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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Blinders (Literal and Figurative) in the Martial Arts

IMG_2553Many years ago I was training at a dōjō that had a practitioner who was a teacher for the blind. He requested that we put together a self-defense workshop for his students.  (If you’re wondering what kind of evil jackass would attack a blind person, rest assured that—sadly–such a level of jackassitude exists in the world.) The request presented an intriguing challenge. How does one adapt techniques that are premised on being able to see what the opponent is doing? Or maybe one shouldn’t adapt existing techniques but rather start from square one?


In preparation for working up a lesson plan, the person that asked for the workshop briefed the black belts. We learned that very few of the blind students lived in complete darkness. Instead, they displayed a wide range of different visual impairments. He even brought a large bag of goggles that simulated various impairments so that we could train in them to better understand what would or wouldn’t work with different types of impairment.


There were goggles that had funnels over the eyes such that one could see two little circles clearly while the rest of the world was black. There were others that had a complete field of view, but had translucent tape over the lenses so that everything was reduced to fuzzy blobs—as if one were looking through Vaseline. There were lenses that had a crackle effect such that one could only see veins of area clearly. There were goggles with no peripheral vision, and ones with only peripheral vision. He also had some goggles that blacked out the world entirely. Completely blind individuals may not be as common as one would think, but they certainly exist. Putting on any of the goggles was disorienting at first. A couple of the black belts even got vertigo or nausea when they moved around too quickly.


Now imagine what it would be like if one had always had the goggles on, that it was the only worldview one had ever known. Furthermore, imagine that everyone you interacted with on a daily basis all wore the same variety of goggles. You wouldn’t see it as an affliction or a limitation. To you, your view of the world would be full and complete. You would engage in behaviors that might seem odd to an outsider with unobstructed vision (e.g. sweeping your hands around in big arcs, turning your head at unusual angles, or calling out into the “darkness”), but these behaviors wouldn’t seem odd to you because you’d know it as natural behavior for someone who experienced the world as you did.  Because everyone you dealt with would see the world in the same way, it wouldn’t occur to you to think about whether there was another way to behave.


The preceding paragraph serves as an analogy for culture. One’s own culture is often invisible, especially if you don’t get outside of it much. All the people around you confirm your belief that you’re seeing the world as it is and behaving in the only natural and normal way imaginable. Sure, you may notice other people’s cultures—their skewed worldviews and the anomalous behaviors that result– but that’s because they do “strange things.” Still, some individuals will maintain that their culture doesn’t display any of the “odd” ways of behaving that more “exotic” cultures do.


But it does. Every culture is a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly of how a people goes about living in the world given their cultural blind spots and skews. It includes collective coping mechanism for dealing with fears of uncertainty, and those are often the ugly side of culture. They encourage ingroup / outgroup separation, as well as primitive and superstitious approaches to dealing with those events, people, and behaviors that are out of the ordinary.


It’s easy to display double standards when one is blind to culture. I will give an example from my own life. It’s only been since I’ve been living in India (and traveling in Asia) that I’ve become aware of how many people are upset by Westerner’s secularization of Eastern religious / spiritual symbols and imagery. That’s a mouthful; so let me explain what I mean by “secularization of Eastern symbols and imagery.” I’m talking about “OM” T-shirts / pendants, bronze Buddhas, Tibetan thanka paintings, mandalas  (on T-shirts or posters), miniature shrines, or tattoos that are purchased because they are trendy, aesthetically pleasing, or vaguely conceptually pleasing without any real understanding of the tradition from which they came or intention of honoring it.


Granted it’s easy to miss the above issue if you’re a tourist because: a.) Many of said Eastern traditions practice a live-and-let-live lifestyle that make their practitioners unlikely to be confrontational about such things (in contrast to  practitioners of Abrahamic traditions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.)) b.) There are merchants in every country who are willing to sell anything to anybody for a buck, and so there are vast markets for tourists that offer up these symbols and images in droves.


It still intrigues me that it once caught me off guard that there were Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, etc. who were dismayed by the secularization of their traditions. I’m agnostic, but I was raised in a Christian household. Therefore, I can imagine the animosity aroused by the following conversation.


A: [Wearing a simple crucifix [or Star of David or crescent & star] pendant on a chain.]

B: Hey, A, I didn’t know you were Christian [or Jewish or Muslim]?

A: Because I’m not.

B: But you’re wearing a crucifix [or other Abrahamic symbol] pendant?

A: Oh, yeah, that. That doesn’t mean anything. It just looks cool. It’s kind of like the Nike swoosh.

B: [Jaw slackens.]


Now replace the crucifix with an “OM” shirt, and an inquiry about whether “A” is Hindu. Does it feel the same? If it doesn’t, why shouldn’t it?


Every martial art represents a subculture embedded in the culture of the place from which it came.  [Sometimes this becomes a mélange, as when a Japanese martial art is practiced in America. In such cases the dōjō usually reflects elements of Japanese culture (e.g. ritualized and formal practice), elements of American culture (e.g. 40+ belt ranks so that students can get a new rank at least once a year so they don’t quit), and elements of the martial art’s culture (e.g. harder or softer approaches to engaging the opponent.)]


The way that culture plays into a country’s martial arts may not become clear until one has practiced the martial arts of different countries—particularly in their nation of origin. While my own experience is limited, I have practiced Japanese kobudō in America (and extremely briefly in Japan), Muaythai in Thailand, and Kalaripayattu in India. I’ll leave Muaythai out of the discussion for the time being because I can most easily make my point by contrasting Japanese and Indian martial arts.  The Japanese and Indian martial arts I’ve practiced each reflects the nature of its respective culture, and they couldn’t be more different.


IMG_4525What are the differences between the Japanese and Indian martial arts I’ve studied? I’ve been known to answer that by saying that the Japanese martial art rarely uses kicks above waist level, while in Kalaripayattu if you’re only kicking at the height of your opponent’s head you’ll be urged to get your kick up a couple of feet higher.  What does that mean? The Japanese are expert at stripping out the needless and they work by paring away excess rather than building difficulty. The impulse of the Japanese is to avoid being showy. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) appeals to the Japanese mind. (Except for the “Stupid” part, which would be considered needlessly confrontational and gratuitously mean-spirited.) There’s a reason why Japanese martial arts don’t feature prominently in global martial arts cinema. They don’t wow with their physicality; efficiency is at the fore.


IMG_2246On the other hand, Indians are a vastly more flamboyant bunch, and Kalaripayattu is extremely impressive to watch and in terms of the physicality required to perform the techniques.  The Indian art isn’t about simplifying or cutting away the unnecessary. One has to get in progressively better shape as one advances to be able to perform techniques that require one leap higher, move faster, and be stronger. The Indian art isn’t about paring away excess, it’s about making such an impressive physical display that the opponent wonders whether one is just a man, or whether one might not be part bird or lion.


It might sound like I’m saying that the Japanese martial art is more realistic than the Indian one. Not really. Each of them is unrealistic in its own way. It’s often pointed out that the Japanese trained left-handedness out of their swordsmen, but that’s only one way in which Japanese martial arts counter individuation.  Given what we see in terms of how “southpaws” are often more successful in boxing, MMA, and street fighting, eliminating left-handedness seems like an unsound tactic at the individual level. There are undoubtedly many practitioners of traditional Japanese martial arts who can dominate most opponents who fight in an orthodox manner, but who would be thrown into complete disarray by an attacker who used chaotic heathen tactics. Consider that the only thing that kept the Japanese from being routed (and ruled) by the Mongolians was two fortuitous monsoons. The samurai were tremendously skilled as individual combatants, but the Mongolians could—literally—ride circles around them in warfare between armies. Perhaps, a more relevant question is whether Miyamoto Musashi would have defeated Sasaki Kojirō if the former had followed all the formal protocols of Japanese dueling instead of showing up late, carving his bokken from a boat oar, and generally presenting a f*@# you attitude. Who knows? But as the story is generally told, Musashi’s disrespectful and unorthodox behavior threw Sasaki off his game, and it was by no means a given that Musashi would win. Some believed Sasaki to be the more technically proficient swordsman.


All martial arts are models of combative activity apropos to the needs of a particular time, place, culture, and use.  And—as I used to frequently hear in academia—all models are wrong, though many are useful. (Sometimes, it’s written: “All models are lies, but many are useful.”)


[FYI: to the readers who say, “The martial art I practice is completely realistic.” My reply: “You must go through a lot of body-bags. Good for you? I guess?”]

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.