Classes geared toward women defending themselves, but men, teens and families welcome

If you’re walking down a street and someone attacks you, or if someone you know threatens you, in trying to defend yourself the mental is just as important as the physical.

That’s what former police officer Scott Cunningham, owner of Your Best Defense, tries to impart to his self-defense students.

“Forty-five minutes of the first class is on the mental side,” Cunningham said.

His classes don’t focus as much on fighting techniques as they do on using police tactics to meet real-life threats, he said.

“Martial arts studios are for kids, and it’s a long process and most adults don’t have the time,” he said. “My classes are condensed and include real-life situations that have been proven on the streets.”

Cunningham has plenty of experience on the streets. He retired at the end of 2011 from the Gresham Police force, where he had been on the SWAT team and was canine master for 11 years.

“When we had a suspect who fled the scene of a crime, we were out there trying to find them and through that I got a lot of advanced training in self-defense,” he said.

Cunningham also worked on many child abuse cases and investigated thousands of assaults on women, he said. He started his business about six months ago at the urging of his wife, Elisa, who could see that he was bored and “getting grumpy” after retirement.

“She had been in abusive relationships in her past and she said to me, ‘It’s the right thing to do,’ “ he said.

Since 1995, Cunningham has taught police tactics and use of force to fellow officers and is certified to teach confrontational simulation, he said, where actors portray “bad guys” and create threatening situations as close to the real thing as possible.

In his classes Cunningham does something similar when he dons a protective padded suit and “attacks” his students and lets them do anything they want to him without getting hurt himself.

“It lets the participants practice what I’ve been teaching them on an actual mobile human body, and I’m 6 feet, 3 inches and 240 pounds,” he said. “It isn’t me just standing there or me holding a punching bag because with that there’s no fear. But I don’t do anything to hurt anybody, I just grab.”

That allows the students to “fight through,” he said, demonstrating techniques they’ve learned.

“You have to actually strike parts of the body that, when they are struck properly or effectively, can cause dysfunction or incapacitation,” he said.

Defending yourself is about more than just kicking or punching or fighting back, Cunningham said, because the goal is to end the situation as quickly as possible, and it’s all about “effectiveness and efficiency.”

When he has on the padded suit, Cunningham said unless the students hit the right target or vital area, he continues to grab at them and stand on his feet. But when they do it right, he falls down.

But the mental aspect of defending yourself may be even more important than the physical, he said.

“I have to get them to understand that they have to make themselves angry,” he said. “They have to have confidence in their own abilities because to overcome these bad people out there, you have to be very aggressive and very pervasive in your aggressiveness.”

He accomplishes this by using many of the techniques used to teach police officers, such as being aware of the physiological changes your body goes through when it senses a threat.

“Part of the mental preparation is common safety tips and precautions, but it goes beyond that to recognizing when you’re under stress, your body reacts to that and tries to place itself in a survival mode,” he said.

When that happens, much of your blood rushes to your vital organs and you tend to lose fine motor skills, which can mean you could fumble even if you have a gun or a Taser or pepper spray handy.

“The reason that officers are able to do that is not they don’t go through the same physiological effects, it’s just that they train so much,” he said.

His motivation in teaching self-defense is to try to get women — or men or teens or families — to recognize that they need to do whatever they can to avoid being assaulted.

“I’ve seen too many women who are victimized and go through this horrible emotional trauma in their lives,” he said.

Self-defense is a process that begins with perceptions, Cunningham said, and it starts with being aware of your environment.

“That means keeping your eyes open and not walking down the street texting or looking at your feet, but keeping your head on a swivel, looking around and establishing boundaries,” he said.

Cunningham said many potential assaults begin with a verbal exchange, and he also teaches his students how to read body language as well as threatening verbal cues.

“In reality, it’s not usually this guy jumping out of the bushes and attacking you, but there’s somebody who’s going to bait you into that contact,” he said. “Seventy percent of assaults on women are by someone they already know.”

Cunningham also sells pepper spray, stun guns, collapsible batons and Tasers, and provides instructions on their use.

The length of his defense classes vary, from a free half-hour introductory class to $75 for a basic six-hour class spread over three two-hour classes. Advanced classes are also available as well as a one-hour condensed class that incorporates the basic class.

He said he’s been told his prices are low, but getting rich is not the point, Cunningham said.

“I just want to pay the lease, and I want to help change lives and teach confidence,” he said.

Your Best Defense is at 271 N. Third St. and can be reached at 503-512-8078. For more details, go online to

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