When Nicole Burmaster enrolled in a self-defense class earlier this year, the first thing the instructors taught her had nothing to do with punching a bag or aiming a karate chop.
Rather, they taught her how to walk.
The staff at the Fitness Compound, a gym tucked in the corner of an office complex near Huntington Central Park, recently launched a class called Street Survival, in which students learn practical methods of defending themselves. In some cases, that means avoiding dangerous situations before they arise — for example, by walking with the head up and shoulders back and not fumbling with a cell phone or keys.
"You can't always rely on someone being there with you," said Burmaster, a stay-at-home mom from Huntington who enrolled in Street Survival along with her sister. "You can't always grab your purse or reach for your pepper spray."
For those hair-raising moments, instructors Nick Rians and Michele Mandala offer a number of specific pointers. Here's a test one might cobble together from their sessions:
Q: You hear footsteps behind you, and then two arms wrap around your neck in a chokehold. How do you break free?
A: You have a couple of seconds to loosen the attacker's grip, which can be done by stomping on feet or elbowing sides. Once the arm around the neck slackens, bite down on it hard.
Q: Suppose the person then pushes you and you fall backward. How do you land?
A: As you fall, tuck your chin into your chest to keep your head from hitting the ground. Turn your palms down to "high-five" the ground and avoid banging your elbows. Then raise your knees to keep the attacker at bay.
Q: If you then manage to knock the attacker down, in what direction do you run?
A: Diagonally, since the attacker will expect you to run straight.
Rians, a former Marine and the owner of the Fitness Compound, and Mandala, a black belt trained in hand-to-hand police combat, end each hour-long session by letting the students propose scenarios. The chokehold defense arose from a question Thursday afternoon; other times, students have suggested outlandish situations, like how to fend off 20 gun-wielding attackers at once.
In those instances, Mandala said, she and Rians handle the question logically, asking the class to imagine the circumstances that might lead to such a moment and how to avoid them.
"Between Nick's and my experience, we always know the answer," she said.
The instructors began teaching the Street Survival tactics in workshops for companies and school districts, and many participants asked them to make it a regular offering at the gym. The class, which drew three men and nine women Thursday, now takes place three days a week and accepts anyone 14 and older — including people with disabilities and other physical limitations.
Rians, who said he once disarmed a gunman in El Monte by stepping forward quickly and redirecting his hand, aims to teach one core principle above all.
"The main thing taught is being aggressive," he said. "If a criminal comes up to you on the street and you're aggressive to that person, they're likely to back off and find some other prey."
If You Go
What: Street Survival
Where: The Fitness Compound, 18411 Gothard St., Unit E, Huntington Beach
When: 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 to 11 a.m. Saturdays
Ages: 14 and older
Cost: Free for first week, $7 to $15 per class afterward
Information: (714) 726-0075 or http://www.thecompound.com