For Uriel Casas, founder of the Fitsu Fitness Program, teaching women self-defense involves much more than fight tactics. It’s about loving yourself and knowing deep inside that no one has the right to invade your space, harm your body or rob you of your sense of safety. It’s about projecting self-confidence and not vulnerability. If you love yourself, you will fight for yourself, he said.
Casas, a Quince Orchard High School alum who holds a bachelor’s in kinesiology from University of Maryland, College Park and an MBA from the Robert H. Smith School of Business, began offering self-defense workshops a few years ago. The impetus was a rape that occurred within the tightknit Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu community. A female student was raped in a DC parking garage by two classmates after the three had been at a DC nightclub on New Year’s Eve. “I got angry and thought, ‘You know what, there’s got to be something I can do. I don’t want to sit here passively.’”
A friend who teaches self-defense suggested that Casas start doing this as well.
Casas is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and kickboxing expert who worked as a bouncer to put himself through college. Casas recalled that his friend thought his “kind of brutal (fighting) style” and caring personality would make him a good self-defense teacher. “So I started studying and in less than a year … I just gave it a shot.”
Casas began offering self-defense workshops in 2013 locally at the American TKD Academy in Kentlands. “We had such a good response. More and more people wanted it,” he said. “American Taekwondo gets a million times the credit for this because they … wanted to empower the community, especially women and children. … That’s not traditionally a martial arts attitude. Most martial arts schools want guys. So, that was a big thing for them, this idea that … we want to be a place where families feel welcome, where families feel they are going to be empowered with safety.”
More recently, Casas also has taught his self-defense workshops at the Ascend Institute of Martial Arts in Chevy Chase. The workshops are always free.
“This isn’t about business,” he explained. “This is about helping people find a pathway to feeling more self-secure and building a foundation to self-security, confidence, those kinds of things.”
The first week in January, after seeing online comments about Aria Watson’s video “#SignedByTrump” that features the president-elect’s sexist comments painted on naked women’s bodies, Casas posted to the Facebook Group “Pantsuit District Nation.” “I am so angry at the horrible responses people wrote to denigrate this powerful video, that I want to invite the pantsuit district nation a free special self-defense seminar my academy is hosting. … I want to do my part in preventing this bs from becoming the norm.” Casas also offered to facilitate workshops around the area. “I am part of a large DMV martial arts community,” he wrote. “I have buddies that can offer a seminar in your area or we can find a community center and I will come out to your area.”
Casas said that he does worry about giving women a false sense of security in his workshop that covers powerful tactics like anchoring the body in a defensive fight stance, eye and groin attacks, slipping out of a neck “v” hold to pin an assailant’s arm behind his back and dislocate his shoulder, and taking down an assailant by putting pressure on the knee ACL. But he talks about this in the workshop, and he goes beyond the tactics to empower women not to be victims.
Casas said that there are three things women need to remember: Trust your instincts (if something feels wrong, it probably is wrong), make others aware of what is going on, and be prepared to fight.
Some of his advice runs counter to what many women naturally do when faced with predatory behavior. Predators, he said, look for vulnerabilities and are encouraged by prey behaviors like looking away when someone stares at you, crossing to the other side of the street when something about the person approaching makes you uncomfortable, and ignoring someone who invades your personal space or touches you inappropriately. It is much better to challenge the predatory behaviors, Casas said, and project self-confidence.
Casas said that he worries, too, about not making a big enough impact. The statistics, he said, are frightening: One in four women will be assaulted, and out every 100 men that you know, two are sexual predators.
“I wanted to get in front of people,” Casas said. “I wanted to share what I had. … The reality, self-defense, it’s not all simple. When I started doing this, I got backlash. The biggest backlash that you get is this: You’re making people think that they’re equipped to defend themselves from a one-hour seminar. … The thing is I just want to give them tools … what is my best chance to survive … and what won’t work.
“I had had enough,” he said. “This is ridiculous, and I have some tools and if I can share them in any way, I will.”