Since April 2013 (with a month away due to a neck injury) I have been practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) at Street Sports in Santa Monica. I came into the school out-of-shape and ready to learn, and so far I am pleased with the results. Every martial art is unique and BJJ is no exception, but I definitely find it to my taste. Since I don’t keep a diary and have written nothing about BJJ since starting last year, I wanted to record my feelings about the practice at this point while I’m still a beginner but not a complete neophyte. So, in the way of reflection, here are the 10 reasons I like BJJ (in no particular order):
From reading and discussing it with others (as well as my experience learning Karate for a little while as a child), I find that the road to competence in jiu-jitsu is longer than in other martial arts. Anecdotally, many people who start out with BJJ end up dropping out after a few months. I didn’t expect this would happen to me and I have now been training for roughly eight months, have earned a stripe on my white belt…And still routinely get tossed around by others at my school. Why does this happen? Why is BJJ so hard? I think it’s because executing the techniques properly can be very nuanced. Small adjustment frequently make an enormous difference and knowing and remembering positions and techniques takes diligent practice. For months into my training I would leave class having little idea of what we learned. I still recall the accomplishment I felt when I could go home and repeat techniques I had learned that morning in my mind. It sounds like a small thing, but it signaled that I was finally consciously assimilating knowledge. That’s important because it meant I could then focus more intently on individual sticking points. To a great extent, I am still in that phase — becoming comfortable with the craft, learning the basics and practicing them class after class.
The difficulty of BJJ is what keeps me coming back. I don’t mind being beaten because then I can ask what I did wrong and try to avoid that next time. Plus, what would it say about BJJ or my school if I trained for a year and became the white belt who easily knocked around his betters? Nothing good. Simply put: I go because there’s always more to learn.
I hate the gym
It’s simple, I find traditional gyms boring. I’ve tried being a member of Bally’s thinking that a membership fee would motivate me. Not the case. Maybe if I had workout partners things would be different, but even then I don’t know. The activities are mundane and repetitive; you just lift for the sake of lifting, and run for the sake of running. If these things were fun, there would be something there, but they’re not. They’re tedious and mind-numbing. If there were no other way to workout, I would join a gym. Luckily, there is BJJ, which is a lot more stimulating.
This might seem strange at first glance, how could teamwork be a factor in a zero-sum game like one-on-one fighting? In fact, BJJ training could not happen without partners; it is a standard in BJJ schools that the middle of every class (after warm-ups and before free training) is devoted to learning technique. It is impossible (or very difficult in any case) to drill a technique alone or when someone is trying to maim you. That’s why attending a school with a pleasant atmosphere is so important; you’re going to be learning with these people more than you’re learning against them. It isn’t always easy to understand why a technique works, so being able to ask a knowledgeable and generous partner (or teacher) is critical.
Furthermore, let’s not delude ourselves in thinking that free training (the equivalent of sparring, alternatively called “rolling” in BJJ) is devoid of teamwork. When rolling with another student, you might be going at full strength but you are also doing everything you can to avoid injury to both parties. Likewise, sportsmanship plays a huge role in establishing your reputation at a school; if a student acts like a jerk, rolls without regard for her partner, or act like he has something to prove, no one will want to roll with that person. Where I train, I feel like the other students are my partners, like I am a member of the team. That we help each other is a vital element in BJJ, and one of the main reasons I stick around.
I have heard it mentioned over and over that BJJ is like chess. Indeed, strategy and tactics are bound to play a huge role in a practice with such an abundance of techniques and variables involved in applying those techniques. To top it off, every practitioner does things a little differently because of intangible factors like size and style…Or maybe they trained in a different school where the instructor had different ideas of what a technique should look like. Though I am often overwhelmed by them, I find the possibilities of BJJ inspiring. It is because of these possibilities that proponents of BJJ so often defeat much larger opponents. Size notwithstanding, the many options of jiu-jitsu allow a practitioner to be creative in developing a style of his own within the system, a practice that means constant evolution for the martial art as a whole, and hence more possibilities.
Grappling over striking
Most popular martial arts are about punching and kicking. BJJ, like wrestling, is all about body position, holds, sweeps, etc.; punching and kicking are not allowed. I can’t say how much effective grappling is as opposed to striking in a fight since I don’t frequent too many of those kinds of bars, but I can say that it’s generally considered more effective when you’re fighting in close quarters or on the ground. Personally, grappling over striking is a selling point for me not so much because of effectiveness but because it’s more fun. For example, don’t you agree that it’s jollier to get swept onto the mat then get punched in the jaw or kicked in the stomach? Sure, it’s no picnic to see stars because you were almost choked out before you tapped…It beats a black eye though.
Since the domination of Carlos Gracie Jr. in the early UFC tournaments, jiu-jitsu has taken a well-respected place among the fighting styles that are to be found in the world of mixed martial arts (MMA). Is this important to me? Not so much. Yet, it doesn’t hurt to go to YouTube and be able to see plenty of BJJ guys showing off their skills by whooping some unsuspecting opponent’s butt. Now, because I’m not a fighter, and have nothing to prove in the world of MMA or street fighting or anything of that nature, this reputation is mainly helpful as a motivator when I’m feeling less inclined to go to class (rarely). Naturally, if one spends an extended period of time working on something, it helps if that something is looked upon highly by practitioners of adjacent crafts. From my personal experience of having been successfully tied up by much smaller guys, it is obvious that the reasons for respecting BJJ is not just internet chatter.
According to MyFitnessPal, 75 minutes of BJJ burns approximately 1000 calories. I would say that that makes it worthwhile as a gym replacement, or supplement, or activity-that-allows-me-to-eat-more-muffins. All I know is that in the beginning I couldn’t make it all the way through the class. I would huff and puff, feel nauseous, and end up taking a seat (or sprawling on my back) near a wall in order to keep in my vomit. It took plenty of time for me to be able to make it through the whole class. Now I routinely stay afterwards to get an extra roll or three in before heading home to prepare for work. That means one of two things has happened: Either the classes have gotten easier or my stamina has improved.
I started doing BJJ because I was looking for a way to improve my health (i.e. exercise) that did not include “dying inside by going to gym”. My wife and I were walking down the street after dinner at The Counter and we passed Street Sports. I casually mentioned that I might want to do that; that it’d be exercise I might enjoy. She agreed. Then we went on our (much delayed) honeymoon to Japan and when I came back BJJ was still in my mind. And here I am, eight months later, training nearly every Tuesday and Thursday morning at 7am. Is it glorious to wake up at 6:15am? Yeah, right! I abhor having to pry myself from between the sheets. What’s glorious is getting to the school, getting tossed around, and leaving soaked with sweat and a sense of accomplishment.
Work at your own pace
I’ve read that it takes upwards of 16 years to get a black belt in BJJ. Of course, the time it takes depends on inherent talent, frequency and quality of training, staying injury-free, and many other variables. Many people at my school, however, of all levels say that they are planning to train in BJJ for the rest of their lives. There can be extremes; guys who train five days a week, go to seminars, participate in all the tournaments, basically live BJJ. Those guys can advance very quickly if they don’t burn out or hurt themselves (or both). On the other extreme is guys who have BJJ as a part of their fitness regimen, but aren’t very interested in progressing; they just like to come in occasionally for a roll. I like that there’s this variation.
Personally, I started BJJ for the exercise not intending to participate in anything but two or three classes a week. It doesn’t matter so much that I’m not the best at the school because I’m training as an amateur for fun and fitness. Blue belt? Purple belt? That’s so far into the future I don’t much think about it. Yet, despite my lack of ambition with regards to becoming a BJJ BEAST, I can’t say I’m not a little bit proud of receiving a stripe on my white belt. I know that though it doesn’t mean much in the big picture, it is a small acknowledgement from my teacher that I know a tiny bit more then I did before. The important thing for me is to keep training; it’s unlikely that I’ll ever be the five-days-a-week/two-times-a-day guy, but perhaps someday there’ll be a tournament in my future. Since I can work at my own pace, I shouldn’t rule anything out, right?
Though BJJ on its own is a sport and method of self-defense, there is also a lifestyle associated with it. I think everyone’s perception differs a bit on what the BJJ lifestyle is, for me its foundation is two points: First, as my teacher says “Here it is fun, the battle is out there…”; BJJ is a challenge, but it is also supposed to be enjoyable. Compared to life outside the school, rolling around on the mat is simple. During more difficult times, BJJ can be a refuge. Second, is the idea that a jiu-jitsu student structures his everyday choices in a way that reflect his desire to better his BJJ practice. A few moderate examples of that are maintaining a healthy diet, minimizing drug and alcohol intake, getting enough sleep, and exercising outside of class (see more here and here).
I’m not sure whether it has to do with BJJ or not, but I am slowly shifting towards a more healthy lifestyle. BJJ happened to be in the earliest part of that shift as now it is joined by eating a bit better and the occasional jog. A lot of people say that their confidence has improved because of martial arts training — it’s hard to say if that has happened for me. I’m definitely more confident specifically about studying jiu-jitsu; at the outset, I was a little nervous and even afraid of going to class. Frankly, I had little idea of what I was doing and that intensified the ever-present risk of injury. Through consistent practice, that fear has practically gone away. On the whole, my feeling is that the longer I practice BJJ, the more the philosophy of the art as a whole will permeate my life. It would be funky if someday I wrote a self-help BJJ book. If I do, you heard it here first.
BJJ is right around 100 years old so it is still possible to fairly easily get a sense of the enduring faces of the sport (especially with sites like BJJ Heroes). Likewise, it is possible to derive a lineage from the progenitors of BJJ to current black belts. For example, I train with Renato Magno, who was awarded a black belt from Rigan Machado, who got his black belt from Carlos Gracie Jr., who got his black belt from Carlos Gracie Sr. who helped invent BJJ after training with Mitsuyo Maeda. What does this all mean? To me it means that there was a somewhat distinct beginning to what I’m studying, and a potential to track down the trajectory of the art. More to the point, a lineage is just another way to say that a teacher is legit. Since belts in BJJ are awarded based on a teacher’s perception of a students progress (as opposed to a timeline or test), having a teacher who received his belt from a well-known practitioner is something of a legitimating force. Does it matter day to day? Not really. It’s just cool to know.
I’ve alluded to it several times above and I will mention it again: BJJ is a community. People who train and compete tend to know each other. That’s looking at the bigger picture, yet there’s not a whole lot of difference between that and down home at Street Sports. When I was still considering whether I wanted to train or not, I called ahead and went to check out a class. Without fail, everyone who came in greeted me, and many introduced themselves. That I was treated with respect even though I wasn’t a student yet was one of the major factors that contributed to me trying out a few sample classes. During those classes (and for a while after), Renato kept a close eye on me to make sure I was training safely and properly. More importantly, the other students accepted the beginner with grace — higher belts took me aside and showed me techniques, my rolling partners went easy on me, and no one looked down their nose at how frequently I was knackered during my early period. The respectful attitude of the school continues to this day, and now when someone new begins training, I follow suite and make them feel at home. A sense of camaraderie is essential when undertaking a challenging task, and I can emphatically say that BJJ has it in droves.
p.s. – For what was supposed to be a short list of 10 reasons I like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, this turned out to be quite a hunker. Nevertheless, I’m glad I wrote it. If you practice BJJ and have reasons to add, or have questions about the martial art, feel free to comment. If I don’t know the answer, I can likely refer you to someone who can help.