Over the course of the last two weeks, a handful of people have caught glimpses of my arms, heavily bruised from a new practice of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. These were the responses I received:
“Jeez…that’s disgusting.” — One friend
“Did someone take a baseball bat to your arm?” — Another friend
“I still don’t understand this new hobby of yours, but if it helps, all the more power to you.” — Mom
“I always thought of you as a fighter. This actually makes perfect sense.” — An ex-boyfriend.
My relationship with jiu-jitsu officially started on March 22, 2017, but the story of how I found myself in the basement on Broadway goes back a little farther than that.
The interest in martial arts and fighting isn’t terribly new. I took karate as a kid until age 13, when I was two belts away from being a black belt, but, choosing to focus my spare time and energy on academics, didn’t pick up any fight sports again for another 10 years.
When I returned to fighting, it was six months after I moved to Boston. Joining the club of folks who make fitness resolutions in the new year, I started boxing in January 2013. Based on what I wrote about it at the time, I liked it a lot and felt like a total badass doing it, but once the Groupon expired, the gym became very expensive, and I never found enough of a sense of camaraderie at the gym to keep me coming back. The experience was very individual. People came to class and left. Boxing was a part of their workout routine — not so much a meaningful part of their lifestyle. By the end of March, I, along with all the others who hopefully take up new athletic hobbies on January 1, left the gym.
After that stint in fighting in 2013, I tried yoga, spinning, and pilates by way of free classes around Boston and services like ClassPass for the next four years. Still, I found the same thing to be true: no matter how frequently I went — or how much I paid — the studios never felt like home. Despite my regular attendance, no one knew my name or seemed to care whether I was there or not. There was no sense of continuity or community. At their worst, the environments made me feel like I had to put on an act and be someone other than myself. No matter what I did or how hard I attempted to embody athleisure, I always left class feeling like the biggest, sweatiest, most brutish girl in the room with the least fashionable clothing and the gnarliest hair.
If you have read anything else I’ve written in the last year, you’ll already know 2016 was a year of transition: out of graduate school and into the workforce, into a new industry and role, and out of a major relationship. The adjustment to all of these changes was extremely slow-going, and I finally “bottomed out” in March 2017, right around the end of a major work project.
With the project launch complete, I was finally able find my footing and listen to the advice from caring friends who saw me struggling over the course of the previous months:
“You should get more time outside of that office and do something that gives you a sense of purpose. You’re too wrapped up in your work.”
“You should try new physical activities that are fun and don’t make you feel so self-conscious.”
“You should do something completely badass that will help you get your swagger back.”
In early March, all these pieces of advice together when I went out to dinner with with a business school friend. Continuing to add to reasons why he’s probably the most interesting person I know, he told me he had recently added Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to his repertoire of fight sports, including Krav Maga and Muay Thai. If you ever met him, from a few minutes of conversation, you could easily tell this he could “rip you a new one” with words, but from the boyish face, you might not guess that he could seriously mess you up. (I think it’s pretty awesome).
Somewhere in our conversation, he encouraged me to come to a jiu-jitsu class. While I’m sure he makes the offer to many friends, I’m not sure how many of them take him up on it. After thinking it over, and after a particularly rough week after we met up, I told him I was in for next Wednesday.
By the time Wednesday arrived, I was having second thoughts and contemplating ways to get out of the commitment, but by noon, he had shot me a text on when to arrive and what to expect. I couldn’t flake now.
I left work at 5PM, sharp (a rarity), and headed to the gym in South Boston. Arriving at the building, I laughed. The last time I was there, it was December 31, 2013 for a “New Year’s Flow and Meditation” class in the yoga studio upstairs. “How things have changed,” I reflected, and instead of heading upstairs to the more familiar place, I descended into the sweaty, mixed-martial arts cage-bowels of the building and entered another world. As I signed my waiver, I watched in awe of the men and (scarce) women in blue, black, and white gis as they rolled around, grabbing and attempting to immobilize their partners in different holds. My friend welcomed me, showed me how to do a basic hip escape move, and told me where to stand in the lineup (at the very end, as the newbiest of newbs).
“Welcome to ‘Southie Fight Club’,” I thought, as I bowed to the instructor and class began. One hour and many cross-collar chokes from my partner later, my ego had also been choked out. As I’ve written before, in most of my life, I am biased toward selecting activities that I am likely to be good at over trying something new. Even when I try something new, I tend to pick things up quickly and get decent at them without trying too hard. BJJ was clearly something I would not be good at for a long time and not without a lot of practice, patience, and effort.
When I got dinner with my friend after class, I don’t think he expected me to come back. Frankly, I’m not sure I expected to come back, but I was determined to give it an honest try of 3 classes before shooting it down. I showed up to a class on Friday and returned for a class on Monday.
Even though it was only my third class, the teachers and students I worked with already remembered my name. They were kind, encouraging, and humble, teaching me moves with tireless patience as I continued to screw them up in new ways each time. I noticed how they came early and stayed late after class, smiling and chatting and helping each other practice different holds. I thought, “These are the kinds of new friends I want to have. This is the kind of community I want to be a part of.”
After those 90 minutes flailing, falling, and frustrated, I was physically fulfilled; my brain, typically overwhelmed by all things work, was free of its usual chatter. I couldn’t believe it. I got so tired from getting beaten up that I didn’t have the energy to beat myself up. I was forced to be in the present and fight back at the person in front of me instead of fighting myself and the things in my head. Even as I was getting completely destroyed by my partner, the whole experience was was liberating and addictive.
As I packed up to leave, it occurred to me that this gym was the first place where I had truly checked the rest of my life at the door. As I asked other students what they did when they weren’t at the gym (students, bartenders, waiters, and more), it occurred to me that my professional credentials, personal identity, and all the things for which the outside world valued me, were inconsequential and — refreshingly, delightfully — unimpressive in this context.
I resolved to keep coming. I recalculated my budget and signed the papers for a six-month membership. Six months of getting up more often than I fall down. Six months of bruises changing the color of my arms. Six months of being chest to chest, head to crotch, and otherwise physically close to strangers in ways I would otherwise never fathom until a sixth date. (Needless to say, choking people makes for an interesting foundation for friendships, but that’s pretty much how it’s all likely to shake out.) Six months of something I will likely not be good at for at least six years. At the very least, after six months, I hope to have some clue for what to do with my hands in guard, a healthy amount of core strength, and a kinder attitude toward myself.
While I am far from free of my tendencies to obsess over the past and worry about the future, I now have 5–10 hours of dependable relief from that (largely self-imposed) psychological burden. Many aches, bumps, and bruises later, I’m noticing the physical resilience is making way for mental resilience.
I find it ironic that after years of trying to “be kind to myself” in yoga class, I’ve gotten closer to that mantra by getting my ass kicked in a jiu-jitsu class. For whatever reason, I have faith that something about this will pay off — I believe there’s more magic there on those mats in the months to come.
So begins the journey to quietly becoming the most lethal person I know.
(Originally posted on Medium on April 9, 2017)