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Rolling In a Higher Presence:ATOS Hamilton and the Andre Galvao Seminar

Jiu-jitsu could be defined as a type of cult.  It involves charismatic leaders, evangelical participants, seminars, retreats, and a host of other traits that echo religions. But perhaps unlike cults, jiu-jitsu transforms its adherents into healthier, happier, more independent humans who tend to seek out positive interactions in the world around them. As the Andre Galvao seminar began at ATOS Hamilton, and he spoke about God and his glory, I could not help but recognize the positive aura that emanated from this world champion as he spoke about philosophy and the martial art he practices. While I follow no formalized religion at this point in my life, I value the positive words a person speaks when he so clearly has a faith that brings him joy. And so began a wonderful afternoon at a superb gym in Hamilton, Ontario.

On my jiu-jitsu journey, I have found that attending seminars offered at other gyms has been a unique way to learn new approaches to techniques, to meet outstanding practioners I might never meet otherwise, to spend moments with some of the art’s legends, and to train in a gi for an extended session. While they are not cheap, I do not mind supporting teachers and other gyms, especially when they are so kind as to open up a few spots for practioners outside of their own gym. ATOS Hamilton made a few such spots open for a short time, and thanks to my tattoo artist, Kyle, I was able to secure a spot for last Saturday’s three hour seminar. Seminars might seem expensive and so 1990s in the days of online training videos, but nothing replaces being around a group of practitioners who are also focused on both self-improvement and fostering an open community of learning. ATOS Hamilton was definitely a clean, attractive place to train. I was immediately welcomed at the door, signed the normal information waiver, and changed into my gi. Professor Galvo had arrived just moments before and was greeting his old friends.

What did we learn? Were all of the most lethal jiu-jitsu secrets revealed to initiates who ventured forth through the colds of a Canadian January? No. Yes. Maybe. While I am certain that Professor Galvao could have revealed profound truths, he chose for primarily focus on two specific techniques: moving from under the mount to  quarter guard to deep half guard to a sweep and the Kiss of the Dragon. For a three stripe white belt, like me, the first hour of work on the quarter guard sweep was perfect. Due to my age, short stature and heft, I tend to end up in this position if I cannot pressure my way to the top positions. The transitions were taught through chunking and repetition, but we were expected to move through the entire sequence versus working on the mount escape first. Given that most of the attendees were at least blue belts, the process made perfect sense. When I attend any seminar I always try to keep one technique point as my take-away, and this particular sequence would be that take-away, along with a Twister Hook from the back. The only challenge is that the sequence relies on wearing a gi or jacket with a grip for the sweep; I practice mostly no gi at Toronto No Gi. Still, it will be a sequence that I will practice and work into my gi game.

The Kiss of the Dragon? Definitely not a keeper for me. As a short-limbed person, the reverse del la Riva is not a guard I tend to play, granby rolls are not my strongest skill, and many of the transitions were difficult for a white belt to make. Waste of time? Not at all. Just because I cannot immediately use a sequence in my personal game does not mean that I should discard the learning; opponents will clearly use this technique. My partner and I  worked through possible defenses as we practiced, and it was during this technique that Professor Galvao came to offer his personal instruction to improve our transitions from the guard to the back. The key here, for me, was the setting of a Twister Hook with my right leg. I might not always be able to catch it due to the length of my shins, but when I can the hook will keep my opponent where I want him.

The learning process can be difficult and the learning curve steep in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. However, great instructors understand how to connect with students and communicate what corrections need to be made to adjust what you are doing to what you should be doing. Having a large swathe of upper belts at the seminar created a community of sharing that felt like each member was valued and key to the group’s development as a whole. Seeing black belts from other gyms come out to support ATOS Hamilton made it quite clear that Professor PJ O’Sullivan is well-respected within the larger network of academies, and while he left most of the speaking to Professor Galvao, he appeared to be running an excellent, inclusive academy. When so many young adults with killer skills show up to be part of a seminary like this, the professor must be doing many things right.

The second part of the seminar began after a much-needed water break. Professor Galvao entertained questions from two black belts and all of those questions led us into interesting stories from Galvao’s competitive life, his philosophy of competition and how difficult techniques like Worm Guard can be dealt with. His movements were adept and impressive when he took them up to full speed. Perhaps that is another amazing advantage of seeing a master in person: you can see how their actual movements must feel in real life.

The final part of the seminar was a 30 minute set of timed rolls with different members of the class. At 3 minutes each, these were a truly valuable collection of snapshots on classmate’s rolling techniques and games. While no one was going one hundred percent out, there was a lot of sweat created and many gasping bodies by the time rolls 7 and 8 came around. For me, I had the opportunity to roll with two white belts, four blue belts, two brown belts and a black belt. As the belts went higher, so did the level of techniques applied and the energy used by them decreased. I did have a few fights for my life with the blue and white belts, but everyone was careful not to injure each other and engage in a positive way. Hands were shaken and positive words of encouragement went around from all sides after each roll. My favorite comments were “You are either really strong or your beard has magical powers.” and being told that I had good pressure from the top. Hearing those little words of encouragement made my day, and keeps me working towards my blue belt with the understanding that I am getting closer and closer. I am always amazed that I could roll with nine people straight, not need to tap (except when my calf accidentally got tweaked while moving with the black belt), and feel really positive about my defensive skills. Fourteen months ago I would have tapped every time, multiple times, and I would have gassed out after four minutes. Given that most of my training at Toronto No Gi is without a gi, it feels good to know that my skill set transfers surprisingly well to the kimono and that once I add grips to my defense that I tend to do much better than when they are not available.

At the end of the day, I cannot say enough about how wonderful my overall experience was. Being a part of the bigger BJJ community is one of my personal goals for my journey. I want to meet the prophets of jiu-jitsu even if I may only rise to the status of an evangelist. Perhaps there are elements of a cult within the walls of any BJJ academy, but as I shared my time with one of those prophets, his disciples and a bunch of really cool individuals I knew that I had found my place to find peace and acceptance. Certainly, the paradox of learning to fight as my path towards peace appears odd to those who have never donned a gi and made it to the mats. I simply feel joy at experiencing the power of the light, even if my light is neither Christian, atheistic or individualistic. We could all use a little bit more of that light in our daily lives.

A special shout out to Joey Simoes for the use of his photography. I believe his daughter was training at the seminar, but he created a truly memorable collection of images from the day. As a professional photographer, myself, I know how hard it can be to move through the crowd collecting shots and wondering if anyone appreciates the effort. I do, and I am sure the whole crew appreciated having images accessible. Check him out and give him some likes on his Facebook page for the superb work he does within the community.

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