The benefits of learning self-defense for young people

The benefits of learning self-defense for young people

This month, SAY was honored to host Sensei Isaiah Wisdom at the Dream Center to teach a free self-defense workshop for our youth. Sensei Isaiah is the owner of New School Aikido in Santa Rosa and has been a martial arts educator in Sonoma County for more than 20 years. He frequently volunteers at local nonprofits and community organizations to help people learn the power of nonviolence through the practice of Aikido and self-defense. We had the opportunity to sit down with Sensei Isaiah and learn a little bit more about him and why self-defense is so beneficial for young people to learn.

SAY: Thank you so much for volunteering at SAY and taking the time to chat with us! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with Aikido?

Sensei Isaiah: I’ve been teaching in Santa Rosa for 25 years and I do a free self-defense class every quarter for a variety of nonprofits and community centers in Sonoma County. When I was in my early 20’s, I lived in Stockton, CA and I ended up living above a dōjō, a martial arts school. I was a musician at the time and one day was practicing my instrument in the entryway of the apartment building when the Aikido teacher said to me, ‘when are you starting class?’ and that’s literally how I started going to the school and taking classes!

Sensei Isaiah Wisdom and a student at New School Aikido in Santa Rosa

For those who aren’t familiar, what exactly is Aikido?

The principle of Aikido is that you are able to defend yourself without acting in a violent manner. It’s the idea of redirecting energy rather than acting out violently to hurt somebody in order to defend oneself. Therefore, if an attack happens you are willing and able to let the energy go by you and redirect it. Aikido really operates as a metaphor as well – it’s about learning how to let things go through you and knowing that you can resolve conflict without violence.

And how do you help young people understand this concept?

One of the main ways I describe this notion in a self-defense class is to think about a person who is acting out violently toward you. You could enter into that, but it’s like going through the fire in order to exit. Instead, you could just turn around and exit the other way. Fundamentally, Aikido is a choice. So which choice do you make – do you want to go through the fire or do you want to find another way out?

Why do you think Aikido is such a great practice for youth to learn? What do they gain from it?

As a practice, you learn to be powerful without being hurtful. It allows someone to walk the moral high ground. You know you can be powerful and take care of yourself, but you also know that you are safe and you don’t have to become violent in order to stay safe. My classes are designed to show all people – young people, older people, kids, anyone – that you’re not powerless.

A group of kids practicing and learning Aikido

Why do you think it’s important for youth to learn about self-defense?

When I think about learning self-defense, I don’t think about learning how to punch or kick someone or even doing Aikido throws and techniques. Really the biggest thing we learn is to ask are questions like:  ‘am I aware of my environment,’ and ‘am I making good, safe decisions,’ because that’s really how we protect ourselves. So for young people, we talk a lot about being self-aware and asking ‘is there another way out of this situation that will keep me protected’ – whether that’s choosing to not walk down a dark alley or choosing to call someone if you are by yourself. Teaching self-defense is a lot about teaching skills to avoid violence in the first place and building up confidence in the student.

Why did you decide to start volunteering with local organizations?

Growing up my family was very poor and I didn’t have access to activities like little league or martial arts classes. And when I was a young adult I knew what it felt like to be vulnerable. I know what it’s like to live day-to-day and have to rely on friends that let you sleep on their couch. So when I became a teacher I knew I wanted to give back to my community. I’ve worked with the Living Room, Green Acre Homes, Sierra School, and various other nonprofits in the community. I also offer free classes at the New School Aikido for the community so that people from all walks of life can join. I was lucky enough as a teenager to have teachers that helped me, so now I want to be that teacher who helps someone.

You recently taught a self-defense class at SAY for youth in our programs. How do you structure these one-day trainings?

It takes a lot of repetition in order to have the technique of Aikido become part of your body. It’s like playing the piano – you have to play scales over and over again in order to play well. But in one day, I could teach you a couple verses of a song. So when I structure a self-defense workshop, we really focus on awareness and how to navigate energy and environment. As far as technique, in a one-day workshop we focus on simple escape techniques that focus on nonviolence. We talk about your voice and how to yell in a way that will disrupt an attack and make people aware of what’s happening. There are some really great basic things that young people can learn that will help them feel more empowered, more aware, and better able to navigate negative energy without violence.

Thank you for all you do for our community, Sensei Isaiah!

If you are interested in learning more about Aikido and self-defense, please check out the New School Aikido in Santa Rosa by visiting their website: