How to Train BJJ While Traveling

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

I tend to travel a lot and from early on in my BJJ training have grown accustomed to visiting and training as a guest in academies other than my own. While I’ve always strived to be a good guest, the more I’ve learned about BJJ the more I’ve tweaked the protocol I follow to ensure that I bring a positive vibe to the mat and that I represent my home academy well. While some of the following tips may seem obvious, I think they’re all worth mentioning. If any readers have additional advice to add, please feel free to leave a comment or email me directly.

Always call or email in advance to inquire about the visitor policy

Ask if there are any uniform requirements, restrictions on which levels may take which classes, etc. Introduce yourself by name, rank, home academy, and length of time you’ve been training.

Show up early and prepared

Have cash available in case the school doesn’t accept credit cards. Bring flip flops and any uniform needs.

Respect the instructor

Introduce yourself to the instructor and ask if there’s a particular way they prefer to be addressed. While my home academy doesn’t employ the use of honorifics and titles, I always make a point of adjusting to the use of “sir” or “professor”.

Respect the other students

Introduce yourself to the other students after you bow and step onto the mat.

Be helpful

During drilling, be as helpful as possible, ask intelligent questions (if necessary), and give helpful and encouraging feedback to your partner.

6. During sparring, resist the urge to go 110% as if you’re in a tournament. It’s not a competition and you have nothing to prove. Start off at an easy pace and take your cue from the other students. There’s nothing wrong with applying the pressure, but only if it’s appropriate based on the pace set by the other students.

Be grateful

After class, thank the other students and most importantly, thank your instructor. If you can offer a compliment, do so.

Give thanks

After returning home, send a follow up email to say thank you for allowing you to train as a guest and let the instructor know how much you enjoyed and appreciated the experience.

I also take a picture when I train as a guest and ask permission from the instructor to post it on my blog and Instagram. Remember that you’re a guest. Training BJJ is an extremely personal and intimate experience, and you should treat your visit to a new school as you would a visit to the home of a new friend. Be kind, be respectful, and stay humble.

One of my favorite parts of training BJJ is being able to visit schools all over the world and train with so many different practitioners. Having a common language that we can share regardless of our spoken language is truly special. Being welcomed into someone’s academy as a guest is not to be taken lightly. Always remember how special the experience and show gratitude for the opportunity.

Top Five Reasons to Train BJJ Over 40

BJJ over 40

I often hear people ask if they’re too old to begin training a martial art, specifically BJJ past the age of 40. I didn’t begin training BJJ until I was 45 years old (I’m now 48), and I’ve trained with people who didn’t begin until they were in their 60’s! In my opinion, it’s never too late to start, and often there are some extremely compelling reasons why it’s especially beneficial to begin training later in life.

1. The time to start is NOW!

The longer you put off beginning to train, the more you’ll regret it. Rather than wondering if you’re too old to train, or wasting time regretting not having started earlier, just jump it and begin your journey. Isn’t it better to get whatever training you can rather than live in the past wishing you had started at a young age? Forget about the arbitrary timelines and schedules and live in the moment. Jump in and begin your training.

2. Training BJJ will keep you feeling and looking young.

I don’t mind often being the oldest student in class. In fact, being around so many younger students is incredibly energizing. I’m pushed to my limits physically and mentally, and I like that. As a result, I feel much more young and vibrant than most of my peers.

3. BJJ is great exercise

This is very much related to #2, but just a bit more specific. Since we all need to exercise, why not pick something that’s strenuous and is an excellent workout? BJJ is incredibly more strenuous than the exercise that most people in their 40’s and beyond are doing. I can’t think of a better way to keep myself moving.

4. BJJ promotes brain health as we age

BJJ is great for keeping your brain healthy and for preventing dementia. As learning BJJ is very similar to learning a foreign language and it forces us to make extensive use of our cognitive abilities, BJJ can be an excellent way to help prevent the onset of dementia.

5. BJJ is excellent for mental health and is an great stress reliever

By the time most of us have approached 40, we’ve taken on various career and family responsibilities. An activity like BJJ provides an excellent opportunity for meditation and focusing the mind, and is thus an excellent way to relieve stress.      

There are certainly many more reasons to train BJJ that I could thing of, but this list is what I would consider the five most important benefits to training for an older grappler over the age of 40. While these benefits can apply to a grappler of any age, they’re more specific for the older practitioner.

Learning How to Learn

Today while in class at my BJJ academy, I discovered a breakthrough past what had been a source of frustration for me for quite some time. I realized that I was finally learning how to learn.

When I first began training BJJ and for a long time thereafter, my mind got lost in the details. Whenever the teacher would demonstrate a new move, I could sense my mind growing confused the more details that were articulated. By the time the instructor had finished demonstrating and explaining the fourth or fifth part of the move, my brain was just wrapping itself around the second or third detail. I’m not sure if this experience is unique to me as a 40 plus practitioner, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.

I suddenly had the realization in class today that absorbing this information has become much more natural and intuitive. I was even able to ask some thoughtful questions and could make observations that my drilling partner didn’t notice.

Why is this? I love studying languages, even if just to learn a few phrases for a short trip. I’m currently studying Japanese, which has entirely different grammar than English. Just as when learning a foreign language one must practice every day, BJJ is no different. It truly is a foreign language with its own syntax and grammar. I suppose I realized this before, but now that I’m finally training with enough consistency to recognize movement patterns and to internalize concepts, I was able to experience this breakthrough.

I’m now developing a better sense of which details to pay attention to, as well as how to organize the steps in my brain in preparation for drilling. As recently as a few weeks ago, I would find that I wasn’t even sure where to look or which details were the most important, I can now begin to file away the information in a manner that gives me enough of a foundation to begin to work with my training partner. It’s getting to be a smaller leap from passive to active learning.

I suspect that age plays a factor here as well. As a 40 plus practitioner, I bring my own inherent biases with me to class with regard to how I think I learn. Also, it’s been much longer since I learned anything in a classroom setting than it has been for many of my teammates at my BJJ academy. I’m realizing that I must always be cognizant of this in order to enable me to keep an open mind and to allow me to absorb the information more easily. I discussed the benefits for Jiu Jitsu for mental health in another post, which you can find here.

All of this just reinforces my belief that BJJ is the perfect sport to practice in adulthood, especially for those of us who are 40 plus, to prevent the mind from aging too quickly. One of the primary benefits of Jiu Jitsu is that the constant drilling and study of new vocabulary keeps our minds in a perpetually youthful state through both physical and mental exercise.

Proximity to Greatness in BJJ: One of the Greatest Benefits of Jiu Jitsu

When I first began training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I wasn’t aware of any of the names associated with the art. I had never heard of the Gracie family, didn’t know who John Danaher was, had never hear the name Marcelo Garcia, and had absolutely no idea who my instructor Vitor Shaolin Ribeiro was or what he had accomplished. As I mentioned in a previous post, I discovered BJJ through a chance encounter with a No Gi class I took on a whim at the Krav Maga school at which I was studying. Its effectiveness made it seem like magic, and I was instantly hooked. I went back to one more Krav Maga class after that, and I immediately signed up for a membership at Vitor Shaolin’s school in midtown. The factors driving my decision to study at Shaolin’s BJJ academy were the convenient location, the excellent schedule, and the high quality instruction.

At the time, I had no idea who Shaolin was, though it was clear how much sincere respect his students had for him. I immediately noticed that he clearly displays strong leadership qualities and the tone he sets in his academy facilitates and extremely friendly and supportive vibe throughout the school. Beyond that, I knew nothing.

Now that I’ve been studying with Shaolin’s BJJ academy for about two and a half years, I understand that he’s clearly a legend in the world of BJJ, and a true master at least on the level as the many great musicians I’ve come to greatly admire. I would consider Shaolin, as well as the many other instructors actively teaching such as Renzo Gracie, Yuki Nakai, Marcelo Garcia, and others, to be the BJJ equivalent of musicians such as classical pianist Evgeny Kissin, jazz bassist Christian McBride, or drummer Steve Gadd.

Unfortunately, such musical greats are not always so immediately available to the average member of the public. Someone who wishes to study with or even just meet such musical greats generally needs to do so via an introduction from someone who will vouch for them, or they need to already be an accomplished musician themselves.

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Not so with BJJ. Now that I’m more aware of the BJJ scene and the accomplishments and depth of knowledge and skill of Shaolin and his contemporaries, I’m increasingly grateful that a complete novice such as myself can walk into an academy off the street and sign up for lessons with such titans of the sport. I can’t speak for other academies, but I can say that Shaolin is present for a large portion of the classes at his academy and makes himself available to all of his students regardless of level or experience. This accessibility is one of the many enormous benefits of the Jiu Jitsu community.

I become increasingly aware of how fortunate we are in the BJJ community to have access to such close proximity to greatness. Considering that the average time to earn a black belt in BJJ is eight to twelve years, I consider studying with any black belt instructor the equivalent of studying with someone who holds PhD in Jiu Jitsu. Add to that the ability to study with such greats as Shaolin, Marcelo, and Renzo, and we are truly fortunate to have such access.

I doubt that it would ever be possible for me to work on my golf swing with Phil Mickelson (even though we share the same birthday), so I’m especially grateful to have the opportunity to study with one of the true legends of the sport at my BJJ academy. This proximity to greatness is one of many things that makes our art so special. Perhaps having direct access to the current legends of our sport might be one of the things that helps to keep it legit and pure, and could be a key factor as to why the BJJ community is so special throughout the world.

Letting Go of the Ego

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Over 40

One of the benefits of Jiu Jitsu that I love the most is the opportunity to learn a new skill at this stage in my life. I began my training at 40 plus years of age, having already achieved career and personal success. As a professional musician, I understand what it means to achieve a certain level of mastery in a skill. Although I’m always striving to improve my skills as an artist, I found it quite refreshing to begin learning a new skill at which I’m a complete beginner.

What has proven exceptionally difficult for me to completely release my ego from the learning process. I found it exceptionally difficult to learn to be an absolute beginner at something again. I suppose it’s even more difficult with BJJ as the consequences are so extreme (getting choked, having limbs bent beyond their natural range of motion, etc) and the outcome of our sparring sessions is devoid of subjectivity.

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Over the past several months, I’ve focused only on showing up for class at my BJJ academy regularly, opening my mind and my heart, and releasing the ego completely. I understand intellectually that this is part of the process, but I suspect that being an 40 plus year old beginner and simply being at a stage in life where being the beginner in the situation is a rare occurrence, I found it difficult. I noticed a profound change. I learn much more quickly, I understand more of what’s being taught, and I can notice my game starting to improve in little ways. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a constant battle to just try to suck a little bit less each time, but I try to not even go that far. I consider it an accomplishment to show up for class regularly, put in 100% effort, and most importantly, let go of any ego and simply focus on opening the mind and heart.

I’m really enjoying this new place. I’m enjoying class much more, and I’m learning to live in the moment more. It doesn’t matter if I tap constantly or can’t execute a new sweep during a roll. I take pleasure in just being on the mats, putting in the work, and enjoying the camaraderie of my teammates and instructors.

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It’s incredibly refreshing to have been able to rekindle the sense of wonder while learning that we experience as children. I’m grateful to BJJ for helping me to find that space as it’s had a profound effect both on and off the mats.

The Mental Health Benefits of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Benefits of BJJ

Last week in class at my Jiu Jitsu academy 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 BJJ 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 Jiu Jitsu 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, one of the most profound benefits of BJJ is that it 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 our Jiu Jitsu 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 BJJ 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.

One of my favorite benefits of Jiu Jitsu is the meditative aspect of the sport. 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 48 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. It’s also a great way to stay humble and to keep one’s ego in check!

I’m looking forward to continuing to training BJJ beyond my 40 plus years, and 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.

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, especially as a 40 plus student.

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 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 plus 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 soon discovered that the benefits of Jiu Jitsu were so much more important 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. One of the best benefits of Jiu Jitsu is that 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 Jiu Jitsu 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.