Midlife Crisis or Stroke of Genius? My Adventures in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

A few months ago, during one of our “fun” weekends away together, my two best friends forced me to watch an episode of that BBC series The Fall. In case you've never seen it, It stars Jamie Dornan and Gillian Anderson. Jamie is a serial killer of women (I felt extremely confused watching certain scenes in 50 Shades of Grey because of this), and Gillian is his brilliant detective foil. The episode we watched ended with Dornan working very hard to choke a woman who is tied to a bed. She watches in horror and terror as he tries and tries to squeeze her windpipe until she stops breathing. His hand strength isn’t quite up to the task, this being his first victim and all, so it takes a long, long time. He later works on his hand muscles so the next victim is easier.

When the show was over, I couldn't sleep. I was anxious and felt incredibly vulnerable. And not in that awesome Brene Brown kind of way. It seemed so easy for this character to break into women’s homes. By the time his victim would register that a window was broken, it was game over. The victim’s ability to defend herself physically was pretty pathetic. Jamie Dornan is ripped. It’s hard to out-muscle a dude, even if you are a woman in top physical condition. Talking to my husband about all of this, he said, “That’s why I want our daughters to do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. If a woman is attacked, she isn’t able to stand around and spar. She needs to learn how to fight from the floor.”

That did it for me. Because here's what I know for sure: I REFUSE to go down easily if some sociopath ever tries to jump me in the street, or in my home for that matter. But here's what else I know for sure: I have ZERO tools for dealing with a real attack.

Holding those two competing truths in mind, I decided to give Brazilian Jiu Jitsu a try. I mean, how hard could it be? I've survived Lisa's Boot Camp. I've given birth three times. I mean, I can do this right?

Here's what happened.

Getcher Gi On

It’s a Wednesday night, and I am in the changing area of the studio, taking stock of my reflection in the mirror, wearing the heavy cotton Gi that is the official BJJ uniform. It’s not a good look for me. In fact, I laugh out loud at myself, but quickly stop when I realize the vibe of class is more like being in church than in a gym. My classmates are dead serious, and I am beginning to piss them off.

Class begins with everyone standing in a long line, shoulder to shoulder. I shuffle into what I’m guessing is the “beta” section in a room full of “alphas,” but seconds later, I feel giant man hands on my shoulders and a fellow student says, "We're really glad you're here and everything? But you're in the black belt section." I am escorted firmly but kindly to the very end of the line. I feel sure my face will melt off.

Time to Woman Up

The Wednesday evening Fundamentals class is taught by an alarmingly young instructor named Vitor Paschoal. It turns out that Vitor already has a black belt, having achieved this feat at the age of 22. Vitor begins class by teaching a series of moves that cause me to wonder what the hell I have gotten myself into. He begins in a standing position, facing his opponent, his hands clutching different places on the opponent’s Gi. Then he somehow uses his foot placed at the top of his opponent’s thigh, then hops up, wrapping both legs around his opponent’s back, slides his back down the opponent’s legs, and ends up shoulders on the ground. From this position, he once again uses leverage to somehow wrap his body around the opponent, causing the opponent to fall dramatically backwards on the mat with a loud SLAP.

Vitor looks at everyone and says, “Everybody got this? Any questions?”

No one has any questions.

“Great," says Vitor, "Go find your partner." And I am left standing there. In my giant diaper. I mean Gi.

It is at this moment that I give serious thought to slinking out the door.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is terrifying to me not just because of the physicality and, frankly, the physical intimacy of it, but because I’m afraid I'm so pathetic that no one will want to be my partner. I haven’t felt that way since high school. And that is entirely by design. I mean why would any sane person put themselves in a position of guaranteed humiliation? By choice! I guess I could have partnered with the only other woman in the class, but she seems so confident and intimidating it doesn’t even cross my mind to partner with her. She's just too amazing.

After a few seconds that stretch out like geologic time, another instructor—Marco— materializes beside me. Like a baby bird, I imprint on Marco, who becomes my savior for the next 60 minutes.

I Am Leverage, Not Muscle

While the other groups of two practice the sequence, Marco explains that Jiu Jitsu is not about who is strongest. It is about figuring out what leverage you have, and exploiting that leverage using the moves you learn each time you come to class. “After a while,” he says, “you build kind of a library in your mind of different moves to match different situations.”

For a second I fantasize about Jamie Dornan trying to jump me in a parking lot stairwell. I imagine his surprise as I tackle him, I see his eyes bulging as I choke him. I am just about to kill this imaginary Jamie when I realize Marco is waiting for me to stand up and practice the move I’ve just learned.

I cannot believe how winded I am after each sequence. And while the movements are pre-set and have awesome names like “the Ezekiel,” and “the Guillotine,” the entire experience of sparring in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is all improvisation, but based on very specific choreography. I'm not particularly athletic, and God knows I'm not a sporty kind of gal, but choreography? That I can do. I think to myself, maybe I can actually do this.

As a class, we learn 3 other sequences, and before I know it, an hour has passed. The class ends the same way it began—we line up (this time I know my place in the pack). We slap our palms on our thighs as we bow, then shake hands and thank the instructors, and our classmates individually as we file past one another, the line snaking in on itself. More than one sweaty, burly, more advanced classmate smiles at me and says, "good job today." I am so elated, so proud of myself and so overcome by the kindness and camaraderie shown to me after just one class that I ignore the fact that I am standing—in my bare feet, mind you—in a puddle of someone else’s sweat.

Upon leaving the mats, I return to Saint Marco (as I now think of him) and thank him, and ask if I should partner with him again next time, given how remedial I am compared to everyone else. He smiles, and gently suggests that I find a woman to work with, if possible.

"You might feel more comfortable. Me? I am Brazilian. I don't care. But some people feel strange about wrapping their legs around someone they don't know if it’s a man."

I turn purple once again, as it now dawns on me that I have just spent the better part of the hour doing exactly this with Saint Marco. I later reflected in a distant sort of way how attractive all the instructors are, but honestly, I am too busy surviving class without soiling myself to really notice. In fact, rarely do I notice this. There is such an air of intense respect in this studio that people’s appearances don’t even register. It’s like this crazy little bubble of sweat, silence and focus. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.

The Gi Goes On

By the next class, I am able to take Marco's advice and pair up with another woman. The first woman I roll with is a purple belt. She is kind, feminine and gorgeous. Somehow her Gi looks elegant and correct (Mine still looks like a giant wool diaper). I am overwhelmed with relief to have found my partner, but half way through, she bails. She moves to the other end of the studio to train for a major Jiujitsu competition. It occurrs to me that she will face another woman on the mat, will wrestle with everything she’s got, and one of them will emerge victorious. I feel as though I have slipped into the rabbit hole, and all of the rules of femininity and beauty no longer apply. It makes me wish I could have slipped into this rabbit hole a long time ago.

It’s now been 10 or so classes, and every time I pull up to the studio, I fight the urge to go to Starbucks instead, drink a latte, and check Facebook.

My ego hates Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and wants nothing to do with it. After all, BJJ is easily the most humbling part of my week. At work I feel sure of my capabilities and I know I'm good at what I do. At home, I'm loved unconditionally and feel completely safe. But on the mat? I'm the lowest of the low. I am most likely the cause of snickering and even pity. And I don’t even get to wear a cute outfit. As if that isn't bad enough, I am by far the oldest person out there most days, and often the only woman, and believe me, none of the guys are particularly phased or impressed by my presence.

But my soul -- my soul loves BJJ. It gets my mind into the present moment. I surrender any need to liked, any need to show off, any need to be anything other than what I am: a humble beginner. After an hour, I feel like my mind has gotten a delicious rest from its own crazy loops. I feel rested. Electric. And ready to kick ass. More than once have I gleefully demonstrated the Guillotine choke hold or scissor sweep on my poor unsuspecting husband. I think he secretly likes it.

I recently overheard the owner of the studio, Caio Terra, coaching his students before a competition (as an aside, little did we know that Caio is a 9 time black belt world champion and famous in the world of BJJ). In his wonderful Brazilian accent Caio said,

"Whatever emotions you feel as you compete… embrace them. Fear? Nerves? Excitement? Welcome them all in. Why? Because this is being alive. Feel the emotions, and get on with it."

Maybe that's why I’m still showing up to Jiu Jitsu. When I leave the mat, every fiber of my being: every cell, every vein and artery, they all hum with aliveness. At age 41, I guess I'm finally up for that kind of living.


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