Monday, September 20, 2010

The Beauty of Krav Maga: A Year of Reflection in the Israeli Martial Art and What it Taught Me about Myself

One year ago, I sat at the edge of my bed, staring blankly at the wall in front of me. I turned to the side and looked at myself in the full-length mirror. I sat there unable to move. Shell-shocked is probably a choice of better words, actually. The woman staring back at me was no longer the person I had once been. I know I had a neck somewhere there I told myself, and somewhere down my torso and past the four Michelin tires of fat, I also had waistline. I was five feet, three inches tall, and five pounds shy of two hundred. My upper back hurt; my knees ached; my joints were always burning, and I easily grew tired and out of breath with the simple process of bending over to pick up my newspaper. As I reached over to slip into my sneakers, the muffled and grunting sound a puppy dog makes when he is picked from his stomach came out of my mouth, and it was sufficient for me to say I had had enough! I was sick of the excuses I had made up to convince me that being this unhealthy was okay, like: I had just had a baby (yeah, like four YEARS ago!); I was too busy running a household to go to the gym; my business and writing career consumed most of my time; and my ultimate favorite, this was just my body type and I needed to love who I was.
One year before Krav Maga

Moi, 60 lbs ago, back in high school
I admit that there are some people who are born with a certain girthy body type, or may have thyroid issues, but the harsh reality was that I realized that I needed to take personal responsibility for how unhealthy I allowed myself to get. No one told me to vedge in front of the set and stuff myself with buttered popcorn, chocolates and who knows what else I was scarfing down for the last twenty-three years.  No one put a gun to my head and forced me to get that second or third serving at the all-you-can-eat, deep-fried, artery-clogging buffet. No, enough was enough! I had a full understanding that spoons didn't make me fat: I -got- myself- there.I did this and I was going to find a way to get myself out. Fad diets didn’t work and regular exercise bored me. Then I remembered how slim I was when I was in high school, and it was all due to the fact that I practiced martial arts, which was Tae Kwon Do. I was well aware of my lack of flexibility, so I opted for Krav Maga, an Israeli system with practical, real-life situations in self defense and easy to remember techniques that were simple to use and effective. After trying only one class at San Antonio’s Krav Maga Worldwide center, I knew that my life would never be the same.

Reflecting back on the rigorous training I received in the past year, I can only sum it up to a few words: a challenging and painful process. I remember the feeling of thinking that perhaps I was in over my head after the first week, since I couldn’t lift my legs for days while shrieking in agony or using the words ow… ow… owiee… ooo man , every time I moved. Bengay became my new best friend and bloody knuckles and broken nails replaced a perfectly neat pair of hands. The process was slow and I remember at moments wanting to give up, but every time I came home to my family I was reminded that the road I was on had a far greater purpose than losing weight. Plus, I had help from the brotherhood of instructors at the gym who motivated me and ensured that I got the techniques done right, and for that I would like to pay tribute to those instructors who helped me with this life-changing process.

I’ll start with Instructor Chris Coble who encouraged me to keep going. He related being overweight before he became a member.

Inst Chris Coble

“I was over two hundred pounds and I have the stretch marks to prove it. Krav Maga helped me. Keep going, eat a healthy diet and don’t give up,” he encouraged. “The first three to six months are going to be the most difficult, but you will eventually see results,” he said, so I pressed on and did my best to keep up with the rest of the group, oftentimes being the last one in line during our runs. Which spoke volumes about the lack of endurance I had at the beginning.

Instructor Ray McNiece

The key to endurance in Krav Maga was to strengthen my core, so the process for me to accomplish that was comprehensive. I took advantage of my gym’s classes in cardio bag, yoga, pilates, kickboxing, spinning, strength conditioning with resistance bands and hand weights. In my Krav Maga classes I crunched, levitated one leg forward with hips up in the air, practiced lots of elbows and kicks from the floor, worked on Spider Man push-ups, jumped rope, and got my second wind whenever Instructor Ray McNiece blared his infamous Rocky theme songs
from the sound system. Okay, that’s a bit of a cliché, but it worked. Sometimes, I spent most of my time in Krav Maga with my head up some sweaty man’s armpit, but I learned how to get out of a headlock. I kicked and palm-striked till I dropped and leaped like a frog till my joints burned.

Instr Jesse Quiroga
Instructor Jesse Quiroga, and registered male nurse, suggested I’d drink sports beverages to help replace the potassium I was losing and that kept me from feeling so fatigued after every class. But no amount of sports drinks made me immune from certain classes. I can still remember feeling like my heart was going to rip out of my chest during Instructor Henry Hernandez’ sessions. He loved to practice simulated ATM and home invasion attacks with multiple attackers.

Henry Hernandez
“In here, I teach you to never place yourself in a situation where you are going to find yourself in a fight for your life, but at the same time it’s unrealistic to assume this may never happen, because it might, so preparing to defend yourselves in this position is my priority, so take it seriously when we simulate these scenarios for you,” he would say whenever he noticed people tapping the targets. Instructor Hernandez continued, “If you’re tapping the shield, what is that? You’re just playing pat-a-cake, and you might as well go home. If you’re gonna assume a position to strike, then you better follow-through and deliver. Women especially, you only get a small window of opportunity when fighting against a man twice your size, so go hard and follow through.”

The reality behind what would happen to me if a person twice my size wanted to hurt me really embedded itself into my mind.  So I did as he said, hitting harder, and little by little I began feeling stronger and enduring longer.

I learned quite a few lessons along the way:
1. Don’t eat before class, unless you want to feel like a tick ready to pop.
2. When holding a shield for a man with a big foot, move it a slight distance away from your stomach. Yes, I had an imprint for a week!
3. Eye strikes should be flicked at a forty-five degree angle and never jabbed directly at a shield, unless you plan on not making a fist for a week.
And finally...
4. Don’t try to keep up with a bunch of twenty-year-olds on a single line sprint when you’re on the verge of hitting forty. Trust me. Recovering from ankle sprains and pulled muscles takes much longer.

When it came to technique, I had several instructors that always ensured I did it right. One of the most challenging things for me to do was kick from the floor and rise quickly after falling flat on my back on the mat, not an easy feat to accomplish when most of the weight is placed on your hands. Instructor Arnold Cano made me practice over and over until it looked somewhat decent. My thumb and forefinger ached for days from where I rooted my hand to the floor as I swung one of my back legs into a fighting position, but he stressed the importance of minimizing my time on the ground.

Instructor Arnold Cano
“In Krav Maga, you have to practice street fighting situations where there are no rules. You have to always assume multiple attackers, weapon attacks, and a not-so-friendly ground environment that may be full of gravel or glass. You need to be able to execute your defense as soon as possible and find an exit. You can’t get away from danger if you’re not on your feet.” This, he said, was the premise for emphasizing the importance of teaching students to get up as fast as they could. I have yet to master springing up from the floor in a flash, after all who am I kidding? Being forty doesn't equate to acting like some young Bruce Lee, wanna-be, spring chicken, but at least continuous practice will help reinforce better habits and get rid of the bad ones.

One habit I had to get rid of was one I got from my Tae Kwon do sparring days: the side-fighting stance. “In Krav Maga, we want all of our weapons available. This is why we square off by facing forward with the least distance to travel. Standing sideways is really stealing time away from you and giving the opponent more time to get to you,” said Instructor Jennifer Alvarez, who thankfully, was always on my back about squaring off and fighting forward.

Pete Hardy
“A side-angle stance is a defenders nightmare because you are not flowing with your body’s natural movement,” said first degree black belt and owner of Krav Maga Worldwide, Pete Hardy. “When you stand to the side you’re just begging to end up on the floor.”

These reminders became essential when training with multiple attackers during thirty-second explosive exercises, which sometimes included defending with palm strikes, forward and back punches, elbow strikes, hammer fists, knee strikes, or defenses against chokeholds, the basic techniques a level one student must master before moving on to level two. In Krav Maga defending is not a stationary process. Targets are coming at you from different directions, and you have to keep moving forward. There are two things my instructors emphasized which became a resounding mantra during my training: work on repetitive techniques and be explosive when doing them.

Which brought to mind when Bruce Lee once said—that’s right-- I read Bruce Lee stuff-- I can have layers: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times” (The Internet Movie Database: Biography of Bruce Lee, 1990-2010). When I asked owner Pete Hardy what the premise was behind that philosophy of repetitive and explosive training, he said the following: “Based on interviews with prisoners and victims, there is a high likelihood that the attack will be zero to five feet from the victim. Somewhere in reality you allowed the attacker to get within your space. As soon as that occurs, you have to keep engaging him, because the last thing you want to do is to create more of a window of opportunity for the attacker to hurt you, such as with short stabbings coming from the side. The thing that is most unique about Krav Maga is not just the combatives, but the self-defense. If you end up on the ground we want to teach you to quit thinking. Get to your feet and get back your environment by doing what you’ve practiced doing over and over. Krav Maga gives you the skills to find an exit and survive.”

Teaching me to quit thinking was exactly what they did. In April of this year, I put that theory to the test when I tried to place out of level one and into the second level. There are six levels to Krav Maga and when describing the level one test, I would rate it second next to going through labor and giving birth. The rigors of enduring the three-and-a-half hour test drained me and punished my body severely. I received an elbow to the ear during a technique. It felt like the side of my face had hit a brick wall, followed by a high-pitched ring and temporary deafness on one side. It knocked my equilibrium off, and I needed a moment to catch my bearings.

“At least you know that sh** works,” said owner Pete Hardy with his usual resolved intensity when he described to me that that’s what a real knockout felt like. If that’s what it felt like, I hope I never have to find out what it’s really like in an actual situation.

As time lapsed, I felt myself growing more and more exhausted. I was exhaling so much I felt depleted of oxygen and my mind turned into a foggy haze, which is what I can imagine it would be like in a real life-threatening situation when you’re in a choke hold and you can’t breathe. When a choke was applied from the front, side or back, I didn’t have time to think about technique, but my body unexpectedly reacted with hand pluck releases, elbows, palm strikes, and knees. What surprised me the most about the test was how much I had to rely on what Instructor Keith Cardenas always liked to emphasize as “muscle memory.”

Instructor Keith Cardenas
“The beauty of Krav Maga is that even if you don’t know how to fight, you have programmed movements to occur naturally when a fight does happen, because when all rational thought is gone and you’re exhausted, your body will respond to what it has always done—and that means survival,” he said when I asked him to define muscle memory for me. And survive I did, as I passed on to the second level as a student of Krav Maga.

Sometimes women shy away from martial arts because of its male oriented environment, but Krav Maga levels the scales because the defenses that are taught can be used with a person of any size or strength. The days of one-to-one honor fighting are long gone, and today’s assailant comes with multiple attackers, fighting at close range with shanks, knives, and guns. Furthermore, the criminal element loves to prey on lonely women, preferably with children in tow and unsuspecting couples. Therefore, not only is it important for men to learn self-defense, but it is equally important to empower their loved ones with the tools to survival.

Sun Tzu (2008) described in his military treatise, The Art of War, that the supreme art of war was achieved when one could subdue the enemy without fighting, and while Krav Maga certainly falls in line with this philosophy by encouraging students to be aware of their surroundings in order to avoid potentially dangerous situations, working on non-combative posturing and stances to deflect trouble, it also trains you to explode if the need arises as if your life depended on it. Sun Tzu further encourages, “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt” (p.68). Falling like a thunderbolt is one thing that is certainly emphasized in Krav Maga as demonstrated by Instructor Hardy’s approach to training:

“When you’re here, you are in a fight for your life! I can teach you the skills, but if you don’t have the fighting spirit to go at it full force and explode, there is nothing that I can do to help you out in the streets.” That’s a statement I hope carries into my training as I embark on a new journey to the next level with Krav Maga.

Anyone who has endured the rigors of any martial arts program has my respect, and while Tae Kwon Do served its purpose, Krav Maga instilled in me the values of courage, personal responsibility, and endurance. It reminded me of Bruce Lee’s philosophy about limiting ourselves when he said, "If you always put limits on what you can you do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life… There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them…” (Lee & Little, 1998, p.23). The Israeli Art of Krav Maga certainly took me beyond my plateau.

At times, I had to push my body through the painful process of training to go above my limits and make it perform feats beyond what I thought were close to impossible. I pushed myself even harder to work at creating the body and spirit that God made me as opposed to the one I made for myself. I lost thirty pounds in the last year, and I have thirty more to go, but I gained much more than I lost through a new found respect for the art of Krav Maga. It is a discipline that is not just simply about kicking butt and busting skulls. There is a beauty that comes from the pain of enduring it, while at the same time discovering that personal growth happens when we stop blaming our external forces and take matters into our own hands, accepting responsibility for our own actions, and doing something about it. That alone is what it means to survive as a member of the human race. That is what the Israeli Art of Krav Maga taught me.

Compiled by (1990-2010). The Internet Movie Database: Biography of Bruce Lee. Retrieved from

Lee, B & Little J. (1998).The Art of Expressing the Human Body. Boston:Tuttle Publishing.

Tzu, Sun. (2008) The Art of War. New Jersey: Chartwell Books Inc. (Original work written in 6th century B.C.).

Copyright of Jacqueline Mendez 2010


  1. Wow JAX you really are an inspiration! I am and have been wanting to step up my workouts, take responsibility for my body and just be a healthier person. As a busy woman with work, home and family, so many times I put myself last or even forget to put myself on the list. Today you reminded me that I deserve better, I can do better and I will! Thank you amiga!

  2. @Garciamo Thanks for the wonderful feedback. Good for you on putting yourself first. You do deserve to put yourself on the list. Afterall, a happy mom is a happy family. All my best in your endeavors. JAX

  3. You really are exceptional, Big Sis. I wish I had the guts to do what you're doing now. Yeah, sure, I'm hitting the gym, but I have no real inspiration taking me there...only duty. Duty to our father who would be incredibly happy to see me lose all the "effing" weight I have put on all these years. And duty to society who refuses to accept me as I am now. I might not be motivated to do this for myself, but hey, at least I have something to push me in the right direction. And In the last two months, I lost twenty pounds. And when I looked in the mirror, there was even a hint of a smile on my face. I'm starting to see the bright side of all this. And with your encouragement added to my life, I believe I will only be losing more weight. Soon, I'll reach what I weighed in freshman year of high school. But I won't stop there. Dad's put the limit beyond that. :D

    By the way, I definately want to try Krav Maga. Sounds really fun...and violent and you know kids these days...we LOVE violence. Hahaha. I feel bad for kids. They need to get out more instead of staying inside and watching movies and TV all day. What ever happened to Family Values?