I'm nearly doubled over, gulping as much air as I possibly can. My lungs burn like a gas fire, my legs are soup, and my sun-draped surroundings are going dark. I'm atop Pacific Ave. – I've jogged all the way from my apartment to the apex of this Pac Heights mountain. I don't jog, ever. This fact has not escaped me. I'm not into fitness; I stay in modest shape by walking San Francisco in perpetuity. The heaviest thing I usually lift is a pint. If I look up, I can see the boats floating silently in the bay, but I'm not thinking about that. I can barely think of anything except the reason I'm nauseated and gasping for air. That reason is Krav Maga.
Krav Maga is a brutal form of self-defense that was developed in the '30s by a boxer in Hungary named Imi Lichtenfeld. He created it as a way to defend himself and his community against Fascists and anti-Semites. Krav Maga immigrated with Lichtenfeld to Israel, and took on a life of its own. It's now being used by everyone from Israeli special forces to the FBI, and even British actor Jason Statham.
Every Krav Maga class begins the same way. We form a line facing our instructor and then all bow and say kida (Hebrew translation: bow). Next, we're put through our paces and worked into the ground. Once we're wiped out, we learn techniques while breathlessly sweating buckets. During my first class I threw everything I had into it, and was surprised to find myself actually keeping up. I even found something I was good at – a hammer fist, which is exactly what you think it is.
While I'm savagely pounding a mat, the instructor calls for us to go for one minute straight as hard and as fast as we can. No problem, these are hammer fists, that's my thing. Thirty seconds in I start to feel weird, I begin a free fall deep down a dark hole. Things are going quiet. I feel my lunch rising to make its way to the exit. I just manage to finish, my fists now falling weightlessly to the mat. So much for the barbarous beating I was administering. I stumble out of the class and spend much of the rest of the time in the hallway in a fugue state. Lesson not learned, I repeat this feat in my second class. That’s the reason I stand at the top of the tallest hill I can find. I do a week straight of conditioning before heading back to Krav.
I'm taking classes at the Krav Maga Institute's newly minted San Francisco location. The Institute's massive home base is in Berkeley and is host to around 400 students. The San Francisco location takes up two floors. I take many of my classes with Gaby Gliksman, the co-owner. Gaby moved here from Israel in 1994. Back home he studied Krav Maga and competitive judo. He is good humored, with arms like redwoods. His jokes come in handy as he adroitly pushes you further than you thought you could go.
Krav Maga is all about self-defense, but more than that it's about survival. Nothing is left off the table. Preemptive attacks, scratching, eye poking; anything you can do to inflict as much damage as quickly as possible is as good as gold. We're told, "this isn't a beautiful system." We learn things like the correct way to strike the groin (a whiplike hand clap), how to get out of an anaconda-tight headlock (a firm grip of the tip of the nipple nearest you), and tricks to escape being choked (try a quick poke of the soft area right above the sternum). We also learn the fundamentals like how to stand, punch, kick, block, and use our fists like hammers.
Krav training focuses on real-life situations. So, mostly we imagine being in bars fighting drunken meatheads. We learn to always be scanning the room, as drunken meatheads usually have friends. Throughout the class we're thrown physical challenges to break us down. We're already huffing and puffing – and now we have to do 20 push-ups and 40 sit-ups? This is one of the most important elements of Krav, being able to keep going no matter what we're challenged with. When we're at our weakest, we take turns fighting the rest of the class or practice getting off the ground with everyone piled on top of us with mats.
For a while, I'm sore everywhere. There are days when my hands and elbows are a dark pink, verging on a light purple. While at the computer my hands throb with dull pain and lumber to click a mouse. My blisters carry over, growing wider and deeper. My hands hurt, but so does everything else. During one class, we're going through a drill where my partner is breaking out of a stranglehold and pulling my head down against his knee. We're going slow until suddenly we're not and I am greeted mightily by that knee. The room goes black for a moment. But then I'm back. I brush off the profuse apologies. This is Krav. Almost immediately, a tender lump grows on the side of my head. I look like a cartoon character for a few days.
After all of my conditioning, I'm able to keep up in class. No more free fall. Now when I get to the top of the Pac Heights hill, I stop only briefly to catch my breath before continuing on. In Krav we're taught to go as hard and as fast as we can all the while keeping a clear head. Gaby tells me Krav "is a way of life. If it's at work, at home, or anywhere else. Always look for a solution, make things work, make things happen, and keep moving forward."
This training is quietly preparing us to go beyond the class, to go beyond ourselves and find something we never knew we had. It’s a beautiful system.
If you're looking for real-life self-defense training or even just a good workout, this is the place for you. Just remember to pace yourself, especially at first.
The Krav Maga Institute in San Francisco is located at 539 Gough Street, and offers classes six days a week. Check out the website for details.