He takes me by surprise – grabbing my shirt from behind and yanking me back. I set myself in a strong base position, stretch out my arm to control his elbow and secure an overhook, while turning my body to get enough momentum to jab him with my other elbow. I lock his leg, offset his balance and down he goes. Bam! I’ve just taken my assailant to the ground.
Who, in this instance, just so happens to be a two-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) world champion teaching me basic self-defence moves, in case it actually happens in real-life.
Evolve Mixed Martial Arts instructor Teco Shinzato – a Singapore-based Brazilian – had been meticulously (and patiently) teaching this novice five-foot-nothing girl how to execute the BJJ move – and boy, did it feel empowering knowing how to defend myself.
It's also the moment when I realised the reason why women are increasingly taking BJJ classes to learn self-defence. Based on the principles of leverage, weight distribution and positional advantage, BJJ’s techniques provide women with a way of being able to defend themselves against an attacker, especially one who is larger and stronger than you.
BJJ is a martial art discipline that uses a lot of grappling and ground fighting. And according to Shinzato, this “gentle art” is also the most effective of all martial arts when it comes to self-defence.
“Brazilian jiu-jitsu promotes the concept that anyone of any size can defend themselves against bigger, heavier opponents by utilising the right technique and leverage. It’s not about body size or strength,” said Shinzato, who is also Singapore’s national Brazilian jiu-jitsu team coach.
“It does not just train your body but also your mind,” he explained. “Because it requires a lot of strategic thinking about how to adapt to situations based on your opponent’s reaction.”
He added: “I don’t teach people to fight, I teach people to feel safe. This is the most important aspect of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.”
WOMEN TRAVELLING SOLO
That last part got me thinking about this whole exercise and what it could mean for a woman like me – especially after Shinzato mentioned seeing an increasing number of women attending his BJJ classes to learn more about self-defence.
In famously safe Singapore, learning such moves might not seem necessary – unless it’s for sport. But the more I thought about it, the more I was considering how it could come in handy given that one of my favourite activities is travelling. And increasingly so, by myself.
And I know I’m not alone. Solo travel by women has been growing in popularity. One Tripzilla article pointed out how women make up 55 per cent of all searches for solo travel alone in 2019. Another New York Times article cited a study by Hostelworld, an online hostel-booking platform that revealed solo female travellers outnumbered their male counterparts by almost two to one.
But that same article revealed how women face unique risks, with rising stories about dangerous situations and assaults. Yes, many women like me travel around the world without incident – but maybe taking up self-defence classes won’t hurt? Just in case.
TRAINING FOR SELF-DEFENCE
So in the spirit of “just in case”, how exactly does one subdue a bigger, stronger assailant? Punch the neck? Poke the eyes? Kick the crotch? Thanks to Hollywood movies, many people, particularly women, believe these are the best ways to neutralise or thwart an attack and escape.
Shizato says that in a real-life situation when one is caught off-guard, these often do not work. While it is important to know as many ways to defend oneself as possible, it is just as vital to understand and be able to execute these techniques confidently in real-life situations.
“If you really want to learn self-defence techniques, you have to train regularly in order to really master the art of using proper leverage and technique to submit your opponent with the least amount of effort,” he added. “There are no shortcuts. Through regular practice, you also begin to appreciate your body’s uniqueness and it really helps empower women of any size.”
He should know. He was one of the Evolve MMA coaches who trained Constance Lien, Singapore’s first BJJ silver medallist at the Asian Games, who also recently clinched the World Championship title a couple of months ago.
For Shinzato, his favourite self-defence move is the “chokehold”.
“Known as the rear naked choke, it can subdue an opponent, no matter how strong they are,” he explained. “This is truly where technique trumps strength as there’s not much your attacker can do to get out of this submission.”
According to Shinzato, the techniques one learns in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu “are practical not just for women but for anyone to defend themselves when they’re caught in an unfavourable situation.”
But the master was also quick to share that avoidance should always be one’s first priority, particularly when it comes to dealing with multiple aggressors, armed assailants and other dangerous scenarios.
As a frequent flyer who loves exploring new cities on her own, taking BJJ classes to learn self-defence techniques would be the smart thing to do. One should always be extra cautious travelling in a new country and employing any technique to physically fend off a dangerous attacker should always be a last resort tactic. But knowing a few basic moves that will help you defend yourself is never a bad idea in any situation.
Staying safe and travelling smart should be of the utmost priority for any solo traveller, female or male. But I believe self-defence is a skill that every woman should have in her arsenal. Nothing to do with fear or picking a fight, but everything to do with feeling empowered, aware and knowledgeable.
Sign up for women-only Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes at Evolve MMA at Far East Square, Orchard Central and Kinex (One KM).