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4 Oct 2013

The language of rolling – In an effort to get myself into better shape, some time back I decided to take up jiujitsu (specifically Brazilian jiujitsu, or BJJ, as I will refer to it from now on). My body, however, apparently missed the memo, and on the very first day I strained an intercostal muscle (these are the muscles in between your ribs—the kind that you never really think about until it suddenly hurts to breathe). Not realizing the extent of my injury, I went back a few days later and made it worse, ensuring that I could not do any sort of training for a month. This was during a semester break—the idea was to take advantage of the time and get a good, solid start—but by the time my injury healed the new semester had started and I was too busy to go to the gym (which is all the way over in Shinchon, roughly an hour each way by public transportation).

“Language is communication through words; BJJ is communication through motion.”

As it happens, two of my colleagues do jiujitsu, and they came up with the idea of training somewhere a little closer to campus. We found some space on campus and started training two days a week. It was rough going at first, and I ended up injuring myself a lot. Nothing terribly serious, but enough to make training regularly difficult. So we spent a lot of time in the beginning working on basic conditioning and drilling, and avoiding rolling (this is the BJJ term for sparring) for the time being.

This was last semester. We took a break over the summer, and once the new semester started we started training again twice a week (although I also do some light weight training with one of those two colleagues on another day). I have been meaning to write about my experiences for some time now, but it never seemed to be the right time. I’m not planning on waiting until I become an expert, of course, as that would take years and I don’t realistically see myself becoming an expert in BJJ. But it always felt like I should wait until I had at least some experience before I tried writing about it.

On Mondays it’s just me and one of my two colleagues, and this week after doing some conditioning and drilling (for some reason there does not seem to be such a thing as an easy BJJ drill—everything is torture), it was decided that it was time for me to roll a bit. Only slightly apprehensive, I got down on the mat and did my best. My colleague, of course, went very easy on me, letting me try different things and even letting me put him in submission holds, offering just enough resistance so I had to work at it. When we were done, he said he was very impressed with my progress since the last time we rolled, that I didn’t feel like a “first-day-at-the-gym kind of guy” anymore, and that I “moved well for a beginner.” I have to say it felt pretty good to get some praise from a guy who’s been doing BJJ for years. So, now that I move well for a beginner and am not just flailing around on the mat like an epileptic walrus, I feel that I can say something about BJJ as a relatively new initiate.

I guess I should start out by explaining what BJJ is. If you watch any sort of mixed martial arts you will already know, but if you’re not into that sort of thing, BJJ is essentially a style of wrestling (in MMA it’s called a “grappling” art). It differs from Greco-Roman or freestyle wrestling in that the goal is not to pin your opponent but submit him. This is done in a variety of ways, but generally involves holds and locks that inflict sufficient pain and discomfort to cause your opponent to tap out. I know that official matches are scored, and you get points for takedowns and that sort of thing, but we haven’t bothered with scores so I’m not really sure how that works. If you’ve seen any judo, it is sort of a cousin to judo, relying less on throws and more on holds and locks. This, at any rate, is my understanding of BJJ so far.

I am not a complete newcomer to martial arts, though. When I was much younger, I trained in Kyokushin karate for a number of years and attained the level of brown belt. Of course, my age now compared to how old I was when I did karate makes a big difference in how hard BJJ is for me, but the age factor manifests primarily in how long it takes me to recover from injury. I’m also probably not as strong as I was back then, simply because I didn’t exercise a lot for a few years (mostly while I was writing my dissertation), but I’m working on that. The real difference, though, is in the martial arts themselves: karate is a striking art, while BJJ, as I mentioned above, is a grappling art.

Why is this so important? Well, the fact of the matter is that everyone knows how to punch and kick. You may not be able to do it well, of course, but you know how to do it. Heck, babies do it before they are even born. Karate and other striking arts are a matter of honing and refining your technique so you become as efficient and as powerful as possible. You might think that the same could be said for grappling, and to some extent, yes, everyone knows how to wrestle: you just grab your opponent and roll around on the ground (they don’t call it “rolling” for nothing). But there is a fundamental difference between instinctive grappling and BJJ. A baby, for example, does not instinctively know how to pass guard or get someone in a Kimura. At least in my experience, there is little to nothing that is instinctive in BJJ—when I first started, I quickly discovered that just about every one of my instincts was wrong and would lead to pain when faced with a skilled BJJ practitioner.

I still remember that first day, when I was faced with my first opponent and told to spar. I had no idea what to do. Everything I tried seemed to be ineffective. Of course, someone new to karate would probably also have a hard time landing a punch on a skilled practitioner, but I don’t think it would feel quite so alien. Because BJJ felt very alien to me. I had to “unlearn” instincts and habits that had developed and replace them with movements that did not come naturally. This is why hearing from my colleague that I moved well for a beginner made me so happy. And I could feel it, too. I am still very much a beginner and woefully inept compared to my colleague, but I felt like I actually had some idea of what I was doing. Things that had once been awkward were now coming more easily, and although I struggled a lot and wasted a lot of energy, I did have a strategy in my mind. At one point I gained side control (the opponent is on his back and you are controlling him from a position that is on top and perpendicular to his body—i.e., the side) and, remembering what I had learned in our transition drills, tightened up everything as much as possible. My colleague said, “Wow, that’s really good side control.” Of course, I lost it again after a short while, but it was a good start. I trained again today, this time with both of my colleagues (my other colleague has been doing BJJ for even longer), and I got some words of encouragement from him as well. So I’m making progress. Granted, it’s very slow progress, but I’m in no rush.

I’ve been thinking about my progress in BJJ this week, and I’ve come to the conclusion that learning BJJ is a lot like learning a language. Languages have a basic grammar that needs to be mastered; BJJ has a grammar of principles that need to be mastered. Languages have vocabularies that allow you to say what you want to say; BJJ has a vocabulary of techniques that allow you to say what you want to say. Language is communication through words; BJJ is communication through motion (granted, most of what you are trying to say can be summed up as “pain”).

Right now I feel that I am still in the beginning stages of learning to speak BJJ, if I can be allowed to continue with the language metaphor for a moment. When it comes time to have a conversation, I get down on the mat with one of my colleagues and think about what I want to say. To be honest, I don’t have too many greetings at the moment—my standard greeting is “control opponent’s legs and try for side control.” I will then go through certain phrases that I have memorized and practiced, fumbling and bumbling through the words and grammar, until I reach a certain point. Then I have to stop and think about what to say next. Of course, you never stop thinking when you talk, but the thought process a beginning language learner goes through is very different from the thought process a native speaker goes through. The beginning language learner will most likely be thinking in his native language and trying to translate those thoughts into the new language. I’m still at the stage where I have to stop and think, “OK, this is what I want to communicate, but how exactly do I go about saying it?” If I take too long to say something, my colleagues will generally say something to prompt me into action or, if it has become clear that I have exhausted my vocabulary and my energy, to end the conversation rather definitively. Sometimes, if I am on a roll, they will let me follow a line of dialogue through to the end and wrap up the conversation myself.

That might have seemed a bit silly, and it might have been confusing to those not familiar with BJJ or other forms of submission wrestling, but I do think it is a pretty good analogy. I remember when I first started learning Korean; I went through a stage that every language learner goes through at some point: I had mastered enough Korean to be able to ask people for directions, but I had not mastered enough Korean to understand what people were saying in reply. It’s a tough stage to be in, and you generally end up having to rely on gestures a lot, but thankfully it doesn’t last forever. Right now I can very tentatively ask for directions in BJJ, but I have a hard time understanding the replies. Unlike most actual conversations, though, the content of the dialogue is not information but pain, and failing to understand the reply means that you quickly end up in some very uncomfortable positions.

I don’t expect to ever be able to “win” a real conversation with my colleagues, but at some point I do hope to make them sweat a little for the tap. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the learning process and feeling better physically than I have in quite some time. And I think that sums up my experience so far with BJJ.

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