This is me after my latest Brazilian jiu-jitsu, BJJ, class. I was exhausted and a bit beat up. Everyone I’d partnered with was larger than me. It was the first time I’d been in since my back procedure and it was a bit rough.
I started BJJ for a couple of reasons, largely centered around the idea that it would help me build both hard skills and a mindset that would be useful for self-defense. Among other things, BJJ is known as an effective grappling-based martial art for smaller people to employ against larger people because it’s largely technique- and leverage-based. That doesn’t mean strength doesn’t help, but it can neutralized by superior skill. Given how many attacks, particularly against women, involve someone putting their hands on the victim or knocking them to the ground (intentionally or accidentally), it seemed like a useful thing to learn. Besides, it specifically – above other martial arts – came so very highly recommended by so many people in the self-defense training community that it seemed worth at least trying out, especially because they encouraged me with the idea that even three or six months of training would give me enough knowledge to survive against many run-of-the-mill attacks.
BJJ involves a lot of “rolling,” which is a lot like sparring in other martial arts. We work against friendly opponents with real resistance and unpredictability, applying our strategies against someone who doesn’t want to cooperate and attempting to submit them or keep them from submitting us through chokes or joint locks. Because it’s so unstructured, you can end up rolling with people with more skill and experience than you, not to mention more mass and muscles. Part of the experience is learning to appropriately use the techniques and principles against all kinds of bodies and minds. I won’t lie…it can be super frustrating at times, when you feel like you’re weaker and more uncoordinated than everyone, and that amazing cardio conditioning you thought you had turns out to be not enough for the unique demands of grappling.
A student will inevitably end up in a poor position where they will be subject to a submission attempt, or they feel hopeless about what to try next anyway. The correct course of action in training is to “tap out” and surrender to restart and retry, or to continue struggling until they escape and even turn the tables on the other person. Of course, avoiding injury is best, but that very real risk is part of the mental challenge of jiu-jitsu: how to avoid even starting down the path that can lead to a submission? How to continue trying when it feels like the odds are against you? The lessons that results are invaluable. I’ve learned to prevent bigger, stronger people from submitting me or at least make them work hard for it. I’ve learned that even if I have to tap out, I can jump right back in and try again. I’ve learned that fights aren’t over nearly as early as I thought they were when I started. I’ve learned that no matter how hopeless I feel when a new technique is introduced, I can master the necessary skills and eventually even apply them without conscious thought.
The full-body experience of rolling also means that when I’m in it, nothing else can be at stake. Distraction, or even thinking too hard about what just happened or what I want to do next, is how to end up in a worse position than wherever you were before. Instead, I must focus on the here and now of surviving and dominating this fight, right here. It’s the present-mindedness of meditation, in a much more active and physical form and with the benefit of physical touch and bonding with others engaged in the same struggle. This practice of being in the moment, working towards your survival, is not only an essential part of making it through any kind of stressful, emergency situation step by arduous step, but also a skill that will improve the rest of your life as you let go of what was, and allow what will be to arrive when it does. In life, as in BJJ, that doesn’t mean you stop working to improve your position for the future, but it does mean that you worry more about where you’re at and what you’re doing right now, and have a little faith that that will set you up for later.
So yeah, I’ll be going back for more, yet again. Wanna join me?