Enjoy a great workout, and pick up some self-defense skills while you’re at it.

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I TRIED NOT to grab, placing my hand on my partner’s head, instead, for a self-defense technique called clutching feathers. I was next, and I hoped my partner would be nice as he pretended to hammer my jaw.

I was at Alpha Martial Arts on Capitol Hill for a Kenpo Karate class to learn basic techniques and perhaps some self-defense.

Teacher and owner Silas Ness provided a loose, white pajama-style uniform for class, and I looked the part, even if I did not feel that way. Luckily, as a white belt, people expected little of me.

Alpha Martial Arts


After an energetic warm-up, Ness took us through the basic stance, with fists up by our faces, for some jabs and punches. The first Kenpo technique was the sword and hammer, a simple move where one hand becomes a sword to your opponent’s throat, and your fist is a hammer to the belly. We practiced with a partner, with one person grabbing your shoulder while the other did the sword and hammer.

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This one was simple, though teachers reminded us to make contact with our partners’ bellies for the hammer. The next technique, clutching feathers, was more complicated. After my partner grabbed my hair with his left hand, I pushed my knuckles into his armpit, using the same arm to sweep his arm away from my head; pretended to face-palm him with my left hand; and then fake-hammered the side of his jaw with my fist.

It took a few practice rounds with my partner before I could shift my weight properly, and my fists were never in the right position. I think I need some more practice.

The Kenpo class at Alpha Martial Arts includes Muay Thai kickboxing technique, and we moved next into punching combinations from Muay Thai. This is when the class got vigorous.

We practiced a jab-punch-hook-punch combo first. Ness told us how to shift our weight and pivot our hips, using our body’s mechanics to get the most effective punch. Once I got my feet to pivot and hips to spin side to side, another teacher, Gilbert Zapata, told me to add in breath. I liked using my breath to jab and punch, though I forgot to keep my arm close to my torso for the hook.

For the next combination, we did a jab-punch-uppercut-jab. The same hip and footwork applied for this combination, and I worked at keeping my elbows in, my fists up by my face, my feet fast and my breath in sync. It required focus, and I didn’t always breathe.

We took it up another level with padded mitts to practice punching with a partner. The combinations got more intense, and more fun.

For the final combination, we added leg moves — a block, a kick and another uppercut and jab. My brain refused to process the final moves quickly, and my pace slowed down whenever I had to block a kick or kick the mitts. I also forgot to breathe unless Zapata reminded me. Oh, right.

It was challenging and fun to throw more into the combination, and after some practice, while I wasn’t speedy, I could at least do it in succession.

At the end of class, I took the mitts against my partner, and realized defending was as much work as punching and kicking.

Combining karate and kickboxing is vigorous and challenging, regardless of skill level. It’s physically demanding, and requires core strength and focus. I also love working with partners, which keeps interactions surprising.

If you’re interested in a physical activity that is active and engaging and will give you some great self-defense skills along the way, Kenpo Karate might be the right one for you.