Jiu Jitsu, in 3 Acts
tHe JourNEy contInueS
What a two weeks it has been in the jiu jitsu journey. I’ve traveled across several state lines using all means of transportation and have trained with more people than I did in the first half of the year combined, it seems.
Act I: Girls in Gis (Manassa, VA)
Dominion is a beautiful school, with the softest mats that I have ever felt, and with extremely tall ceilings. They had a lounge area which would soon become a theme for all of the gyms that I visited. I went with three of my teammates to the event, and it was nice to have people there that I could socialize with before the event started.
I resolved to do a bit differently from the women’s camp at Princeton BJJ, which was a bit of disaster in terms of my personal mental bandwidth, since I was sleepy for most of the trip, always dehydrated, and starstruck to focus on the technique.
We learned a lot of complex techniques that are highlight-reel worthy and that fit perfectly into the game that I am developing at the moment. It made me realize just how connected jiu jitsu was in the sense that everyone was learning the same techniques, but it’s really in how you practice and drill it that makes the learning really stick.
I wanted to pay attention to each detail but as a result I found myself quite overwhelmed at the number of techniques being shown. Even though they were familiar and built on a foundation, I found myself striving to get every little detail down correctly. Since it was several hours before I could write down the technique, I felt anxious that the details would bleed out of my brain before I had the time to ingrain it into my subconscious. There was some downtime after the event that I could have used to journal down the techniques.
It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, from “The Little Prince”
When it came time to spar, I felt a certain pressure to roll against people my rank, and while I didn’t want to win against them, I also thought that I would gain much less if I went with beginners for the whole sparring portion. However, there is a strange thing that happens when two blue belts roll together at an event, especially if they are both females, due to the semi-limited number of opponents in one’s weight class that things inevitably get competitive. I could feel the intensity of the rounds change at several moments when people would get frustrated that something they did wasn’t working. Since I prefer to follow the pace of people in training, the changes in tempo were a bit jarring and uncomfortable, especially because I wasn’t going even close to 100%.
Overall, though, I felt comfortable having a plan to stick to in terms of my technique and game. Even though certain parts of the techniques failed and I wasn’t going against the most challenging people in the room, it was nice to not feel like I needed to win every round and to focus on gathering predictable responses to the system. I alternated with a blue belt and a white belt every other match, which I felt like really helped with my pacing and my sense of confidence in myself.
Act II: Mongrel Jiu Jitsu & Apex Jiu Jitsu (Richmond, VA)
I cannot remember the last time that I behaved so spontaneously, and yet the spontaneity felt so right. Margot, who is one of my jiu jitsu mentors, mentioned that she would be in Virginia the same week as Girls in Gis. Despite a personality that demands extensive planning and thinking, something awoke in me and I decided that I would take the first train down to Richmond and the last train out of Richmond, all on the same day.
I had never been to Richmond before then. I had no idea what I was doing except that I was going to pack two gis, go to an open mat at a school and then attend a class at a different school where Margot was teaching.
First up was the open mat at Mongrel Jiu Jitsu, which also had high ceilings and two water fountains. Since doing more situationals in normal training I’ve started to get more comfortable with the idea of failure and experimentation. That attitude certainly made the open mat that I visited a little less daunting, because I felt like if the training didn’t go well for me, I could avoid taking it personally.
The true value of this open mat was training with people who I typically wouldn’t train at the gym — a few scrambly white belt dudes; blue belts who were smaller or bigger than me; completely new white belts; and a handful of long-legged purple belts. I was impressed by the people who were there because they were welcoming and clearly knew how to have good training without hurting each other, and especially, without hurting visitors like me. Because the opponents were so unfamiliar, I found myself moving through a lot of different positions and being forced to make unconscious connections that I had not seen before. Having the confidence to take these risks even though I was in a new environment enhanced my training experience.
After a Lyft ride in which we had to flag down a toll booth operator because we didn’t have 6 cents to pay the entire fare, I found myself at a much smaller school called Apex. The two schools are unofficial sister schools and so I felt comfortable and could expect a healthy culture. I was right (and relieved).
This place did not have water fountains but they did offer free water (chilled, no less!) to all of the participants. Their ceiling was low but not too low and there were a lot of medals stapled to the walls. There was also two siblings sparring each other in the hour before the class began, in which the smaller yellow belt girl consistently and aggressively mounted her brother and armbarred him repeatedly while their dad (the owner) did not pay attention to them and was instead trying to do a backwards roll into a handstand.
Before the class began Margot’s gi pant drawstrings became lost in the void of her pants, and so, hyped up on an energy drink, she donned mismatching top and bottom and began doing the most intense, unique, and fanciful spinning warmup movements while the rest of us sat in awe watching her.
Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. — Susan Sontag from “Notes on ‘Camp’”
There were a lot of big dudes with those happy dad attitudes, and it felt very family friendly, even though the small kids spilled cracker crumbs everywhere in the small galley area and their dads were constantly shushing them during the technique. Margot taught a few guard pull tricks and I worked with a new beginner who wore a mask (nothing against wearing a mask, but no one else was) and had extremely sharp nails which I told her to cut. We played two movement games which cleared the air in the room and made everyone realize that we were all just awkward misfits who loved jiu jitsu.
I spent what seemed like an eternity flow rolling with Margot — it was electrifying and mystifying at the same time and the closest that I could get to a trancelike state for jiu jitsu. I felt very free in that moment and without judgement for my jiu jitsu even though most of it in retrospect was shrimping from the bottom and getting my back taken from what could be charitably described as a “berimbolo” but more accurately felt as “some weird dark magic wizard shit like expelliarmus.”
There was a lot of Beyonce and some Rihanna.
Act III: ADCC Camp, Kinda Sorta (10P Bethlehem, PA)
This was the second celebrity school that I been to since training at Unity Jiu Jitsu in New York City. 10P Bethlehem is decorated in the way I decorated my college dorm — with a lot of posters that essentially mapped out the life history of the school — but it was also almost like a museum to me. Grace Gundrum featured prominently in some of the memorabilia, including a face where she was photoshopped in a “Straight out of B Town” poster and a cartoon drawing of her as the “Silent Assassin.” There were flyers from 2002 advertising fights on neon colored paper and at least one, maybe two, pinball machines.
10P Bethlehem also had very soft mats, one water fountain and extremely high ceilings. This was their first ever ADCC camp designed to get the competitors ready to a highly prestigious grappling competition, but as I came to see, there were plenty of beginners and middle of the pack people (like me) there as well.
The space simultaneously gave me the vibe of a very fancy jiu jitsu school and a high school cafeteria/gym setting (it could have been the plastic picnic tables in the lobby and the tiled floors that did it for me). I felt like I was on a TV set. It was also located in the middle of NOWHERE PENNSYLVANIA which was an hour and a half drive away from the Amtrak station in Philly. Seeing where a jiu jitsu celebrity trained in such a humble city, away from the flashy cityscapes really made me realize that champions could be made anywhere and they did not need to come from fancy places that had skyscrapers or beaches. This is always a storyline that I hold onto, because while I don’t need to strive to be the very best overall, I can see that becoming really good is more about one’s training experience and not the environment they are in.
I was fortunate to feel well-rested for the camp since I arrived the night before, ate an extremely large bowl of ramen and slept almost ten hours before the camp started in the early afternoon. Still, being in such an overwhelmingly new environment with yet another huge group of strangers immediately felt draining to me. I think the nerves went away somewhat as we started to work on the technique and I could tell myself that I knew this stuff, this jiu jitsu thing, and that I could keep up with whatever they threw at us in terms of technique. That taught me something about myself — if I can find some familiarity in an unfamiliar situation, then I can adjust very quickly and adapt to the situation. If I let myself get overwhelmed, then I start to withdraw and become unfocused.
The part that was the most challenging about the camp was the lack of knowing whether training partners were going to be aggressive or not when sparring. No one wore ranked rashguards though I had a general sense of people once we bumped fists and engaged grips. I had a few people who I felt like were overwhelmingly on the defensive, and then a few people that made me feel like I was fighting for my life. Most of the rolls that I had were good exchanges of technique and I felt happy that I could let my ego relax a little to try the moves of the day, not freak out when I had my guard passed, and be extremely proactive about shaking off the rolls that were rough.
Overall the camp made me realize that I am both the same and different from the people who do jiu jitsu. There were a few people that I trained with that I could see myself from a few years ago, in that they really didn’t have a plan in mind and fell into a lot of the traps that I set up. And then the people who were aggressive and speedy kept me accountable in being more mindful of my grips, body positioning, and timing/transitions.
I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars. Jorge Luis Borges, from "The Garden of Forking Paths"
I made a lot of mature decisions to not be an asshole to certain partners and I think in the long run that sets me up for success to train (or compete) against these people later. Making this investment for myself and knowing that I chose the level of intensity with intention in most rounds means that I have evolved as a grappler that understands there is more to the art than ragdolling someone.
At the end of the day, it might not have looked like from the outside that I was doing well in some (most?) moments, or that I let some submissions and positions as I wandered down a different path, but I’m happy that my internal experience of rolling at a competitive camp was as focused and measured as it could have been. I walked away from the camp feeling like I’ve been injected with new techniques that I can play around with in training, and new avenues of research to ponder and absorb. To me this knowledge is more rich than knowing that I was “better” than this person or that, given that there is nowhere for me to expand at that endpoint.
You would think that at the end of this adventure there would be a great deal of depression that it has ended. Indeed the Amtrak that I am on is pulling into the last stops even as I wrap up this essay. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, but lately I feel more and more that jiu jitsu has become a more integrated part of my life and my identity. I no longer seek to push away the hard feelings that come with training and I let myself laugh more than once in a while now when I’m on the mats. It is this sense of wholeness, of understanding of myself, that makes me eager to wake up tomorrow and greet the world with whatever may come my way, jiu jitsu or not.
What I’ve learned is that there does not need to be separation between the gym and the life, which is what The Mental Arts has always tried to espouse, but what I’ve never truly felt, embodied or lived until very recently. The experiences of these past few weeks of highly concentrated jiu jitsu has reinforced the belief in me that as long as I continue to live, pay attention and appreciate all that is around me, that everything will turn out just fine.