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.