Promoting A Culture of Self-Care in Your ESD Classes

“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.”

~ Audre Lorde

There’s no denying that taking a self-defense class is an act of survival. Which by definition, makes it a form of self-care that’s actually not so different from taking a bubble bath.

And whether they’re conscious of it or not, just by leaving their houses and spending a significant block of time doing something positive for their bodies and souls, the students who show up for your classes are engaging in what’s arguably the ultimate act of caring for themselves.

While you might not explicitly teach it or talk about it much in your ESD classes, you can create a culture in which self-care is a priority.

As an instructor, you’re a role model in so many ways, including the way you care for yourself.

Here are some ways you can model self-care and naturally incorporate it into everything you teach:

​​Take Breaks

​​It’s easy to get caught up in the momentum of an ESD class, and forget to take breaks. Even if you get the sense that your students are on a roll, make sure you give them breaks, especially to drink water.

Asking if anybody needs a break or saying, “Anyone who wants to take a drink is welcome to,” may not always be enough. Students who aren’t used to physical activity might not be aware of what they need, or have the courage to speak up when they are.

Saying, “It’s time for a water break,” and then drinking water yourself can be extremely effective.

Don’t forget. You deserve breaks, too.

Teach Students How to Breathe

As you look around the room at your students, make sure you’re paying attention to how they’re breathing. In tense situations, many of us instinctually hold our breath. Not only is this not safe, it lowers strength.

Breathing calms us down, prevents dizziness and confusion, keeps us focused and in the moment, gives us oxygen, and engages our core muscles.

Teaching your class how to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth can make a world of difference to everyone’s emotional and physical well-being.


As intense as self-defense classes are, it is okay to make jokes and laugh. Life doesn’t stop being funny. Let yourself laugh, and encourage others to do the same.

Along with so many other benefits, laughing will help your students bond with each other, counteract stress hormones, and ensure that they keep breathing.

In a class we once observed, we noticed a student hesitating every time it was her turn to hit her partner with a pool noodle.

Her partner started imitating Britney Spears and singing, “Hit me baby, one more time,” and everybody in the room, including the instructor, dissolved into laughter.

By the end of the class, the student had become much more comfortable with hitting, and gave her partner a hug before leaving class.

Shake it Out

After a particularly intense exercise, or even just as a transition between activities, take a moment to jump, stretch, and “shake it out” with your class.

This is a great way to keep energy up while releasing cortisol, which is particularly important for those who have experienced trauma.

Respect and Encourage Boundaries

There’s no better place to practice setting boundaries than a self-defense class. If you notice a student setting a boundary, encourage it.

An instructor once told us a story about a lesson in which students tied their dominant hands behind their backs to practice using their non-dominant hand.

One student was visibly uncomfortable as she watched everyone tie up their hands, and edged her way out of the group. When the instructor offered her a tie, the student said no. So the instructor suggested that instead of tying her hand, she hold the back of her shirt.

The student agreed, and participated fully.

After the class, the instructor complimented the student’s spirit and her boundary setting skills.

Embrace Mistakes and Model Self-Compassion

As Empowerment Self Defense instructors, we don’t tell students they are doing something incorrectly. Instead, we say things like, “try it like this.”

It’s easy for a student to get frustrated when they can’t master a skill on the first try, or make the same mistake over and over again.

When you see a student in this state, stay as relaxed as you can, and assure them that with practice, everything gets easier. A seemingly minor suggestion like, “Turn your wrist just a tiny bit so the entire heel of your palm hits the target,” can change a student’s entire attitude.

If you make a mistake, don’t let your students beat yourself up. Correct whatever happened, consider it an opportunity for everybody to learn, and move on.

End Classes on a Positive and Relaxing Note

It’s always nice to end a session in a light and fun way.

Some instructors end with a stretching activity. Some end by telling an encouraging story. Some end with a guided meditation.

Why is this so important?

The most obvious benefit is that these calming activities help flush out the adrenaline that builds up during class.

But there’s another reason that’s not as if not more important.

We can’t prevent a student from feeling triggered or going home with a heavy heart. But we can model techniques that can help them cope with whatever emotions come up.

Practicing self-care only makes us healthier and stronger. We can’t punch or kick, much less survive, if we don't take care of ourselves.

One of the biggest goals we have for the students we teach is to help them connect with the strength they already possess.

That connection is a necessary part of survival. And making that connection begins with self-care.

* Do you consciously model self-care in your self-defense classes? If so, how?

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