Video: Ryan Smith Films

According to a global estimate by the World Health Organisation (WHO) conducted in 2013, one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence. So when I heard that Jiu Jitsu black belt practitioner and world champion Claudia do Val was in town to give an introductory class on self-defence for women, I volunteered to be pummelled. [Claudia is based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she trains under the Ricardo De La Riva gym. She has a total of 19 awards and has spent the past two years winning numerous World Championships, clinching six awards in 2018 alone.]

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) is a martial art and combat sport that focuses on ground fighting and submissions (think compression locks, joint locks and chokes.) It is founded upon the concept of technique leverage and uses submissions to allow a smaller and weaker person to successfully defend against a bigger and stronger opponent. Which is why its suitable as a self-defence technique for women.

I’m not a sporty or strong person, so when I headed to the gym where Claudia was holding the session, I was more than a little nervous. I mean, I watched a couple of BJJ videos before the session as part of my research, and I’m expecting to get thrown around and be subjected to intense grappling. Or in other words…utterly trashed. So the session went about as well as you think. 


Move One: The Defensive Throw


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Claudia moves to the center of the gym’s blue-padded floor. Her assistant demonstrates an attack from behind, wrapping his arm around Claudia’s neck in choke. “First thing, always make sure you can breathe or you’re going to pass out,” Claudia instructs. She uses two hands to pull at his arm to form a breathing space.

Then, she spreads her legs shoulder-width apart and bends her knees. She explains that this position is called the base. It stabilises you and prevents you from falling headlong onto the floor when executing the throw.

Next, she picks a side to execute the throw. Since she has picked her left side, she pushes her left hip inwards and throws her assistant over her left shoulder. Her assistant lands on the floor with a loud thud.

Now it’s my time to “disarm” her. I pull Claudia’s arm away from my neck, form the base and attempt to throw her on the floor. And… barely lift her off the ground.

Claudia quickly points out that I have been trying to throw her over my back instead of my shoulder. She explains that throwing an attacker over your back is very heavy and requires great strength to execute, especially if he is of greater body mass. After three more tries, I finally get the hang of it and manage a successful throw. With the proper technique, I find that it’s surprisingly easy to accomplish the throw and it actually did not require much physical strength at all.


Move Two: Retreating On the Ground


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Sitting down on the floor, Claudia explains that this move is most suitably used to defend yourself in a situation where you are on the ground and your attacker is approaching.

Her ‘attacker’ approaches her from the front. She bends a leg in front of her, places one hand behind her for support and extends her free hand in front of her face to fend off attacks. She moves away from the assailant by pushing the leg in front of her against the floor to slide her body backwards.

Advice from Claudia? Always keep your eyes on your attacker to anticipate attacks and, once given the chance, face front and get up. Never turn your body or backface your attacker, as it will give him a chance to attack you in a vulnerable position. As the move is clearly a no-brainer, I easily got it right on the first try. We move on.


Move Three: The Joint Lock (Shoulder)


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The assailant moves beside Claudia and grabs her waist. Claudia places her hand behind her assailant’s hand and wraps her arm around his upper arm.

Using her free hand, she grabs the wrist of her hand and twists her body backwards. Claudia explains that this forms a joint lock on the attacker’s shoulder and the pain will force the attacker to let go.

I hop onto the mat eagerly and perform the move. So far so good…until I reach the joint lock. No matter how far I twist my back backwards, the joint lock wasn’t happening anytime soon.

After my almost cartoonish failure, Claudia explains that the position where I wrap my arm is crucial. Miss her upper arm and she can easily bend her elbows to wriggle herself out of the lock. I practise a couple more times before I can complete the move without a hitch.


Move Four: The Joint Lock (Wrist)

Claudia moves back to the center of the room. Her assailant grabs at her ponytail from behind and attempts to pull at it. Quickly, she uses both hands to grab at his hands and turns her body to face him. Her assistant’s arm is now twisted with his elbow and palm facing upwards.

Then, she uses one hand to forcefully push his wrist up towards his arm to form a joint lock on his wrist. The pain of the joint lock forces her assailant to let go.

Once I got the hang of how to twist my attacker’s arm, the move was relatively easy to follow and I manage to get it right by my third try.

I personally find this move the most practical in neutralising a threat as it is easy and has few steps (something you’ll surely appreciate when panic sets in during a time of emergency). Unlike the previous move which requires me to target a specific part of the attacker’s body, I only need to grab the entire hand of my attacker and force it upwards, making it very quick and easy to execute.



Move Five: The Joint Lock (Shoulder) On the Floor

“A lot of times, women tend to end up on the ground during attacks,” Claudia says, assuming the position of a victim lying on the ground. She uses both hands to fend off her assailant’s punches.

Then, she grabs hold of one of his hands and holds on to it. Using her other hand, she pushes his face outwards away from her. Next, she swings the leg opposite the hand that is holding onto her assailant’s hand over to his opposite shoulder, and squeezes both knees together tightly to form a joint lock on his shoulder.

The move is the most complicated of the lot. It took me about three tries before I could conduct the steps smoothly and even then I wasn’t able to squeeze my knees together hard enough to form the arm lock. “Lift your hips and squeeze your knees,” says Claudia when she saw how I struggled. On my fourth try I managed to execute the joint lock with ease.

“[Jiu-Jitsu self-defence techniques] is not about one move that you learn by heart like, ‘oh, my foot comes here, my other leg comes here.’ It’s all about learning the essence of the technique. What he is doing do, why do I have to bend his arm? Once you know what submission is, you can find it anywhere and you don’t need to learn specific moves to defend yourself,” explains Claudia.



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After the sessions, I managed to get Claudia to expound further.

Other than the obvious benefit of being able to defend yourself, how else does self-defence benefit women?

Claudia: “As a sport, Jiu-Jitsu is really, really amazing…it changed my body completely, like my self-confidence. I used to be very afraid, I used to think I was ugly and nobody liked me. Jiu-Jitsu just gave me so much power. It made me feel confident about myself to look at the mirror and like what I looked at.”


How does it help your self-confidence?

Claudia: “A lot of people they do it just for the sport, but knowing how to defend yourself gives you have self-confidence. One time I was on the bus, there was this crazy guy next to me. First thing, I looked to see if he had any weapons – because never try to fight someone with a weapon. So I looked and there wasn’t. He was just being crazy and lucky I didn’t have to take him out. But I knew, if I had to, I could. And this gave me confidence.

“And you make so many friends, it’s not like in other sports. Every gym you go to they have a family, and not just training partners.”


Any advice for women who want to learn self-defence?

Claudia: “For everybody who is thinking of doing a martial arts [as self-defence], just do it. Because I know a lot of girls, they want to try martial arts but they don’t feel comfortable mostly because the classes are mostly men, so some women they don’t feel very comfortable. But go watch one day, talk to the instructor to see if you feel comfortable with the instructor.

“And if you’re still thinking about it, just go! I hear a lot of people saying, ‘Uh, no, I’m going to wait till I get in shape so I can start doing Jiu-Jitsu’. It’s wrong. You don’t wait until you get in shape then you start doing it, you get in shape by doing Jiu-Jitsu.”


As I left the gym, I recalled my initial nervousness and chuckled to myself. The session didn’t even come close to the strenuous exercise I had imagined – it relied heavily on technique rather than brute force. (Although admittedly I did suffer from a few sore muscles the following day.)

Also, since most moves taught can be executed in close proximity (which is usually the case in an attack), I find the techniques to be very applicable to real life situations.

To my surprise, I enjoyed the session very much. I didn’t feel fatigued afterwards and even felt refreshed after the session. And I agreed to come in for a trial session the following weekend. Why, maybe this couch potato might be able to pick up a few martial art moves!

Claudia do Val was  in Singapore to spread the word on using Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a self-defence technique for women. Thanks to Maverick Martial Arts, 322 Joo Chiat Road ( for hosting us – check them out if you’re keen to learn BJJ.