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Juan VidalNovember 05, 2021
Photo: iStock

One of my longest-held obsessions is hand-to-hand combat. Kung fu, wrestling, Muay Thai. There is a purity to these practices that fulfills a primal urge to hit things, be it a bag, pads or the person standing across from me who shares a similar urge. The need to make contact, to feel and also be felt.

Over the last year and a half, many of us have had to find alternate routes to joy. For some, these joys have come in the way of finding new pursuits, from gardening and baking to beer-brewing and pattern-making. In my case, this season has birthed a desire to go deeper into something I had long been interested in: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu — the grappling-based martial art focused on subduing opponents by way of various chokeholds, strangles and joint locks.

I never thought choking another human could feel so akin to prayer, but here we are.

A white belt has come to symbolize everything I do not know or have yet to discover about myself, God and the art of staying calm in physically demanding moments. Jiu-Jitsu has a way of giving you a healthy respect for your God-given physicality, but also your finitude.

When I was 16, I was arrested for trying to steal a pair of basketball shorts from a department store. As punishment, a judge ordered me to perform community service hours at the location of my choosing. A teen with a lot of pent-up energy, I chose a local boxing gym. This was how I would pay my debt to society for my terrible, terrible crime.

Up until March 2020, my experience with jiu-jitsu, however, was merely peripheral. For years I had watched mixed martial arts competitions religiously without fully understanding the complexity of some of the movements. Early last year, then-presidential candidate Andrew Yang helped put jiu-jitsu in the national spotlight, arguing that all police officers should be required to train in the martial art since it would give them the skills necessary to dissolve potentially violent situations without using lethal force. “It would make us all safer,” he said.

I was intrigued by the idea, even if it seemed a bit naive at the time.

But soon I began investigating Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in greater depth. I came to embrace it with a kind of childlike enthusiasm. I learned that it was developed in the 1920s when a judo student named Carlos Gracie and his brother Hélio made adjustments to the techniques of Japanese Jiu-Jitsu. In Brazil, the Gracie family popularized their approach as the superior self-defense system, proving it is not about size but how you implement technique to gain leverage. It has since demonstrated its efficacy in the world of prizefighting, beginning at the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event in 1993 after the nephew of Carlos Gracie—Royce Gracie—defeated Ken Shamrock.

Jiu-jitsu has proven to be the most fascinating and humbling journey of self-discovery I have ever undertaken.

In that fight, the physical disparity between the two men proved to be inconsequential, as Gracie wrapped his gi, or uniform, around Shamrock’s neck and squeezed, winning in less than a minute.

I started practicing by watching videos on Youtube and occasionally rolling with friends who were more experienced. My children took an interest as well, and we began training at a martial arts gym nearby. I quickly understood that one of the best gifts I can give to my children is the gift of self-defense.

It is easy to appreciate the beauty and urgency of jiu-jitsu if you take the time to study it—the fluidness of the movement, the way it looks so much like a human chess match. To the trained eye, jiu-jitsu can be seen as something of an intellectual pursuit with an added physical element. I would argue that it is also spiritual, for the ways it teaches virtues like patience, humility and fortitude. All it asks is that you be fully present while on the mat: your soul, mind and body flowing in unison. It’s called “the gentle art” for a reason.

All it asks is that you be fully present while on the mat: your soul, mind and body flowing in unison.

These days, we spend hours doing drills at our gym or grappling on mats that we set up in our basement. Watching my kids beam as they push themselves to improve is a reward in itself, knowing that the skills they are acquiring can also be used to protect themselves or someone else in need.

Looking back, I can’t help but wish I had done this all 20 years earlier, as I would be so much further along in my training. But, as I’ve been told numerous times, it’s never too late—yes, even at 39. Anthony Bourdain took up Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu when he was 55; his then-wife Ottavia, a serious jiu-jitsu practitioner, introduced him to it. In the sixth season of “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain is seen training at the Ralph Gracie Academy in San Francisco. His passion and dedication led him to compete in tournaments, and he took home the gold at the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation New York Spring International Open Championship in 2016, at the age of 61. At the time of his passing in 2018, Bourdain was a blue belt in jiu-jitsu.

One thing living in a global health crisis has shown me is that there is always a new side of yourself worth tapping into. While we may have little control over how our leaders handle moments of chaos, we can still create moments that delight and surprise us, whether that is making something beautiful with our hands or learning to use them more skillfully. Jiu-jitsu has proven to be the most fascinating and humbling journey of self-discovery I have ever undertaken, one that I hope to continue for as long as my body is able. I never thought choking another human or twisting an opponent into a pretzel could feel so akin to prayer, but here we are.

The toll the last few years has taken on us will not be fully grasped for some time. But I plan to keep hitting the mats, hoping the joy I stumbled upon in my despair will help light new paths ahead.

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