After hours of watching anime and professional wrestling as a kid, a month of youth karate classes, a few high school BJJ classes, one Kung fu class, and one Kung fu book, at the age of 28 I finally started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
This first entry is a long backstory to my Jiu-Jitsu Journey, my interest in marital arts, and how I eventually came to Jiu-Jitsu and started training.
Purists will cringe, but my introduction to martial arts was watching Goku take down monsters and fellow martial artists on Sunday morning viewings of Dragon Ball.
As a child of the 90s I was raised on anime, Power Rangers, video games, comic books, and professional wrestling. For me it was all fantasy. The theatrics of episodic martial conflict, with satisfying resolutions and none of the bloody consequences, satisfied my interest.
I wasn’t small yet heroic like Goku. I was a giant (a gentle one) by elementary school standards, and I never needed to know how to stand up for myself. I rarely got into confrontation, and when I did I could laugh and shrug it off.
We shape our character through struggle and action.
Naturally strong but empathetic to a fault, I avoided confrontation throughout my adolescence. Ironically this softened me, and deprived me the confidence one feels from facing conflict and resolving it.
I don’t seek conflict, but being experienced in confrontation and resolution is invaluable. So is knowing when to just walk away.
The Karate Kid (1984) had a powerful affect on me. It wasn’t just how Daniel-San won a karate tournament with a sick crane kick, but how learning and practicing diligently improved his life holistically, not just martially.
Inspired, I had my parents take me to the local karate school in search of a surrogate Miyagi. The warmups were difficult, my teachers were mean, and I never wanted to go. I remember I was always happier after I went though.
I “competed” in one local tournament, where I demonstrated some basic kata, and got a plastic second place trophy. I still don’t understand what I did or why I got a trophy, and I stopped going to classes shortly after that.
This adolescent misadventure with martial arts is the classic suburban Millennial American Karate experience.
I had no other training in martial arts for years. With the exception of my local neighborhood summer-time swim team I mostly shunned athletics for years.
MMA Friend From Texas
In a family of jocks I was the middle child artist/musician “creative type.”
My dad played college soccer and my mom played college basket ball. My brother and sister were both soccer prodigies, playing on club teams all throughout their youth, and playing on the high school varsity teams. My sister was even scouted by the Olympics Development Program and she played on a Division 1 Varsity team all four years at college.
While my parents were driving my siblings to their soccer games I was skateboarding or playing music with friends.
Levi, a new friend who had just moved to the East Coast from Texas, had been practicing BJJ and muay thai for awhile. Levi was a military kid. His dad was a high ranking army officer who trained in martial arts, owned samurai swords, and would run out barefoot in the snow, chopping up pine trees in the forest.
One night my friends were all sleeping over at one of our houses. Levi challenged us to knock him down, and so 3, 4, 5 of us all drove at him, and with all of our clumsy velocity and misplaced strength we could barely move him.
He threw each of us to the ground with ease, maneuvering around while staying perfectly rooted, all with a dumb smirk on his face laughing at how easy it was.
Levi, who was among the shortest of us,
always seemed to stand the tallest.
He would spend hours sparring at his local gym before coming to hang out with us, bloodied, his mop of curly hair disheveled, carrying with him a certain amount of martial mystique.
After his family moved to Virginia we would drive to their new place and watch UFC with him and his dad, them explaining to all of us what was going on.
Intro to Jiu-Jitsu
Late high school and into college my older brother and his friends started getting really into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. UFC had just started a partnership with Spike TV. The reality show The Ultimate Fighter was a huge hit, and a lot of guys in our high school started emphatically taking classes and having recreational street fights.
The whole thing seemed like a really macho, meathead filled culture exacerbating adolescent violence. Though I wouldn’t characterize my brother this way at all (but maybe some of the company he kept I would), so when he offered some free jiu-jitsu lessons at a local gym I took him up on it, out of curiosity.
Despite being his younger brother I was never little, but still it was humbling rolling with him for the first time, and being helpless to the efficiency of technique over strength.
Those first few classes I learned how to fall, get up, roll forward and backward, hip escape, and how to get helplessly smashed by much more skilled opponents.
I understand why the Gracie Family advice is that the longer a new student waits to roll the longer their jiu-jitsu career will be. This was confirmed, as I only stuck around for three classes.
A few weeks later I was riding my bike and while making a sharp turn I crashed. Remembering the fundamentals, I broke the fall with perfect technique. I stood up uninjured and thanked my jiu-jitsu training.
Dog Walking and Yoga
Years went by and despite my cardio intensive job as a dog walker in DC, after so many nights of punk shows, staying out late, midnight meals of falafel and jumbo slice pizza, I started feeling sluggish and out of shape.
Surrounded by the vegans and hippie punks of DC I naturally fell into yoga. I went to an “anti-capitalist yoga” class at the local DC Infoshop. It was focused on “healing from a day of workplace exhaustion and wage slavery tyranny.”
It was intense, and with an instructor there to guide, I got a lot more out of it. I didn’t keep going to classes but I did start doing sun salutations at home when I woke up, along with a few other poses.
Unfortunately after the initial high of early success faded I quickly fell into the old self-defeating trap of saying, “I don’t have time for this,” and so I started rolling out of bed in the morning and hopping on the computer instead.
The vitality you get from exercise gives makes you more alert and efficient throughout the day. It gives you time. The benefits are transformative, but the actual process of transforming is bitter work.
Kung fu Conditioning
As months passed I grew listless and round. I was in a failing relationship, I wasn’t walking dogs anymore and so I wasn’t getting daily exercise. I remembered my youthful gravitation towards martial arts, and felt my interest pique again.
I took a Kung fu class at a local Shaolin-Do dojo. I started meditating daily. I tried Tai-Chi for a month. I even started messing around with Astral Projection (with wild results). I enjoyed it all but didn’t stick with any of it.
I bought a book called The Shaolin Workout by Sifu Shi Yan Ming (I’ll need to commit an entire entry to this in the future), and what the advice, stretches, and stances in that book did for me was help connect my body and mind in a way they had never been before.
Driven by the need for personal empowerment and self-healing, I spent an entire heartbroken Summer committing myself to personal meditation and the cultivation of my body, mind, and spirit.
I started running every morning and completely overhauled my diet. I was meditating daily, and spent the late afternoons drifting around on a paddle board, enjoying the sounds of the lake and letting my mind empty.
Shi Yan Ming breaks down the difference between strength and power. He explains that if you strengthen your body holistically, with each joint and muscle healthy, strong, and working in harmony, you will be far more powerful and functional than simply building up your chest, or your arms, or whatever.
This is the difference between a whole body work out, like Kung fu, and Western vanity fixated working out, like 8 Minute Abs.
Sifu Shi Yan Ming
Shaolin Kung fu fundamentals; the stretches, stances, and aerobic workouts are like a more intensive Chinese form of yoga.
Fine tuning my body, and healing my soul, with hours of running, stretching, and meditation, I was feeling more like my authentic self than every before. I was less encumbered by pain, grief, anger, and anxiety.
I found the benefits of elasticity, flexibility, and energy which Kung fu gave me were far more radical than those from simple weight loss or the bulking up of certain certain muscles.
We shape our character through struggle and action. My struggle has been found in whiplash; the jarring cycle of rejuvenation and entropy, gain and loss.
There is a story in Shi Yan Ming’s book about meditating on top of Drum Mountain. If you can keep your heart flat and strong like the top of the mountain, you can endure the unexpected turns life throws your way, and thank them for what they have to teach you.
Being thankful for hardship and discomfort, and for the lessons and gifts they give us, is important for making peace with the past, and accepting the beautiful fluidity of life.
The Enlightenment Period: Jiu-Jitsu
I’ve spent my mid-late twenties engrossed in my studies. At 26 I went back to university to finish my undergrad. Totally giving myself to school at the expense of a social life, pursuit of music, art, or money, and my autonomy, I told myself I didn’t have time for anything else.
Award wining academic success is a knockout punch to all those doubts and dark thoughts that told me higher education was beyond my level of discipline or ability. However, just like the meathead who bulks up his arms while neglecting his wrists, ankles, waist, and neck, my success as a scholar did not bring me holistic happiness.
Every time I made the excuse “I don’t have time,” what I learned from Sifu Shi Yan Ming would echo in my mind. This excuse is always a lie. Always.
The vitality one receives from exercise gives you time: time to use more efficiently. This is what Chinese martial arts refers to as the free-flowing of Chi energy in the body.
College has been grueling though, and in late 2016 my mental and physical health had declined. I started to resent school, like when a marathon runner in the 20-somethingth mile starts thinking, “Do I even like running? What the hell am I doing here?”
I resented the loss of my autonomy. And I resented the toxic drone of election media coverage always in the background.
As my final semester at school began the country and the world started slipping into new levels of social and political upheaval. Leftover animosity from the tumultuous and corruption filled election cycle continued to spill into the streets.
Watching the social and political landscape of the country shift, while studying it for school, I started thinking about how soft we are as a culture. Society is so ego-driven and self-righteous, and yet so dependent on rotting systems and institutions for sustenance and survival.
In the face of such global and national instability, I needed a sense of personal empowerment.
Coming of age in the burgeoning Nu America is scary. I realized I could not be a truly sovereign person if I could not protect myself.
A few weeks after J20 I enrolled at a local Jiu-Jitsu Academy, because BJJ seemed like the best way to cultivate myself into the strong, stable, disciplined, and self-sufficient person I want to be.
I welcome you all to join me on my jiu-jitsu journey. I encourage you all to begin, or return to your own.