Brazilian Jiu Jitsu & the Internet
Do you remember how you first learned how to do a forward roll from standing?
Me, I learned from Henry Akins a few days ago. Henry thoroughly explained the step by step mechanics of how I am to move my body to make the roll work; he demonstrated the roll from several angles, and he detailed why positioning at the beginning and end of the roll are important in the larger context of a real BJJ scenario.
No, I wasn't in Los Angeles training with him; I was in a basement in Guelph, Ontario, four thousand kilometres away. With the help of training partners and my roommate who is a talented gymnast, I was able to learn how to roll from my knees (for more info on my nonathletic background, read this). I could not, however, figure out how to go from rolling from my knees to rolling from standing. I was feeling frustrated because everyone was telling me, "Just do the same thing you do on your knees, but standing up." That sounds so simple, but for weeks I struggled to wrap my head around the movement and get over my mental block. To me, it seemed like I was supposed to just catapult myself into the air and somehow, magically, it would turn into a beautiful expression of BJJ. WTF.
So, alas, there I would be at my beginner's BJJ class, in the corner just rolling from my knees while all the guys are on the mats looking like they're trying out for a role in the next Bourne movie.
Well, I may not be a natural at BJJ, but I am determined. I was desperate to learn how to roll from standing, so I bought some foam mats and made it my mission to practice practice practice until I could roll like a pro. I scoured YouTube for anyone from any athletic background who could possibly demonstrate how the heck an apprehensive girl - who barely felt comfortable doing a somersault - could learn to tumble with confidence. Several gymnastics, aikido, and judo videos later, I came across a video by Henry Akins of Dynamix BJJ. I still don't move like an acrobat, but I'm getting there. I have Henry Akins, and YouTube, to thank for that. I even sent Henry an email to say thanks for the help.
Now, the other day I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts, the BJJ Brick podcast, and they were interviewing Matt Thornton. As usual, a great podcast; and then came talk about not particularly approving of the use of YouTube as a means of progression in BJJ. While I totally agree that there is absolutely nothing that can replace an in-person class, I had to disagree with the idea that YouTube is evil when it comes to training BJJ, because the only way that I was able to learn how to roll from standing was because of YouTube. During class, there was just no time to have someone walk me through, step-by-step, how to accomplish this one maneuver. But thanks to the internet, I have the resources available to me to take charge of my training on my own time. I have my own evidence of how the internet can realistically help someone's game. It might not be a popular opinion to have in the BJJ community, but I am a fan of using YouTube as a training tool when necessary. I cannot deny my own lived experience of seeing exciting results that I'm super proud of, attributable to teachings online. (Click here for more about celebrating little wins, regardless of what others think.)
I actually got so amped up about this that I emailed the guys from the BJJ Brick podcast. Turns out, they're just as cool as they seem. Byron clarified that he thinks things can be learned from YouTube, but the problem is when students focus on things that don't really help them. Gary wrote that there is a lot of bad information on YouTube, but if you're getting your info from guys like Henry Akins and other well-respected people, you will learn. He said that the internet can provide you with a ton of different perspectives and help broaden your game.
So, what to make of online BJJ teachings?
Encouraging students to try things that they might totally not be ready for? That would count as a negative. I've seen this even with experienced yoga practitioners who engage in the plethora of Instagram yoga challenges that are constantly happening; a beginner yogi sees an experienced practitioner doing an inversion, and, feeling fired up, they attempt the pose without considering whether or not their practice is ready for that progression and whether or not they have built up the strength for something like salamba sirsasana or adho mukha vrksasana. However, I want to point out that students can engage in unsafe practices even while under the supervision of an experienced teacher. I recently strained my groin while entering into a seemingly innocuous pose during a yoga class at a local studio. I have learned the hard way that even under the supervision of a trusted instructor, the student is ultimately responsible for what they do with their body, and injuries happen whether you are practicing with others at an established school, or whether you are engaging in your own practice at home. Are injuries less likely to occur under the direction of an instructor? Probably. I know there are certain things in BJJ that I have not yet been taught for very specific reasons, and when the time is right, I will learn them. Am I maybe too eager because I get to see advanced technique online, for which I am not yet sufficiently prepared? I think that is a very real risk of YouTube BJJ instructional videos. The yoga community tends to be fairly accountable with promoting teachings online, always offering modifications for asanas according to varying levels; Yoga Journal even occupies an entire section of their website with contraindications to yoga practice. I haven't really seen this much with BJJ and other martial arts teachings online, but I believe this to be because there is an unspoken assumption that these videos are meant to simply inform a student's practice, which is ultimately developed working under higher belts in person. I think it would be valuable for some BJJ instructional videos to be more explicit in communicating that certain techniques are not appropriate for all levels.
Creativity and Diversity in Training:
As far as I understand, the "gentle art" is a discipline that is evolving, and there is a considerable amount of freedom in regards to developing your own style. When searching for resources to aid in learning to roll from standing, I utilized teachings from gymnastics, judo, aikido, and BJJ. I don't know about you, but I think this is pretty exciting! I'm not worried about "contaminating" my BJJ training with lessons from other disciplines. Do I want to respect the tradition of BJJ? Certainly; but I think there is wisdom to be found in many places, and in all honesty, sometimes a gymnast can explain dynamic movement better than anyone else. YouTube allows me to see how different people accomplish the same task.
The Democratization of BJJ:
(And the democratization of yoga, of political opinion, of beauty, of influence, etc. etc. ...)
The internet is the great equalizer. Just as there is the BJJ slogan of "Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is for everyone", we also say that "Yoga is for everyone." And we take that seriously. It is totally plausible that someone could develop a legitimate yoga practice, 100% in their home via the internet without ever stepping foot into a physical yoga studio. Will you ever see that with BJJ? No, because BJJ necessarily requires an opponent. Yet, the point is that the yoga community has embraced the online world and leveraged it to increase the accessibility of yoga. One of the coolest things about this is that it allows for the dissemination of teachings by people who don't fit the stereotypical yogi image. Search the hashtag #curvyyoga, and you will find beautiful images and personalities who are changing the game with regards to what constitutes a yoga practitioner. Instead of skinny white women, we see ladies who are rocking it out and representing for the rest of us. The internet is so crucial for me as a female newbie in BJJ, because I have yet to train with another female. I have no complaints about training with guys, but it's nice to be able to seek out online female BJJ communities that I can follow and be encouraged by. Sometimes the BJJ world doesn't always feel that welcoming to someone like me, but reaching out to others via the internet keeps me inspired and optimistic.
Legitimacy of Online Learning:
Can you actually learn legitimate BJJ skills online? The advent of the YouTube tutorial has come on quick and strong. I don't know many people who have not used a YouTube tutorial for something in their lives. I've used YouTube to learn many skills from professionals, but I still can't wrap my head around the whole Gracie University thing, where you can learn "all the techniques required for promotion to black belt" online. While I really appreciate the sentiment behind what the Gracie boys are trying to do (as they say, to "share the gift of Gracie Jiu Jitsu with people all over the world"), it makes me really uncomfortable to imagine someone doing all their training from home, and never really having the experience of rolling with various individuals of different ranks. And in reality, more than that, I think it is actually quite sad that someone would not experience what it is like to be part of a team. Drilling certain movements on your own time is certainly valuable, but there is something to be said for having a local BJJ community with which you engage.
One of my favourite BJJ moments in the few short months that I've been training was a couple of weeks ago, after taking a month off to focus on rehab for my groin strain, when one of my first BJJ friends said to me that it was nice to have me back on the mats. I thought my heart was going to explode; I was so freaking happy that it even remotely mattered to him what I was doing and how my training was going. And at that moment, I didn't care that I still couldn't do a roll from standing, because all of a sudden it didn't matter what belt I was or how technical my game is; what mattered was that I felt accepted as part of a team. And that, my friends, cannot be replaced by the internet.