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In Brooklyn, a Roving Gym Is Building Muscle and Community

Pop Gym, a Brooklyn-based martial arts collective, is bringing self-defense to unexpected venues—and the vulnerable.
A brochure handed out by Pop Gym.

A brochure handed out by Pop Gym.

The Williamsburg branch of the Brooklyn Public Library is typically a quiet place, marked by tepid functions: book giveaways, résumé workshops, arts and crafts.

But on a recent autumn day, the space was filled with a concoction of distinctly louder din: the sounds of punching, kicking, and shouting. That might seem like a librarian's worst nightmare (or any person's, for that matter), but branch supervisor Catherine Skrzypek says it was a welcome change—and one she'd be happy to experience again. That's because the hubbub wasn't the result of any sort of real skirmish; it was the noise of a self-defense class.

The self-defense workshop at the Williamsburg library was one in a series of ongoing trainings led by Pop Gym, a Brooklyn-based collective of martial arts instructors who want to share their skills with the wider community. By putting on such trainings at unexpected locations, Pop Gyms hope to reach people who might not step foot into a martial arts studio—and especially those who may be affected by violence.

"It was important for us, from the get-go, to create a space that was different than the average mainstream, toxic-masculine gym," says Grey Cohen, a Pop Gym instructor and the collective's secretary.

As martial artists themselves, Cohen and Pop Gym's other instructors understood the value of self-defense but did not see many venues that were welcoming of the kinds of people who stood the most to gain from that knowledge: women, trans people, and other queer folks—all of whom face statistically higher chances of being victimized. Cohen says that need only became more pronounced following the election of Donald Trump, an event which inspired them to open Pop Gym in early 2017.

Almost two years later, Pop Gym has led around 200 workshops and trainings on self-defense, mixed martial arts, de-escalation, and yoga. In order to reach the diverse participants they set out to work with, the project's instructors have put on these events at a multitude of different spaces, from libraries to cafes, parks to schools, where members of the public are welcomed to join. While most of these workshops and trainings have been held in and around New York City, Pop Gym has also taken its work on the road, going so far as Europe on tour.

Aside from selecting unconventional venues, Pop Gym has also catered to diverse participants in other ways. Acknowledging that cost can often be a barrier to access, most of the events are free or only have a suggested donation. Programming has also been developed to blur the lines that often form around particular practices. Some of Pop Gym's wrestling workshops, for example, are limited to LGBT participants, while other events like "rage yoga" put a new spin on activities that might otherwise seem exclusionary—in this case pairing movement and stretching with punk, hip-hop, and metal soundtracks, rather than the culturally appropriated music frequently associated with yoga.

But perhaps the biggest difference in Pop Gym's approach to self-defense is the belief that these skills must be widely shared because true safety can only come with community—or, as Cohen says: "You fight for yourself so you can fight for others, and you fight for others—or others will fight for you—so you can fight for yourself."

This belief is not only distilled in Pop Gym's motto—"Strength in Ourselves, Strength in Our Communities"—but is present throughout its instructors' work. Bringing self-defense outside of its traditional confines within martial arts studios and gyms not only helps share those skills with others who might need them, it creates a community in which each member is closer to and better able to defend one another.

"I was impressed with how they sought to ground themselves in communities," says Skrzypek, the Williamsburg library supervisor, of Pop Gym. "I also liked their core belief that everyone, of any age or ability or identity, is entitled access to this type of training at no cost.... We had a variety of participants of different ages take part, and many spoke about how much fun they had and how empowered they felt afterwards."

In the long term, Pop Gym has always sought to create a permanent physical location in Brooklyn where it can offer free classes in an environment that is open and welcoming. While the challenges of New York real estate have thus far prevented this from being realized, it remains the goal. In the meantime, though, Pop Gym appears more than content to continue hosting workshops and trainings in and around the city, or wherever else the invitations come from. As Cohen puts it, "We love meeting people where they are at."