What do the streets of 1930s Bratislava and an exercise facility in Salem have in common? A whole lot more than you would think.
It was on those Czechoslovakian streets that Imi Lichtenfeld was openly persecuted for being Jewish. In response, the young man, who was an accomplished boxer and wrestler, invented his own fighting style to defend himself against attack. Lichtenfeld felt that traditional martial arts were too steeped in sport; on the street, survival was most important. Thus he combined a variety of fighting styles into what is now known as Krav Maga, according to Lee Puzniak, who instructs Krav Maga at the Salem Defense Center, salemsdc.com.
When the Jewish people got their own homeland in 1948, Lichtenfeld was hired to teach the Israeli Defense Forces. Krav Maga is currently used by their regular defense forces as well as special forces and intelligence agencies like Mossad and Shin Bet. It is now used by military and police around the world.
Upon his retirement, Lichtenfeld modified his Krav Maga to be used by citizens. It is this version that is now taught in Salem.
What is Krav Maga?
Krav Maga is a form of hand-to-hand combat that emphasizes natural movements and attempts to get its practioners as conditioned and proficient as possible in the shortest amount of time, according to Puzniak, who teaches the practice full-time.
Martial arts take years to master and many of their moves begin from a position of advantage. Krav Maga is different. It takes a realistic approach to its teaching. If, in real life, you were forced to defend yourself from true violence, you would most likely be at a disadvantage. So in a Krav Maga class, students fight against larger opponents, or they are distracted or hit while they aren’t ready or they do cardio exercises to the brink of exhaustion and then are forced to defend themselves.
“There have been a lot of incidents lately in New Hampshire and Massachusetts of people being attacked during crimes,” Puzniak said. “This is an effective way of simulating real attacks.”
In sports, athletes get style points for beauty. But in the streets the only judge is survival. So Krav Maga teaches students the quickest way to end a situation.
Students undergo countless drills and repetition so they can thoroughly understand a move. But the practical defense skills that people learn, plus the unbelievable cardiovascular workout, has made Krav Maga a very popular form of physical exercise.
A typical class
Puzniak said a typical class begins with a warm-up and then some dynamic stretching so that all participants are loose and ready for a workout. They then begin with striking drills — punches, kicks, moves used in a self-defense scenario. After much practice, they end the class with reaction drills where they use the moves they have learned.
“Every class you get a great workout plus you learn skills you can use in the parking lot,” Puzniak said.
Part of its appeal is this constant learning and the ability to reach practical goals. Puzniak said it can take years to earn a black belt in the martial arts. In his classes, the students — who range from 17 years old to people in their 40s — see results quickly, which encourages them to stay with it. These students come from all walks of life. Naturally many law enforcement and fire personnel are attracted to the fighting style, but Puzniak said he has plenty of working professionals. Some come to the class because they’re sick of the health club scenes and want to make a committed effort to getting in shape.
“We have one student who lost 110 pounds,” Puzniak said. “That isn’t uncommon. This class gives people confidence to take care of themselves.”
One student travels three hours from Vermont once a week to attend the class. The reason is that Krav Maga World Wide is a pure system, which means that Puzniak is a direct descendent of Lichtenfeld (meaning her learned from someone who learned from someone who learned directly from Lichtenfeld).
To stay current, Puzniak heads to Los Angeles a couple of times a year for updated training. And Puzniak knows a thing or two about fighting. He has been doing martial arts since he was 10 years old and was one of only two non-Japanese nationals to win the Eastern Japan Karate Championships, which is a bare-knuckle, bare foot, full-contact competition (think Jean Claude Van Damme’s Bloodsport).
Yet he never felt like he found a complete fighting style until he got turned on to Krav Maga. But one of the benefits of conventional martial arts is that they take time to master and over that time the students can learn a respect and appreciation for their new skill. Is there any risk in quickly giving people the skills to deliver violence?
Puzniak doesn’t think so.
“Classes are really instilled with a code of conduct,” Puzniak said. “While there isn’t the master-student relationship and it is more like coach-athlete, there is definitely a certain way to behave. Those who come in with the wrong attitude do not last long.”
In fact, those who have the right attitude receive benefits far greater than simple fighting skills. Puzniak said school teachers can see clear changes in students who participate in Krav Maga. Puzniak said since the kids do moves in front of each other, they learn to overcome shyness. Plus they work with their peers holding bags. There is also growth in self-control as they are put in tense situations and taught to control their emotions for safety.
“They gain great social and physical confidence,” Puzniak said.
Krav Maga is a fighting philosophy, which allows room for a lot of discussions. Puzniak is able to wax on morality, the legality of using force, bullying and non-violent encounters, like walking away or talking situations out.
“It is good for daily living as well,” Puzniak said. “The principles work for business as well: being aggressive but not unethical. It translates to a lot of things.”
The camaraderie is also a big part of the activity. Puzniak said people often go out for dinner as a group after workouts.
“I was creating a business,” Puzniak said. “The last thing I expected was to make friends. But I did.”