The Empowerment of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Yes, the picture for the post is me choking a dude. How did I learn to choke someone so efficiently? I have been practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for almost five years. Not consistently for five years. Unfortunately my issues with compulsive exercise meant I was injured every six months or so and had to take time to rehabilitate, interrupting my training periodically. I also took a long hiatus from training when I first entered recovery for my eating disorder. I didn’t trust myself not to train compulsively, so I stepped back and took some time to examine what Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ for short) meant to me and did for me. I am proud to report that I began training again six months ago and have not injured myself or trained compulsively since coming back.

Taking time off from BJJ to contemplate its place in my life allowed me to gain a lot of clarity about what it has taught me over the past five years. One of the biggest insights that I gained was that training BJJ has been one of the most empowering and body positive experiences of my life. I also realized that BJJ has allowed me to connect with women in a way I previously had not experienced. I will say that this has not been everyone’s experience in the BJJ community. Some women are treated very poorly at their gyms or dojos and are sometimes even exploited by the males with whom they train. This is deplorable and I hope that every woman who has had these experiences can find a gym where they are treated with respect. I am lucky that I have always trained in places that treated women as equals on the mat.

First of all. what is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? It is a grappling martial art that combines standing and ground techniques. What in the heck does that mean? Think of wrestling and you’ll start to get a picture. Wrestling is another grappling sport. However, unlike wrestling which focuses on dominating and pinning the opponent, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu focuses on the flow of the movement. The two people practicing together, commonly referred to as rolling, switch quickly and gracefully through various movements trying to gain a better position. The focus is on using refined technique to gain an advantage on your training partner or opponent. BJJ is more often compared to chess than other martial arts because of the cerebral engagement involved in gaining a more advantageous position. I always think of BJJ as heavier on the art portion of martial arts than the martial portion, though it is definitely applicable to self defense situations.

My first experiences of empowerment and body positivity in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu involved the pure amazement of discovering the capability of my body. I remember being a white belt watching higher belts and being stunned by the ways their bodies moved. They pretzeled themselves in to crazy positions, moved their hips like salsa dancers, used their body weight to force their partner to move a certain way, and took advantage of their partner’s movements as momentum for their own movements. Watching two experienced BJJ players roll is like watching an intricate and complicated dance. I remember thinking to myself “there is no way my body will ever move like that.”

The experienced members of my gyms spent hours breaking down the movements for me and practicing them over and over again. After some time, my body just began to move the right ways and I began to complete techniques correctly. I gained a new appreciation for the inherent abilities of my body. Please note, that I am not and never have been naturally athletic. I’m not one of those people whose bodies just understand how to do things after they’ve been taught a few times. I have to work really hard to understand how to make my body move, but with a lot of practice it happened for me. I began to believe that the body I had could do amazing things, which gave me the motivation to continue to push my body and learn new things. Only in the past six months have I learned to push my body safely, but hey, some of us are slower than others.

As I branched out in my training and began to train with new people I also began to notice that there wasn’t one type of body that trained BJJ. Many sports require a very specific body type. The most obvious examples would be dancing or gymnastics. People competing in these sports are under a lot of pressure to maintain a certain type of body that they are told makes them better at this sport. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu isn’t like this at all. I saw men and women of all sizes training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. More importantly, I very rarely heard people pressuring others to change their size in order to be better at the sport.

The most empowering and body positive experiences I have had since starting BJJ were when attending the Groundswell Grappling Concepts BJJ Women’s Camp. These were transformative experiences, and that’s not an exaggeration. Basically, 30-40 women get together and train for 3-5 days straight. It’s a very different experience training just with women. I learned the techniques differently and executed them differently. I got to hear about other women’s experiences at their gyms and their experiences with competing. I got to train with the best female BJJ competitors in the country. Think about going to a basketball camp and getting to train with Kobe. That’s the level of instruction we received. But most importantly, I got to be surrounded by women who loved to do the same thing as me and did it just as passionately. I formed friendships there are still very close to my heart. Every time I have gone to camp my perspective on BJJ has changed  and I have gained invaluable insight about myself.

This was never more true than when I attended camp in January, about six months after I went to treatment for my eating disorder. I was very nervous about attending. I had only begun training again in November and was worried that my skill level didn’t match up anymore. I was worried that I would overtrain and injure myself again. I was nervous that people who had attended camp with me before would notice how much weight I’d gained and comment. Of course, all my worrying was for naught. I was honest with campers and instructors about my previous injuries and they were all very accommodating. I brought enough food and ate when I needed to eat. I sat out of sessions when I needed to and no one questioned it other than to make sure I was okay. I listened to my body and trained safely. I also had a ton of fun! This proved to me that BJJ didn’t have to be the super competitive experience I had made it in to previously. It could be easy and fun.

But the most important thing that happened at camp this year was actually something that didn’t happen. No one talked about their weight or body size. In a group of 45 women not a single one of them talked about being on a diet or compared their body to another women’s body or made any comment about a woman’s weight. And we were changing together in locker rooms! I did see a few women step on the scale, but they almost apologetically said it was because they were watching their weight for competition. Other than that, no one said a single thing about body size. Every single woman there accepted every other woman exactly as she was and there was no implication that body size had anything to do with training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

That weekend was the first time that I ever realized that my body size was unimportant to BJJ. It was also the first time that I realized that a properly nourished body performs much better than an undernourished body. Before recovery I was constantly training BJJ without taking in the proper nourishment to support my training. I realized that weekend that true dedication to BJJ means taking care of my body as it is.

I will pause here for an important side note. Competing in BJJ does include weight classes, like wrestling or boxing. Some people, myself included, feel enormous pressure to be a certain size in order to compete. For a long time in my recovery I blamed BJJ for “forcing me” to maintain a smaller size in order to compete. During my time off from training and later in my recovery I was able to admit that no one had forced me to lose weight in order to compete in a lower weight class. My eating disorder had co-opted the weight class system of BJJ competitions in order to make me believe I needed to be smaller to be successful. This message was never explicitly given to me by anyone in the BJJ community. I internalized this message and followed it to my own self destruction.

I no longer compete in BJJ because of this, which has forced me to explore different motivations for my training and different avenues of advancement. Really, it forced me to open up my BJJ world. Instead of competing in our last local tournament I reffed and had just as amazing of a time. Probably a better time because my perfectionism wasn’t beating me up about whether I’d won or lost a match. Since my day to day training is no longer focused on competing I have been able to focus on improving holes in my game; stuff I never would have worked on because I was too busy improving what I was already good at in order to win. I have also started as an assistant teacher for our children’s program and have started co-instructing new members of our gym. Already teaching has given me more than any medal I’ve ever won. I have discovered completely new sides to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and my world has expanded in ways I never imagined.

Today I train BJJ 3-4 times per week depending on what my body feels like. If I’m too sore or tired I skip class. Sometimes I obsess over whether people are judging me for missing class, but then I remember that the people I’m training with love me and want me to take care of myself. Today I train BJJ because I love to learn, not because I’m driven to win. Today I train BJJ without believing that I need a smaller body in order to gain the advantage. Today I train BJJ without the competitive drive that made me hate the sport more than I loved it in the past.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has taught me that my body has incredible power that has nothing to do with its size. My body can move, flow, perform. My body can learn a new skill and put it in to practice. I haven’t found the empowerment that comes from this kind of connection to my body anywhere else. I still struggle with accepting my body’s new size, but every time I walk out of a BJJ class I feel a little bit closer because if my body can perform at this size that’s what really matters. I can honestly say that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has changed my life and propelled my recovery. What more could I ask for?




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