You already know there's something magical about empowerment self-defense (ESD) that goes way beyond the rush of kicking and yelling. While those are wonderful skills, they’re already available in most traditional martial arts classes. ESD training offers something regular self-defense classes just can’t touch: a safe, repeatable process for helping people heal from their traumatic memories.
That “certain something” process involves a complex choreography between students and staff. It involves techniques for building rapport, for inducing adrenaline flow, and for manipulating the biochemical chain reactions that cause a person’s brain to encode memories—and the belief systems that are built upon those memories.
In other words, it’s a process for helping people rewire their brains so that old, traumatic memories lose much of their terror and self-limiting power, and for installing instead new, kickass memories that can serve as the foundation for much healthier, more empowering self-concepts.
And the best part is that, under the right conditions, the whole process can happen in just a few minutes. That sure seems like magic to me.
Lest I sound like a used car salesman over-promising miracles for a low, low price, let me be clear. The process might be nearly instantaneous for students, but it takes years for instructors to master. Before you decide that you don’t have years to invest, let me tell you a story about the first time I saw an ESD class.
Once upon a time, I was a professional martial artist. I had two different black belts and years of training in other styles “for the fun of it.” I’d even won a national AAU gold medal.
None of that, however, made me feel powerful. On paper, I was a badass. In my heart, though, I was still scared. I lived constantly on the anxious edge, ceaselessly scanning for danger and preparing for the next attack. Martial arts was supposed to empower me. All it really did, though, was turn me into a nervous man with dangerous skills. Where was all that inner peace my instructors had been advertising?
Then I saw my first IMPACT class.
For one amazing weekend, women from age 19 to 65 came together to cry, to fight, to cheer each other on, and to share stories. I saw them participate in an exercise called “custom scenarios” in which they recounted some of the most heartbreaking experiences imaginable:
“My dad kicked me out of the house because I’m gay.”
“Someone I trusted date raped me while we were in college.”
“When I was in elementary school, my older brother used to sneak into my bed at night.”
One by one these brave women willfully requested to reenact these gut-wrenching moments and then use their new skills—along with a brutishly large, armored actor—to say what they had not been able to say and to do what they had not been able to do.
Sometimes a strong, clear verbal boundary resolved the situation. Sometimes it took a full-contact TKO to stop the character. The range of possible resolutions was as varied as the rainbow of experiences students brought to the class.
What all these scenarios had in common, however, was the same magical transformation I’ve seen in hundreds of women since then. I've seen women approach the mat sobbing, trembling, hyperventilating, and looking like quivering antelopes ready to bolt. I've then seen them come off the mat mere moments later looking like lions—regal, radiant, and ready to roar.
It's like every ounce of self-confidence that gets buried under the weight of horrific memories suddenly bursts free as the oppression of trauma gives way to the freedom of “I can do this!”
Again, the neurological process of repatterining traumatic memories can be explained by science, but the healing effect (at least as far as I’m concerned) is pure magic.
Ever see someone glow brighter than the noonday sun? Watch an ESD class. Or, better yet, take one and get the direct, visceral experience of liberating your own, magnificent power, too.
* Please note that, while the process is amazing, it can also be dangerous if not done correctly. There is a significant depth of experience and expert guidance required to pull off this kind of healing magic safely and successfully. (Remember that science stuff? It’s important.)
Think of it like a Venn diagram. When all the parts are balanced and gracefully interacting, there’s a spot in the center where everything overlaps and magic happens. Done poorly, however, and it’s nothing but circles crashing into one another—with a very real risk of cracking one open. In other words, “Don’t try this at home, kids.”
Unless you’re already a trained and qualified ESD instructor, please do not attempt to recreate the magic of a custom scenario during one of your classes. You could very easily make someone’s life worse instead of better, despite your noble intentions.
BUT training and qualification are available to those who want it.
Matthew (Matt) O'Brien is the Director of Instructor Training for IMPACT Safety of Columbus, Ohio. He's also a freelance consultant for ESD Global.
Matt has black belts in Okinawan Shorin-Ryu (Kobayashi-Ryu) and its associated weapon systems, plus several years of training in other Japanese systems. He has owned his own karate school, worked as a personal trainer, and spent years as a stay-at-home father. He became hooked on empowerment self-defense in 2009, when he saw his first IMPACT class. Matt spends his time reading and writing about resiliency and trauma recovery, and scheming up ways to make the world a more empowered place.