Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has boomed out of obscurity in the last few years. Once just another fringe brand of martial arts like Capoeira or Sambo, it gained popularity when exhibited through UFC bouts and now is practiced by celebrities like Nicolas Cage, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, as well as dozens of others. Millions around the world now practice the art and swear by it as the ultimate sport for building confidence, self-defense, and health. But what is it? And why is it important? I was determined to find out!
Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, or BJJ, has its roots in Japan, stemming from judo. Judo is mainly a standing sport that involves wrestling with your opponent until you can flip, throw, or take them down to the ground. The Gracie and Machado families of Brazil, taking what they learned from judo, expanded the sport to a more complex system is not just taking down your opponent but moves to do once they are on the ground. This involved adding an endless new assortment of joint locks, chokes, and ground maneuvering.
There’s a common saying in BJJ, “ The hardest part is walking through that door.” That statement holds a lot of truth, as entering the sport is an intimidating steep climb. When I walked into a BJJ gym for the first time, I almost scurried out. About a dozen bearded, burly, and large men in spandex were rolling around on the ground, sweating, looking they wanted to kill each other. It looked vigorous and complicated like two men were playing an acrobatic chess match with their appendages. BJJ is very raw, as practicing the sport means pairing off with a partner and drilling immediately with close contact and often involving heavy force. Even with wrestling in high school and being generally outgoing, I felt quite uncomfortable during my class. I rarely come in close contact with people but was suddenly thrust into practicing chokes on a stranger. There were a series of individual drills that required immense flexibility and agility which I could barely complete. I felt like I was learning to walk again. I left defeated.
That brings me to the first lesson in BJJ. Humility is key. People who walk in like tough guys and think they know everything get chewed up and spit out. One of the key draws BJJ sells on is no matter what size or strength level you are, you can defeat your opponent. Once you are on the ground, the playing field is leveled. We all have the same airway and joints which are generally weak and can be forced upon. I am 200 pounds but there were advanced practitioners who were 120 pounds who could easily get me to submit. The best attitude to have when exploring this martial art is coming to terms that you know nothing but are willing to learn.
If you are interested in trying it out, be aware there are two types of BJJ, Gi, and No-Gi. The Gi is much like a karate type outfit which is your opponent can grab onto in order to manipulate your body and perform throws, chokes, and submissions. No-Gi gets rid of the outfit so there's not much to hold onto. It’s almost an entirely different sport since the submissions and maneuvering lack the control of grabbing onto the Gi, which makes it much faster and chaotic. While I tried both, I did mostly No-Gi.
There’s a magical aspect of this sport, as you discover what you are made of by exploring the extremes. When you watch two experienced people grapple at the highest level grapple, it’s barely even sports anymore, it looks like art. The infinite possibilities that two bodies can twist around each other are astounding and what you are capable of becomes increasingly explored. Despite the patience and openness of coaches, every bit of it is challenging and feels unnatural. It’s not just a sport, it’s a complete rewiring of your mind and body. The drills and sparring are more than two brutes trying to kill each other, it forces you to constantly adapt and use every inch of your being to crush any obstacle before you like you never have before.
Many months into practicing BJJ, I saw the appeal. When you wrestle people to the ground and try to choke each other out, other problems get muted. Less bothers you. You get as calm as a cat, deadly but still. When issues arise, you learn that you can fight through it. While there’s anxiety involved with pushing past your comfort zone, there’s even more anxiety relief that you are actively surpassing it.
One other main draw for BJJ is the brotherhood. The way I described how difficult it is may scare most people away, but the sense of community in the sport is unmatched and can facilitate the turbulence in learning its complexity. When you arrive, it’s often like joining a cult. Everyone is very nice and tries to help you as much as possible, which can ease the violent nature of the sport. Training in the sport relies heavily on trust, using the “tap” system, where pain or discomfort in sparring comes to be too much, you can simply tap three times and they will let go. Without this trust, the sport would be nothing. The privilege of practicing deadly chokes and locks on each other with assurance really can forge a deep relationship with the people you train with. Most people call BJJ members in their gym family after all the wars they participate in each other, all under goodwill and sportsmanship.
So, you may be thinking, sounds like it was tough but pretty beneficial, so why did you quit? BJJ is a lifestyle that requires a hefty commitment. To gain skill in the sport, you need to be able to put a lot of time in, at least three times a week. While practicing BJJ, I was also an avid runner, running 40–50 miles a week to train for marathon and ultras. Ultimately, I couldn't fit the training for both in and just found to be more suited to running more. With running, I can run alone or with people, anywhere and anytime, whenever I felt like it which I felt fit for me better. Also, I was having a lot better success in my running, surpassing a lot of PR’s and achievements within the year, whereas with BJJ it felt I had barely scratched the service within the year.
Key Takeaway: If you’ve been feeling anxious, weak, looking for a change, or beat-down for a while now, I suggest you try BJJ. It’s hardly even a sport, but much more of a lifestyle. By facing discomfort and adversity, it will make you more resilient, strong, healthy, fit, and level-headed. You just need to ask yourself… are you willing to commit to something larger than yourself? If the answer is yes, I suggest exploring this option.