Self defense class packs a punch, limited free classes for students remain

Wilson Gomez

On a hot afternoon, SF State student Claire Viadnes, was approached by a man who asked how long it would take for the bus to arrive. While Viadnes reached into her pocket to take out her phone, a second man approached her from the opposite direction and snatched her phone. 

Viadnes managed to catch one of the men before he could board the M train to escape.“I was holding him by his arm and screaming at people, ‘Somebody help me!’” Viadnes said. “I was staring at people … waiting for the train in front of us and I was begging, literally begging them for help. Some people just turned around and walked away and some just started recording me. It was messed up.” 

Harrison Kher (left) and instructor Stephanie Cyr (right) show the class proper self-defense techniques in the Mashouf Wellness Center Oct 24. (Paige Acosta/Golden Gate Xpress)

Finally, three people came to her aid and the thieves were caught. But Viadnes suffered an eye injury as a result. Her doctor then told her about a free self-defense class taught on campus.

Stephanie Cyr, a professor in the kinesiology department, martial artist and lawyer has been teaching the free class for three years. The class was originally taught from a martial arts perspective, but  when Cyr took over she changed it to a self-defense perspective, “Because of what’s going on on campuses across the country and the world in general.” 

According to a 2019 study done by the Association of American Universities, which is made up of 33 research universities from across the country including Harvard and UC Berkeley, 26.4 percent of undergraduate female students report “nonconsensual sexual contact involving physical force or inability to consent.”

Cyr’s class begins with typical warm-up exercises like running, push-ups and stretching before moving on to the meat of the course, which involves learning how to use their voice, to tell a potential attacker to “back off,” and their hands, placed in front of them as both a way to look non-threatening while also being in a position to attack should the need arise. However, the class isn’t just teaching students how to punch and kick. 

“First and foremost before you teach them an actual physical move,” Cyr said.
“You never want to physical confrontation. That’s a last resort.”

First, Cyr tells her students, they should try to talk their way out of a potentially dangerous situation by talking to the potential attacker and telling them to back off or that someone is coming to meet you. Only if you feel like you are in immediate danger, should you fight.

Intercut between lessons and practice, Cyr talks to the students about real life situations in which people managed to get away from attackers and use them as a launching off point for teaching a new technique. “There isn’t one move that works for everyone,” Cyr told her class.  

The class itself is fairly informal as some students arrive late and some leave early. While Cyr has a plan for what she wants to teach her students, she makes the class flexible enough that she can alter the class seemingly on the fly as students let her know what they want to learn. 

The students’ feedback are paramount to Cyr, as she takes every possible precaution to ensure that the students know that they are in a safe space and that if they are not comfortable with something, that they should let her know right away. While the majority of the students in her class are female, everyone is encouraged to join as Cyr told her students, “Everyone gets targeted.”

Some students, like Viadnes, come to the class because of a past experience, while others come to learn how to react in case something similar happens to them.  

“It was great,” Viadnes said.“People need to know this; people need to learn how to defend themselves. It’s really necessary.” 

In addition to Cyr’s classes, campus police also offers a one week Rape Aggression Defense class for both men and women, though the date for the next classes are still “TBD” according to the school website.

 “After taking the class, I really like it so I’m thinking about coming back and taking another session,” said Hannah Bustamante, also an SF State student and friend of Viadnes. Bustamante wished that the class was more widely advertised, as she only heard about the class because Viadnes knew about it. 

Classes are open for Oct. 31 and Nov. 7 from 4 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. Any student who wishes to sign up for the free “Gator Self-Defense” class can do so at the campus rec website listed below: https://member.campusrec.sfsu.edu/Program/GetProducts