A Love Letter to the Jiu Jitsu World

HARA

I have been told to stop writing and to hit the mat. I have been told that the experiences and perspectives of white belts don’t matter. But this is my art, and I will state my art. I invite you to state your art as well, whether it be a martial art or otherwise. Don’t we all have the same goal, anyway? That of some form of understanding, enlightenment, meaning-making?

Isn’t that what you’re doing when you’re stepping onto the mat? Sure, it looks like bare feet and uniforms, but is it really a stretch to suggest that something more happens than the movement of flesh and fabric? I press keys to imprint ideas into pixels; a jujitsuka presses their body into yours, hard and soft, to navigate the terrain of circumstance. How you do anything is how you do everything.

I met a long-time acupuncturist who spoke so calmly and confidently that it was clear he knew something I didn’t. I asked him how to deal with criticism from people who come across the blog. He asked if in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class we were taught about Hara. I said no.

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SARAH, CAT & LAWRENCE

What makes people quit everything and devote their lives to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? What makes people devote their lives to anything? 

“I never had something I believed in one hundred percent, and then when I found Jiu Jitsu, it was like, this is it. I just felt like it was supposed to be this way.” Sarah Smith speaks with such conviction, that you couldn’t possibly imagine her doing anything else, either. We met for tea, and we weren’t a blue belt and a white belt speaking about training; we were two women discussing passion and identity and justice. When we spoke of Metamoris, we spoke of the pain of dehumanization and subjugation. When we considered the dedication Sarah has to her craft - the training, the travel, the exhaustion - we considered the sacrifice and reality of having to tell friends, “No, I can’t come visit. I have to train”. Whether or not the need to train is sensical to others is irrelevant. It is the life-giving nature of training for Sarah that is the essential component. When Sarah talked about her team, she was talking about family. 

What is the nature of devotion? What makes something, or someone, worthy of your devotion? Cat Clarke created Submission Series Pro because he is devoted. I told Cat yesterday that people are counting on him. I didn’t say it to pressure him; I said it because it is the truth. I said it because everything is better, and more meaningful, in community. We are blessed to live in a time where you can cultivate legitimate, authentic relationships with others online. You can find your tribe, no matter where you are. We are more privileged than ever to be able to intentionally surround ourselves with the influence of those of our choosing. Cat is someone whose influence I am grateful for. He reminds me that women are not alone in reminding people that we matter. Sometimes your allies are the people who speak for you when you can’t even speak for yourself. He won’t say it, but Cat is behind the scenes, pushing to have women be in the spotlight in Jiu Jitsu competition in an equitable way. In making the world a better place, you must start with where you are. Thank you, Cat, for doing just that, and for committing to integrity.

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Lawrence Siegel just got his black belt. I pulled off a double leg the other day because he told me I could. When he says that he believes in you, he means it. I used to think the humility and quiet confidence I saw in higher belts was a show fuelled by arrogance. Lawrence has shown me otherwise, and the patience provided for me by him and others is a further testament to that maturity. Now I realize that it was my own impressions that were fuelled by arrogance. When you point a finger, don’t forget the fingers that are pointing back at you. He told me that Jiu Jitsu will give you something to believe in. He told me, “I feel I have a place in this Universe. I don’t think I had that place until I started training. Many years of training will change you as a person.” My pastor tells me we all do faith; that is, search for meaning. Maybe Jiu Jitsu is analogous to religion. Maybe Jiu Jitsu is a search for meaning.

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DANTIAN

‘Hara’ is a Japanese word signifying the abdomen, and is conceptualized as an energy field, much like chakras in the yogic tradition. I didn’t know what Hara meant, until I realized it’s Traditional Chinese counterpart, the Dantian, I was already familiar with through my own schooling. 

The Dantian is essentially a reservoir and builder of Qi in the lower abdomen, about three finger widths inferior to the bellybutton. It is a Taoist concept, often used in martial arts, acupuncture, and tai chi. Though inaccurate, it is convenient to think of Qi (“chi”) as energy. 

When asking if I knew of Hara (Dantian), the acupuncturist was asking if I knew how to root myself. He was asking if I knew how to control my breathing to subdue fear and cultivate will-power. I don’t believe in coincidence. I don’t believe that being unable to focus and breathe steadily in tree pose in my yoga class is unrelated to my challenges in focusing and breathing elsewhere. I don’t believe it is unrelated to the challenge I have in grounding myself and grappling with my anxiety. Somehow, being involved in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is making things come full circle for me. Somehow it is making things make sense.

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COMMUNITY

People don’t really go to church anymore. We’re flocking en masse to alternative ways of exploring meaning-making for ourselves. And we want to do it in the company of others who are interested in embarking on the same journey. I say that Jiu Jitsu isn’t just Jiu Jitsu, meaning that I see the practice as something that certainly goes beyond physical challenge. 

Sarah played with the string of her tea bag, and I ran my fingers along the knots in the wood of the picnic table. 

“People think of a gym membership. But you’re getting more than that; you’re getting life lessons, you’re getting mentors, you’re getting friendship, you’re getting community that cares about you and wants you to succeed. You’re not just getting Jiu Jitsu. I never had so much support. When you go to a gym, do you really feel like you get that kind of support? It’s personable, and everybody knows everybody.”

“For me it’s my life. Jiu Jitsu is my life”, she says. 

We’ve largely shunned institutions, and are making our own way in terms of personal development and finding purpose. A year ago I would have called it idolatry. Today I am calling it necessary. My heart breaks because I’m realizing that labels can’t save you. I’ve seen more authenticity, conviction, and changed lives in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu than I ever expected. I thought I would just be rolling around. I had no idea it would change everything. 

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This is my love letter to you, Jiu Jitsu practitioners. Whether you criticize my writing or love my writing, whether you know this blog exists or not, whether I will ever meet you or not. Thank you for sharing your passion, and being open, being encouraging, working as hard as you do. I’ve never really had to shed blood, sweat, and tears before this. Thank you for making it easier, and for being willing to share your story as I share mine. Your grace is appreciated. 

All things are essenceless,
Birthless, deathless, fundamentally still;
All things are inherently nirvana.
Who with wisdom would say there is no hidden meaning?
— Sandhinirmochana-sutra, the classical sourcebook of Buddhist yoga