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: 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.