Yesim Berkman Hardy never saw the person who attacked her, grabbing her from behind outside a gym on a busy street in Phnom Penh. “I was out of breath and I panicked and I couldn’t shout,” she recalled last week, at a new self- defence class in the capital.
The 39-year-old, who works at an embassy, managed to escape after she surrendered her purse. But the attack prompted her to sign up for Grace Protection, an unusual form of martial arts that incorporates psychology being taught this month at Phnom Penh Community College.
Focusing on de-escalation of conflict rather than attack, the program teaches students to resolve potentially dangerous situations without violence, or using only simple strikes if necessary. The second session, of three, takes place on Thursday night.
Scottish-Australian martial arts instructor Bruce Robertson, who developed the style himself, also teaches simple actions often forgotten in the panic of an attack.
“It basically works through principles of teaching you about yourself, and what you need to actually survive,” said Robertson.
For example, taking a deep breath allows victims to scream for help rather than freeze, he explained.
After studying in Japan for 25 years, Robertson initially developed Grace Protection to teach to street youth in the country. He then began teaching drug rehab patients, psychiatric patients and the homeless in Sydney, Australia.
The instructor later recognised the need for a program that could be taught to community outreach workers heading in to potentially dangerous situations. He began teaching psychologists, social workers, NGO workers and “anybody who’s working with anyone who might pose a risk”.
In Phnom Penh, both the US and EU embassies have recently reported a rise in petty crime, with statistics compiled by European countries showing a jump of more than 100 per cent since 2011.
One attendee of last week’s class, which attracted both expats and locals, was a former UN worker who has worked across Asia and Africa. He said he decided to learn to defend himself after hearing stories of street attacks.
“I’m not going to wait for what has happened to many to happen [to me],” he said. “Taking a self-defence course is just like learning Khmer, it’s just part of the street life, realistically.”
While demonstrating a few simple strikes and defence stances, the first session last Thursday focused on the psychology of self-protection, exploring awareness, relaxation and taking advantage of natural reactions to fear.
The following two sessions will be more physical, but Robertson stressed that self defence is “90 per cent in the mind”.
Embassy worker Berkman Hardy said she is hopeful the course will help her face any more dangerous scenarios that come her way.
“I’m not . . . expecting myself to fight or attack, I just want to be able to get out of the situation,” she said.