You'd be hard-pressed to find a commonly accepted definition of what jiu jitsu is. One person will tell you it's a martial art. One person will tell you it's a sport. Another–a therapy. For me, it's all of those things. However, identifying what jiu jitsu is becomes unimportant when you start considering what it does. This past year has been a royal swift kick to the nuts of our collective mental health. Yet, in the midst of lockdowns, political tumult, and social strife, one thing that has been there unchanged and resolute in its offering is jiu jitsu. It may sound odd that of all things, jiu jitsu is what I choose to hero with such praise, but I think you'll understand why. Shoulder cranks, knee reaps, blood, and sweat usually don't sound cathartic. If jiu jitsu was purely those things, I'd reconsider things. But it's not. It's something that came into my life in early 2013 that has changed its course.
Walking into a jiu jitsu gym, you'd probably be underwhelmed after reading the above. You'd enter to see grown men and women in robes with different color belts at their waists contorting their bodies on a beat up piece of mat. You'd see a circle form around one person displaying a technique in slow, precise fashion. The students would scatter and replicate the technique on each other. Towards the end of class, you'd see them spar. There's nothing ceremonious or grand. "This is what all the sappy sentiment is about?", you may ask yourself. Your question would be warranted. You would see the students entangled with each other, jockeying for position, and occasionally tapping their partners to surrender to an attack. From your perspective, you most likely wouldn't fathom what was occurring. "Why do people love this?", you hear yourself think. But then you begin to look more closely at what is actually happening. Upon doing so, the kimonos seem a little less weird. You start to notice expressions of joy. Smiles, grins, and even laughter emerge from the mass of heaving gis. What just earlier appeared as an uncomfortable chokehold resolves itself as a congratulatory moment between two peers. One explains the technique as the other listens intently. The gratitude is palpable and they slap hands to begin the process over. You begin to see even deeper into what's happening. Your mind navigates past the physical and you begin to see the stories of those in front of you. You see people who've recently lost their fathers and are actively undergoing therapy at the hands of their training partner. You see people for the first time in their entire day be fully present and not lingering on what's been hanging heavy on them. You see egos evaporate when rendered defenseless to the onslaught of superior skill and experience. You now begin to understand that jiu jitsu is not just a martial art, sport, or therapy. It's a beautiful confluence of those things interacting with each other.
At the end of every class, we line up according to rank. The white belts shuffle down to the left side of the mat as the higher belts filter towards the right. We stand shoulder to shoulder; often still catching our breaths from tough rolls. We stand and face our instructor who looks upon his pupils with pride and contentment. He lowers his head and recites a prayer in half English and half Portuguese. It's one that expresses gratitude. To what? To his students, to being alive, to God. I'm not a religious man, but for a moment I join in the prayer of gratitude. Amen. We then, one by one, bow and approach our professor for a hand shake and hug. We then line up behind him and receive the same ceremony from the team until each and every person is shown gratitude and respect.
After class, we joke around and catch up while we clean the mats. We reminisce on the tough rolls, discuss technique, and debate the victors on the next UFC card. We say good night as each person departs. As I turn off the lights and lock up the gym, I say goodbye to a few of the guys chatting in the parking lot not quite ready to leave, start my truck, and begin the journey home. I relish in how much better I feel in comparison to when I first arrived to class. I feel happy. I feel successful. I feel at ease. It doesn't really matter what jiu jitsu is. For those feelings I feel will always be more important than any definition.