Just So We Are Clear

“..(jiu jitsu) is to protect the individual, the older man, the weak, the child, the lady and the young woman from being dominanted and hurt by some bum because they don’t have the physical attributes to defend themselves. Like I never had. ” Helio Gracie


A lot of people have read my most recent blog post. I really appreciate this. I mostly write for me, because I enjoy it, because I feel passionate about something, because I need to get something off of my chest. But I am not going to lie, I love that people are reading it. What writer does not like to make people think, or at the very least, to entertain someone while they are bored at work, or on the bus, or in the bathroom. (Wherever you read is fine with me, I don't mind. We all read something in there!)

But this last post generated a lot of comments, and your comments made me think. What exactly did I mean by that blue belt post anyway? Was I just being funny? Am I more frustrated with my training than I thought? (I actually look forward to jiu-jitsu class now, that has to count for something right?)

I came up through the ranks in a very traditional karate school. But even more relevant, I trained in a dojo that took fighting very very seriously. My instructor was Shihan William Oliver, a man who was known throughout the martial arts world for revolutionizing sparring with acrobatic kicks and lighting fast punches. Our Friday night fight classes were NYC legend. In addition to the many champions that trained with us, black belts from other dojos would come up every week just for the opportunity to be in the same room with William Oliver.

These Friday night classes were a challenge, to say the least. Actually, they were brutal and terrifying. Not because the fighters were mean, on the contrary most of them were total sweethearts who would drink a beer and laugh with you for hours after class,  but because the sparring was at such a high level that if you were a lower belt it was all about survival. Ask any of us about those days and we speak of butterflies in our stomach at 5pm every Friday, ice baths, shin knots, sore ribs, fear. We also will tell you about the amazing feeling of accomplishment after each class was over, how good the first beer tastes, what it feels like to be able to call yourself a fighter. Because there is something to be said for surviving a war, for overcoming those kinds of obstacles.

And yet...

I do not pretend that those guys ever fought me even close to as hard as they fought each other. If they had I would not be here. But they hit me hard enough. And I wore those classes as a badge of honor for many many years. I was damn proud of being a fighter from Shihan Oliver's Upper Westside Dojo. I was damn proud to get a black belt from him. I still am.

And yet...

The problem with that kind of training is that you lose an awful lot of people along the way. Smaller people. People who are not great athletes. People who just don't think the bruises are worth it. I don't care whether you are a man or a woman, it is really hard to explain a black eye to your boss.

A class like that cannot last forever. As the years went by, the warriors got older and newer ones took their place. The class became a bit less scary. But now there were other people in the dojo. More women joined. Older students. Students with disabilities. They all took sparring but no one expected them to knock anyone out. And that was ok. They were still learning karate. They were getting stronger, building self confidence. They were still martial artists, each in their own way.

Our instructor passed away in 2004, but our dojo still has a Friday night sparring class. We have some really really good fighters, big scary athletic guys and one killer yellow belt woman. We also have brand new white belts and mothers of small children. We are trying to create a sparring environment that still offers the physical challenges of the old days but is accessible to all. It is not easy.

I think my biggest struggle in jiu jitsu is that it is based so much on sparring. Like one of my classmates said in his response to my last post, there is no solitary practice, no katas, no individual drills. You learn the moves slowly but ultimately your best gauge of success is how well you do while rolling with your peers. Who do you submit? Who do you sweep? Who is beating you? When everyone is bigger than you or more experienced than you it takes even longer to start winning. You have to take comfort in small successes. But what if it is too frustrating for some people? What if they quit before they get there? Then they will never get to see how rewarding the art of jiu jitsu can be.

I love the intricacies of the moves in jiu jitsu. I love how complicated the strategy can get, how at the advanced levels it all just seems to flow like water. The higher belts who have impressed me most are the ones who are so knowledgeable yet so relaxed they can submit me while napping. Of course, if I said I was not a competitive person I'd be lying. I like to win just as much as the next gal. I get super excited whenever I catch someone with something.  But it is more about the accomplishment of getting a move right than about beating someone else.  I don't plan on competing in any tournaments. I just want to improve, in my own slow, meandering way, until I feel like I finally "get" jiu jitsu. I am fine with this.

Where is my yardstick anyway? Do I really have to beat everyone in the room to know I have been successful?

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