I’ve practiced yoga, a fairly common girl activity, for around five years. Although I’ve been in some classes where the male population edged up towards 50%, it’s safe to say that yoga is a pretty female-dominated sphere. But I’ve also practiced a far less conventionally feminine hobby for a similar time-span.
Usually two or three times a week, I head to a martial arts school housed in a nondescript, warehouse-like building, don a thick, bathrobe-like uniform called a “gi,”, and grapple on the mats with sparring partners of various sizes and builds, of both genders. My martial art of choice is Gracie Jiu Jitsu, which you basically practice by full-contact grappling, or “rolling,” although no striking is allowed. The object is to make your partner “tap out” by catching them in a choke or a joint lock.
I’m happy to say that our school has a healthy number of female students, but men are still a distinct majority there, and there are some classes at which I’m the only girl on the mats. I can’t say it bothers me- in fact, it feels normal and comfortable to me. The bubblegum, day-glo lululemon-wearing, artificially cheerful atmosphere I’ve experienced in some yoga classes makes me far more uncomfortable.
When I tell my yoga friends and acquaintances about my “other” hobby, most of them react with good-natured curiosity and even seem intrigued. They ask me if yoga helps me with my jiu jitsu game (it does). A small minority, however, seem uncomprehending, dismissive, or even snarky about my jiu jitsu proclivities: they associate martial arts with violence and hyper-aggression, and assume that anyone who engages in them must be somehow less evolved, or have some kind of deep, underlying issues that drive them to seek release in this manner.
After I tore my ACL and MCL doing jiu jitsu (a random accident I could have totally avoided, by the way) and had to do yoga in a chair for several months, I really received a chorus of admonitions that I shouldn’t go back to my martial art. They may have been well-meaning, but boy, were they patronizing. I’ve even been asked why I don’t just practice more yoga to get out my excess energy, rather than doing martial arts.
This is why: jiu jitsu teaches me things about myself that I can’t learn from yoga. The two are actually more akin than many imagine: both emphasize learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations, undoing old, bad habits and learning new patterns of thought and movement, and facing up to our areas of discomfort and self-limitation in order to move past them. The philosophies of jiu jitsu and yoga both include the idea that the ego is the enemy, and that we can only learn when we let go of our desire to be perfect or to get everything right the first time.
The difference is that, in jiu jitsu, you will feel fear.
Now, granted, this is not the same level of fear that you would feel if a burly stranger approached you in a dark alley, but it’s perceptible nonetheless. There’s the fear of discomfort (when I started jiu jitsu, before my skin got used to it, my legs were always covered in bruises), pain and injury, and, even more hauntingly, there’s the fear that someone will beat you and be better than you. In fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed that someone will catch you and make you tap.
In jiu jitsu, you have to contend with your own ego and with outside threats simultaneously.
Jiu jitsu basically takes all your fears and insecurities and confronts you with them, typically in the form of a healthy, 200-pound white belt with arm muscles so large that his sleeves are straining to contain them, who really, really wants to catch you and make you tap because you’re a higher belt than he is. If you succeed in catching someone bigger, you’ll feel elation and self-applause- but can you be humble and let go of that? If a lower belt catches you, can you be humble and let go of the sting of that, too, and simply acknowledge his skill?
Although all martial arts can teach us these lessons, Gracie Jiu Jitsu, in particular, will teach you your own strengths and weaknesses. Jiu Jitsu heavily emphasizes live sparring, rather than practicing forms, or punching the air or a heavy bag. You quickly learn what techniques you can and can’t pull off, and it cuts through our layers of illusion about ourselves like nothing else. Of course, the relationship between jiu jitsu and yoga also goes the other way, and yoga teaches me things about myself, in turn, that jiu jitsu can’t.
Sometimes when you are grappling in jiu jitsu and a larger opponent gets the upper hand and puts pressure on you, you get a momentary feeling of claustrophobia and not being able to breathe. It’s not that you actually can’t breathe, it’s just that you panic for a second. My martial arts teachers told me this story: a famous jiu jitsu player, Rickson Gracie, once struggled while learning jiu jitsu as a child because he feared the feeling of being suffocated. His older cousin Rolls helped him to confront these fears by rolling him up in a heavy living-room carpet and sitting next to him while he was immobilized inside, talking to him and telling him that everything was ok until Rickson calmed down. This is what jiu jitsu and yoga do to us- they roll us up in the metaphorical carpet of our own insecurities and fears, and leave us there until we discover that, truly, those fears are not too big for us to handle.