Last week in Jiu Jitsu class as the active part of the warmup began, I noticed something that I found to be very interesting. I immediately was overcome by a profound feeling of elation and happiness. It wasn’t just the kind of happy that one feels when they begin an activity they enjoy, but rather something bordering on a runner’s high type of happiness. This experience led me to wonder about the mental health benefits of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and to search out what some others have had to say about it. Although one could argue that these feelings of joy and elation are simply the result of an endorphin release, and they’d be partly correct, it must be noted that this experience occurred at the beginning of training, and therefore prior to when the endorphin release would be in full effect.
I would argue that at this stage of training I was experiencing a sense of what sociologist Victor Turner calls communitas. This is a sense of a greater community and togetherness that members of a community experience through shared rites of passage such as religious experiences, work, music, sports, and other occurrences. I would argue that BJJ is actually a combination of several of these types of ritual. On the surface, we experience the bonding of sport and functioning together as a team. However, as BJJ is a profound tool for introspection and personal development, we share with our training partners an intensely personal struggle which enables us to form bonds with our teammates that’s similar to those who experience fraternal rituals together, participate in sports teams, or undergo severe physical or mental hardship together.
I often find that when I try to explain how wonderful the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community is, and the intensely positive energy we experience in the academy, people who have never trained any martial art look at me with a blank stare. As martial artists, we share an experience that is unique that only those of us who participate in it can truly understand. This creates an intense bond between all practitioners whether they’ve trained together for years or have only just met.
And of course there’s the BJJ community, which I find to be comprised of some of the nicest, kindest, most helpful people one could ever meet. Being surrounded by that positive energy, it’s nearly impossible not to feel uplifted after training. I find myself leaving the academy feeling like a better person, and wanting to continue to evolve.
As we all know, BJJ is an intensely physical activity which releases tons of endorphins. Therefore, it’s no surprise that most of us experience an endorphin high just like the famous runner’s high. Exercise has been shown to reduce depression, improve memory, and to some degree prevent the onset of dementia. Therefore, it’s no wonder that thirty minutes of drilling followed by another thirty minutes or more of rolling should produce such extreme feelings of euphoria.
Tied to the feelings of euphoria is the meditative aspect of BJJ. When you’re rolling, there’s no time to think; there’s only time to react. Otherwise, reflexes become too slow to be effective. This has the result of freeing the mind to become a blank slate while we act solely on instinct. Learning to exist in such a situation for periods of five minutes or more at a time allow us to clear our minds of any superfluous thoughts and simply exist. Those minutes of rolling are pure meditation. In today’s fast paced world, it’s so rare to an opportunity to truly tune out the static of the outside world and focus only on one simple task. In our case, it’s to submit or be submitted. I live for those rolls when the only thing I hear is the sound of my breathing and my opponent’s breathing, and our roll becomes a conversation. Even working out at the gym isn’t nearly as meditative as there’s often background music, waiting for equipment, moving out of people’s way, etc.
Lastly, there’s the self-growth aspect of BJJ. I love knowing that at 47 years old, I’m a beginner to a discipline that’s brand new to me. It’s absolutely thrilling to approach it as a child and to absorb the material and to learn a new skill that’s so rich and deep. It keeps the mind fresh, alert, and awake. Each training session is every bit as much a mental workout as it is physical.
I’m looking forward to continuing to training BJJ for many years to come. Though I still do strength training at the gym several days a week, I can’t think of a better workout than BJJ. Most importantly, I appreciate the peace of mind it gives me from the meditation of the drilling and the rolling. It’s tempting to measure my progress by the stripes on my belt or my performance on the mat, but sometimes I need to remind myself that if my training is helping me to stay focused, relaxed, and in a good mood, I’m still progressing just fine.