re not expecting you to fight back.”

Whitfield recalls one female student about college age that he had a few years back who escaped a bad situation using the techniques that he teaches.

“A guy that she thought was her friend threw her down and got on top of her,” he said.

“She was able to use an arm lock that she learned in Jiu Jitsu and surprised the guy. She didn’t maim him, but was able to hurt him enough for a split second, and she got up and ran away.”

The basis for the techniques that Whitfield teaches women in his self-defense class are for a surprise attack.

“In class, we cover what if somebody comes up and grabs you from behind, pins you up against a wall or even throws a punch at you,” he said.

“Also, if you end up on the ground, how do you defend yourself and escape if you can and how to control the attacker.”

Whitfield said many times, a woman is going to end up on the ground, whether she wants to or not.

That’s why he spends so much time teaching them techniques on how to get up off the ground and get away.

But it’s not just a one-time class and then a woman is able to defend herself against anyone.

Whitfield believes it’s necessary to practice enough so you don’t have to think of what move to make when you are being attacked, but instinctively know what to do.

And it’s a constant refining of the moves.

“If you’re exercising, you can’t go to the gym one time and exercise and be physically fit,” he said.

“This is the same thing. You have to actually practice it over and over.”

Whitfield said it would take at least six months to a year to become proficient in the art of self-defense.

“But if you go from that to nothing, it’s going to start going away very quickly,” he said.

“You don’t have to practice every day. If it’s important to you, devoting two to three hours a week to your safety isn’t that big of a sacrifice.”

Martha Catz has taken the class for a little more than two years.

She was doing yoga and teaching it when someone suggested Jiu Jitsu.

“The first time I did it, I had no idea what I was doing, I was so out of my comfort zone,” she said.

“For me, so many things that girls and women do, it’s all very subjective — dance, gymnastics. And it’s ‘are you doing it perfectly?’ And then somebody’s judging you.

“But I got into Jiu Jitsu and I don’t have to be perfect. I get to be brave instead. I really like that. I don’t have to waiting until I’m perfect, just get in there and do it. I get strong and I trust myself.”

Catz said the class has taught her to step forward to people instead of waiting for them to take her space and then trying to get them out of her personal space.

“You go to every cocktail party and there’s always a couple of masher guys who always have to put their arms around you or pull you in,” she said.

“For the first time in my life, as they make that move in, I put my elbow up and say, ‘Wait a minute, you don’t have the right to do this.’ And then they back off.”

And it’s taught Catz to be more aware of her surrounding.

Now when she’s walking around at night, she’s no longer texting.

Instead, she puts her cell phone in her purse and becomes aware of where she is.

Renee Duvall, 27, used to train to cage fight, but then after one fight, she realized that in order to be a good cage fighter, she needed Jiu Jitsu.

Her boyfriend was already doing Jiu Jitsu and got her to try it.

“I fell in love with it and stopped training for cage fighting,” she said.

“I think the reason why I got so addicted to it is because you’re always learning. You may know a certain move, but you can always learn a different dimension to a move.”

She’s been practicing the art of self-defense for so long — about three years now — that there are certain things she finds herself doing automatically.

“We were taught that a when someone is approaching you from the front, you put your hands up,” Duvall said.

“I am the manager of a restaurant and had a customer one time get very irate, cussing and fussing and being very aggressive. I had my hands up but didn’t even realize it until the customer said I needed to put my hands down. I just did it instinctively.”

Duvall said self-defense for a woman is so important these days.

“The bad guys out there on the street are going to target a woman before they would a man,” she said.

“The class is 100 percent good for any woman of any age.”

Samantha Hall started the class about three years ago.

She used to box but had a leg injury and couldn’t do any kind of jumping up and down.

“I have learned how to defend myself against a bigger, stronger attacker,” the 30-year-old said.

“That’s the intent of the art. The man who created it was a small, sickly man his entire life, so he made it to give the smaller, weaker people a chance.”

In addition to teaching Duvall how to defend herself, the class has also helped her a lot with her depression, something she’s suffered from since she was a teenager.

“I’ve never liked the idea of going on medication unless it was an absolute last resort,” she said.

“Since I found this and started practicing, I haven’t had to be on my depression medication.”

Duvall said the class is also good for her confidence and teaches her how to handle herself in all situations.

“Women, especially small women, need to know how to defend themselves,” she said.

“Anybody bigger and stronger than them will think they’re a target. But if you can defend yourself properly, you stand a chance.”

Lindsey Walden, 11, has been taking the class for 3-1/2 years and has learned a lot of self-defense moves.

“I think if somebody tried to attack me, I’d be able to defend myself,” she said.