I should have seen it coming. After all, the warning signs were there: the sidelong looks and sniggers at work; my mother's "Oh my God, they'll kill you!"; and, most glaringly obvious of all, the name. How on earth did I manage to convince myself that kick-boxing wouldn't involve either kicking or boxing?
I think I'd confused it with t'ai chi, or qi gong – I'd imagined sedate, robed figures moving as one in a serene white studio, perhaps with the tinkle of wind chimes and a fountain in the background. All very Zen, all very Madonna. Hardly the sort of thing that would make me break into a sweat – and, considering I've always avoided any activity that involves even light perspiration, I was rather looking forward to the promise of effortless but highly fashionable exercise.
The alarm bells started ringing as soon as I entered Shoreditch's Paragon Kick-boxing and encountered a scene straight out of Rocky. This was no yogic nirvana – this was a gym in the Bronx. There were punchbags! There were lockers! There was an old guy called Eddy on the door! It smelt of rubber mats and hard work, and I felt very afraid. All of a sudden, I was back in Lower III PE, crying because I'd come off the wall bars. But it was too late to back out now. The beginners' class – looking reassuringly nervous – was already assembling in a large, low-ceilinged room with a boxing ring – a boxing ring! – in one corner. Dressed in rather crumpled T-shirt and baggy tracksuit bottoms, I was relieved to see that I didn't look too out of place – at least until I looked over at the advanced class, who seemed to have come with muscles. My white socks (verruca paranoia) were a good idea, I was told, as they would help protect my feet when kicking. "When kicking"? I pretended I'd misheard.
Instructor Thomas took his place at the front of the class, and proceedings began with a calm, low bow (this was more like it) and the Japanese word "osu" – pronounced "oos" – to show respect for the teacher and fellow lambs-to-the-slaughter. Although kick-boxing was born in 1970s America – developed by martial arts enthusiasts who didn't want to play by the rules any more – it hasn't quite turned its back on traditional Japanese decorum. Thomas was particularly respectful of the old ways, even if it sounded ridiculous ("Let's have a demonstration from Sensei Mark"), but fortunately there was very little jargon to come to terms with. In the early days, Paragon boss John Lawson explained, you had to know the names of the moves and how to count up to 10 in Japanese. After the hour that followed, I wasn't sure I could remember my own name, let alone a new vocabulary.
The warm-up seemed innocuous enough – stretching, bending, a few star jumps and press-ups, and lots of fast running on the spot – but when Thomas yelled "Keep those fists up!", I realised the martial part of the martial arts was coming into play. Pumping my legs up and down was all very well, but as soon as I tried to work in a few jabs and upper-cuts, my poor co-ordination (10 years playing rounders, never hit the ball) started to hold me back. Launching into a side-skip in a circle round the room, arms flailing helplessly, I was already out of breath. And there were still 55 minutes to go.
To prepare us for our first attempts at a kick, Thomas lined us up in front of the ballet-school bar. It seemed a surprisingly easy progression from swinging a leg from side to side to the roundhouse kick, for which you have to twist sideways and flick out in front with a pointed foot. Easy enough, that is, when holding tightly onto the bar. It's all in the balance – and so a good fighting stance is crucial. With knees bent, left foot forward, right heel raised slightly off the ground – "Keep your fists up!" yelled Thomas for the umpteenth time – I felt alert, springy, ready to take on any crouching tiger. But just in case the tiger bit back, ducking was the next lesson to learn. Thomas showed me how to keep my back straight while bending the knees, dodging his arm by leaning into a neat circle from left to right. Pairing off, one person swooped their arm from side to side at head height, while the other ducked. Contrary to my instincts, I was encouraged to get in close to my partner in order to tighten up the move and look less like someone trying to swat a fly.
Ducking mastered, we were instructed in how to move backwards and forwards, something that I didn't think needed much practice. But it turned out to be rather complicated, involving lifting the front foot forward and dragging the other along the floor behind, and vice versa to move backwards. Confused? I was. And before I knew it, the gloves were on, and the kicking and boxing was for real. To get us moving, Thomas put us back into pairs and had one partner run madly on the spot, jabbing into the other's raised gloves. I thought this was quite good fun until I teamed up with the single male in the class, and he nearly knocked me off my feet. "You're not running up and down on the spot," I said accusingly, just to get my revenge. "I can't do everything at once," he retorted, with a wounded look.
Those of us struggling to get our arms and legs in synch soon had even more to worry about, as Thomas introduced us to our first combination: left jab, right cross, duck, roundhouse kick. It sounded simple enough, but somehow I couldn't work out which part of me to move when. It wasn't much easier on the receiving end: parrying the punches was fine, but I could never remember to swing across to make my partner duck. The flowing moves of Sensei Mark obviously came from years of practice. And also from the fact that he had special kick-boxing foot protectors that looked like horseshoes. Gradually, however, the combinations started to come together, and I realised I was really enjoying myself. John Dawson's mantra may be "don't take out your bad day on everyone else", but there's no doubt that kick-boxing is great for stress relief. Just having to concentrate carefully on something other than work deadlines and the telephone bill leaves you feeling better.
"You'll feel it tomorrow," John warned us after we'd warmed down. "In fact, you'll feel it the day after tomorrow." I didn't know about the others, but I was feeling it already – my legs were wobbling so much I could hardly walk up the stairs. But nothing could have prepared me for the stiffness – which set in two days later on a Jubilee Line escalator – mainly in my knees (all that ducking) and legs. Still, while I've never been one for no pain, no gain, I'm looking forward to my next session. At least this time I know what I'm letting myself in for.
Learn the language
Usu: pronounced "oos", meaning "I am ready to take action"
Sensei: the polite term for your instructor
Roundhouse kick: twist at the waist, flick out the leg
Side kick: standing sideways on, extend the leg with flat foot
Jab: a straight punch to the head from your lead fist
Cross: a twisting punch across your body
Do and don't
Warm up and warm properly to avoid injury
Wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothes that won't restrict your movement
Keep your fists raised to your head at all times, even when kicking you're still vulnerable to attack
Concentrate on technique over strength, at least at first
Pretend you're Lara Croft or Jean-Claude van Damme and attempt complicated combinations
Forget to bow to your opponent at the beginning and end of your session. It's common courtesy
Use your opponent as a punchbag. This is a fine art, not "Fight Club"
Charlotte Edwards trained at Paragon Kickboxing, The Basement, 6 Boundary Street, London E2 7JE (020 7256 0990) www.paragonkickboxing.co.uk. Group classes cost £7 and last an hour; one-to-ones and smaller groups are available on request. It's best to call first for advice on what class would suit you.
For the official guide to kickboxing in the UK, go to www.wka.co.uk, home of the World Kickboxing Association.
If you're starting from scratch, try dipping into "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Kickboxing" by Guy Mezger and Karon Karter (Alpha, £13.99).
www.shihanryu.org/resources includes a glossary of Japanese fighting terms