Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: It's Not Just for the MMA

Get Inside the Ring

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Before walking into Aces Ju Jitsu Club in Austin, TX as part of my ClassPass trial, my knowledge of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) was pretty much limited to a few Royce Gracie videos I'd seen on YouTube. And had I actually internalized the fact that BJJ is pretty much focused on body-to-body, ground fighting, I probably wouldn't have signed up at all.

But as it was, I found myself in a gym - the only woman in the class - being asked to get down on the mats in compromising positions with strange men.

I've been with my husband since I was 18, so the idea of wrapping my legs around a stranger seemed... well, awkward... but I've never been one to walk away from a challenge.

Instead, I took a deep breath and told myself, "Embrace the awkward."

I'm so glad I did.

The Basics of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

BJJ is both a martial art and a sport designed to improve physical fitness, teach self-defense and promote a healthy way of life. What sets BJJ apart from most other martial arts is that it's purpose is to "even the playing field" between large and small opponents. In other words - its strong emphasis on ground fighting technique makes it possible for a smaller, lighter-weight individual to overcome someone bigger and stronger.

Rather than try to overpower an opponent with brute strength, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu focuses on using specific body positions and techniques to create leverage around a joint to move an opponent's limb past its normal range of motion.

Essentially, it teaches you how to work your opponent's body into a position that would break a limb if the opponent didn't submit.

My First Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Class

The class I attended was fairly small - roughly 8-10 students - and with the exception of myself, they were all men, and had all been to at least one previous class.

The class started innocently enough with a series of rolls - front and back - and "shrimping." Since these moves were all new to me, I was matched up with one of the instructors and another student who wanted a refresher.

"Shrimping," as I discovered, is a movement that's essential to some of the other ground-fighting skills, so it was a good introduction into the seemingly unnatural positions you learn throughout the class. You can check out a video on shrimping here.

We then paired up to work on technique drills for mounts, guards, joint locks, and submissions. This is where things could have gotten awkward, but surprisingly, they weren't.

What I discovered is that even though the very first thing I had to do was straddle my partner and put my hands on his chest as he wrapped his legs around my waist and locked his ankles behind my back was that there was nothing sexual about this position. For one thing, an instructor was standing right next to us, constantly providing step-by-step instruction on the next movement.

And even more importantly, once I got down on the ground, it suddenly felt like I was in a fight - like I needed to take my opponent down, or risk being taken down.

This feeling of "fight for your life" was amplified even further when we had to switch positions, and suddenly I found myself lying on my back on the ground, a guy bigger than me straddling my waist and pinning me to the mat with his arms. I suddenly thought, "Oh my word - this could really happen to me. Women are attacked and raped every day. I could find myself in this position, and I want - no, I need - to know how I can fight back."

And I did.

Even though I've only attended one class (so far), I found it incredibly empowering because I learned firsthand how to out-maneuver a bigger, stronger opponent to break away from a submission. And because of the progressive nature of the class, I also learned how I could force a bigger, stronger opponent into submission.

Why I'll Go Back

After leaving class, the first thing I did was text my brother and sister to tell them to enroll my nieces in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Not only did I enjoy the class more than I thought I might (I really do love learning new things, and I don't mind high-contact sports), but from a self-defense standpoint, it makes sense for women to learn the art. While many other forms of self-defense focus on avoiding potentially-dangerous situations, or finding a way to flee to safety before ending up on the ground and under attack (all valuable skills, to be sure!), not all situations are completely avoidable, and women should know how to protect themselves with confidence.

Not to mention, even though I didn't feel overly winded during class, or like I was exerting extreme effort while grappling, the next day I was much more sore than expected. Turns out, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a great all-around workout.

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