What I don't get asked – but I'll tell you in a moment! – is why I keep going. I started martial arts because I was inspired by martial arts movies to learn some self-defence and improve my health and fitness. After trying out a few martial arts I stuck with jiu-jitsu because there was clearly lots to learn and I found the instruction method highly effective, despite my lack of conspicuous talent.
But the reasons one starts a martial art inevitably shift as you move from expectations and introductory experiences to sustained engagement and appreciation. In the remainder of this post I will try to give the reader a sense of why I've kept going for more than two decades.
Many of these reasons don't just apply to jiu-jitsu, but to martial arts more generally, and overlap with other disciplines such as yoga.
1. A workout for the mind and the body
When I hear people gushing about going to the gym, running, cross-fit, or whatever I can't help but think "that's great, but I'd rather spend my discretionary time doing more jiu-jitsu". Jiu-jitsu systematically develops strength, balance, flexibility, fluidity and coordination in the pursuit of martial proficiency. Through martial arts training I get the physical benefits of regular exercise, and I learn self-defence, develop my mental sharpness, and much more.
Jiu-jitsu isn't easy. It's humbling. You learn to re-coordinate your body. You learn the basic drills. You fall (a lot). You realise that you're not going to learn to do anything "right" any time soon, but rather progressively refine, and get stuck for long periods with particular techniques before the next breakthrough comes. But when you struggle, and strive, and hang in there, and then eventually something clicks, and you make the breakthrough it really is a great feeling. And it still happens to me to this day.
Jiu-jitsu is grounded in a practical and profound approach to self-defence. We learn to fall safely: I've fallen off push-bikes (sometimes spectacularly) and slipped up while inline-skating several times over the years. Every time this has happened I've performed a reflexive roll or breakfall and come away with no more than a graze.
For self-defence, we are drilled against the most common scenarios until they become reflexive. Additionally, the breadth of jiu-jitsu means there's scope to respond appropriately to the exigencies of the situation: from using simple tricks to escape from an unwelcome grab to restraining aggressors with locks and holds to more serious scenarios, experienced jiu-jitsu practitioners can respond in a way commensurate to the level of threat.
4. Fun and Camaraderie
Plenty of drills involve refining your technique, helping others learn, or engaging in friendly competition. It's immensely satisfying to be able to use technique and skill to overcome raw strength and speed.
I also enjoy getting together with people of diverse backgrounds to pursue a common passion.
Our approach to teaching and learning jiu-jitsu is extremely effective: both systematic enough to support diverse learners and supportive (as time goes on) of individual exploration and expression. It's extremely rewarding to see things click as students and training partners progress on their martial arts journeys.
6. To pass on the art
I can't help but feel an immense debt of gratitude to my instructors and training partners. And the most fitting way to acknowledge that debt is to pay it forward through my teaching and training with others. It's humbling to be a link in a chain stretching back into history, and (hopefully) forward well into the future.
Traditional martial arts have many ritualistic and meditative aspects. Paying our respects, being courteous, and carrying out our responsibilities creates a safe atmosphere and environment for practice. Many martial arts sequences, done well, embody a meditative aspect. We train to go beyond the fight / flight / freeze reaction and cultivate a calm yet alert state in which our perception is clear and our actions are effective.
8. There's always more to learn
The breadth and depth of jiu-jitsu means that it's not just a matter of repeating a small number of drills. With a technical syllabus that spans throws, joint-locks, immobilisations, strangles, striking, escaping from holds, and self-defence applications against unarmed and armed opponents, even after decades of training there's always some area to refine. And, a bit like an onion, once you've grasped one element, there's always another layer to peel back revealing a new aspect.My late master also built in bridges from jiu-jitsu into other martial arts, so there are commonalities and variations to explore. Truly more than enough for a life-time's study!
9. You can keep getting better with age
Although it is difficult to start jiu-jitsu when you're older, barring serious illness or injury, if you are reasonably accomplished it's feasible to keep going and keep getting better at it. The occasional soft tissue injury takes longer to heal after the mid-thirties, but strength, speed and balance can be maintained to an advanced age, while sensitivity and coordination and efficiency of technique get better and better with dedicated practice. Compared to the youngsters one may not have the same amount of energy, but one is able to use it more effectively and efficiently.
10. Application to life
Beyond learning to fall safely, developing effective methods of self-defence, and staying fit and healthy, I've come to regard jiu-jitsu as a metaphor for many other aspects of life.
Getting up after falling is a constant reminder of the need for grit and resilience. Struggling with a particular technique teaches persistence. Bowing and acknowledging your partner is a reminder of the importance of not taking others for granted. Doing the same warm-ups every session year-in, year-out has taught me to appreciate consistency and subtle variation (and to work through boredom). The strategies for physical combat have analogues in non-violent conflict. The mental training from martial arts prepares you to be focussed and effective in the other crises that life occasionally delivers.
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This post isn't meant to be say that jiu-jitsu is the be all and end all, but rather to state what some of its great benefits have been for me over a substantive period.
My main wish is that more people would consider dedicating some of their discretionary time to jiu-jitsu and similar activities (not just martial arts) that will help them stay healthy and develop as people and help others develop similarly.
When Jigoro Kano founded judo as a way of preserving jiu-jitsu for future generations, he envisaged three levels (in ascending order):
- To teach self-defence and physical health
- To develop people socially by helping each other to improve
- To make the world a better place
One hundred and thirty-four years on, that's still a vision I can get behind.