“MOVE slowly,” the instructor cautioned as students of the Krav Maga Institute, grouped in twos, moved menacingly toward each other. “We don’t want to hit our partner.”
Krav maga, meaning “contact combat” in Hebrew and pronounced krahv ma-GAH, is a hand-to-hand martial art that has been used in Israeli military training since the 1940s. Classes in New York teach the grappling moves, but with more of an emphasis on urban self-defense and exercise. At a Midtown studio one recent weeknight, a class focused on escaping chokeholds.
The instructor, Josh Greenwood, had demonstrated a rapid sequence of movements that would break the lock of an attacker’s grasp and disable that person. The routine — throw up the arm, twist out of the grasp and send ahammerfist punch to the attacker’s face — included the bare basics. But Mr. Greenwood encouraged students to add another punch or two for good measure. (“Anything after the hammerfist is icing on the cake,” he said.)
The routine was exacted in slow motion, each step mimed with deliberate intensity, and concluded once the attacker was subdued and the defender had moved safely out of the way, scanning for other possible threats.
The sole woman in the class, Pallavi Pal, 23, an analyst at a credit-rating agency, got into it quickly, accidentally knocking her partner in the face. (In intermediate and advanced classes, like this one, students usually wear mouth guards and protective cups.) At 5 feet tall, Ms. Pal was the shortest person in the room by at least a head, though fiery and intimidating in her own right.
“In movies, you never see small, petite people, who look defenseless, being able to defend themselves,” she said. “But for a lot of these techniques, you don’t necessarily have to be ripped and buff and really tall to pull them off.”
While many krav maga classes focus on aggressive defense moves — how to deflect a knife or gun attack, and when to use a kick to the chest or a knee to the groin — all come with some cardio workout, stretching and games meant to keep the class social and fun.
Often the drills and games are precursors to the techniques being taught, a subconscious warm-up of the muscles and reflexes.
“That way, when they start work on the technique, they’re halfway there,” said Patrick Lockton, who founded the Krav Maga Institute in New York two years ago.
“People never join for just the fitness,” Mr. Lockton said. “They want to learn something. The workout is a byproduct.”
This holistic approach appealed to Brian Lieberman, a 30-year-old security consultant who took up krav maga because it was intellectually and physically engaging. “I used to get bored running and weight lifting,” he said.
The moves are meant to be instinctual and easy to pick up, as time for training is limited in the military. When that training is adapted to day-to-day life in New York, it gives people practical knowledge for dealing with dangerous situations, Mr. Lockton said.
“You can defuse or walk away from 90 percent of situations,” Mr. Lockton said. Krav maga, he added, “is for that other 10 percent.”