I discovered Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu because of my overabundance of restless energy. I had been teaching Ballroom Dance at a private college for years with wonderful dance partner, Scotty the Body, and we finally got hip to the fact I could audit a class each term. We took up martial arts which I thought would be very hard hitting and intimidating. As it turned out, if I’d known learning to defend myself would be this easy I would’ve done it years ago. Wearing uniforms and bowing to people didn’t seem like my kind of bag.
I always wanted to be a walking brick; someone who took action now and names later. But the promise of legitimate Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu education is what most appealed to me. The class description included sections on self-defense techniques, knives and scare tactics. That said, even one class left me feeling all sparky and energized like I had a little extra ammunition in my arsenal. With this experience and my options, I have ways to fight back. It feels like true empowerment. Odds are good that I may never need to use these kinds of skills, but it never hurts to be skilled.
I still remember the main technique Sensei taught that first class. He showed how to defend yourself against being attacked with a bottle. It’s a difficult technique. I remember the excitement fellow student, Scotty the Body and I had after leaving that class. We found some empty plastic bottles and endeavored to go at it in the parking lot. It didn’t go very well and I vaguely remember someone getting slammed into a car (I’m pretty sure it was me). We decided perhaps we’d keep our training inside, on the mats.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was formed from ground fighting fundamentals and eventually came to be its own art through the experimentation, practices and adaption of Judo knowledge. It promotes the concept that a smaller, weaker person can successfully defend against a bigger, stronger assailant by using leverage and proper technique—most notably by applying joint-locks and chokeholds to defeat the other person.
This is what Sensei told me once as I was elevating my foot in pain after being taken down by a 90-pound college freshman:
“While other combat sports, such as Judo and wrestling almost always use a takedown to bring an opponent to the ground, in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, one option is to “pull guard.” This entails obtaining some grip on the opponent and then bringing the fight or match onto the mat by sitting straight down or by jumping and wrapping the legs around the opponent. Now get up and act like you heard this.”
We had to pair up with another member of the class to practice these moves, and my partner was a stinky young lad named Ethan. At first, we felt rather awkward, grabbing each other’s arms and yanking or pulling our wrists under our sweaty pits. At one point, we had to straddle each other to practice escaping from beneath an attacker. At that point, I nearly melted from shame. Once the initial embarrassment went away we took our tasks seriously and worked with each other to figure out how best to twist our bodies, to push away and grab hold of arms.
Months down the road, Sensei showed us how to defend against someone attempting to stab us in the stomach with a knife, then how to deal with someone holding a knife against our throats. He was very adamant that we know these situations only happen if our first three lines of defense – awareness, intuition and escape – have failed. This was our last line of defense, and it was entirely possible that we would in his words, “buy the farm.”
I think a lot about self-defense, which I think is pretty standard for most women (and many men) in our society. Most women have a list of things we do almost reflexively to protect ourselves. I know my list includes walking with keys sticking out between my knuckles, scanning beneath my car and in the backseat before getting in, parking near street lights.
The importance of being aware of our surroundings and of trusting our intuition means we’re also not afraid of being rude. Every attacker has a different motive. Some are more willing to negotiate and leave you alone than others. However, you will need to prepare yourself for the possibility that you will be harmed.
So now I am confident. I feel less scared than I used to if I walk alone. I feel trained to defend myself in a street fight – to move to a better position or defend against punches and get away.
The combination of mental and physical challenges, the chess game you play with your body is what first hooked me on this form of self-defense. It was a way to take myself to the edge in every training session and reap amazing rewards as a result.
I can attest that the experience of grappling with an expert Sensei is akin to falling into deep water without knowing how to swim. You will make a furious effort to stay afloat—and you will fail. Once you learn how to swim however, all problems become clear. The difference between lethal ignorance and lifesaving knowledge can be found on the mat. To train in BJJ is to continually drown—or to be drowned, in sudden and ingenious ways—and to be taught again and again how to swim.