The Mental Health Benefits of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

The Mental Health Benefits of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

 

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.

Advertisements

Injury Prevention After 40

Injury Prevention After 40

Every once in a while I’m reminded that although I’m often rolling with teammates who are twenty years younger than I am, my body just can’t operate at the same physical intensity as it did when I was in my twenties. I can tell when I’m pushing it too far by one of several symptoms. I sometimes am more prone to injury, fatigue, or even illness. I’ve developed a few ways to prevent these symptoms in order to allow me to train as regularly as possible.

Don’t Over-train

This may seem obvious, but it’s often difficult to resist the temptation to attend class every day. Those of you who practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu know just how addictive it can be. It’s taken a while, but I’ve found three to four times per week to be the sweet spot. Any more than that and I begin to feel fatigue, and sometimes even begin to feel sick. I also get sloppy on the mat, which can sometimes result in injury or more aches and pains due to pulled muscles. I also am careful about balancing the rolling classes with drilling classes. If I want to train an extra class, I’ll take a class that focuses more on drilling so that I can at least go through the movements on the mat.

Sleep

Even though we’re not all UFC fighters who can sleep ten hours per night to properly recover during their training camps, it’s still absolutely essential to get enough rest to allow our bodies to fully recover from our training. BJJ or any other combat sport takes a much bigger toll on the body than playing a round of golf. This is also an important for one’s safety and it’s important to be fully alert when doing any combat sport. We need to know when to tap, and to have quick reflexes to respond to our opponent’s tap. And of course there’s the issue special awareness, performing techniques properly and safely, etc. Personally, I need my seven to eight hours of sleep per night if I’m training regularly.

Nutrition

Again, this may seem obvious, but there are other aspects to it as well. I’ve found myself trying to count calories and have discovered that if I’m training regularly, I’ll sometimes not eat enough calories or hit the right nutrition macros to properly fuel my body. First of all, there’s that whole hydration thing. When I’m training regularly, I drink water constantly, and most especially following class in order to assist with the recuperation process. Second, whenever possible, I try to make sure that the food I’m eating is high in nutritional content. Also, following workouts I’ll often eat a banana to make sure I’m getting enough potassium, and I generally try to avoid those heavily sugared sports drinks that try to pass themselves off as being healthy.

Strength and Conditioning

I know some younger BJJ practitioners who claim that to get better at BJJ, you just need to do BJJ and that extra strength and conditioning aren’t so important. For those of us over 40, that’s not so much the case. We need to make sure our bodies are in good shape for the stress that BJJ places on them. I find it’s necessary to perform some assistance exercises about once or twice per week. I’ve experimented quite a bit and here’s what I’ve found works for me.

Simple & Sinister: This workout plan by the kettlebell guru Pavel Tsatsouline is pretty darn effective. You do 5 Turkish Getups per side and 100 kettlebell swings. That’s it. It’s simple enough that it doesn’t interfere with your BJJ training, yet sinister enough to give the body a good workout. The getups and the swings both address strength through compound exercises, and the swings also give a good conditioning workout.

Basic Compound Workout: This my favorite and in my opinion, the most effective. This workout routine consists of three compound exercises that each address different types of movement. You need a pull, a push, and a hip hinge. All three are useful and quite necessary in both BJJ and life in general. Here are some examples:

Pull: Pullups, barbell rows, or rowing machine

Push: Pushups, overhead kettlebell presses, or barbell military press

Hip Hinge: Deadlifts, kettlebell swings, or barbell squats

Travel: When I travel, it’s very easy for my workout routine to become unhinged. I’ve recently begun traveling with a TRX GO Suspension Training Kit so that I can complete a full body workout in any hotel room.

I’ll sometimes add a few sets of kettlebell swings or snatches as a finisher. And of course, it’s extremely important to stretch. I find the older I get the more important the stretching part is.

Summary

All of this may seem fairly obvious, but when life happens, we get busy, and we get very eager to roll with our teammates, it can be very easy to forget about proper rest, nutrition, and assistance exercises. There’s no need to go over the top with any of these things. It’s just important to be mindful and aware. A few nights of poor sleep isn’t the end of the world, and a few chocolate chip cookies every once in a while won’t destroy our training. Also, there’s no need to strength train as if we’re preparing for a powerlifting competition. The most important thing is using good form and using enough resistance to maintain and hopefully build some extra strength. We want to save our energy for our BJJ training. The important things is to incorporate as much of these concepts into our daily routine as possible so that we can continue our BJJ training as healthy and injury free as possible.

Nutrition: A Constant Conundrum

Nutrition: A Constant Conundrum

As someone who travels frequently for work, it’s often very difficult to maintain a good diet. This is something I’ve been struggling with throughout my journey. I’ve tried calorie counting, Weight Watchers, various iOS apps, and reading a number of books. I think I’ve finally found something that works, provided that I maintain a certain amount of willpower.

 

Calorie Counting and 10,000 Steps Per Day

At first, I had to make some lifestyle changes. For me, the best way to do this was to quantify my caloric intake. Even though my iOS app of choice, MyFitnessPal, wasn’t always 100% accurate, it forced me to stay accountable for the food I ate. And my Fitbit forced me to commit to leading a more active lifestyle. Fortunately, NYC is a walking city, so it was easy to maintain a regular schedule of long walks, whether to and from work or just while running errands.

The tricky part came when I began doing strength training more often and with increasing intensity. I found that in an effort to meet my calorie cutting goals (at least according to my iOS app), I would begin to see signs of overtraining or undereating. Something had to change.

 

Eat To Live

My personal trainer recommended that I read the book Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Furhman. This is when it all began to click for me. Dr. Furhman is a strong advocate for a strictly plant based diet, which is not something that interests me. However, the main takeaway from his book, at least for me, is his emphasis on being mindful of the quality of the nutrients that one puts in their body. In other words, it’s not just a matter of cutting calories, but rather ensuring that the calories one ingests are truly providing useful fuel for the body.

This approach made a lot of sense to me, and I found it quite liberating to finally be free of the calorie cutting model. According to Fuhrman, our bodies naturally know when to tell us to stop eating when what we’re eating is the fuel that nature intended for us. Not having the desire to micro-manage my diet, I broke my nutrition down into a set of several rules: 1) stay hydrated by drinking lots of water, 2) cut down on (and eliminate as much as possible) processed sugar, 3) eat as many fruits and vegetables as possible throughout the day, 4) eat at least one large salad per day with minimal dressing, 5) cut back on animal protein, and 6) keep alcohol to a minimum. And when choosing between two foods for a snack or a meal, I ask myself “which is a better source of fuel?”.

Of course there are times when schedule, availability, or emotions get in the way, but if I can stay on track most of the time, I figure that I’m doing okay. And there are times when it seems silly not to indulge a bit. After all, I still have a sweet tooth and a love for steak, so I just keep it to an absolute minimum and allow myself these pleasures when I know I’m in a situation in which I have access to a truly memorable culinary experience. Personally, I’d rather have a great steak or a great dessert only every once in a while, but when I do have them, they’d better be seriously off the charts amazing!

 

Managing Diet on the Road

Here’s where it gets tricky, although I’ve developed some strategies for staying on track when traveling.

Airports are the most difficult. There are temptations all around, and the healthy choices are usually quite unappealing. These days, it’s usually possible to find a decent salad in an airport, so that’s a big help. Also, the more I can fill up on fruit and nuts (provided that I control the portion size), the less likely I’ll be to make impulsive eating decisions. Continuing to stay hydrated helps stave off the hunger too. If I stop for a meal, I make every effort possible to eat “real” food. No hamburgers, pizza, etc. And if I must have sweets, I’ll pick up a small piece of gourmet chocolate to satisfy the craving. On the airplane, particularly on long haul flights, I allow myself to indulge, which makes the flight much more enjoyable and helps me to stay under control after I land.

Hotels don’t have to be a trap. Restaurant staff in hotel restaurants will usually gladly try to accommodate any reasonable substitution request. And those buffet breakfasts can actually be helpful. I always start with a healthy serving of fruit and a hard-boiled egg or two. Beyond that, I evaluate the quality of the individual items to decide the best choices. Yogurt, granola (in small portions), and potatoes can be options depending upon the freshness, quality, etc. I never drink juice and I always drink a lot of water, especially at breakfast. I’m also not ashamed to admit (well, maybe just a little) that I’ve been known to take an apple and banana or two from the breakfast buffet as a snack later in the day. It’s important to remember that many hotels will provide a refrigerator in your room if you ask. Even if you must pay a fee, this is incredibly helpful as it allows you to keep healthy food options constantly available to you. I find that if I have healthy food to snack on throughout the day, I’m much less likely to let my nutrition go off the rails when I’m eating out.

 

Lifestyle Changes

By now, I’ve been doing this for long enough that it’s become part of my lifestyle. I still go off the rails at times, but I’m able to get back on track fairly quickly. The biggest help is having a plan in advance. This eliminates any stress related to unknown situations. It’s still a struggle, but having a plan in place is key. The more I concern myself with my nutrition and not whether or not I’m adhering to a “diet”, the more successful I am.

 

 

 

 

 

Why Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?

Why Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?

The Initial Spark

When I set about to learn a martial art, I never imagined that I would have found myself in the world of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, commonly referred to as BJJ for short. As I mentioned in my previous post, I discovered BJJ through a No-Gi class at my former Krav Maga academy. As I had wrestled in junior high school and enjoyed impromptu wrestling matches with my buddies during my high school years, learning a grappling centered art seemed natural. However, I was completely unprepared for what I discovered in that first BJJ class.

First of all, everything was much more difficult than any physical activity or workout I had ever experienced before. For the first time in a long time, I was so winded that I didn’t even know if I could finish the class. Aside from the physical demands, learning the coordination required for the drills and moves we were learning was incredibly frustrating. I wasn’t prepared to move my body in such unfamiliar ways, and everything seemed so incredibly complicated. When it came time to roll (spar), I was even more lost. Everything I tried to do just seemed wrong, and I kept getting submitted so quickly that I had so idea what was happening. In short, the experience was so frustrating that it actually seemed like my opponent was doing a magic trick.
At the end of the class, I was beat up pretty badly, but I also noticed that everyone was incredibly nice, supportive, helpful, and friendly, and they genuinely wanted to make sure that I had a great experience. In short, I was hooked. I was determined to learn what this art was all about. At this point, I hadn’t heard of the Gracie family and knew nothing about their involvement with the UFC. I simply recognized BJJ as a fascinating, challenging, and beautiful art and I was determined to learn it.

 

My Jiu Jitsu Journey Begins

The next week I signed up for an introductory offer for new students at Vitor Shaolin’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy, otherwise known as Modern Martial Arts in midtown Manhattan. I got two classes and a basic starter Gi. I was immediately impressed with the high level of instruction, the focus on safety, and how friendly and helpful everyone was. I joined right away and never looked back.
Starting any martial art, and particularly BJJ, after the age of 40 has its own challenges, even for someone who’s in relatively decent shape, as I was at that time. My schedule as a musician often made it difficult to train as regularly as I would have liked, so my development was even slower. However, I get so much more out of BJJ than just whether or not I can submit my opponents or whether I earn another stripe on my belt.


Benefits of Jiu Jitsu

First of all, it’s an amazing physical workout. I’ve never found a better way to work my cardio than BJJ. Even the warmups are more strenuous than any running or biking I’ve ever done. BJJ also works strength as so much of the grappling game requires the practitioner to do standard pushing, pulling, gripping, squatting, and hip-hinge movements so essential to everyday life.

Jiu Jitsu is an amazing mental workout. At my age, it’s rare for people to take up learning a new skill. I was surprised at how difficult it was (and still is) to remember the moves being taught, acquire the coordination to perform them, and develop the memory to retain them. This art constantly tests my memory, my spatial relationships, as well as my strategic thinking. It’s really like learning another language.
It’s a form of meditation. When I’m drilling a new move or rolling with my opponent, the only thing I can think about is what I’m doing in that moment. All other thoughts go out the window. So for that hour I’m in class, it’s a magical experience during which time stands still. When I’m in the middle of a good roll with a well matched opponent, the only thing I hear is the sound of my breathing and I simply move without thinking. It’s difficult to convey just how great you feel from the endorphins that are released during such an activity. When I leave class, I’m on a natural high for days. I finally understand what runners have been talking about for all this time. When I’m training regularly, I feel happier, more relaxed, and more in touch with the world and other human beings.
The BJJ community is made up of some of the most wonderful and interesting people you could ever meet. I’ve trained in my home academy in NYC and have visited schools in Philadelphia, Hamburg, London, Osaka, and Tokyo. Without exception, I was welcomed warmly and made to feel at home. Even language wasn’t a barrier. As long as I joined the class with respect, humility, kindness, and a desire to learn, I was welcomed.

 

Summary

At this point, I’m hooked. I’d love to eventually earn my black belt, but it’s more important to me to know that I’m learning and developing. The belts will happen naturally. The biggest surprise for me has been learning that BJJ is an art form that has a profoundly positive impact on my character and I believe it helps its practitioners to be the best human beings they can possibly be.

How This Journey Began

How This Journey Began

At the age of 45, I began studying Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I’ve now been at it for nearly two years, and it’s had a profound impact on my life. However, my journey really began several years prior when I received some startling news from my doctor. I learned that my cholesterol was high and my BMI put me officially in the obese category. I had always been active during my childhood and even throughout my 20’s and 30’s, but I had allowed myself to grow sedentary and careless with my diet. As a result, my body grew horizontally. Determined to avoid medication, I immediately joined a gym, hired a personal trainer, and began adjusting my diet to focus more on eating food that’s high in nutrients.

I focused my workouts on kettlebells, barbells, and bodyweight routines as I had always loved weight training during my teens and my 20’s, and I had recently become interested in finding out more about kettlebells. After about two years of steady training and attention to my nutrition, I eventually lost about 30 pounds. I felt much better, looked much better, and my cholesterol came down to a safe level. I’m still not quite at my goals and my nutrition is always a challenge, but I’ve made major lifestyle changes.

Once I was feeling more like my old self again, I decided that it was time to move beyond my comfort zone. I had always wanted to study a martial art, but never followed through. I had done some wrestling back in junior high school and always loved it, so I knew that I would likely enjoy a grappling based discipline. However, I was intrigued by Krav Maga, the self defense system used by the Israeli military, so I signed up at a local school.
For the first year, I had a ton of fun training in Krav Maga. I felt more confident, was getting an amazing workout, and felt like a kid again. However, I sensed that there was more. I longed for a sense of competition and more focus on technique. In an effort to try something different, I signed up for a No-Gi Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class that was offered a few times per week at my Krav Maga school. Not only was it one of the most difficult physical activities I’d ever taken on, but the techniques of my opponents were so effective that it seemed like sorcery. I knew that I had to learn what it was.

That same week, I researched some Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) schools and decided to try the trial package at Vitor Shaolin’s school. At the time, I had no idea that Shaolin was (and is) and world champion BJJ and MMA fighter, and is highly respected all over the world. All I knew was that I has impressed with the high level of instruction at his school, the friendly atmosphere, and by how much fun the art of BJJ could be. After two classes, I was hooked and signed up immediately.

BJJ has since become an important part of my life. I’m still a white belt, and my progress is slow, but I’ve discovered an amazing community of wonderful people, and a truly beautiful art that benefits its practitioners in many ways; be it physical, intellectual, or emotional.

In this blog, I’ll discuss my BJJ and fitness journey both to motivate others and to serve as motivation for my own practice.