At the age of forty-two years most men have let go of the dream of getting better. My high school cohort is learning about fading eyesight, high blood pressure and a heavy body reality. Aging is a constant war or it is a lost battle; I choose to fight. I may die, but not today.In an effort to improve my fitness, health and mental peace I decided to take a far left and fulfill my dream of attaining a ranked belt in a martial art. I have tried tai chi, judo and karate, but I never felt those spaces to work for me. I always surrendered to the fear of pain, the awkwardness of learning, and the commitment it requires to grow in an area I am not naturally talented in. However, this year I shared with my students that my goal for the year was to accomplish a belt ranking in jiu-jitsu. Few things keep us as honest as modelling for children. I fully understand that I may not rank in a year’s time, or even in a few years, but it is a purposeful aim and it may inspire a whole class of 12 year olds to aspire for things just beyond their grasp, too.
I chose to try the martial art of jiu-jitsu based on proximity to my area, physical fitness opportunities and for practical self-defence techniques. I wanted to try a competitive sparring sport without striking kicks or punches. I decided to start with the no gi version of Brazilian jiu-jitsu that rids students of the Japanese kimono in favour of flashy compression uniforms called rash guards, which were originally used by surfers. The techniques I saw online looked like the type of wrestling I enjoyed as a kid when my brother and I would tumble on the ground as Batman and Superman. Perhaps there would be similar fun to be had doing the same thing thirty five years later.I decided to start my journey with Toronto No Gi, which is a small gym near my school. I have passed the gym for a few years, but had no real idea of what they did inside. With an email I was sent a link for a three week trial period for $49 plus a free gift. I figure I could squeeze three classes into that time period, and then I might try another gym before I committed. For clear business reasons, most gyms seem to sign student up on a yearly basis. Given the high attrition rate of students due to a few factors, gyms need to do this to guarantee the lights can stay on. The current cost per month is around $120, which is not cheap per class if one can only make it once a week. Financially, yoga, for instance, works differently as you can buy per class or pay for a 10 entry card, but jiu-jitsu is not yoga and it certainly has a much different clientele. Still, I can easily spend that much eating dinner with a few drinks on one night. Given the quality of the workout and that I am learning a new way of thinking about movement, I felt that the cost was reasonable, especially once I can make the time to go more than once more week. I should mention that this will be much easier once I know enough about technique to join more advanced classes, flow-rolling or gi classes. For now and the foreseeable future, however, once a week is where I am at.
Unlike many other activities, jiu-jitsu has a steep learning curve for participation, and that is what creates the super high attrition rate. Classes are a catch-22: to want to be there you need to learn basic skills, but you do not want to be there until you learn the basic skills. Honestly, it is a rough gauntlet to run through on any students first class. I felt like I was the kid on the ball team that no one wanted to play with because he was wasting people’s valuable training time because he did not know what to do. Emotionally we all want to belong, but to belong in jiu-jitsu you need to show you are going to be there next week and that the time your partners spend with you to help you develop will not be wasted. I did not get this at first, and my first class was a challenge on the heart strings.
Basically, a class starts with physical drills on the mats. These might include forward rolls, backward rolls, and this strange thing called shrimping. I wish that I could say that I could do any of these without looking like that kid we all felt bad for in gym class. I puffed and panted. I could not understand the movements. I got through it, but just barely. After drills comes the main skill movement of the class. Usually these are multi-part maneuvers that need to be broken down, built up and then practiced until the muscle memory kicks in. I felt stupid. I felt slow. I felt like running away. I stayed and completed my first class. I would never say my first class went well.
I felt pretty down. I did not go to my second week. I emailed my tattoo artist, Kyle, to ask about his experiences at another gym. He gave me really great advice, and admitted that jiu-jitsu is simply weird at first. He suggested other gyms to try, but he acknowledged that they all start out the same. When he finished the touch-ups on my Japanese sleeve, he talked about why he loved going to the gym and why he hated it. He talked about how hard his first year had been, but that it was worth the effort. His eyes lit up when he talked about rolling. I wanted that light, so I decided to try another gym. I contacted another place, set up a first class, and then went back to Toronto No Gi instead. I am not sure why, but I felt like I might fit in better there. People were nice and no gi seemed more like the style I was interested in.
My second class was exponentially better. Instructors remembered me and asked how my week was. I had practiced shrimping for the entire week previously after watching YouTube videos to help me understand the purpose and steps. We ran a bit during drills, and I could do that. Rolls had been practiced, so I could do that, too. When it came to the technique, I was fortunate enough to be matched in a pair with another new student and a more experienced, patient student. The time taken to explain what we were doing right and wrong made all the difference, as did getting to watch the other guy attempt the technique while I rested. I felt better about jiu-jitsu and was glad that I gave Toronto No Gi a second chance.
Problem: my three week trial period had ended and now I had to decide between committing to the year or walking away. I was definitely signing up. No, I was definitely done. Maybe I would. I must have changed my mind an infinite number of times. In the end, I decided to return for my third class. Perhaps I went because the owner sent a simple email asking about the Tuesday class I missed. I had not gone due to a terrible day dealing with a tear in the tread of my new Ducati’s rear tire, but in a city where people seldom take the time to even say hello, I appreciated his small effort as a business owner.
The third class was exponentially better again. I could shrimp and roll with decent skill, and while I still had no idea what I was trying to do I was given a great partner. By great I mean that he was not only patient with my incompetence, but he took the time to teach me what I needed to do. Yeah, he crushed the hell out of my right calf muscle for 45 minutes, but after rolling for that long, when the instructor told him to roll with someone his own skill level, he replied back with “What do you mean, this guy is awesome?” Clearly, he was being funny, but his little acknowledgment made me feel like the luckiest kid on the baseball team. I felt chosen; in Toronto that is a feeling few people get to experience in 2015.
I signed up for 12 months with Toronto No Gi. I felt pretty proud to get my white rashguard at the end of the class. I was beginning the first leg of my journey as a student of jiu-jitsu. I am in no rush to rise beyond my rank; I simply want to learn, roll and improve my health. My health is the key for me, and I can admit that wearing a super tight compression shirt makes you think twice about eating dessert or missing a workout in the home gym. Within three classes, I have changed my nightly routine to include more sleep, rolling on a mobility ball to release the tension in my back, and lifting traditional weights to gain strength. I even went to my doctor for an annual physical. This afternoon will be an Iyengar yoga class, and who knows what tomorrow will bring. I will have many more doubts and moments of questioning my commitment to jiu-jitsu, but as I remind my students at school: learning is difficult, but it is the one thing we can do to evolve our perception of the world we exist in at the moment of now. Learning allows us to define the possibilities of what to do with what remains after the other things just slip away.