Like many women in the neighborhood, I sometimes feel uneasy walking around at night. I’ll avoid poorly lit streets and become extra-aware — borderline paranoid — when footsteps approach a little too close behind me.

So when I heard about a self-defense class offered at the Mission branch of the San Francisco Public Library not too long ago, I decided to go.

On a Saturday afternoon, I gather with 15 other people on the building’s upper floor. It’s a diverse group: a teenage girl in ripped jeans, women well into their silver-haired years and a 20-something in a fur sweater and purple pants, small pearl earrings dangling below her tightly cropped hair. There are Asian seniors, Latina women and white mother-daughter pairs. There are men, too — two of them, with mustaches, thick glasses and green-and-yellow checkered shirts.

Ricardo Antoni, an adult services librarian, speaks first. There have been several violent incidents in the community, he says, referring to the sexual assaults that occurred on 24th Street late last year.

“I thought, ‘How can I help? How can we, as a center of the community, respond?’”

That’s why he’s brought in someone from Impact Bay Area — a group that teaches personal safety, boundary-setting and full-force self-defense — to lead this class at the library. Her name is Heather, and she has a story of her own.

Heather first started taking classes with the group in 2008, when she realized she was being stalked. The man followed her around and waited outside her house.

She started volunteering with the organization after feeling empowered by classes, and has been an instructor for the past 10 months.

“Why are you here?” she asks after we gather around in a circle.

Half of the participants, gathered around Heather.

Jonathan is just checking it out. Sylvia had been shaken by news of the rape on Fair Oaks. She lives near 20th and Guerrero, by Dolores Park, and usually comes home late.

Maria explains that she lives in the Tenderloin and often gets home after dark. And then, almost inaudibly, she adds: “To learn how to defend myself from my husband.”

I say I’m a reporter for Mission Local covering the class. But what I really want to say is that I’m in my early 20s, petite at 5 feet 2 inches tall, and easily distracted by my phone; I often fear I’m a prime target for attackers.

This particular class is to learn how to defend against a single unarmed assailant, Heather explains. Most attacks don’t involve weapons.

The first thing to learn is how it feels when you think you’re being attacked. It’s usually a gut feeling; your body tenses up and you look around to find safety.

Recognize it, accept it and know when to act on it, says Heather.

Body language is key, she adds. Practice a ready stance: keep a neutral face; stand with your feet apart, one in front of the other, and face the would-be attacker with your palms out. Absolutely no smiling.

Do not adopt the body language on the left.

Look the person up and down quickly to let them know that you can identify them. Good tip, I think. Much better than quickly glancing back when I think someone’s too close, then pretending to talk on the phone or stepping off to the side to see if they walk ahead.

The stance is powerful, says Heather, and so is your voice if you use it appropriately.

Shout “NO!” in a low-pitched but loud voice, she says. Make sure three people can hear you — yourself, the attacker and bystanders.

“Violent acts can be stopped with this single act of resistance,” Heather says.

Use language that can motivate bystanders to help, she tells us. Yell your location — “I’m at 24th and Mission!” Identify the person — “He’s wearing a red shirt!” Tell people what is happening — “I’m being attacked!”

Try it, Heather says. You mean you want us to yell … in a library? Most, including myself, shout out different versions of “NO!” in the most library-appropriate way. One woman shouts “F*** off!” People giggle.

“Don’t be aggressive,” says Heather, who’s kind but assertive, kind of like your favorite aunt. That will send the wrong message to bystanders — if they think you’re engaging in a two-way fight, they probably won’t help, she says.

“Wow,” says an elderly woman after her turn. “That feels good.”

Know the legal definition of self-defense, says Heather. There must be a real threat; it must be immediate; you must try everything else to stop the attacker; you must use just enough force to get to safety.

That said, it’s time for the fun stuff: technique.

The eye strike

Have you ever heard of the eye strike? Neither have I. What you do is hold your four fingers together tightly against your thumb. Then, with a quick jab, you strike and aim for pupils. It looks like we all have pterodactyl hands, but it’s pretty ingenious.

Next Heather tells us to stand with our palms out and one foot in front of the other, with about a foot of space in between. Lean back quickly and take a full step forward, lifting the back leg up to strike with the knee. The target area: right below the testicles (this is, of course, assuming the attacker is male).

The stance just before striking with the knee.

Keep your hands up to protect your face in case the attacker falls forward. And the striking surface should be the muscle above your knees, not the kneecap itself.

If the attacker falls to his knees, use the same technique but aim for the head.

We practice, some perfecting it immediately, others taking a little longer to get it right.

Heather shows us one more technique. Lie on the ground on your side, she says, with both your hands touching the ground. Keep one foot pinned to the ground, the other up in the air, bent at the knee. Make sure your heel is facing out, because you will use this to strike your attacker.

On-the-ground technique

Aim to hit the face or groin, because those are two places with no body muscle.

Line your spine up with the target area and use your hands to pivot in case the attacker is coming from different angles. Pull your leg back immediately after you strike so he doesn’t have time to grab it.

This last one feels a little awkward, and some sit out when it comes to practicing. The women with heeled boots fare best, although any shoe can do the job if done right.

“You don’t want to get into an upper body fight,” says Heather. If someone is trying to take you away, sit down. Act as dead weight.

Heather wraps up the class and asks what people were most surprised to learn.

The technique of simply sitting on the ground, a couple of people answer. The power of body language and voice, say some. The eye strike, say many.

For me, it’s that the techniques were easier to learn than I thought. Now I just hope that I, or anyone else for that matter, never have to use them.

To learn more about Impact Bay Area and the different self-defense classes it offers, visit

Join the Conversation


  1. Bravo! What a great article – and a huge gift to your readers. I took the class 6 years ago and encourage women – of all ages- to enroll.
    You could save a life – your own!

  2. Bravo!
    I’d love for them to do a whole tour of all SF libraries – how can WE make this happen?

  3. super useful! i’ve been thinking of taking a self-defense class recently. the one i found will be taught at lines dance center later this month.

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