Jiu-Jitsu vs. the World

Siloh in Jiu Jitsu outfit

I love Jiu-Jitsu, or at least I think I do. I used to travel with my gi (training kimono) lest I went too many days without training. I didn’t mind that its burly cotton mass took up a quarter of my pack. When I went on tour with my funeral doom band in 2016, I took three city buses through the morning fog just hours after our San Diego show for an early class with a Jiu-Jitsu legend. Afterwards, I sat scorching on a bench at the Old Town transit center while my disorganized bandmates decided roughly where in that sprawling city I could find them again. Which beach are you guys going to? I texted. Probably north. Figuring it out now, was the reply. Half an hour later my hunger and dehydration settled into a dull headache, but any regret about the logistical nightmare was overshadowed by giddiness. I’d just been choked by the legend himself!

This inconvenient commitment was not just confined to travel. If I worked an evening shift at my barista job, I’d rush through my closing tasks and push aside the hum of heavy, caffeinated exhaustion just to catch the last thirty minutes of sparring at my home academy. My commitment was both a source of pride and non-negotiable; being less obsessive never felt like an option. Obsession made it hard to notice that I’d been drifting away from the sport, but the pandemic exposed the growing gulf between us. Training for me was always about heading towards danger rather than away from it, a magnetic pull that provided an odd kind of stability. For years that intensity anchored me, but lately that draw has itself been murky. There has been no magnetic charge.

I found Jiu-Jitsu by accident. I was twenty-one years old and had recently moved from Minneapolis to Olympia, fleeing one version of anarchist subculture (friendly, punky, social-justice oriented) and running into a nihilistic, anti-social iteration of the same leftist tendency (flatbrims, athleisure, the Invisible Committee, etc.). A boy I met in Olympia, an anti-social type, invited me to check out a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym near his house. His household bought family packs of chicken wings, lifted weights, and stored orange plastic tubs of whey protein on top of their fridge. This anarcho-jockness was totally mysterious to me. “What’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?” I asked this friend, who told me that it was one of the main martial arts of MMA. “What’s MMA?” I asked.

I’d spent the previous two years riding freight trains and hitch-hiking across the country, returning to Minneapolis at semi-frequent intervals to ruminate pensively about what the fuck I was going to do with my life. I considered myself fairly worldly and hard-edged, but was clearly out of the loop when it came to pop culture. This was 2011, when Ronda Rousey was just cresting into notoriety. I didn’t know her name yet but I was into fighting, so I agreed to tag along.

On my first day of training I was vaguely mocked by the instructor. I wasn’t sticking my butt out enough when we practiced our stance, or I was sticking it out too much—probably the latter—and he laughed at me. This tall muscular white man would award me my blue belt a year and a half later, though I can’t say his attitude changed substantially during that course of time. I figured this mild abuse just came with the territory. Though the anarcho-fitness boys who signed up with me stopped showing up to class, I stuck it out.

Initially sticking to a training schedule took willpower, paradoxically merging my desire to scrub away my capricious wandering ways and my desire for extreme experiences and exhilarating brushes with danger. It turned out that Jiu-Jitsu was perfect in both respects. It gave me a clear-cut object of fear to push through. I loved coming home sweaty, wrung out, and clear-headed.

After six months spent flattened under the heaving masses of other people’s bodies, I felt something click into place—not skill per se, but awareness that skill (rather than brute force) could get me out of these jams. I had never before viewed myself as athletic. It was thrilling to discover that not only did I have a body, but that this body responded to the strain of training by becoming stronger and better reflexed. “She’s tough,” my instructor would sometimes tell my sparring mate before a round. He took great pride in reflecting back to me how much I’d changed since I first stepped foot in his gym. This was funny, given how little he knew about my life. But it was true that a transformation really had taken place. Now I had two secret identities instead of just one: a confused, pensive anarchist, and an athlete whose emerging goals of personal mastery and self-growth felt inscrutable—possibly unethical—to her friends, the grumpy anarchists.

There were several other women who attended weeknight classes, particularly my friend Irene, whose warmth made training significantly less lonely and more viable. For the most part, training meant swimming in a sea of men—heavy-breathing men, smarmy flirty men with day jobs, too-nice men with too-big muscles whose personality and physique were both discomfortingly artificial. Among this sea was a small Olympia metalhead named Ryan who become my Jiu-Jitsu best friend. The cluster of weirdos I formed friendships with there buffered the low-brow humor, machismo, and intra-team aggression of the gym environment. We made a shield of shit-talking camaraderie. My identities were merging, shifting, shedding.

A year and a half into training I tucked my blue belt and two gis into the trunk of my Toyota and drove 2,200 miles to Austin to visit my best friend. Training at some fancy big-city gyms cast my Olympia spot into unflattering relief. It turned out to occupy a comparatively extreme position on the meathead spectrum. My instructor suddenly looked like a sketchy car salesman of Jiu-Jitsu, selling giant SUVs when what I wanted was something small and speedy that wasn’t going to break down on me when I needed it the most. While in Austin I stewed on my newly discovered resentment.

“I’m never going back!” I texted Ryan.

“Don’t worry!” Ryan texted back. “While you’ve been gone, this SICK black belt from Hawai’i just moved to Oly! I’ve been rolling with him every day.”

He said that this guy was super high-level—like, ranked top thirteen in the world for his weight class, which is a big deal—and tiny like us. This was my second major stroke of Jiu-Jitsu luck, after finding it in the first place.

That “tiny black belt” was Will. He was young but cloaked in this magical family-man aura—a combo of responsible and badass I hadn’t seen before. When we first met, he was still in the army. Sometimes he’d drive straight to training from the base dressed in fatigues, but mostly we saw him in civilian clothes, which were usually black and always stylish. Hawai’i style flatbrim cap, big watch: a laid-back and combat-ready style to which my old friends, the anarcho-nihilists, were aspiring. Only a handful of inches taller than my 5’2”, he cast a quietly imposing presence. My other instructor at the Olympia gym liked to fold people into his circus and always seemed to be expanding his business operation with a new partnership or renovation. In contrast, Will kept himself on the sidelines, resisting absorption into that businessman’s affairs. This respectable understatement was mirrored in, but also belied, his stealthy BJJ game.

In sparring, Will would smoothly and technically wrap up purple, brown, and even other black belts, no matter their size, with a smile on his face. This was fun for him. To me it was justice being served. When Ryan or I asked Will how he’d done whatever he’d done to the now-exhausted 200 pound man panting against the wall, he would explain it to us without the condescension I’d come to expect from people who knew more than me. He showed us how hooking your foot on an opponent’s thigh at the right spot could make it weightless, and other little tricks revealing a law of physical leverage.

To describe the burgeoning student/teacher relationship as  “refreshing” is an understatement—a term with religious connotations, like “born again,” might be more apt. I was ready to forget everything I’d learned and apprentice myself on the sidelines of our former school. Eventually Ryan, Irene, several other students, and I drifted into a gym-less liminal state, training on skimpy puzzle mats duct-taped together in a living room. (Many a toe was broken there.) Will joined us as often as he could.

The vast distance between our new teacher’s skills and our own energized our study, which took the form of mimicry. We rolled (sparred); he would wrap us up into strangles and armbars, and we tried to imitate Will’s preternatural reflexes—his slick back-takes, his chokes, the berimbolo, how he breezed through our guards like our limbs were minor twiggy inconveniences. His techniques were so nuanced that they verged on the esoteric. For every counter, he had another option; our defenses only led us further into his trap. It was a puzzle, a mind-bender to catalogue.

As ungroomed house punks we tried to show respect and deference. Ryan was heavy metal, I was a little more of health-punk, and Will had dropped into our lives like black magic. There was no handbook on how to navigate this kind of relationship. I was a white subcultural drifter with anti-authoritarian tendencies; he was a masterful athlete who was in the military, was brown, was married with three children, and wasn’t much older than me. Surely Will had endured years of white meatheads greedy to take advantage of his knowledge or to prove themselves against him. Or what if there were certain ways of being polite that we didn’t know about because of who we were? After we all finished rolling, steam coming off of us, we’d sit in a relaxed and sweaty stupor and commence a living room Q & A session. Sometimes Ryan asked so many questions. Would Will get impatient and leave as abruptly as he’d arrived?

But he didn’t disappear, and in those months of living room training he shared the precise mechanics behind his sweeps, chokes, guard passes, and submissions. So many giant men had used their body weight to crush and confine me, but Will presented the possibility of navigating their strength without getting snagged by it. Every detail was a clue about the artful application of physics towards greater protection, leverage, and attack. This felt metaphorically significant beyond the mats, those men stand-ins for everything unfair about the world—all its bullshit brute force.

Six months into that era of living room training I watched Will choke Ryan so elegantly, so beautifully, that I realized I was capable of a new depth of commitment to the sport. Will cupped Ryan’s chin from an angle I’d never seen before, just a little strap that shifted Ryan’s whole body off center, and he seamlessly sunk the strangle. Maybe it would take a very long time, but I wanted my own capability to be that beautiful. To be that subtle in its forcefulness.

*

Back in my Minneapolis days, I once had a conversation about activism with a train-riding friend. We were sitting on the playground at sunset. “All resistance nowadays is symbolic,” he said, “Don’t you agree?”

Staring out at the ominous Minneapolis skyline in the dwindling summer light, I could only muster a shrug. I was nineteen and freshly disillusioned in the aftermath of a recent political disaster, but not yet ready to go full nihilist. A group I’d been a part of discovered we’d been infiltrated by both the FBI and the local Sheriff’s Department. The giant protest we’d participated in planning had been dramatic, but it was hard to see any tangible results besides the protracted legal grind that had splintered the group. “Symbolic resistance” accurately described our accomplishments, but accepting that as the inevitable limit of any effort just sounded like rolling over in defeat. But I also didn’t want to repeat the mistake of pouring myself fully into something that’s primary consequence was collective damage and disillusionment. Was there another option besides symbolic martyrdom and apolitical self-preservation?

What I later found in training was that my effort could have profoundly tangible effects, at least on myself. The prospect of tangibility jostled me out of my achy political stupor, while training’s martial framework lined up neatly with my political framework: a two-sided struggle of underdog me (or us) against an unfairly advantaged opposing force. In training, the results of my effort were most palpable on the mats, but I wanted the agency I glimpsed through my body to rub off on other aspects of my life—and the world, even—in ways that were more than symbolic.

That year of living room training with Will coincided with the year I first let myself seriously pursue writing. It also overlapped with my younger brother’s first major psychiatric hospitalization. I viewed both the prospect of creative success and the dangers of my brother’s mental illness through that same martial framework, as though we were grappling with something potentially deadly that—if we could “defeat” it—would make us into winners. The simulated urgency of battle numbed the grief and discomfort that welled up in quieter moments.

I started winning gold medals in local Jiu-Jitsu tournaments while my brother’s mental illness progressed. He became homeless, and I anxiously spun my wheels in writing. The day I surprised myself by tapping out a professional MMA fighter in a Jiu-Jitsu tournament coincided with the day my brother, in a spell of delusion, flashed a kitchen knife at our dad and was brought to the psych ward in a police car. Watching my brother dangle over (and then into) danger made me want to fight harder on the mat, as though those victories would have an effect on his precarity, a precarity that gouged me to my core as the full blossoming of a lifetime of familial loneliness.

However far removed training actually was from the specific hopes and fears I had for my brother and myself, I channeled them into my body as a way to charge through them. Training montages in Rocky and other films about victorious underdogs—the steady increase of momentum and capability in our protagonist, typically against a grim backdrop—are exhilarating in part because of how clearly commitment correlates with success. “Sticking with it” is the cinematic guarantor of victory. The greater the doubt, the more meaningful the victory (and the more tenacious our protagonist must be). I borrowed inspiration from that formula and stuck with training. If in activism my engagement with the broader world had felt abstract and disembodied, in training I brought everything into my body, as though that intense tactility was a meaningful surrogate for things still beyond my reach.

As the months and years passed between my first glimmers of training success and the inauguration of my brother’s homelessness, the passage of time itself felt perilous. Since graduating from college I worked a string of retail jobs and wrote when I could, but otherwise structured my life around my training and coaching responsibilities at the academy Will opened. I was constantly tired, which a recently diagnosed thyroid condition seemed related to but whose treatment had not resolved. The blank white walls of the tiny apartment I shared with my partner, the shortage of doctors who took my state insurance plan, my sparse resumé, my family situation: facing little details of my life evoked a marginal position whose escape was limited by meager energy and time. I traveled to a few high-level Jiu-Jitsu tournaments in California, but that, too, amplified a sense of my small-town insignificance. In moments of my greatest despair I could only hope success would arrive as sudden reversal of vulnerability spreading from body into all areas of my life. That was the intoxicating optimism of fantasy training montages: the worst moments always come before the victorious turning point. Surely someday I’d have to stop wringing myself out like this, but that could wait until I got some proof of this commitment’s yield in a literal or symbolic Rocky Balboa moment.

*

Five years after I met Will and one year after he awarded me a brown belt, I moved to San Diego—not to train Jiu-Jitsu, which is why a lot of people who are into the sport move to California, but to attend an MFA program. The gym to which I’d taken three different city buses as a touring musician became my home academy. Newly relocated and now studying at a fancy university, I planned to establish a more flexible relationship to training. Less competing, more writing and rest and taking care of my body, I thought. But I still ended up cramming training into the available margins of time.

I admired my new teacher—his toughness, his technical brilliance, his intense commitment to the sport—and I made a few true Jiu-Jitsu friends I loved training with. But the school had a different atmosphere than the one Will had fostered. It catered to world-class competitors, a cut-throat path that invites cut-throat training. That physical strain could be cathartic and even fun when I had the energy for it. But sometimes that intensity seemed arbitrary, this charade that I was observing (unexpectedly) from the outside rather than feeling its fervor. Was I losing my edge? Getting soft?

Right before the pandemic hit, I realized that I’d been doing the kinds of pre-class self-soothing I did in the earlier days of training. I had been finding myself drawn into power games by the occasional alpha-male or grunting, upstart blue belt, and was again coaxing myself through the anticipatory anxiety of facing physically powerful men who I wasn’t sure had my safety in mind, and who definitely didn’t approach a sparring session as a mutually beneficial learning opportunity. If anything, that dynamic reinforced a pattern of commitment that was already strained (and straining) against my quietly blossoming disinterest. There was no way I was going to let that petty competition get in the way of something I loved.

It’s true that other people’s status play had no bearing on what mattered to me about the sport, but there are also parallels between that social antagonism and the ways I approached my own desire for capability. My body seemed to represent, for some training partners, a symbolic threshold whose physical dominance meant something about their position in the social landscape. But I also saw my own vulnerability as something to squash down, and whose squashing translated into greater power. My own capacity to drift away from that drive was an inner enemy, a line not to cross—at least not until some hypothetical future when I was older and ready to “settle down.” I quelled any desire not to train before it could form words in my mouth.

The pandemic formed those words for me, or made it temporarily unnecessary. Early evening commutes to the gym through the slog of Southern California rush hour were suddenly replaced with dog walks at reasonable hours of the evening. I substituted the jagged beat of sweaty sparring sessions with rhythmic road runs spent pondering suburban architecture and life in a chronic catastrophe. The less taxing lifestyle I imagined having “someday” was suddenly something I was capable of giving (or withholding from) myself in the present. Sustaining that gift to myself after the crisis passed would require disentangling my love for the sport from the particular ways I expressed that love. This would also require letting go of the particular way I approached not just intensity, but also enmity and conflict.

Something I had loved about riding freight trains was the vertiginous freedom of looking at the world from unscripted angles—the secret beauty of what was behind the frame. Jiu-Jitsu was a lot like that: a vessel that held me in exhilarating motion, something that set me apart from the world while also giving me a place within it. The vantage of its momentum could similarly dwarf the trappings of ordinary life. A career, for example, looked silly and dull in comparison to training, just a side-note to the real game. I stopped train-hopping once it was clear that moving my body around the surface of the continent wasn’t bringing me where I wanted to be. Finding a home in Jiu-Jitsu let me go inside myself, find my body. For all the beauty and strength unearthed in that process, I suspect the only way I knew how to sound out my body was to make it hurt—to find its edges by pushing it to or past its limits.

I thought then that transgressing those edges was auxiliary to the main point, just something to pass on the way to the other side of strength. But how much of my commitment stemmed from the fact of my bruising? What can follow that particular relationship with Jiu-Jitsu if not another extreme measure, something that allows me to place myself against my own body and grief as much as against the abstraction of “the world”?

I might take never training again over training how I used to. But that brittle choice is a reflection of the same bargain made in an unsustainable relationship to training, when I thought my participation “counted” only when I was entirely immersed. Trying to prove how Jiu-Jitsu I am has only diminished my love for it, while puzzling out leverage, angles, pacing, and new shapes I can make with my body actually has very little do with identity. Though I’ve grown less motivated to play games of dominance, I do miss that point of reference for taking on an overwhelming force. Can I again mobilize the desire to be victorious—and do I even want that? That desire has everything and nothing to do with outmaneuvering meathead bullies, or really any oppositional force. Because what I actually miss is the connection Jiu-Jitsu provided to radical curiosity and a humble willingness to focus the long game. This deep process of growth, change, and understanding isn’t tied to how I stack up against others, or any version of myself. Entertaining that curiosity could be what leads me back to Jiu-Jitsu, but I could also see how following it might result in my leaving it behind altogether. If so, it would be training’s paradoxical gift to me—that while it brought me back to the world (and to myself), I need to let training go in order to stay with the world.

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