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.

Training Diary: Worm Guard Reflections

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This is what worm guard is supposed to look like (Vince Millett/Flickr)

So, I haven’t been training enough lately. I’ve been sick, and not wanting to plague rat my gym, and I’ve also been adjusting to a new work schedule. In that I’ve been working somewhere with a schedule. (Not unrelatedly, I also haven’t been super diligent about posting here.)

But I wanted to share a quick observation from the last couple times I’ve trained.

At some point when I wasn’t looking, I developed the ability to laugh off being bad at things. This has always been a struggle for me with BJJ, and life.

Traditionally, if I haven’t shown a natural aptitude for something, I’ve just stopped doing it. This is why I write for a living, and still do math at a fifth grade level. BJJ is arguably the first thing I’ve voluntarily stuck with in spite of not being good at it. But I still haven’t been good at not being good at it. I tend to respond to struggle with a sort of furious self-flagellation and self-loathing. I view not immediately getting something as a moral failure.

A few days ago, we were learning worm guard. Worm guard is a pretty complex guard that requires pretty good balance and core strength— neither of which I have in abundance—and also for you to keep track of a lot of different moves in sequence, which as someone with medium-strength ADHD, I find hard.

So, worm guard went about as well for me as you’d expect. I fell over a lot. I got stuck in a lot of weird positions. I’m not sure I ever actually executed the worm guard sweep my instructor was showing us. But what I didn’t do was get frustrated. I didn’t get mad at myself, or my training partner, or the world. I laughed. Because it was funny. I was upside down with my foot wrapped in another man’s gi. That’s funny. And not being able to sweep someone from worm guard isn’t the end of the world. Everyone who loved me before still loves me. This is just something I need to work on.

I don’t know if this attiudinal shift is permanent, or if it will apply to my life outside BJJ, but I’m happy it’s happening at all.

Training Diary: Managing My Concussion Panic

4925947299_98aedd60e4_oAs I’ve mentioned earlier, one of the reasons I started this blog was to get me training again after coming back from a concussion. And overall, it’s been helpful. I’m training more regularly, and I’m feeling good about BJJ in a way I haven’t in a while. But it turns out, there’s still some residual concussion panic inside me.

A few days ago we were doing some self defense drills that involved a lot of judo-style takedowns, and I had a pretty bad time. I couldn’t make myself breakfall properly. I was getting the wind taken out of me every single time. I found myself tensing up as my training partner started to toss me, and kind of hugging my free arm, the arm I should be breakfalling with, around them as I went down. I actually hit the mat and bounced on a number of occasions.

Eventually I realized I was struggling so much because I was terrified I was going to get concussed again. Even though we weren’t training takedowns when I got hurt the first time. Even though I’ve done this before, and trained judo, and done a million other takedown drills, and been just fine.

I wish I could turn this into a numbered listicle post, but I can’t. I didn’t really come up with a solution other than let go of my “training partners ribcage and breakfall properly, even though every neuron in my brain is telling me not to.” I never really managed to get less tense. But I got through it. I didn’t get another concussion. I didn’t even really get hurt beyond a few bruises. Maybe the only way through this is to keep practising takedowns, keep not getting hurt, and eventually get over it?

Training Diary: Two Thoughts on My Great Armbar of Triumph

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(Ippon Kumite/Flickr/CC)

After I presented my blog in class a couple weeks ago, someone asked me “If jiu-jitsu is so hard all the time, why do you keep doing it?”

That’s a great question. I think everyone who does Brazilian jiu-jitsu asks that question from time to time. Or possibly all the time.

The answer I gave them was that sometimes everything clicks, and you actually manage to pull off something you’ve been struggling with in a roll, and it all feels worth it.

Last week, I was rolling, and I had one of these moments.

Armbar from closed guard is a pretty 101 BJJ move that most people manage to do in their first two or three months in the sport. For me, though, armbars from guard have been a pretty illusive. I have short legs, and a hard time moving around on the ground, and a total lack of confidence in my ability to keep my opponent where I want them.

Nonetheless, one of the things I’m working on is getting more comfortable with is fighting off my back, so I’m trying to pull guard pretty much every roll lately. I hate it. I’m getting crushed all the time. So I’m rolling and I’m pulling guard, and my opponent is in my closed guard, and his hands are really far up on me. Like recklessly far. So I move my body to one side. And he keeps his hands there. And then I give up the closed guard and I put my foot on his shoulder, because I can’t quite get my foot over his head in one movement, and now I’m expecting him to pull back. But he doesn’t. So I keep going, and next thing you know, bingo. I have the armbar on him, he’s tapping, and victory is mine.

Here are a couple quick takeaways from my great success:

1) Don’t be so conservative

I tend to play a pretty cautious brand of jiu-jitsu, and probably I should be a little more daring. Because you never know, you just might get it, and if not, you’ll force your opponent to defend and open something else up.

2) Keep practicing

I have drilled armbar from guard into the ground. It has been awkward and uncomfortable and annoying. But muscle memory is a thing, and after a while it will actually kick in.

Three Tips to Help Unban Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Tournaments in Montreal

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(Photo by Martin aka Maha/Flickr/CC)

For the first time in recent memory, the mainstream media in Canada is talking about Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about that a little bit.

But my God I don’t want to, or know where to start.

For those of you who missed it, the Canadian National Pro Jiu-Jitsu tournament has been postponed thanks to a visit from Montreal’s neon-panted finest. Apparently the Service de Police de la Ville de Montreal (SPVM) decided that Brazilian jiu-jitsu constituted a prize fight under Section 83 (2) of the criminal code. As a result, they said that if the event took place within city boundaries, they would not only shut it down, but make arrests.

Section 83(2) defines a “prize fight” as “an encounter or fight with fists, hands or feet between two persons who have met for that purpose by previous arrangement made by or for them.” Exceptions are made for anything recognized by the IOC, or anything that’s been “designated” by a province’s lieutenant governor or another “person or body” designated by the lieutenant governor.

The first thing that strikes me about that definition is that by that logic, Montreal’s digi camo-clad shock troops should be breaking down the door of every children’s karate tournament on the island.

The second thing, and this is the thing that the tournament’s organizers tried to convince the police of, is that it probably doesn’t actually apply to Brazilian jiu-jitsu. That definition sounds like it’s aimed at striking sports. I guess technically BJJ is “an encounter with hands,” but so are a lot of things. Patty cake, for example. Maybe that is also illegal now? Who can say?

What is more likely, though, is that the SPVM got Brazilian jiu-jitsu confused with another, more traditionally Japanese form of jujutsu, some of which do include striking. It’s confusing, I know. As are the differing spellings. So it is entirely possible that this very prestigious tournament, which was going to allow Canadians to qualify for an even more prestigious tournament, was postponed and sent scrambling to find a new location, because the SPVM didn’t do their homework, and then refused to back down when they were proven wrong.

(Also, they look like ‘90s ravers from the waist down.)

But there’s another element at play here. Apparently they organizers were contacted by police after someone tipped them off anonymously. What’s more, amateur martial arts events in the city have been plagued by infighting and promoters calling the police on each other. This seems totally unhinged to me.

I know people who promote amateur martial arts events. Mostly, they don’t make money. If they do, the dollars per hour is so low they’d be better off dog walking.

(I dog walk as a side hustle. You’ll never get rich, but it’s not a bad second gig. Also, you get to hang out with a lot of dogs. I digress.)

So here are a few pieces of advice for all parties concerned to make sure this doesn’t happen again:

For the SPVM:

Err on the side of common sense. Imagine an illegal prize fight in your mind. If what you’re seeing doesn’t look like that, don’t threaten to come in with a SWAT team in pyjama bottoms and send everyone to jail.

For the Province of Quebec:

But really, it’s not good to have laws that are too dependent on the discretion of individual officers. It leads to inconsistent enforcement. So have your athletic commissioner sanction BJJ, and while you’re at it, give your official blessing to Muay Thai, K-1 kickboxing, karate, Sambo, wushu, sanda, Muay Boran and Pradal Serey. Other provinces should probably get on that, too.

For promoters:

Oh come on guys. Get it together. I know this is a business and you’re in competition, but they goal should be to grow the pie. Run professional, well organized events. Put on demos. Explain your sport. Don’t do ridiculous things.

Humans of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: Aaron Broverman

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(Photo courtesy Aaron Broverman)

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.

Aaron Broverman is a journalist, podcaster and comic book nerd from Surrey, B.C. He’s also a BJJ purple belt who trains at Toronto BJJ, a Jiu-Jitsu for Life affiliate in Toronto’s Bloorcourt neighbourhood. He started training BJJ in February 2012. He has lived in Toronto for 13 years, and has lived with spastic diplegia cerebral palsy since birth.

On adaptive jiu-jitsu

All Brazilian jiu-jitsu is adaptive jiu-jitsu. Hélio Gracie adapted traditional jiu-jitsu because he was a small, frail guy who was always breaking his legs. True adaptive jiu-jitsu, though, is two people with disabilities facing off against each other. There aren’t many of us, but we do exist. The nature of my disability is that I can’t do every move, but the thing about jiu-jitsu is you don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to be able to Berimbolo effectively or De La Riva effectively to beat someone. I can beat someone just as well using the simpler moves.

On the difference between fighting able-bodied people and other fighters with disabilities

When you’re a person with a disability fighting an able-bodied person, you basically know what they’re going to do. They’re going to pull guard, they’re going to try to pass in a certain way from a certain position. What’s really scary is when I fight another person with a disability, because I don’t know what they know. I don’t know how they’ve adapted. Let’s say I’m facing a dude who is a paraplegic. So his upper body is fine, but his lower body is just his legs flopping around. I don’t know he’s going to do. I don’t know what his weapons are.

On able-bodied people ‘taking it easy’ on him

I love it when able-bodied people give me the benefit of the doubt. When they think I’m not going to be able to do things at a regular speed and they’re like ‘Oh I’ll do him a favour.’ That’s awesome. If you want to take me lightly, feel free. I’ll take that opening and I’ll win. And I don’t care if you ‘let me win.’ The result is the same and all that means is you defeated yourself. You still lost. Whatever narrative you have to have in your head, because you feel weird about rolling with a dude with a disability, I don’t care. Cool, I don’t have to work as hard. I’ll just have more energy for my next match. Because most of the time you’ll never know if someone ‘gave it to you’ or if you’ve earned it. So, in order that I don’t drive myself nuts thinking about it, I’ve decided it doesn’t matter. That’s their issue. It’s not my issue. I’m just gonna roll the way I roll.

(Quotes have been condensed and edited for clarity.)

You can follow Aaron on Twitter at @Broverman. You can read his writing here. You should definitely listen to his podcast, Speech Bubble, which you can download here.

Training Diary: Letting Go of Ego OR Belts Aren’t Magic

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(Photo courtesy my bad self)

Belts aren’t magic and you have to learn to fight without ego.

If you’re at a good Brazilian jiu-jitsu school, these are things you’ll hear over and over again. But it’s one thing to hear them, and even to understand them, it’s another to remember that message in the middle of a roll.

Earlier this week I got submitted by a white belt. Twice. Maybe three times, I can’t quite remember. I think I blocked some of it out.

It was subsequently pointed out to me that until a couple months ago, I was also a white belt, and that because of my concussion, I haven’t actually trained a ton since then. It’s also worth pointing out that the white belt in question was probably a decade younger than me, in much better shape, and definitely seemed like he had some sort of previous grappling experience. (If I had to guess, I’d say he was an ex-wrestler.)

Neither of these things mattered in the moment. What mattered was I felt embarrassed and stupid and useless. I was furious at myself for my inability to figure out how to out jiu-jitsu someone who’d been doing this half as long as I had. My ego was hurt.

Because really, no one cares. Belts aren’t magic. A blue belt doesn’t give me some sort of cheat code against white belts. And it doesn’t necessarily guarantee I’ll lose every fight against a purple belt. (The fact I can’t generate offense off my back guarantees that, but I’m working on it.) Higher belts get tapped by lower belts all the time. During the same class where I was submitted by a white belt, I watched one of my black belt instructors get submitted by a brown belt.

Did he get upset? No. He congratulated his opponent and laughed about it. He felt no type of way about it. Because he knows that regardless of rank, some people are better athletes, or have a killer go-to move, or are sneakier, or are just able to catch you on a bad day.

You win or you learn in jiu-jitsu. So what did I learn here?

1) I really need to get better off my back. My mount escapes are exceedingly bad.

2) More importantly, I need to not worry so much about “looking foolish” or “getting embarrassed.” Because those kinds of concerns are holding me back, not only in BJJ, but in life.

#SubmitTheStigma: Mental Health on the Mats

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(Screenshot/Vimeo)

A quick prologue:

A few months ago I wrote this piece about #SubmitTheStigma for the good folks at GOOD Magazine. #SubmitTheStigma is a campaign to get jiujiteiros talking about mental health issues, both with each other and in the broader community.

In some ways, even though there’s no mention of me or first person writing in the article, it was one of the more personal things I’ve ever written. I don’t talk about it much in public, but I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety since I was a teenager. (I probably suffered from depression and anxiety as a child, too, but they didn’t diagnose kids back in the ‘80s.)

In the second half of 2016, I had one of the worst depressive episodes I’d had in some time. It was mostly a sort of numb blankness that occasionally plummeted into pits of really dangerous despair. It went on for six months.

During those six months, training Brazilian jiu-jitsu was one of the things that kept me from completely spiraling out of control. Even if I could barely get out of bed, even if I only got out of bed to go train and then went back again, getting to the gym made me feel like a human being, and like I’d done something.

In writing this article, I discovered I wasn’t alone, that BJJ is part of a lot of people’s treatment regimes. If we’re brave enough to step on the mats with someone who is going to try and choke us out, we can be brave enough to have some awkward conversations about our own mental health. And if we can do that, we might wind up getting the support we need, as well as helping someone else.

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Training Diary: Ain’t No Party Like an Ultra Heavy Party (‘Cause an Ultra Heavy Party Only Stops Occasionally to Catch its Breath)

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That is neither me nor Luis. That’s BJJ pro Otavio Nalati, an inspiration to big BJJ players everywhere. (YouTube Screenshot)

Every time I get the chance to train with another big guy — someone who competes at ultra heavyweight and, like me, has a bit of a gut on them — I get a little giddy. It’s just great to work with someone who paints with the same palate as I do. I don’t have to feel self-conscious about my bulk, or my inability to pull of certain moves. (Berimbolo classes are every big jiujiteiros nightmare.)

It’s also nice to see how I stack up against the sort of guy I will be eventually be competing against. Am I too dependant on using my strength and size to smash smaller opponents, or is my technique good enough that I can hold my own against another big guy? If my fellow ultra heavy is a higher belt, so much the better. Sure, they’re going to grind me into a fine powder, but they’re also going to show me a few cool pressure-based big man BJJ tricks along the way.

On Monday night, I had one of these glorious experiences. My partner was a purple belt named Luis, who has a crushing side control and a relentlessly positive attitude.

(For the uninitiated, side control day is pretty much every big BJJ player’s favourite day.)

We had a blast. We cheered each other on, tried to give each other tips through a language barrier, and when it was time to actually test what we’d learned against each other, we really went for it. I didn’t question whether or not I was just using my size rather than my technique. And for sure, Luis got the better of me, but I held my own better than I expected to.

Here’s the emotional honesty bit; I had a concussion a few months ago and have kind of struggled to get back into training. BJJ is hard and it’s supposed to be. It’s a hobby that’s not always going to be fun. Sometimes it’s going to be frustrating. Sometimes it’s going to make you question what you’re doing with your life. It’s always going to push you, physically and emotionally, further than you thought you could go. But then there are days where everything makes sense, where the techniques start to click, and you just feel tremendous joy. Those days are the payoff that make the other, harder days worthwhile. I hadn’t had one of those good days in a long time. In the month-and-change since I’d been back, everything had been hard. Everything had been pushing a rock up a hill. This was compounded by the fact that I was promoted to blue belt while I was out, which means that when I came back, I was coming back to new, harder classes that would have gone over my head even when I was healthy.

I needed a good day to remind me why I do this. So thanks Luis.