This Is the End


Markets, Risk and Human Interaction

July 16, 2011

Fifteen Years of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

If you read to the last chapter of my book, A Demon of Our Own Design, then you know that I like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). I have just passed the fifteen year mark of studying at the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York. During that time I have seen the academy grow from twenty or so students, most all beginners, to a thriving center with hundreds of students and a dozen world-class instructors, most of whom started their careers with Renzo and began studying jiu jitsu well after I did. I have had the opportunity to study with several of them (linked here to their respective academies) – Shawn Williams, Brian Glick, and the inimitable John Danaher – though through the combined limits of age, talent and time, my development has followed what might charitably be called a slow trajectory.

Here I am with Brian Glick (to my right) and John Danaher. (In case your wondering, I photoshopped out some stuff on the shirts).

Being over sixty, I am an anomaly; most of those who train are in their twenties and thirties. But I don't see why that should be the case. From a physical standpoint, BJJ is low impact. There are no sudden and explosive moves, there is time to adjust or, if things are not going right, to “tap out” and start over from a neutral position. Over the course of fifteen years, my worst injury has been a pulled hamstring. Though, granted, I have been careful to train with thoughtful and technical partners, something that I would encourage anyone to do who is past their physical prime.

BJJ also does not require speed or strength, (though of course both help, as does flexibility and muscle memory), and it provides what an “as seen on TV” testimonial would describe as a “full body workout”. BJJ particularly develops core strength and flexibility, and also develops body awareness. You have to sense what is where when you are intertwined like a pretzel or are rolling away from a move, as well as become aware of what parts of the body have to be engaged in any given situation and relax those parts of the body that do not in order to stave off exhaustion.

I have another theory about the physical benefits of BJJ. BJJ comes as close to mortal combat as just about anything we can do in modern society without having injury as inevitable. In live training, there is no holding back; none is necessary because the techniques have been developed with the objective of allowing such training. But the end point is a submission, typically by way of a choke hold or a joint lock. As I mentioned, you tap before sustaining an injury, but my hypothesis is that at a deeper level your body senses it is in danger and the result is a physiological response which maintains the body in a heightened state of physical capability.

Which gets to another value of BJJ. As anyone who has watched mixed martial arts knows, BJJ is an integral part of the competition. In the early days, before it became a part of everyone's arsenal, it dominated other approaches. Being on the ground neutralizes many components that would give the advantage to the stronger and faster opponent, and thus it maximizes the advantage of the one with the greater technical knowledge. By comparison, in standup fighting the edge gained through training and technique can only go so far. Witness the brawlers who still can work their way to the upper ranks in professional boxing.

Some people might roll their eyes when they hear the term “martial art”. But there is art – and science and intellectual play – in BJJ, though as with many other art forms, it may not be apparent to the untrained eye. BJJ is an art in the same way as is chess; the more one studies and becomes immersed, the more there is to appreciate in the moves and strategy. Because of this, BJJ can be engaging as a life-long pursuit.


  1. Great report. I would have liked to have trained under the Gracies but never had the opportunity.

    I have trained in Chinese internal and external arts for almost thirty years, as well as Philippine arnis. After I got "older" in my late fifties I focused on the internal arts, taiji, baqua and da cheng in particular, which are based on qigong (energy work), which is related to Traditional Chinese Medicine as well as Taoism. I had the good fortune to meet a great teacher. It really doesn't matter which art one adopts. The teacher means everything.

    You can work your butt off, but without good instruction and supervision, a lot of time is wasted in comparison. Fortunately, there are many real masters teaching in the US now in all disciplines. And one can start at any age in the internal arts. That's right any age. The internal martial arts are based on energy work and that is not physically taxing. It can be practiced independently of any martial aspects just for health and enjoyment. Most internal work also uses various forms of meditation, which form the basis of everything else, really.

    For those not interested in physical exercise and just wanting a simple and effective meditation practice that is easy and enjoyable, check out Transcendental Meditation.There's lots of peer reviewed research on the benefits. I learned TM in 1971 and later became a teacher. Along with martial arts and energy work, TM has been instrumental in my feeling great in my seventies.

    Look at it as an investment.

  2. My response is motivated, in part, by the mention of TM in one of the comments, though this is an interesting post for several reasons. One of which is that the directly-prior post mentioned 'love' (albeit, in the context of avatars) which might be considered antithetical to the context of the kick-butt message of the 'arts' (have they strayed from the metaphysical roots? which are what?). Granted, there are benefits beyond safety, such the 'health and enjoyment' ones mentioned, however is there more to look at?

    Such as, the activity allows for a teacher/student relationship; what does it teach about teaming? Mind you, as an autodidact, I see that being mentor-free is not an undesirable state (existential basis). We have too many teachers, to wit, the role that lobbyists have with politicians (essentially leading them around by their noses -- but, in the complex, modern world, the technical experts ought to rule -- trouble is, many lobbyists are not such experts). About teaming, perhaps a collection of self-aware, capable individuals is what we want, rather than the mindless followers that in ranks of legion upon legion.

    Has anyone tested how well a group of 'arts' trained people might demonstrate effectiveness (along what line?) as opposed to the natural follower? Yes, the focus would be construction, not destruction.

    Now, to economics. Competition in the context of the 'arts' implies rules, context, and more. Of course, there may be mayhem from time to time, but civilization requires stability. How is it that the economy (ca-pital-sino) is the choatic mess that it is? Can the discipline of the 'arts' be applied?

    Well, we do need to define and impose some type of sandbox in which the 'guys' who want to game (somehow, we have allowed a general idiocy to overlay our intelligence and have come to think that risk is to be rewarded) can have their days, in their ways, and consequential messes (which they then would have to clean up). Outside of the sandbox, we would have order, conservation of several things (see one response to Rick's next post - money based upon other than debt and Big Ben's largesse to banks), and progressive, incremental building of a strongly founded system.

    Competition ought not preclude cooperation. After all, there is always the larger. Except, these guys and gals (CEOs) who are reining over boundless organizations cannot see beyond their egos. How are we to reign them in with some economic equivalent of the Magna Carta? Of course, the idiocies of the politicos seem to have no bound, either. It is no wonder angst (real, existential, and otherwise) has hit an all-time high.

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  4. That's so very interesting! it's clear to me you've done a lot of research. Job well done Rick.

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