I STEPPED into a simulated sidewalk mugging between nasty-looking guys, each of whom outweighed me by over 40 pounds. The only way I knew how to defend myself was by mimicking the comedian Jack Benny. I placed the palm of my left hand on my chin, and cupped my right hand underneath my left elbow, affecting a look of meekness.
Then the lights went out. The guy on the left went for me, and I went wild. I stabbed my left hand at his throat, karate-chop style. I jabbed my right hand at his face, palm open, fingers clawing for his eyes. I jerked my right knee toward his groin, screaming at the top of my lungs.
I turned and lunged at the guy on the right, delivering the same chop-palm-knee combination. A score of bystanders encircled us, cheering. Then the lights came back on, and I heard the operatic voice of an ex-cop.
''Stop!'' he commanded.
I pulled up, panting, and surveyed my surroundings. I was in a second-floor room at a fitness club in South Nanuet, N.Y. The sidewalk was actually an exercise mat. My attackers were martial arts experts: an Army drill sergeant and a guard at a psychiatric center, both equipped with foam-padded shields. The ex-cop was John Perkins, 55, the master of a discipline called ki chuan do, and the cheering bystanders were my fellow students.
''Looks like we have a ringer,'' Master Perkins said, chuckling, as I stepped off the mat.
I was more startled by my performance than anyone else in the room. I had come to the ki chuan do class in executive pursuit of a self-defense method that suited a New York state of mind and a post-9/11 state of menace. I don't have exceptional physical strength. I don't have the time or the patience to learn complex disciplines like tae kwan do or karate. I wanted something relatively simple that I could use right away if need be, something that would work in a real life-or-death confrontation.
In ki chuan do, I found what I was after -- and then some. As Master Perkins noted, the meekest of people will fight furiously against an assailant who threatens a child or loved one. But even otherwise macho males are surprisingly reluctant to defend themselves. ''Most people come to martial arts looking for a sport,'' he said. ''Ki chuan do is not about sport. It's about unleashing your basic animal instincts in order to survive.''
Master Perkins had taught me the Jack Benny moves and inspired me to unleash my inner animal in less than half an hour. A pasta-loving 285-pounder with a gray beard, he looks more like Luciano Pavarotti than a martial arts guru. In fact, he's a part-time opera singer who served 22 years in law enforcement, including 6 years of street duty in Yonkers. He said he had participated in over 700 arrests and survived over 100 violent confrontations.
Master Perkins's students include police officers, armed services personnel, bouncers, bodyguards, bartenders, corporate executives and homemakers. He does not train them to become bullies. His primary motto is ''Confront No One.'' His first and foremost advice is to run away. ''The best defense for any type of strike is not to be there when the strike arrives,'' he notes in ''Attack Proof,'' a self-defense manual he wrote with Lt. Col. Al Ridenhour of the Marines and a ki chuan do expert, Matt Kovsky.
That said, Master Perkins unabashedly urges pupils to attack their attackers if caught in an unavoidable confrontation. His secondary motto is ''Anything Goes,'' including scratching, pinching, ripping, strangling, stomping and biting. ''There are lots of evil monsters out there, terrorists, drug addicts, psychopaths,'' he reminds. ''You never know who you're dealing with, and you never want to spar with them. You want to disable or kill them as quickly as possible, and then get away.''
Born and raised in upstate New York, Master Perkins has been training in martial arts since the age of 5. His father taught him the so-called close combat fighting system developed during World War II for American soldiers to use against Japanese soldiers schooled in jujitsu and karate. The elder Perkins, who was part Cherokee, also taught his son the nearly forgotten art of Native American ground fighting, which incorporates leg kicks along with knives, tomahawks, sticks and spears.
In 1978 Master Perkins starting teaching what he would call ki chuan do, which means ''the way of the spirit fist.'' Based on principles of balance and tactile sensitivity, it combines elements of hapkido, jujitsu, karate, tai chi, Native American ground fighting and cutthroat barroom brawling. He plans to rename the discipline ''Guided Chaos'' to reflect its home-grown American origins. Private lessons start at $200 an hour; group classes in Manhattan and Rockland County are $20 a person (www.attackproof.com). He says it takes about 12 hours of training for an average person to become reasonably proficient in self-defense.
What really distinguishes ki chuan do from other martial arts is its emphasis on constant motion and improvisation rather than on ritualized tactics and formal poses. Master Perkins says that the violent confrontations he dealt with on the job seldom lasted more than a few seconds, and almost all of them were chaotic hell storms. ''The bad guys don't follow a pre-choreographed script,'' he notes. ''Neither should you. The conscious mind is not fast enough to deal with a life-or-death fight. You have to let your subconscious take over.''
During the class, Master Perkins demonstrated why he refers to ki chuan do training as ''guided chaos.'' The guided aspects consisted mainly of bellicose yin-yang variations, receiving energy and delivering energy, yielding and striking. With the help of various warm-up exercises, he showed me how to make my body emulate water, alternately hardening like ice and softening like vapor. He told me to pretend I was a ''sponge with spikes,'' absorbing strikes by twisting and bending, then delivering strikes with precisely aimed force.
One of the most important guiding principles called for accompanying chops and punches with a move known as dropping. According to Master Perkins, dropping harnesses the forces of gravity and the big muscles of the legs through a rapid-fire flexing of the knees. He compared the feel of dropping to a spasmodic sneeze. ''We want you to deliver every strike as if you were sneezing through the strike,'' he said.
I saw these principles in chaotic action when Killeen Good, a 110-pound fitness trainer who has practiced ki chuan do for over 15 years, went up against the 225-pound drill sergeant who had earlier posed as one of my attackers. Ms. Good used a flurry of chops and kicks to batter her much bigger adversary's foam-padded shields, and send him staggering off the mat. ''I was attacked when I was in college, and I fell apart,'' she recalled. ''I said, 'This will never happen to me again.' When I get out on the mat I turn into a little Tasmanian devil.''
By the end of the class, the only reservations I had about ki chuan do concerned mistaking an innocent passer-by for an attacker. Once you unleash your animal instincts, your human target will probably suffer serious injury or worse. Master Perkins offered no resolution of this quandary other than common sense and caution. ''I have to be careful because it's possible to kill with a single blow,'' he said.
''Remember, the pen is mightier than the sword,'' I muttered half-jokingly.
''You're right,'' he replied. ''A sword's not as good in close combat fighting because you need to draw it back to use it effectively.''
With that, Master Perkins asked to borrow the pen I was holding. Then he jabbed the point toward my heart with a one-inch punch accompanied by a dropping move that resounded through the exercise room. Thank God he deliberately stopped short of contact, or I would not be here to tell this tale.