A strobe light is pulsating. Bass-heavy rap blares. It's dark, you can't see a thing, and someone puts his hands around your neck. What do you do?
Pull the attacker's hands apart to break the chokehold, then: "Imagine you're grabbing their ears," barks Krav Maga instructor Paul Cichowlas to a packed Thursday night class. "Now, help their groin greet your knee!"
The students willingly oblige. They spin around; their expressions are feverish and aggressive as they forcefully jab their knees into, yes, their partner's "gonadal region." Only self-restraint not following through with the assault prevents an all-out crotch-crippling blow.
These are some basic drills in Krav Maga, a brutal, effective self-defense system developed by the Israeli army in the 1940s and 1950s. Hebrew for "contact combat," Krav Maga was introduced to the United States in 1981 and has steadily gained popularity in the constantly evolving American workout circuit ever since.
The discipline's no-nonsense approach to fighting (there's none of the tradition or decorum found in typical martial arts) is appealing to those who want to learn how to protect themselves. And, around the country, the ratio of men-to-women who study is about 60-to-40. Though it's becoming more and more popular as a civilian self-defense class, U.S. SWAT teams, air marshals, police and FBI agents all study Krav Maga as part of their training.
By whittling the art of ass-kicking down to its most basic elements, Krav Maga borrows maneuvers from tried-and-true combat forms. Tapping into one's instinctual "fight or flight" defense mechanisms, it includes judo grappling, Muay Thai boxing and street fighting 'tude.
Last July, Cichowlas and his partner, Zac Strickler, opened Krav Maga Detroit in Troy. Although other martial arts schools around Michigan particularly in Livonia, Wyandotte, Fowlerville and Holland teach it, this is the only studio in the state dedicated entirely to Krav Maga.
And while the partners share an obvious appreciation for the method, they could not be less alike. Strickler, 29, is a music teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School in West Bloomfield. His easygoing nature and his warm-and-fuzzy day job make it difficult to believe that he's spent the past six years teaching young men and women how to cause efficient, intense pain. Cichowlas, on the other hand, has a no-nonsense demeanor that seems to fit the role more believably replete with a thick Polish accent, he is built like a pit bull, with a solid, boxy frame and closely shorn whitish-blond hair.
But despite the high-intensity workout that Krav Maga provides, there's no set demographic for this self-defense system. Indeed, in Troy, it seems to be a family activity: In the Level One class, there's a spindly blond 10-year-old breaking a sweat as she extracts herself from her brother's chokehold. Next to them is Dick Davis, one of the older participants, with his hands around the neck of his 29-year-old son.
"I love it it's the best thing that I've ever done," glows Davis, 63, panting a little. "I'm in the best shape I've been in since I was 30. I guess you're really never too old to get in shape."
Drawing from its military roots, endless sit-ups, push-ups and sprints are expected of students between the drills themselves. "This is the worst moment for you to get tired," Cichowlas tells the class, as they begin to lag after a particularly rough relay-type exercise. "After you've kneed someone, you don't want to stand and watch. You might have to run away."
Simulations, such as the aforementioned strobe light drill, keep students from getting too comfortable with the classroom environment.
"The great thing about Krav Maga is that you can screw up and still be successful," Strickler says. "Mistakes are a reality and you need defenses that allow for mistakes but will still save your life. Krav Maga just gives you guidelines teaches you to control your initial panic so you can react in the best way possible if attacked."
Every few months, KMD holds "Gun, Knife and Stick" seminars to teach students to protect themselves against armed assailants. With practice materials that include a knife and gun made of a dense rubber, the instructors demonstrate the best ways to escape dangerous situations unscathed. For the more advanced participants, a cap gun is used. A tuft of air comes out when the trigger is pulled, alerting the student as to whether they'd have been "shot" or not.
But for a regular class, what are the required materials? Workout clothes, fists, knees and a little luck. Because one wrong move, boys, and you'll be singing a different tune. In soprano.
Classes now open: For more information, visit kravmagadetroit.com. Krav Maga is located at 1600 W. Maple in Troy; 248-643-4448.
Meghana Keshavan is a Metro Times intern. Send comments to [email protected].