BOOK REVIEW: Krav Maga: Real World Solutions to Real World Violence by Gershon Ben Keren

Krav Maga: Real World Solutions to Real World ViolenceKrav Maga: Real World Solutions to Real World Violence by Gershon Keren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This is a comprehensive guide to the Krav Maga Yashir style of Krav Maga. The fact that there are multiple styles of Krav Maga was news to me. Yashir means “straight” or “direct” and this system was founded by the book’s author, Gershon Ben Keren, drawing heavily upon Imi Lichtenfeld’s original program, but modified to make it relevant for a modern, civilian practitioner. (To offer an example of said modification, Lichtenfeld’s system presumed that the fighter was an infantryman with a pack on his back, and so the original Krav Maga avoided movements that would be hazardous when so loaded down, but that are feasible for the average civilian on the street.) The author has a scholarly background in the psychology of violence, and emphasis on the realities of violence is a recurring theme.

The book follows a typical format for martial arts books. The early pages discuss the philosophy and approach of the system in detail. The book then proceeds to discuss basics such as stance and the fundamentals of punching and kicking. Finally, it delves into progressively more challenging self-defense scenarios (unarmed, armed, multiple attacker, and from various directions) and the counters that the system offers.

The book succeeds in its objectives. The photographs are well-done and provide the requisite clarity. One particularly nice feature is that the scenario photographs are taken in realistic settings so as to reinforce the importance of recognizing and using one’s environment. Key concepts are reiterated throughout so as to facilitate learning. The organization is systematic and builds logically through progressively more challenging situations.

The biggest criticism is of some of the book’s repetitiveness. Repetitiveness is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be an important tool for learning, particularly with ideas that need to be thoroughly ingrained—e.g. self-defense concepts. However, some of the repetition in this book is more wasteful than beneficial. The scenario sections feature a textual description of the attack / defense event, and then there’re captioned photos that visually portray how the scenario plays out. The captions repeat much of the text, and they do it so close to the original text that it’s hard to imagine it being much more than an annoyance.

I’d recommend this book for someone who is considering whether to take Krav Maga classes, or for martial artists looking for insight in to the nature of this system. It has some sound general advice on self-defense that those interested in that topic might find useful.

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The Jujutsu Murders, Plus Some Brain Science


Imagine you’re a detective in Edo Period Japan (1603-1868), and you’re told to investigate a case in which three highly-trained practitioners of one of the most well-respected jujutsu schools have been stabbed to death. Each of the three bodies has only one mark on it–the lethal stab wound. The wound is on the right side of the abdomen in all three cases. There are no signs of a prolonged struggle, despite the fact that each of the three had many years of training and none of the men was an easy victim. The stabbings happened independently, and there were no witnesses to any of the killings. So, who or what killed these three experts in jujutsu?


Nobody knows who killed them, but a rigid approach to training contributed to what killed them. As you may have guessed, the killer took advantage of knowledge of the school’s techniques, i.e. their “go-to” defense / counter-attack for a given attack. It’s believed that the attacker held his scabbard overhead in his right hand, and his weapon point forward in a subdued manner in his left. All three of the defenders must have instinctively responded to the feigned downward attack as the killer stabbed upward from below with the unseen blade.


It’s a true story. I read this account first in Jeffrey Mann’s When Buddhists Attack. That book offers insight into the question of what drew some of the world’s deadliest warriors (specifically, Japan’s samurai) to one of the world’s most pacifistic religions (i.e. Buddhism–specifically Zen Buddhism.)  Mann cites Trevor Leggett’s Zen and the Ways as the source of the story, and Leggett’s account is slightly more detailed.


This story intrigues because it turns the usual cautionary tale on its head. Normally, the moral of the story would be: “drill, drill, drill…”


Allow me to drop some brain science. First, there’s no time for the conscious mind to react to a surprise attack. The conscious mind may later believe it was instrumental, but that’s because it put together what happened after the fact and was ignorant of the subconscious actors involved. (If you’re interested in the science of the conscious mind’s stealing credit ex post facto [like a thieving co-worker], I refer you to David Eagleman’s Incognito.)  Second, our evolutionary hardwired response to surprise is extremely swift, but lacks the sophistication to deal with something as challenging as a premeditated attack by a scheming human. Our “fight or flight” mechanism (more properly, the “freeze, flight, fight, or fright” mechanism) can be outsmarted because it was designed to help us survive encounters with predatory animals who were themselves operating at an instinctual level. (If you’re interested in the science of how our fearful reactions sometimes lead us astray when we have to deal with more complex modern-day threats, I refer you to Jeff Wise’s Extreme Fear. Incidentally, if you’re like, “Dude, I don’t have time to read all these books about science and the martial arts, I just need one book on science as it pertains to martial arts,” I just so happen to be writing said book… but you’ll have to wait for it.)


So where do the two points of the preceding paragraph leave one?  They leave one with the traditional advice to train responses to a range of attacks into one’s body through intense repetition. Drill defenses and attacks over and over again until the action is habitual. This is what most martial artists spend most of their training effort doing. A martial art gives one a set of pre-established attacks or defenses, and it facilitates drilling them into one’s nervous system.


Of course, the astute reader will point out that the three jujutsu practitioners who were killed had done just what was suggested in the preceding paragraph, and not only didn’t it help them but–arguably–it got them killed. I should first point out that the story of the three murder victims shouldn’t be taken as a warning against drilling the fundamentals. As far as their training went, it served them well.  However, there’s a benefit to going beyond the kata approach to martial arts. One would like to be able to achieve a state of mind that once would have been called Zen mind, but–in keeping with our theme of modern science–we’ll call transient hypo-frontality, or just “the flow.” This state of mind is associated with heightened creativity at the speed of instinct. (If you’re interested in the science of how extreme athletes have used the flow to make great breakthroughs in their sports, I’d highly recommend Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman.) Practicing kata won’t help you in this domain, but I believe randori (free-form or sparring practice) can–if the approach is right.

Robot Karateka Threat Underwhelming

Worried that Terminator-like robots may kick humanity out its pole position among sentient beings? You can sleep well tonight. A news report today suggests that the Karate Kid’s kicking dominance is not yet under threat by Robo-karateka.  In other words, Ralph Macchio can still out kick the state of the art karate robot. The Cobra Kai’s plans to achieve world dominance via a fleet of Karate androids have been thwarted for the time being.


Muaythai Training in Thailand for Certificate or Freestyle?


The Muay Thai Institute (MTI) in Rangsit, Thailand is uncommon in that it offers two different approaches to training. The first option is a program that will allow one to test for a certificate showing that one mastered the skills required at one’s respective level (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, Professional, and Teacher.) The second option is daily/weekly/monthly training, which the teachers refer to as the “freestyle” tract.


MTI’s website covers details of pricing and timing, but one may not be clear about what the differences will be with respect to actual training. I’ve trained at MTI on two occasions–the first time for one week and the second time for two weeks–and have trained in the freestyle track on both occasions. The majority of students at MTI seem to pursue the rank certificate approach.  This is probably in part because there aren’t many gyms at which one can get a certificate and transcript recognized by Thailand’s Ministry of Education. There a vast number of places to train Muaythai in Thailand, but few at which one can build rank that has some recognition beyond one’s own teacher.  (Which is not to say that certification is the only reason to train at MTI versus elsewhere; I’ve been back for training without certification.)



Advantage Freestyle Advantage Certificate
PriceBroader training experience

No need for planning

No minimal time investment

Focus on fighting skills

CertificateGreater perfection of fundamentals

Doors open to progress

Systematic approach to learning

Learn Wai Kru (respect) in detail


Before I elaborate on some of the differences, it should be noted that at least one’s first few days (and perhaps more depending upon one’s physical acumen) as a freestyle student will be spent training with the Level I (Beginner) certificate students. If your stay is short or if you have trouble grasping the basics, your whole training period may be identical to a Beginner certificate student. However, after a few days the training a freestyle student receives is likely to be different from the Level I student.


I’ll elaborate on the notations made in the above table:


PRICE: It’s a little cheaper to train freestyle. As of the time of this writing, it cost 8000 Baht for the Level I certificate program, which involves 10 training days (i.e. 20 sessions, or 40 hours). So if one trains the usual twice a day schedule without many (or any) days off, one can do this in two weeks. At the weekly training rate, one will pay 5000 Baht for two weeks. Note: CHECK THE WEBSITE as pricing details may change over time.


CERTIFICATE:  In the certificate program, one gets a handsome certificate, plus a transcript that breaks down how one did on all of the requirements so that one knows what items one kicked butt upon and which ones one eked by upon. As I mentioned, this is recognized by the Thai Ministry of Education, and so holds a little more gravitas than one’s teacher saying, “Hey, you can move over to the Intermediate ring now.” If one wants to teach Muaythai, it might not even be a question of what track you will pursue.


Sadly, for those in the Western world rank tends to hold a great deal more importance than it does throughout much of Asia, where one is either the teacher or one is a student and the respect others  grant one is based more upon what one can do and how hard one trains than what color belt one wears.


IMG_4914BREADTH OF TRAINING EXPERIENCE: Freestyle students usually spend more time doing pad work, unrestricted shadow boxing, and sparring than (Beginner or Intermediate certificate students. Freestyle students will also be exposed to a range of techniques from the Beginner through the Advanced levels. A Level I certificate student will focus on mastering the material for one’s level, and that will mean mostly doing footwork drills without and with punches /basic defenses, as well as bagwork.


DEPTH OF TRAINING EXPERIENCE: The flip-side of the previous entry is that certificate students will likely develop better technique because they’ll drill the basics more and will be corrected on smaller errors than will freestyle students. Which of these approaches is better is a personal question that depends on the student’s background and what they hope to get out of training.


THE NEED FOR A PLAN: A freestyle student just needs to show up every session and do what the teacher tells one, when he tells one.  If one decides to take a session or even a day off, there’s no issue other than personal nagging guilt (not that one shouldn’t take a day off once a week or so—depending on how long one is training for.) However, if you are in it for a certificate, you need to be conscious of the effect that dropping classes will have on having the minimum number of classes needed to take the test.


The certificate student may also need to put in time outside of the training sessions. Beginner students must show they know the Wai Kru, which involves an elaborate sequence of moves that one will usually practice in class at most once per day. While one usually has plenty of free time, if you haven’t experienced training Muaythai for four hours a day, you may not be aware of how much energy it takes to go practice even the relatively slow moves of the Wai Kru outside of training sessions.


PROGRESS: For those who want to be able to teach Muaythai eventually, it’s important to start checking off the intermediate steps. That requires progression through ranks. If one has no intention of working toward a high level, the certificate my hold little value. Also, be cognizant that Level 4 and the teaching levels require that one have a certain number of professional fights under one’s belt. That may or may not be feasible for some.  So don’t think you will work your way through to the teacher levels without fighting.


MINIMUM TIME INVESTMENT: The first time I attended MTI, I had only one week and I couldn’t have done the certificate program if I wanted to. If one wants to do the certificate, again, one needs to make sure one has adequate time to get in the minimum number of sessions.  If one has only a week or even a few days, one can get value out of training freestyle.


SYSTEMATIC APPROACH TO LEARNING: If one is new to martial arts (and to movement related activities in general), it may be beneficial to begin sticking solely to a small set of the most basic techniques—as per the certificate program.  The freestyle approach could be frustrating if one doesn’t have some experience using one’s body fluidly and adjusting to changing conditions. While the details of techniques vary considerably from one martial art to the next, there are a set of skills related to bodily awareness that people who’ve practiced movement arts for many years develop that can translate to relatively smooth and rapid acquisition of other approaches to movement.


FOCUS ON FIGHTING SKILLS: For a Beginner certificate student, the Wai Kru is the single most challenging item on one’s list to learn. The Wai Kru is very important, as it’s how one shows respect to one’s teachers and lineage. However, if one is primarily interested in picking up skills to apply to self-defense or to one’s mixed martial arts stand-up game, spending lots of time on getting the entire sequence perfect may not be the best use of one’s time.  (As opposed to if one wants to fight in Muaythai bouts or teach the art one day, in which case it’s worth taking the time to perfect this activity early.) [I should point out that freestyle students do get the opportunity to learn and practice the Wai Kru. It’s usually how one of the day’s sessions is finished each day. However, I will say that in two weeks I was nowhere near fluid in having memorized the full sequence, hence the suggestion that one be prepared to put in some overtime on it if one wants to earn a certificate and get high marks. ]


LEARN WAI KRU AND OTHER “ANCILLARY” SKILLS: There are skills like the Wai Kru that one will probably not master going about the freestyle tract. This may or may not matter to one, and whether it does or doesn’t matter is an important consideration in one’s decision.


These are my views on the difference between training freestyle or for rank at MTI. If you decide to train there, I hope it will be of some value.

9 Self-Defence Tips for Women

Today is a day of protest in Bangalore to decry sexual assaults on women and children. It seems like an apropos time to offer some advice on self-defense.

1.) NEVER GET INTO A VEHICLE or allow yourself to be taken to another location:

This is line in the sand #1.  He’s telling you to get in the vehicle because he wants to do something that he’s scared to do at the present location. That means your chances if you scream, run, fight, or some combination of the above are better than if you get in the car. A thief wants your money/possessions and then wants to put as much distance between you and he as possible. Don’t believe anything a thug tells you about why he wants to take you somewhere–no matter what kind of soothing tone he may use. He means to do you harm at the end of that ride.

2.) Never allow your freedom of movement to be restrained:

Line in the sand #2. The same logic applies. He wants to bind or handcuff you because he’s scared to do what he wants to do with an unrestrained victim. Your chances are better if you scream, run, fight, or all of the above than if you allow yourself to be hogtied.

3.) If you remember nothing else from this post, remember points 1 and 2. 



4.) 2 ways a cluttered purse can be perilous:

First, if you decide to carry some form of weapon (e.g. pepper-spay or a stun-gun) or the ineloquently named “rape-whistle”, it will do you less than no good if you can’t put your hand on it instantaneously. (Why less than no good? Because your eyes will be on your bag, instead of on the threat.)

Second, see point 5, below.

5.) How to be robbed, a primer:

You’ve probably heard the mantra, “Never fight over money or possessions, they can be replaced, you can’t!” That’s sound advice. However, you must keep in mind that violent criminals use “gimme your money” as a ploy. They wait until your eyes go down and then they pounce with much more ominous intent.  This is the second way a cluttered purse can be perilous. If you start looking through your purse, you’re at risk. Pitch the whole purse, let them find it. If they don’t go for it, then it’s time to flee or fight.

What’s the “proper way” to be robbed? You throw the money in the robber’s direction (preferably between his feet and behind him) and then you run the other direction. If he’s a robber, he’ll grab the money and hightail it in the opposite direction from you. If he chases you, then it’s time to be ready to fight for your life.

IMG_40726.) Choose classes wisely:

There are a lot of offerings of self-defense and martial arts classes. The first thing to know is the difference between self-defense and martial arts classes. Self-defense classes will teach you a few basic, easily remembered techniques to get out of the grasp of an unsophisticated attacker so that you can run. If you know that you don’t have a lot of time and energy to devote to learning to protect yourself, this is the type of class you should pursue. You probably won’t learn what you need to get safely away from an athletic psychopath, but–fortunately–such individuals are rather rare. I’d recommend this type of training periodically even for women with no interest in martial arts.

There are many different primary objectives one may see in various martial arts, including: sport, entertainment, sustaining a historical lineage, or preserving historical / cultural events and ways. While self-defense is one of several objectives of almost all martial arts, it’s the primary objective that will shape the martial art and its relevance to you. Sporting martial arts will get you in fighting shape and teach you to take a hit and keep moving, but may leave you with systematic vulnerabilities around the rules of the game.

For example, if punches to the head aren’t allowed, you won’t learn to defend yourself from the head punches that a real world attacker won’t hesitate to employ. If fighting on the ground isn’t allowed, then you’ll miss out on some beneficial training. Also, in a sport you may spend a lot of time punching with a closed fist. This is great if: a.) you’ve built up bone density with bag work and exercises, b.) your hand is wrapped tightly, and c.) you have a padded glove on. If not, there’s a good chance you’ll break one of the tiny bones in your hand on the attacker’s thick, bony skull–and it may distract you enough to lose advantage. This isn’t to imply such a martial won’t prepare you better than the next woman (and better than an attacker, for that matter), but you should only do it if you’re interested in the sport as well as in defending yourself.

Martial arts for entertainment may have you spending a lot of time practicing complex, spinning, aerial maneuvers that you cannot count on being useful against an attacker on the street. Again, if you enjoy this kind of martial art for its own sake, I’m not suggesting you should abandon it or that it isn’t benefiting you at all from a defensive standpoint.

Historical martial arts often offer the advantages of being combat-oriented and not rule constrained, but you may spend a lot of time working with archaic weapons and may not practice sparring or free-form fighting–which, I would argue, is essential to being ready to defend yourself. Again, these arts are awesome, but you need to be aware of what you are studying and what it’s value is to you.

Questions to ask:

a.) Can I watch a class? I’ve heard clever explanations for why this isn’t necessary for such-and-such martial art, but if they won’t let you watch a class, I’d move on to the next place. The observation class allows you to see whether that art is right for you and whether the teacher is skilled and professional.  Now, don’t expect a school to keep allowing you to show up and watch, but one class should give you enough idea. You may want to ask ahead to make sure it’s a fairly typical class. Some martial art schools occasionally have atypical classes to communicate some ancillary information to students which isn’t at all that useful in a day-to-day sense. (Alternatively, some schools have classes that are rigidly identical from one session to the next.)

b and c.) Will you teach me how to stay on my feet?  and Will you teach me how to fight on the ground? The ideal answers to both is “yes.” If they answer the first question by saying, “All fights go to the ground, we teach you how to get down and control the situation.” You have some sort of submission sport school that would likely make you tough as nails. However, there’s a reason there are weight classes in those sports. You don’t want to default to the ground voluntarily with someone who outweighs you by 60 pounds and who can bench press your body weight two or three times over.

That being said, if the answer to the second question is, “No. Going to the ground is ridiculous,” you might want to move on to the next school. To summarize, you want a school that will teach you how to stay on your feet so you can get away, but, also, you want a school that’ll prepare you for the worst case scenarios.

d.) Do you do sparring, randori, rolling (as in ground-fighting free-form training), or other free-form training? Note: In most martial arts, you’ll need to spend some time learning basics before you get into sparring (and that’s a good thing, in my view.) However, if the school doesn’t do any of that type of training at any level, it probably won’t prepare you for what you are likely to face. There are some old school martial arts that only do form and technique training, but with no “unstructured” training.

My final word on looking for a school: Don’t be scared off by the students looking haggard, sweaty, and mildly gimpy by the end of class. Such a school will prepare you much better than one in which the students look pristine going home.

7.) Drill with any weapon you carry:

Believe it or not, I once saw a professional law enforcement officer who accidentally sprayed himself full in the face with pepper-spray. (Among my varied and sundry past occupations was a stint in law enforcement.) No weapon is a magic talisman that you can put in your bag and expect to have it ward off evil.

8.) Don’t expect the Hollywood plop:

Squirting an attacker with pepper-spray, shocking them with a stun gun, or even shooting them with a handgun will not necessarily immediately and definitively incapacitate them. They may keep coming, hopefully impaired, but possibly just angered. There is an old samurai saying that goes, “Even in victory, cinch tight your helmet cords.” This means, even when it looks like your attacker is down for the count, maintain caution.

9.) Remember items 1 and 2, NEVER GET IN THE CAR and NEVER LET YOURSELF BE TIED UP.