WHY ARE YOU HERE? The question, unexpected and honest, stumps me. I feel as though I’m being quizzed, plunked in ice-cold water when I wasn’t ready for it.

“Um,” I stutter, avoiding eye contact with the bald, bearded man in a dark karate gi. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

Did I pass?

The man, Sensei Rich, doesn’t say anything.

When I take a seat in the reception area to sign the waiver he hands me, I face the same question, in written form. This time around, I’m presented with a long list of answers to choose from. Confidence, self-defense, respect, physical fitness, awareness, coordination, focus, positive attitude are just a few options of more than a dozen, and I want to check all of them. Yes, my confidence could use a little work. And yes, it would be nice to pick up a few fighting skills. And of course, anything that sharpens my awareness is a self-improvement project worth delving into. But then I think of a question of my own: Can a self-defense-driven martial arts class teach me all of the above? Really?

During this private, one-on-one class, my first lesson is in humility, and it takes place even before I’ve stepped into the dojo area. After I kick my shoes off and stow them in a cubby, Rich and I follow proper dojo etiquette by bowing to the front of the spacious carpeted room, a sign of respect for the place where we’re about to train. It all feels very serious, very by the book.

“I’m actually really nervous,” I blurt out, and I mean it. I glance over at the only other student here—a young Bruce Lee, not even 7 years old, his movements tight, efficient and exact—and I’m overwhelmed by a single thought: Am I too old for this? Rich immediately tells me not to worry and confesses that even though he’s been practicing martial arts for over two decades, it took him several years of driving past a brightly lit dojo on his way to work every day before he finally mustered up the courage to step in. At this, I feel a lightening of my load.

The class starts off easy enough. We talk about personal space, what it means (for most people, it’s an arm’s length) and what to do when someone invades it. “First of all, if you can run away, do that,” he says. “That should always be your first choice.” In other words, no matter what, if you have an opportunity to escape from a situation that’s about to turn ugly, don’t even think about it—do it. In fact, the more you reduce your chances of having to use your physical skills, the better.

But say push really does come to shove, and say, for one reason or another, you can’t leg it. In dire, desperate situations, it’s beneficial to know where to direct a hit for maximum impact. In the case of a male attacker, it’s a no-brainer. A groin kick, if performed correctly, can deliver enough impact to stop him dead in his tracks long enough for you to find your way out. (But of course, I’m certain most people know this already). Another vulnerable spot? The solar plexus, the space between the bottom of your sternum and the top of your stomach.

“Ever had the wind knocked out of you?” my sensei asks me.

“Um, no?” I make a mental tally of my life’s experiences. “No,” I confirm.

That’s what a kick in the solar plexus does—knocks the air out of a person’s lungs. I also learn that you can break an elbow joint by forcing the arm to bend in a direction it’s not meant to bend. You can escape a wrist grab by rotating your wrist toward the attacker’s thumb and forcefully pulling away. A good kick in the knee is an option, too.

“It’s all about distance,” Rich says, explaining that most of your decisions, like where you strike and what you strike with—a leg, knee, elbow or arm—will be based on the position of the attacker. But at the end of the day, of course, all of this requires practice. Without practicing proper techniques—until they become as easily summoned as a reflex—all you’re left with is a false sense of security and preparedness.

During the last 20 minutes of class, Rich whips out a padded blocking shield, and we spend some time practicing knee kicks. At first, my kicks are timid, but my sensei assures me I can’t hurt him through his shield, no matter how hard I try. Little by little, I pack more power to my kicks. Before I know it, I’m breathing loudly. At the end of class, right before we part ways, my sensei tells me he’s seen more women my age sign up within the past weeks than ever before. I think about this on my way home.

Why was I so apprehensive about taking up a practice that’s so empowering? Is it because every time I pass by one of those strip-mall martial arts studios, I see a mostly male-dominated crowd through the floor-to-ceiling windows? Is it because martial arts—like ballet, which requires years and years of training—in general is quite intimidating?

I’ve always wanted to do this. I really have. I’ve been wanting to do it ever since I first saw Jennifer Lopez kick some serious butt in Enough. (This was back in 2002, and I was 10). A few years ago, I almost signed up for a class, inspired by the character of Elizabeth Jennings from The Americans—who, in the show, can jab and kick with billow and flair and ward off any enemy with her 5-foot-4 frame. It’s all fiction, of course, but a part of me always wondered what it would be like to have that kind of physical intelligence.

Over a week later, after getting over a cold, I sign up for a group class. I arrive early to the dojo on a Tuesday evening. There’s a kids karate class in session, and I quietly sidle over next to a row of parents proudly watching their children kick, punch, thrust and throw. Most of the students do stunningly well. A couple of boys flounder along as best they can. When the session draws to a close, the class’s instructor, Sensei Michael, calls out the only girl in class to the front of the dojo and rewards her for her outstanding performance. The parents burst into applause.

Right around then, a new wave of students—a much older, serious crowd decked out in pajama-style uniforms—march in. (I was told to wear something comfortable, so here I am, totally standing out as a newbie in my leggings and T-shirt). Again, I’m nervous, feeling a fleeting shiver of reluctance. I spot Sensei Michael and remind him again that I’m new. We’d already spoken over the phone, and I’d told him I was interested in learning self-defense techniques. He assures me he’ll take it easy—and he does. (Well, sort of).

After going through a strenuous cardio round, we practice “roundhouse kicks” on free-standing heavy bags. Everyone around me seems to know what they’re doing. Everyone, that is, but me. Since I’ve taken dozens of boxing classes, I’m comfortable with throwing a punch or two, but kicking with my feet is still new to me. I give the sensei my very best confused-first-grader look, and he immediately comes over to correct my stance. The power, in a roundhouse kick, comes from the hips, he tells me. Knowing how to pivot on the ball of your planted foot is important, so I work on that—over and over and over. I look like the slow-motion version of the other cool dudes (and one gal) in class.

In the last portion of our session, we cover simple defensive positions, like covering up to absorb the impact of strikes on the head and torso. The other students partner up and jump right into the exercise, and something tells me that the sensei’s spiel about guard styles is all for my benefit. Which is fine, really. I falter and mess up too many times to count, and that’s fine, too. I’m humbled and ready to learn. I realize that it’s true, that aside from jabs and roundhouse kicks, you do learn so much in a martial arts studio.

Even though I only have a few classes under my, erm, belt, I’ve already learned a few things about confidence, because going out on a limb and trying something new—particularly when that thing scares the white, elastic-waisted pants off you—takes a heck of a lot of courage. For me, it happened after I took that first literal step into a dojo, and who knew that was all the kick in the behind I needed? 

Whether it’s through Krav Maga, Taekwondo or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, here’s a list of institutions in Arkansas that can teach you a thing or two about self-defense.

Arkansas Self Defense

1520 Macon Drive, Little Rock (501-519-2100)

Força Martial Arts & Fitness

900 W. E St., Russellville (479-214-1245)

Fayetteville Krav Maga

1700 N, College Ave., Fayetteville (479-799-7144)

Impact Martial Arts

9808 N. Rodney Parham Road, Little Rock (501-224-1222)

Danny Dring’s Living Defense Martial Arts

308 E. Kiehl Ave., Sherwood (501-834-3537)

Legacy Martial Arts

4500 W. Kingshighway, Suite 1, Paragould (870-761-0861)

Joey Perry Martial Arts Academy

4225 Stadium Blvd., Jonesboro (870-910-3903)