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Start the year with self-defense
New classes begin Jan. 9 at Fit912Savannah

Practical Self-Defense for Women

When: 6-7pm, Tuesdays and Thursdays Jan. 9-25

Where: Fit912 Savannah, 428 Bull St. (Enter on Wayne St.)

Cost: $10/class or $30 all six

Info: (912)346-9013 or

There are many takeaways from the #MeToo movement, and one of the big ones is that women are incessant targets for violence and sexual assault.

According to the United Nations, one in three women experiences at least one physical attack in her lifetime, and simply walking alone is a risk. While the culture has a long way to go in shifting the bull’s eye, there are ways to keep from becoming a victim.

Local martial arts teacher Don Oja has developed a series of strategies called Practical Defensive Arts Training (PDAT), a series of simple, easy-to-implement moves that increase surviving violent crime.

“It all starts with avoidance, really,” counsels Oja, a computer programmer and textbook author who also happens to have a black belt in tae kwon do.

“There are dangerous people in the world, and we can decrease our interactions with such people—practical defense uses a variety of drills to develop situational awareness so they can be more easily spotted and avoided.”

That doesn’t always work in closed situations, and Oja teaches other tools to successfully disrupt an attack, such as keeping a large object—like a car—between you and an aggressor and running in a zigzag motion to create confusion.

“If they can’t reach you, they can’t hurt you,” he explains.

Oja will be co-leading the six-class Practical Defense for Women along with instructor Amber Liberati on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning Jan. 9.

The workshop, held at Fit912Savannah in the bottom floor of the United Way building on Monterey Square, offers pragmatic skills for all women seeking a pro-active way to confront the statistics.

“These classes are absolutely appropriate for all ages, sizes and athletic ability,” promises Liberati, a former student of Oja’s who decided to earn her certification this year in order to help others. “These are important things people can use effectively without having a lot of training and that are attainable for everybody.”

Each class builds on continual skill development, but Oja says it’s OK to drop in or miss a class. Classes are $10 each or $30 for all six; space is limited so advance sign-ups are recommended.

While the strategies are rooted in traditional martial arts, Oja designed PDAT with a different focus. He taught the program in his native Michigan before bringing it to Savannah, where he has conducted seminars and workshops at the YMCA.

This is the first time he has offered the class through Fit912Savannah and thought it would be timely given the current conversation about women and safety.

“It’s mostly about being aware and not taken by surprise, even when you find yourself in a scary situation,” he says, modeling some of those situations with Liberati in a series of promotional videos.

“Whatever you’re doing should not increase you getting injured, it should decrease it. We’re teaching people to de-escalate and respond in a matter so they won’t get hurt.”

In one of the videos, Oja attempts to drag Liberati and she demonstrates escape techniques; in another, an oblivious Liberati is walking with her face in her phone when Oja grabs her from the side.

Here is where practical self-defense training comes in: Liberati doesn’t hesitate in fighting back, using the skills she’s learned to distract him and escape.

“When you learn the specific things you can do to get yourself away and practice them, you gain confidence. And when you have confidence, you have that quick response when something does happen,” she says.

Liberati met Oja through mutual acquaintances and signed up for one of his classes a couple of years ago. The empowerment she felt inspired her to complete the year-long teaching certification course. In addition to the de-escalation techniques and home invasion drills, the physical activity of the class itself offers benefits.

“I learned from a young age that it’s a good thing to be strong and powerful, and I really wanted to reach out to women to help them feel that way,” says the newly-minted PDAT instructor, who works as a dental hygienist during the day.

“Working out and exercising makes you feel better all-around and develops an extra level of confidence. And when you walk down the street with confidence, you’re less likely to be seen as a target.”

While she has not suffered a violent attack herself, Liberati says she is always aware of her surroundings and keeps her practical defense skills sharp should she find herself in a dangerous situation.

“I don’t know if I could beat off every attacker,” she says. “But they’re going to at least wish they hadn’t tried.”