I expected to be sore. After the first class of any other fitness program, I usually have difficulty moving the next day. I have looked and felt a bit like Frankenstein, but not this time. Now, I didn’t do much in the first class, but I’m glad for the freedom from soreness.
To be honest, the first class was a little anti-climatic. I wasn’t horribly anxious, and I impressed myself by staying in a beginner’s mindset. I seemed to have “left my ego in the parking lot.” (This is something I will hear a number of times today).
In this class, I expect to “roll”. This is live jiu-jitsu, full speed-ish, one-on-one conflict until someone taps out. Ethan has already told me, “As a beginner, you’re going to feel like tapping out is all you’re doing.”
I know this is how you learn, some instruction and then live application.
Kind of like watching kids start crawling:
"Hey, I can push myself up on all fours."
"These four limbs move" (falls flat on belly a few hundred times).
Then all of a sudden--"I’m flying across this room now!”
Then they move to walking: “I think I can stand up." (pause, falls on bum) "No, I can’t. "
(A few hundred repeats later.) "Look at me I’m standing!”
Take a step, fail. Take a step, fail. Take a step, fail. Take a new step, fail. Pretty soon you’ve incorporated those foundational principles so deeply, you forget you once didn’t know them.
I’m expecting lots of failures.
I’m not sure what my visceral response will be to live “rolling”. My parents were not aggressive people. My dad never taught me to fight. I usually just find ways to avoid physical conflict. Whenever I’ve been in that situation, my flight or fight response is freeze. I just lock up, shut down. My mind would be flopping like a fish on the dock, but my body was stuck. This response didn’t lead to me getting beat up, but being ridiculed. So, I always keep a low physical profile.
In middle age, I’m less cautious about verbal conflict when debating ideas. I’ve become much more comfortable with speaking my mind (if I actually think the other person is listening). However, if someone really wants to get into to, I shut down and say little to nothing. This has served me pretty well. Better to keep your mouth shut, than to open it and prove you’re an idiot (a poor version of a Mark Twain saying).
My heart rate goes up a few beats as I pull into the parking lot. I take a deep breath and go inside. I’m greeted by the smiles of Ethan and Renee.
“I need to borrow a gi for today.”
The kimono or gi is the martial arts uniform for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. (Because this martial art originated in Japan, the uniform is called a kimono by some. Kimono means “a thing to wear.” Today, in common parlance it’s seen as a more formal dress. Gi comes keikogi “training gear”. (Thanks to BJJHeroes.)
Walking over to where the loaner gis are, I’m still amazed at how seriously clean this gym is. It tells me they are intentional in caring for the equipment, which means they are serious about caring for the members. As it should be, but often isn’t (and not just in this industry).
“What size do you think?” Ethan asks.
“I’ve been on-line. Maybe A2?”
Ethan hands me a gi--jacket, pants, and belt.
“Holy Cow, this thing is heavy!”
Heavy woven cotton, durable and tough. It’s unlike the lightweight TaeKwonDo uniforms my son used to wear. The gi is an outfit made for work. It reminds me of the coveralls my and I used to wear on the farm--made for serious abuse.
Ethan hands me a couple of others until we find a fit. The lesser quality gis shrink a lot after hundreds of washes, so getting the right size is trial and error.
Finally, this one seems good enough. It’s black. It’s awkward.
I feel a bit like the Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man rolled in soot.
Ethan has to go and man the desk. I dress and am left on the mats, alone.
Crab, ape, stiff-legged bear. I’m working on some of my gymnastic warm ups which open up the hips and hamstrings. Sweating already. I do some of the jiu-jitsu moves taught in the first class: front roll, back roll, breakdance, technical get up (am I even remembering these names right?).
David, the instructor comes in. His kimono pants come to mid-shin. Clearly, he has worn and washed this many times. Other guys appear. Some the same, some different from the first class. We line up again. I’m white belt, farthest to the left. (Farthest to the right from the instructor’s viewpoint.) The newbie. In martial arts, you always know where you stand.
We bow and warm up: jogging, front roll, back roll, sprawl and (a move I will come to find out is bread and butter) shrimp.
For shrimp, you simply move from your back to a side-lying position with your butt sticking out, arms and legs close together. It’s a bit like child’s pose in yoga only on your side. I will do this move at least 50 times today.
David gets us going with instruction on a basic move to get someone who is on top of you, into a position where you can wrap your legs around their hips--bottom guard.
Bottom guard: you are on your back with your legs wrapped around your opponent’s waist and feet locked. This sounds (and feels) like a disadvantaged position, but better to be in control of their hips than to have them controlling yours.
I’m paired with A, another white belt, but former judo practitioner. He’s 6’2” or 6’3” and strong. He’s also patient, which makes for a good training partner. My nervousness causes me to want to move quickly. Alex tells me to slow down.
“We don’t have to go fast, take your time.” Wise words. And not just for on the mat.
Then, we train our first submission move. When wearing the gi, you are free to grab it and use it to your advantage. I’m not used to grabbing someone’s clothing in an aggressive manner (or any manner, really). Jiu-Jitsu is all about being in someone’s personal space. This is new territory for me. I’ve got a big guy between my legs and on top of me and I’m supposed to put him into submission?
I don’t think about the awkwardness until later. I’ve left my ego in the parking lot and am in beginner’s mind. In the moment, I’m soaking it in.
Next, we roll.
David puts me with R, a more advanced belt. I’m not sure if it’s blue or green; his belt is faded and my colorblindness doesn’t help. A faded belt means a lot of washing, which means years on the mat.
“Here’s what we do at the beginning of every roll.” he says as we bow, slap hands, give a fist bump.
Now, we are in it.
Immediately my mind is racing. Our heads are close together. We’re standing up, circling each other, hands trying to find a place to grab or go.
What am I supposed to do now? Interior dialogue--”don’t let him get your arms! Letting him have your arms is not good. Ok, he’s trying to pull you down. Don’t resist too much, but don’t let him have his way either.”
Next thing I know, I’m on top of him sideways, one arm under his neck, the other under his shoulder, my shoulder digging into his chin, all my weight on him. Side guard. Now what??
My breathing has gotten away from me. I see him calculating his next move. I don’t have a next move.
Just hold on. Just hold on.
Breathe, Joel. Breathe.
I think our rounds of rolling are 3.5 or 4 minutes. This one seems like 20. I tap out a number of times. R teaches me a few things. I’m grateful. The bell dings, we shake hands, bow, and he says, “First time? Good job!”
I think my kimono is full of sweat.
David tells the new guys to set out the next round.
I do some stretching and watch. The upper belts use their feet and the uniform much more than the lower belts. There is some incidental bleeding. The bell goes off in what feels like a minute.
Now, I’m paired with Z, a former wrestler.
David chimes in, “We shouldn’t let wrestlers do jiu-jitsu.” I’m not sure what he means. Then he says, “Work with Joel, it’s his first time.” Yep, I’m a rolling virgin.
Z, like everyone here, is gracious and patient. He talks me through a few things. “Don’t ever give me your back. Always face me.” He’s lean and definitely has skills. I can tell he’s taking it easy on me. I don’t know how many times I tap out, but the round mercifully ends.
The class is over.
We bow and I’m ready for a shower and a meal. My body has that calorie depleted feeling. I like it, as it means I’ve actually done some work.
The guys in the locker room are great. There’s the usual lying about how unskilled they are. Then some philosophy about learning and getting better at jiu-jitsu.
I’m in. I decide to buy my first gi and sign the contract.
What have I gotten myself into?