I Have to Take Three Months Off. Fuck.

110308-N-7491B-039So, I’ve spent my entire life thinking that I’m just not very good at breathing or smelling things? Like those are just skills I never acquired. It probably says something about my sense of self that I assumed breathing and smelling were skills and I was bad at them. But that’s for sure another story for another day.

It turns out that I hadn’t just failed to learn how to breathe. I had a pretty severely deviated septum that no one had noticed before. (Shout out my sleep doctor for noticing that I sounded congested 100% of the time.) Anyway, on July 13 I had my septum repaired. On a scale of 1-10, it sucked profoundly.

I somehow got it in my head that I would be off BJJ three weeks. That is at least in part because I WANTED to have that in my head, and didn’t really get clarification from my surgeon about when I could go back. Thankfully, a concerned friend looked it up for me.

Three months off contact sports. Minimum. If I don’t want my septum to re-deviate and to have to do this all again.

This is going to suck so much.

The Gym is a Community

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(Courtesy Toronto BJJ/Facebook)

One of the really amazing things about Brazilian jiu-jitsu is the people you meet.

In big cities, we tend to select our tribe. We find people who are like us, and we stick together. To look at us, my core group of friends seems pretty diverse. And in terms of of ethnicity and sexuality, it is. But in other ways, we’re remarkably homogenous. We’re all somewhere between our late 20s and early 40s, with the bulk of us being in and around 35. Most of us are childless. Most of us work in either “creative fields” or tech. Our politics range from centre-left liberalism to Anarcho-socialism. No one is especially religious.

My gym friends, on the other hand include evangelical Christians, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, electricians, lawyers, bouncers, students, traditional conservatives, labour union leftists and a weirdly high number of libertarians. They come from Poland and Portugal and Jamaica and Costa Rica and Korea and Israel and Somalia, and of course, Brazil. They also include people from across Canada, from Vancouver Island to Manitoulin Island to Nova Scotia. More than half of them are parents. Most of their kids train, too. They range in age from 16 to their mid-50s. It is a truly staggering cross-section of humanity.

And we all manage to get along, because we have this one thing in common. And we do talk about other things, and we do disagree about them, but we manage to not go off on each other, because it’s hard to other someone who showed you how to do a forward roll guard pass, or helped you come back from injury, or who’s kid you kept from wandering out of the changeroom without pants on. Sometimes we even manage to change each other’s minds about things.

When I was coming back from my recent toe injury, I wasn’t super into training. It felt like a struggle. It still does, a bit. But what keeps me going is the community. I miss the gang if I don’t see them for a week. They’ve become my friends, and new friends are hard to make as an adult.

Training Diary: Sometimes a Good Roll is Enough

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Triangles, man. (Martial Arts Nomad/CC/Flickr)

Hey! So this is actually a post I wrote 90% of a couple weeks ago and never bothered to finish because I’ve been working an actual go-to-it job while also freelancing, and also having an Olympic-calibre summer cold. (I met with a client feeling like my eyeballs were boiling in my skull.)

Anyway, reading the mostly-finished post I decided I was still feeling those feels, so I finished it.

So, my first training back from injury, toe buddy taped and all, wasn’t what I wanted it to be. I struggled tremendously. Not only was I a little [more] out of shape [than usual], but it was all lasso guard and spider guard and triangles.

I have short legs and almost zero hip flexibility and sub-par core strength. Lasso and spider are guards that don’t really work for me as a result. Triangles are a pretty BJJ 101 thing that I should be better at, but I’ll really only try for one if my opponent is just kind of handing it to me, and even then, I probably won’t finish it in time.

It was mega frustrating.

But then at the end of the class, I rolled with a higher belt. He’s an older dude, by the relative standards of the gym—maybe 10 years older than me?—and he’s just started teaching kids and white belts. He has a real mellow demeanour. He immediately puts you at ease. Now, that mellow demeanour doesn’t mean he didn’t arm bar me three times in six minutes or something, but we were laughing while it happened, and he took the time to show me how he was catching me over and over again.

It was really nice. It made struggling through an hour of lasso and spider guard worthwhile. That’s why I do this.

This Isn’t Fun at All

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Why am I even doing this? I could be at home filling up on injera and watching this guy. 

Right now I’m at a place where training isn’t especially enjoyable. I look at the clock a lot during class, and it moves really, really slowly. I go through phases like this, especially when I’m coming back from injury, or when I’m depressed, or when my anxiety is especially bad.

Everything is hard. My body won’t do what I want it to, even more than usual. Everyone around me is kind of getting on my nerves. Rolling feels like I’m being punished for something.

If I’m having an especially hard time, you might catch me cursing under my breath a lot and questioning why I’m there and why I do this voluntarily, “for fun.” Because it’s not fun right now. You know what’s fun? Watching wrestling and eating Ethiopian food.

So why AM I doing this? I could be at home with tibs and Lucha Underground. Instead I’m drilling double leg defences.

Because I always feel better after.

No matter how much I hate it while it’s happening, I always feel better after. Going when I don’t want to go is like a gift to future me. But not even far future me. Like 90 minutes from now me.

That knowledge, that I’m going to be happier later, is enough.

It’s Injury Time Again

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Not my toe, but not unlike what my toe looked like last week. (Tony/Flickr/CC)

When I started this blog a few months ago, I was struggling to return to BJJ after being injured. Now, I’m working on re-imagining it, turning it from a night school project into a thing I’m just doing as part of my life and training. And as per the circle of life, I’m injured again.

Now, it’s not nearly as bad as last time. Last time I had a head injury, which are scary and can be disorienting and leave you messed up for weeks. This time I have a broken toe, which is mostly just a pain in my ass.

(An aside, do you know that for a broken toe all they can do is tape it to another toe? It’s called “buddy taping.” Because your toe has a friend that makes things less painful. How emotionally resonant is that?)

Anyway, every time I get injured, people question why I do Brazilian jiu-jitsu. This is sort of a subset of the response I get to telling people I do BJJ in general, which is “Why would a seemingly sane man in his 30s who is, to put it diplomatically, clearly not a natural athlete, take up a sport where you fight people?” People think I’m trying to prove something, or have some sort of issue I’m trying to work through. And for sure, they aren’t totally wrong. There are a lot of psychological issues that I’m working through that BJJ helps me with: my anxiety, my depression, the sense of helplessness that comes with those things, my feelings of not being “enough.”

But those are all side benefits I discovered after I started training. Mostly I’m just trying to get some exercise.

“But why this exercise? Why couldn’t you do something more reasonable, like running?”

And this is where I start to get annoyed. Because I have some people I love dearly who are runners, and I would never shit on someone else’s preferred form of exercise, but the idea that running is somehow a saner, more reasonable workout than jiu-jitsu is garbage.

Runners are prone to everything from plantar fasciitis to torn glutes. (No, that really happened to a friend of mine mid-marathon. That’s real.) They damage their knees and hips and ankles and then claim that those stupid toe shoes will fix things. Runners have a bizzarro culture in which pain is just a thing you “push through,” and finish your marathon, torn glute and all. The only reason running is considered “reasonable” exercise” is that a) it’s of our culture, so people are used to it and b) it doesn’t LOOK as unsettling as people grappling. (I’m not saying that North Americans invented running, that’s stupid. I’m just saying it’s thoroughly integrated into our culture.) In reality, slamming your feet down on concrete for dozens of kilometres a week is no more or less reasonable than rolling around with your friend trying to catch an armbar.

All exercise has a risk of injury attached to it. Running, BJJ, skiing, yoga, “the gym,” all of them have risks. So does crossing the street. But the greater risk comes from not exercising at all. Exercise is good for you. It makes your life better. And occasionally being banged up is a totally reasonable price of admission for the overall benefits.

(And I want to head this off at the pass, I’m not talking about weight here. I’m talking about metabolic and mental health. There’s not a one-to-one relationship between metabolic health and weight. Also, one of the best BJJ players at my gym has a gut not unlike mine, but is fast and strong and technical as balls, and could for sure armbar every fitness guru out there. Corey, if you’re reading this, you’re my hero, guy.)

Injuries happen, but finding the activity that keeps you healthy and sane is priceless, even if none of your friends understand it.

 

It’s Been a Long Time. Shouldn’t Have Left You…

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(Martial Arts Nomad/CC/Flickr)

As the three or four regular readers of this blog know, I started it as a project for a night school class. (This class, if you were wondering. Cannot recommend it highly enough if you’re interested.)

After the class ended, I took a couple weeks to decide if I wanted to keep it going. Because frankly I have a bad history with starting blogs and not keeping them up, and I didn’t know if I wanted to add another one to the Chris Dart Blog Graveyard.

But then I realized that this blog has kind of given me the creative outlet I haven’t had in a long time, so I decided to keep it going. It’s weird, or maybe it’s not, but since I write for a living, I do almost zero writing for myself. Once I’m done work, I don’t actually want to write at all. This is for sure one of the downsides of following your passion. The other big one is unpredictable income. But that is not about BJJ, and another story for another day.

The other thing is, this blog has changed how I train. I’m more aware of what I’m doing and what’s going on. I’m paying closer attention to not only the techniques I’m learning, but also how I’m reacting the learning process. My mindset is different. If I get frustrated or upset or down on myself on the mat, I take the time to think about why that’s happening.

So the blog will continue.

Also, I want to put it out there. What do you, all four of you. want to see here? More Humans of BJJ? More training diaries where I talk about feelings? Do you want me to start talking about gear and gis and rashguards? Do you want BJJ history? Let me know.

Because I have no idea what I’m doing from here on out.

 

That Other Time I Tried BJJ

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(Martial Arts Nomad/Flickr/CC)

In March of 2015, I took the plunge and, after much deliberation and almost a year of kickboxing at the same gym, tried BJJ for the first time. And I never looked back. That’s the narrative I put out there in this blog and when I talk about BJJ to people I know.

But like most of us, I tend to want to sand the rough edges off my stories. I want my life to have a logical narrative arc.

The truth is, I absolutely looked back. I spent the first year of my BJJ life debating whether or not I wanted to do this, avoiding class for weeks at a time, and generally questioning my life choices. I think most people who aren’t natural athletes feel like this. This is a hard sport, and unless you’re a wrestler or a judoka, it’s going to be unlike anything you’ve done before.

But also, that wasn’t the first time I tried BJJ. The first time I tried BJJ was in early 2011. I had just gotten out of a six year, marriage-track relationship. I had also just turned 30, and was completely convinced that my opportunity to make something out of myself had passed. Oh, and I was drinking a lot. Like a lot. Like an amount that, in retrospect, seems almost unfathomable.

I was watching UFC at a Tibetan restaurant in Parkdale that also occasionally doubled as a sports bar. (Early-stage gentrification Parkdale was a weird place.) I watched as young up-and-comer Jon Jones submitted Ryan Bader, and the crowd inside the restaurant got up and cheered. And I thought to myself “I should learn how to do that.” I might have actually said it out loud to no one in particular. The details are foggy.

Two weeks later, I went to a BJJ school near Yonge and Bloor. It wasn’t particularly near my house or my job, but it was on the subway and people seemed to speak highly of it. I don’t remember the particulars of the class, except that I trained in gym clothes because they didn’t have loaner gis, and that we were working some kind of submission from side control. Maybe Kimuras? I think it was Kimuras. I was a little overwhelmed by the fact that newcomers were just thrown into the stream of things and expected to “get it,” but my training parter was a blue belt and pretty nice. He helped me along. I felt good. Sore, but good. I thought this might be for me.

On the way out, the school employee I had spoken to earlier pulled me aside, and began to launch into one of the most high pressure sales pitches I’ve ever had put on me. Like the sort of high pressure sales pitch that I think is now illegal in Ontario. He laid out a very complex series of pricing packages very quickly, then threw in a bunch of discounts that were only available then and there. I immediately felt very overwhelmed and tried to walk away. He followed me, explaining that if I came back tomorrow, it would be more expensive. I didn’t go back.

About a week later, I went to another school, this one closer to where I lived at the time. The instructor seemed nice enough, not necessarily welcoming, but certainly polite enough. He helped me figure out hip escapes in the warm-up. Once again, I was in gym clothes and kind of thrown in at the deep end. Unlike the first gym though, no one was nice. Everyone seemed to have a story about using something they’d learned in class on the street. A disproportionately high number of people seemed to be bouncers. I rolled with someone who didn’t seem to entirely respect when I tapped. It was a bad time.

I went back for a couple more classes, because there were things I enjoyed—the figuring stuff out, the pushing my body—but every time I left, I wound up feeling like I’d hurt something. And the more I heard about people choking people outside of bars, the less i wanted to be there.

So I decided BJJ wasn’t for me.

Some years later, my partner suggested I take up kickboxing, because a lack of exercise was making me weird. I wound up taking kickboxing at what was primarily a BJJ gym, because it was across from my house. After a year of enviously looking at the BJJ students, who seemed to have a great community of weirdos, I decided to give BJJ one last try.

I’m so happy I did.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d found the school I’m at now back in 2011. And I’m not sure what the answer is. I might have stuck with it, but I was having trouble committing to or enjoying anything. BJJ might have just been another thing I burned out on. Maybe I found the right school when I was ready for it?

Training Diary: We Need to Talk About Ginastica Natural

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Alvaro and Raphael Romano doing some Ginastica on the beach in Rio. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Every so often, I go to train BJJ, and either because I really want to push myself more than usual—or, more likely, because I’ve forgotten what day it is—I wind up training Ginastica Natural instead.

So, what’s Ginastica Natural? Great question. The easiest answer is that it’s like what would happen if Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and yoga had a baby, and that baby was a bit bonkers. It takes a lot of the jiu-jitsu movements, and works them into sort of a yoga-like series of poses, with a yoga-like focus on breathing. For me, it’s like yoga in that I’m usually losing my balance and two moves behind everyone else, and like BJJ in that I’m almost immediately very tired and medium confused. It also takes a lot of the things I’m good at in BJJ—physical strength and a good ability to read people—and throws them right out the window.

(If you actually want to learn more about the history of Ginastica Natural, go here. Alvaro Romano is the inventor of Ginastica Natural, a Gracie black belt, and a guy who seems to know a lot of things about the human body.)

The first time I trained Ginastica Natural, I kind of hated it. I spent most of the flopping around like a fish on land, hoping it would all be over soon. After I got over the initial burning embarrassment, though, I realized it could be a really helpful tool in my quest to get better at jiu-jitsu. It highlighted some real weak spots—flexibility, mobility, breathing—and gave me a tool to help fix that. And so over time, I’ve grown to have a respect and understanding of Ginastica. Do I like it? No, not really. Do I understand why it’s important if I want to get better at BJJ? For sure.

But also, maybe it’s growing on me.

Last Friday, I went to a class that was a mix of Ginastica and BJJ. A quick warm-up, about 40 minutes of BJJ, and two rolls. And it felt amazing. The Ginastica was just short enough that I didn’t start to think “please let this be over soon,” and the rolls were amazing. I was aware of my body, I was calm and focused and present, and my breathing was great. I was fully Ginasticaed while doing BJJ. I think that’s how this is supposed to work?

 

Humans of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: Leah Von Zuben

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Leah Von Zuben with coaches Jason Lancucki (in black) and Paul Zenchuck. (Courtesy Leah Von Zuben)

One of the great things about Brazilian jiu-jitsu is that it’s allowed me to meet all types of amazing people. Humans of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is an opportunity to talk to and about a few of them.

Leah Von Zuben is a yoga teacher and East End Toronto native. She’s also studying to be an RMT. She’s trained BJJ for just under two years and is a white belt at the “small but mighty” Straight Blast Gym Toronto.

On the commonalities between BJJ and yoga

Where to start? There’s the obvious, when you’ve done yoga for a long time you have a pretty good understanding of how your body moves and your proprioception—body awareness basically—is a bit more enhanced. More than flexibility, yoga teaches you to breathe efficiently and to maintain that breathing while you’re figuring out and executing challenging physical/mental/emotional feats. The number one thing my coach emphasizes being calm while rolling. You’ll constantly hear him saying things like ‘Breathe. The more aggressive your training partner becomes, the more chill you should become.’ There are a lot of reasons for that, but the main reason is that you can’t think clearly when you’re just reacting aggressively to someone else’s aggression. If you stay calm you’re going to be more calculated in your delivery. Yoga training is wrapped up in training yourself to be calm. BJJ and yoga training are very complimentary.

On the surprising ways BJJ has made her better at massage

Techniques from BJJ, like putting in frames and using your body’s natural structure in a way that doesn’t take any effort or energy from you, comes in handy with massage. Ideally, you’re using your body mechanics well when you’re massaging professionally. It’s when you misalign your own joints to try and apply pressure that you start to break yourself down, in BJJ or massage. Tied into that is knowing how to use your weight instead of pushing with a lot of muscular force. In BJJ, you should make your opponent carry your weight when you are on top, so they tire out while you regain your energy. When massaging, you should know how to use your weight in the same way to add pressure, you should not be using the muscles of your hand or arms, because the muscle energy will definitely gas out.

On the gym as a community

BJJ is an incredibly close contact art/sport. You’re literally pulling another human in between your legs. Training is not going to go optimally if you have a training partner who is a huge creep or really rude. It’s true whether you are male or female. There needs to be a healthy social atmosphere in the gym in order for everybody to get the most out of their training. My gym has a really good vibe, it’s made possible by virtue of it being a small gym, but also by the fact that it is contained within Coach Lancucki’s home. He considers it a necessity to have healthy, happy vibes. There’s very little machismo going around, no cliques, everybody is welcoming and encouraging to everyone else, whether they are brand new or have been there since the beginning. You end up seeing people progress in their training very quickly. Social politics just get in the way and douchebags make it unpleasant to  drill or roll. The vibe of a gym is integral.

Quotes have been condensed and edited for clarity. Learn more about Leah’s yoga career here.

Training Diary: Three Thoughts on My First No-Gi Class

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This is what no-gi looks like. If I was one of these guys, which I’m not, I’d be the guy in turquoise. (Marco Crupi/Flickr/CC)

On Monday night I did my first no-gi class. It may surprise my non-Toronto BJJ BJJ friends that it’s taken me this long to get around to trying no-gi, but my school is pretty traditional, so you can’t actually train no-gi until after you get your blue belt. Also, no-gi scared the pants off of me. Or scared the gi on to me, I guess.

Finally, a mixture of a tight schedule, a desire to push myself and me wanting to be less dependant on collar-and-sleeve grips lead me to take off my jacket, get throughly uncomfortable, and train some no-gi.

Here are three quick thoughts:

It’s basically like being a white belt all over again

Like I said, my instinct at this point is to start a roll by going for a collar-and-sleeve. In no-gi though, there’s no sleeve and no collar, so instead I started the roll by staring at my hands and trying to figure out what to do with them while my opponent swept me into mount. It was a bad time.

It’s very slippery

A gi soaks up sweat. That’s why it weight like 20 kilos by the time you’re done training. With no gi that sweat is just kind of around, making everything wet. Including you, your opponent and the ground. The upside is that even if you’re stuck in a bad position, it can be hard for your opponent to submit you because you just keep slipping away. The downside is that it’s harder to get enough traction to get yourself out of said bad position.

Leg locks 

The key difference between gi and no-gi, beyond wardrobe, is that no-gi allows for more leg locks. BJJ is as much a mental art as a physical one. Having to have an added awareness of what your feet are doing adds one more thing to the checklist.

My Professor, Jorge Britto, said that traditional BJJ is chess and no-gi is checkers. I don’t ever want to disagree with Prof. Jorge about anything BJJ related for obvious reasons, but I would like to suggest that if traditional BJJ is chess, no-gi is Central Park speed chess. It’s only marginally less strategic, but infinitely faster.