Five months, thirty-two classes, and a lot of spandex have come and gone for me since I began my jiu-jitsu journey at Toronto No Gi. The path has been filled with chiropractor appointments and alternating powerlifting workouts in my basement, but it never finds me totally certain of what I am aspiring to conquer. I fill my free time with working on improving the quality of my health and my life for both the present and the future. I am not aiming to lose weight in a misguided effort to show off six-pack abs, but I do hope to improve my muscle to fat ratio if I can. If I cannot, then maybe a larger chest, shoulders and arms will make my waist look smaller, at least. Correcting a life’s worth of horrible posture and relieving a lower back pain that I could not shake is what got me on the road to wellness, but often the exercises and activities I rebuild my body with keep me in close contact with a massage therapist and my chiropractor. All of my steps are forward, but none of them are easy.
I probably think too much. Actually, I know I do. Brain in motion tends to stay in motion, and my brain is constantly in motion. So when I decided to reflect on why should I stay with jiu-jitsu classes when many of my classmates are half my age and two-thirds my mass, I had a lot to think about. I could go to judo or aikido to practice a martial art form that might be a little easier on my body and soul. I could just stick with the weights in my basement gym and not have to kill a few hours waiting around after work for class to begin. I could chill out in yoga classes, drink chai tea and ask if the tights I was wearing were too immodest. In the end, I could do a hell of a lot of things, but that jiu-jitsu chose me as much as I ever chose it; mutual attractions posit us in many more lifelong relationships than we ever choose to admit. Yeah, I am in. What next?
In the four classes since my last blog post, I have been learning how to feel my opponent and to let go of thinking about what I am going to do. No, there have not been drills to teach me this vital concept, specifically, but after struggling hard to fight my opponents on the mats I am inching towards feeling my opponents movements on the mats more. The metaphor of jiu-jitsu as a language resonated with me. A white belt is learning the words (submissions, escapes and survival techniques) in the first stages; I have been building a vocabulary of techniques, but like a new language learner I do not really know how “water” and “falafel” are going to convince the waiter to serve me dinner. The pronunciation is difficult. The meanings are obscure. People are disgusted with my accent when I try to impress them with my new learning. Tough times on the street for the foreigner.
Fortunately, a few kind souls listen to my babble, correct my pronunciation at the counter, and even give me a smile when they see that I have learned a new word. My jiu-jitsu is slowly developing into short strings of catch phrases that might feed me, let me buy new socks or even catch a cab home in a tight spot. I still cannot speak whole sentences, and it is too easy to become frustrated when surrounded by locals who have already mastered the language, and perhaps more easily due to youth, strength or natural talents. However, perseverance leads to competence, and the only action that has ever brought me success has been being present through failure even when those who are good fall by the wayside. I may not be on the mats three or four nights a week to roll, but I have made it consistently for two nights a week every week since November 11th.
My little victory: my first actual submission. Nothing big to anyone other than me, and while it represents no more than a momentary submission on an opponent of equal skill, the submission was a tiny trophy for my heart to know it was making progress. I fully expect to be smashed for many more months to come, every single time, but as I let my opponent sweep me I felt him move and felt myself pass a position where I could take his back, apply a lapel choke grip, feed it tighter into my monkey grip as I squeezed with my legs as a diversion, and then I finished a move that I had never been taught but found through instinct of all of the vowels and consent sounds I had listened to with each new class.
Maybe what excited me most was knowing that my opponent would learn from what I did and become stronger in our next meeting on the mats, and that he would defeat me momentarily and that in this way we would both grow into practitioners over time. Before that next moment, though, there will be many more hours drilling through the sweat and pains that I have come to love.