Self Defense classes seem to pop up all over. Some workplaces offer them, countless gyms and obviously martial arts dojos. Often they're even geared toward specific groups (i.e. "Self Defense for Moms," "Women's Self Defense," etc.). How do you sift through the marketing and various credentials and find a class that's right for you?
Keith Jennings of Forteza Martial Arts and Fitness offers his take, "my requirements for functional self-defense training include; 'does it focus on gross motor skills, and taking instinctual self preservation responses and build from it?' If not, it might be a fun martial arts class, and you will probably get a good workout and learn some cool stuff about different cultures, but you probably won't get any real world self-defense skills out of it."
Jennings makes a good point. A good workout is not necessarily what you'll get out of a self defense class. Most instructors will tell you that the first part of self defense is not to get into a bad situation in the first place. Don't go to a self defense class looking for a good sweat (although it may end up being a bi-product) but go to learn and listen. As Jennings pointed out, good self defense will base itself on self preservation instincts that we already have, so don't expect to be leaping around the room like Jackie Chan.
Krav Maga instructor Martin Pedata states that "self defense technique should be simple but effective and based upon techniques that have been 'battle tested' in real life situations." Self defense is not a sport and there are no points awarded. Krav Maga, which was specifically developed to teach Israeli recruits how to defend themselves and inflict significant damage to their opponents in a short amount of time.
Jim Conway, a U.S. Marine and martial artist breaks it down simply saying, "find an instructor who's lived through it. Period. Everything else is just supposition."
Martial artist Lance Cross elaborates a bit on Conway's basic principle with a colorful, but accurate example, "an awful lot of self defense has nothing to do with fighting techniques, ask mental ward orderlies about human toughness and what they do not to get their eyes bit out everyday, they see one hundred times more violence then anyone else."
It breaks down to this, ask yourself what you want out of a self defense class. If you're mostly looking for a workout and to learn some cool martial arts moves, perhaps you want to study a martial art instead. Although many martial arts have self defense aspects to them, they are for the most part sport arts. There are no rules in real life situations. Look for an instructor that will give you practical applications that are not complicated to learn. Often students will comment that most of their self defense classes were 'common sense,' which may be what it seems like since good self defense will build on survival instincts that you should already possess.
Finding an instructor who has applied their techniques in a high pressure situation will have the added ability to give you insight as to what worked for them, as well as what may have gone wrong.
Ignore the marketing groupings, basic self defense is for anyone.