Wellness

The Self-Defense Moves Every Woman Needs to Know

While self-defense classes are live-saving in theory and sometimes in practice, with due respect to our middle school YMCAs—the reality is often uninspiring. (Not to mention that it’s far preferable to teach people to be nonviolent in the first place.) That said, it can’t be a bad idea to have a few trusted defense tactics in your back pocket, if for no other reason than to feel a bit more empowered in a situation that might otherwise seem vulnerable, like, say, walking home alone at night.

Cynthia Calvillo is an MMA-trained UFC fighter with a 5-0 record—she’s a pint-sized ball of energy and muscle, and has exactly the power and confidence that we’d want to channel in a moment of crisis. “MMA is really about offense,” she says. “The best defense, then, is displaying confidence and awareness so you don’t become a target in the first place. You want to be prepared, so you are never caught by surprise.” Here, Calvillo gives us the easy, no-blackbelt-required, everyone-should-know moves for defending yourself in everyday life. Plus, her insights on finding your inner strength (which Calvillo readily admits she wasn’t born with herself), as told to goop.

A Q&A with Cynthia Calvillo

Q

What is it like to be a woman in this male-dominated field?

A

When you first start, a lot of the men won’t take you seriously—even now I struggle with that, when it comes to men I don’t train with. If you keep winning, they start respecting you. But the lesson is that it’s all about believing in yourself. There’s nothing more rewarding than working hard, having people doubt you, and then coming out on top for yourself.

Q

Are there any lessons you’ve learned from fighting that you want other women to know?

A

Fighting completely changed my confidence—in some ways, it saved my life. When I first started fighting, I was completely insecure. In high school, I would never take my jacket off because I didn’t like my arms, so in summer it would be 100 degrees outside and I’d be in a hoodie. When I began fighting, I started caring less about what other people thought, just focusing on myself and being happy with my inner me—which ended up projecting out to others, too, as I became more proud of who I am. When I had my first fight and I was in the cage, I felt so free and bare and strong. And that was it, I never put that hoodie back on.

Q

Is there anything else from your training that you apply to your life outside the ring regularly?

A

Fighting teaches you to control the controllable: You control the present, and you control what’s in front of you. But you can’t control the future, and you can’t control the past, so all you can do with those things is find patience. There are always days that go badly—you’ll encounter obstacles, you’ll get injuries, and you have to deal with them and know that they’re making you stronger. Nothing’s ever going to be perfect, so you’ve gotta smile through it—that’s not something that I can say that I was good at before.

Q

What are the self-defense moves everyone should know?

A

The first thing is to avoid being in a vulnerable position in the first place. Posture, awareness, and confidence go a long way, as an attacker can feed on your body language. In the jungle, when you see a lioness, she’s not just chilling there—she’s holding her head high and surveying her surroundings. That’s something you learn from fighting; your walk-out and your demeanor are so important, because to win you need to project the outcome that you want.

While the kicks and punches you see us do in the ring might be impressive, the best defensive moves for the street are actually not allowed in UFC. In a situation where you’re being attacked, it’s best to aim for weak areas so you can disable someone long enough to run away. You need to be a bit of an opportunist—go for whatever you have access to at the moment.

If you’re facing forward, in a position to kick or knee someone in the stomach—or, hopefully, their groin—start with that. The knee-jerk reaction to a hit in one of those places is to buckle forward, so use that opportunity to drive your knee into their face, giving you more time to run.

If someone comes at you from behind, see if you can get access to their eyes or fingers (which can be broken more easily than you might realize by snapping them back), and if your hands are tied down, bite them. If your feet are square, move one forward and one back, which will give you better stability, plus the space to free up an elbow. Once your elbow is free, it’s the same general advice—go for the stomach, or better, the groin.

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