Three years ago – five months after moving cities and one week after quitting smoking cold turkey – I turned up at a mixed martial-arts gym in Melbourne for the free trial class I’d booked: Introduction to Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I am not naturally athletic and was sluggish and tired from changing jobs and cities. So I decided to give it a crack for reasons I’m still unsure about.
The first class consisted of various warm-up drills, which included hip escapes, where you scoot backwards on the floor down the mat, forward rolls (sort of like a somersault) and backwards rolls, where you roll over your shoulder. I was startled and embarrassed by my lack of coordination in these seemingly basic moves, but I was with lots of beginners, at least.
I had never felt so confused, embarrassed and out of sync with my body before, but by the end of the class, I felt the expansive excitement of having learned something.
I was going to have to come back to get the hang of this. As I watched the coach demonstrate a sweep effortlessly over and over again, the part of my brain that thought “I want to do that!” won out over the parts that were embarrassed and scared. That night, at home, I repeatedly googled “How to survive your first month of BJJ” and “What every new white belt should know”. I had to know.
Though the nerd vs jock trope is as old and tired as most clichés, as a book editor and poet I definitely over-identified as the nerd my whole life. But over time, jiu jitsu has sunk itself deep into my veins. After that first class, it soon became all I could think about.
To those outside, it can appear to be a cult. We wear funny-looking outfits (either a gi – jacket, pants and belt – or, for no-gi, spats and a tight-fitting rashguard). If you are friends with a BJJ practitioner, they’ve likely tried more than once to coax you to try a class at their gym. The sport was introduced to Australia in 1994, and interest in it has been on the rise lately. Figures are hard to come by, but it is estimated there are 15,000 practitioners in Australia today.
For the hooked, it seems obvious that everyone would love it if they just tried it. A popular meme doing the rounds lately goes like this: “Friend: What’s BJJ like? Me: It’s like Fight Club but you talk about it all the time.”
Every day you can be choked, arm barred, sat on with such force you cannot breathe, foot locked, kimura-d (an effective shoulder lock with almost mythological history). You don’t have to worry about being kicked or punched in the face. Instead, you could tear an anterior cruciate ligament, or even knee yourself in the nose. How could you not like that?
It’s a sport that is not easy to decipher for “outsiders”: watching a match can be confusing without a basic understanding of the positions. To unfunny, homophobic television writers from the early 2000s, it might even come across as, god-forbid, a little gay.
But it’s also a sport for all body shapes and sizes. The technical depths of jiu jitsu are vast and ever evolving, and there are as many styles as there are body types.
As a woman, it’s a refreshing ego boost to be able to pin a person to the ground, to embrace all your heaviness, or to be told you’re annoying (meaning you made it difficult for your training partner to implement their usual game). This doesn’t mean I’d automatically be able to beat up a man who attacks me on the street – the confidence of physical ability this sport provides goes hand in hand with a very good understanding of what bigger opponents can or cannot do.
It’s also a sport that centres on learning. As a clumsy 31-year-old, I am not quick to pick up new skills, but where I was once afraid of being seen failing, I have learned to embrace failure as the starting place for improvement. Learning jiu-jitsu made me less afraid of that vulnerable space we sit in when we don’t know much. This openness to being wrong is something I try to carry with me in all areas of my life – as a writer especially.