De-escalate then defend: Lessons from Mejishi Martial Arts

By | 2018-01-16T08:33:01-04:00 April 19th, 2012|News|

Sensei Jaye Spiro is a tiny-framed lesbian with a voice like a cannon and a kick that could kill. But when it comes to self-defense there’s a lot that can be done to be safe before resorting to counter violence.
Spiro, co-owner of Mejishi Martial Arts in Ferndale, volunteered to do a self-defense class as part of Transgender Day of Empowerment on April 14. The class gave a group of transgender women tools to help avoid violence, and to fight off an attacker if necessary.
The introductory class went through a wide range of responses to a threat, from avoidance to fighting back. “Fighting is stressful, hurtful, and even if you win you don’t know if someone else will come after you later for it,” Spiro said. “Fighting is a last resort.”
The first set of skills anyone should have are awareness-based skills. “Am I aware or am I on the phone. Am I busy thinking about how I look? Am I thinking about my bad day at work? Or I am here and present in the moment?” Those are questions Spiro said people should be aware of. Staying focused on one’s current situation and interactions is not only good advice for enjoying life, it helps someone be less vulnerable. She encouraged the women to notice what people are around them and to trust their intuition if something just doesn’t feel right.
An important factor in understanding assault is that statistically people are more likely to be attacked by somebody they know than some random stranger. That’s why it’s important that people insist on respect in relationships and avoid heated confrontations. Arguing with someone they know could escalate into violence, and attacks from a known person are much harder to defend than if it were some random perpetrator. “There’s a whole mountain of emotions you have to overcome to fight – confusion, betrayal, and the feeling you don’t want to hurt them,” she said.

Verbal skills

Defusing situations using verbal skills is one recommendation. Spiro explained there are “soft” verbal skills and “hard” verbal skills.
Soft skills mean that if someone is upset, a potential victim can “talk down” the individual. “If someone is upset we can make them even more upset if we call them names, act scared, argue or yell,” said Spiro. “That only makes things worse.” Instead, she suggested being empathetic. “Give them eye contact and say, ‘let’s talk about it.'”
She shared an example when a gun was pulled on a friend of hers who was an in-home care nurse. “Instead of panicking, she stayed calm and got the person talking and was able to diffuse the situation.”
Hard verbal skills may be required if soft skills are not an option. “Set boundaries and insist the other person respects them.” She recommends that in order to be more authoritative, one should lower their voice, speak slowly, make eye contact, maintain an open stance, and make eye contact when standing up to someone. If you have to yell, do it from your diaphragm instead of your throat. And no matter how nervous you are, take a deep breath and give a serious face. “Remember that you control your life and your story,” said Spiro.
She stressed the importance of fighting as a last resort, but also acknowledged that at times people in the LGBT community have opportunities to stand up for themselves and be teachers to people around them. “Education is partly what you have to do, it comes with the territory,” she said.


One attendee recalled having been on a crowded elevator and having a young man pointedly call her “dude.” She returned the insult with something she admittedly knew would trigger a negative response; she called him “honey.” An argument ensued and security was called.
The group brainstormed ways the woman could have handled the situation differently, including ways to stand up for one’s self that are less likely to end up in conflict, such as insisting on respect.
Wendy Stringer of Warren is a regular at Mejishi, active in both self-defense classes and in the martial arts. She was 50 when she began transitioning, and when she became interested in self-defense. “I didn’t have a reason to be afraid before,” she said. “Some of us have had bad things happen to us. So we have to change our mindsets. We have to write our own scripts.”
Stringer said she and another friend practice self-defense moves. They run through slow-motion-training drills that get their muscle memory built up and their bodies used to punching, kicking, blocking, and poking at someone’s eyes.
At Transgender Day of Empowerment, Stringer came from the participant pool to help Spiro run through practice moves. They learned that if someone is coming at them and there is no escape, they should stand sideways with a wide stance to give them balance.
They should get used to putting their weaker hand out to let the assailant know not to come near. When the assailant grabs that wrist, it gives the individual enough time to step in with a hard punch from their dominant hand. Or they can swing their arm in a wide circle and jerk out of their hand by putting their momentum towards the assailant’s thumb, which has a much weaker grip than the four fingers together do.
“Martial arts are like anything else, there’s no guarantee in life, but it helps you to be prepared,” Stringer said.
Meijihi Martial Arts offers self-defense, martial arts and yoga classes. Find out more at
For more information about Transgender Detroit, go to

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