Awareness · Gracie Jiu Jitsu · Martial Arts · Training

Jiu Jitsu: You Are How You Roll

A jiu jitsu school in Japan in the 1920s.
A jiu jitsu school in Japan in the 1920s.

One of the beautiful things about Gracie Jiu Jitsu is its endlessly customizable nature. As a martial art, jiu jitsu is at the opposite end of the spectrum from doing set forms or kata– although you may learn a technique like an armbar in its ideal, textbook form, in practice you will never execute it in exactly the same way twice. When you’re actually rolling, you will adjust the technique in response to your opponent’s size, strength and flexibility, your own attributes, and how your opponent happens to position himself relative to you.

Furthermore, whether you are small, large, male, female, strong, weak, bendy, or inflexible as a board, jiu jitsu offers options and modifications that you can use to make the techniques accessible to you. There is no ideal physical type for a jiu jitsu player, and in my own school, Gracie NoVa, my teammates have ranged from 5 foot nothing to 6’8″ or more. I’m around 5’5″, weigh around 135, and definitely tend more towards flexibility than strength, so I’m lucky that you don’t have to look like an extra from the movie 300 in order to practice jiu jitsu.

Gracie Jiu Jitsu could even be called a postmodern martial art because it’s entirely subjective and dependent on the individual situation, rather than objective and absolute in its rules. You don’t just “do a technique” on your opponent out of nowhere; rather, you wait for him to make a mistake, presenting an opportunity for you. Rickson Gracie once said that his favorite technique was whatever his opponent gave him.

Jiu jitsu teacher Yukio Tani demonstrates an armbar on professional strongman William Bankier, circa 1906. This technique is not that much different from the one we learn today.
Jiu jitsu teacher Yukio Tani demonstrates an armbar on professional strongman William Bankier, circa 1906. This technique is not that much different from the one we learn today.

Jiu jitsu is all about adapting the art to fit the player, as even its name, which basically translates as “the gentle art” or “the flexible art”, implies.

(Calling jiu jitsu “the gentle art” can be a bit misleading, by the way, as this gives the impression that we’re all just snuggling around on the mat in our retro-looking gi uniforms. When I was a white belt and new to the art, before my skin got accustomed to the abuse, I used to leave class with a leopard-print pattern of bruises on my arms and legs from getting pinched or twisted in my uniform, grabbed, stepped on, or bumped into by someone else’s bony elbows and knees. As you become more smooth and natural in your movements, fortunately, practice becomes much less painful.)

Eventually, good jiu jitsu players will develop their own unique expression of the art that uses their strengths and works around their weaknesses. More recently, however, I’ve noticed that jiu jitsu reveals not only its practicioners’ physical strengths and weaknesses, but their personalities and inner dispositions as well.

You can hide your inner flaws and hang-ups in casual conversation, but you can’t hide how you really are when you’re on the mat. Obviously, you can’t hide if you’re lacking in skills and knowledge, but if you’re angry, insecure, or give up easily, that will inevitably come out as well. On the other hand, there are seemingly meek and gentle types who step onto the mat and endure endless punishment before patiently escaping or submitting their opponent. You might never notice their inner strength if it wasn’t for jiu jitsu.

One of the things I love about jiu jitsu is that it forces this unintentional authenticity from those who practice. The Washington, D.C. metro area is an epicenter of false friendliness and passive-aggression, but all these facades go out the door when people roll, and you get to see the anger and frustration that they’ve been holding bottled up inside them.

If people are happy in their lives, then they often practice jiu jitsu in a happy way as well, rolling playfully rather than angrily with their teammates. Some jiu jitsu players are sneaky and like to try unexpected, painful submissions. Others try to overwhelm you with a headlong show of force. Some like to move slowly and gradually to solidify a good position, while others like to scramble and rely on speed and surprise.

The best jiu jitsu players can roll very hard and aggressively when they need to, but can also play gently with beginners, small people, or those just coming back from an injury. How they adjust their game to help their weaker teammates shows their own sense of consideration for others.

It’s an interesting exercise in awareness to look at your own jiu jitsu style and see what it says about you. For example, if you have only one speed and can’t dial it back when you roll with somebody weaker, you might ask yourself why you feel the constant desire to win and to dominate others, and whether this need actually stems from strength or from insecurity.

My own rolling habits say a lot about me. I enjoy fast but playful rolls, in which both participants try a lot of creative submissions, move around a lot, and reverse each other several times so that neither person stays stuck on the bottom. In rolls like this, I feel completely immersed in the flow and entirely in the moment.

dislike rolls, on the other hand, in which I get stuck on the bottom and can’t get out. It’s not that I can’t breathe under pressure; rather, it’s intensely frustrating to me because I want to move and do different things so badly and hate just sitting there.


This reflects the fact that, since I was a teenager, I’ve basically been addicted to movement. For a long time, before I discovered martial arts and yoga, I got my fix from running. On days when I couldn’t run or exercise, I would become insufferably gloomy, oversensitive, and irritable (okay, sometimes I still have to struggle with this). I use movement to release stress and break my bad habit of worrying.

To take it even further, I can see from my rolling style that I tend to be addicted to “doing” and to accomplishment, and always like to be striving to reach my next goal. I have a hard time sitting still and just “being.” In the D.C. area, this mindset is normally regarded as a strength, but I don’t want to forget to appreciate where I am just because I’m so caught up in planning my next project.

Jiu jitsu is an amazing, rigorous, and effective martial art, but it’s far more than just a way to defend yourself or to win tournaments. If you’re doing it only for the fighting, then you’re missing out on a huge part of what it has to offer.


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