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"You are being normal," adds Wheeler matter-of-factly after an exhausting four-hour seminar at Fighthouse. Actually, it takes about three to four months of training to reach any kind of "normality." But once you do, the approach can be deadly. The main principle behind this hand-to-hand combat style is called "the flying center of gravity," in which the body sways up and down, letting the pelvis and shoulders spin on their axes, allowing the different appendages to move in various ways simultaneously, like the limbs of a marionette. Coupled with sliding footwork, it's almost like dancingbut with painful locks thrown into the mix. Attacks are deflected with a series of ducks, weaves, and tangles while you concentrate on the other person's weaker points and use his tension against him. It's not uncommon for a student to free herself from a choke hold and counter her adversary with a painful hold without using brute strength or breaking a sweatsuch simplicity almost looks fake and will make you feel like you're in on a big secret. Apart from skill, Systema also promotes good moral character in a harmonious environment. Sure, you'll be training with guys named Sergei who don camouflage pants and Systema T-shirts and train by doing one-handed push-ups, but that's all part of the back-in-the-USSR setting.
Whatever style you choose, be careful. Using your martial arts skills may lead to arrest or a lawsuit if you overstep your boundaries. If you're able to get away from an attacker, do sofighting back should be a last resort. Always "be aware and avoid," says Chau, and yell Fire! if someone assaults you. "When he's shocked, he'll let go of his grip for a second." Sometimes that's all it takes to get away. If you can slip in a swift kick to the groin first, so much the better.
"Straighten Up: New Stances Sharpen Traditional Disciplines"
Krav maga, Frank ColónPrivate instruction: 212-932-2437, prices vary. Group classes: John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 899 Tenth Avenue, 888-572-8624, kravmagainc.com, $20 per class. Wing tsunStudio Maestro, 48 West 68th Street, 212-439-4862, wtny.com, $20 per class. SystemaFighthouse, 122 West 27th Street, second floor, 212-807-9202, fighthouse.com, $125 per month (up to four classes weekly).