Sunday, January 24, 2010

What does this sport have to offer me?

A couple of months ago, I would walk into the bathroom at the gym, look into the mirror and ask myself "What, Megan, are you doing?". The weirdness of BJJ has worn off though, and I'm starting to ask why I'm doing this and also asking what I want out of my investment. The answer to that has ranged from dreams of becoming a champion in the world of 40+ grappling women to getting in crazy good shape, to training only two or three times a week, to looking at myself, soaked with sweat and wondering if I'm wasting my and others' time. This, I think, is a good thing. Everyone walking into something as intense, demanding and never ending as the pursuit of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, should address what part they want the activity to play in their lives.

I'm no stranger to activities with a tendency to consume their practitioners. I've lived the all consuming life of a part-time graduate student, with professors demanding I drop ties to family, friends and career for the sake of a finance class. I've been a salsa dancer, staying out until 2am for the sake of one mediocre 4 minute experience. I've worked in business, for companies that expect you to give all your time, life and emotions for the sake of praise and acceptance.

I've been thinking a lot lately about where my focus/passion/energies are directed. My pastor has been doing a few messages on evaluating your passions. Also, I started a book on Friday on language acquisition that stresses knowing up front what you want out of a language so you don't focus your efforts on someone else's definition of proficiency. In both cases, my mind immediately went to my time dancing salsa. Anyone who's been a part of any dance world knows that it's something one has to experience from the inside to understand. Anyone that's been a part of the salsa world knows that it's probably the most intense of all the dance worlds.

Time with ze dahns
When I'm feeling out of place or nervous before a jiu jitsu class, reading other people's (especially women's, part-time and older grapplers) stories helps calm me some. I ran across an entry last night by a woman that had been practicing for about six years. (I can't find it now, it's lost in the memory of my iPhone forever) She was burned out, decided to quit and was telling the story of selling off her gis. The experience sounded a lot like the moment I started selling off my salsa DVDs.

I started dancing salsa around the same time I started graduate school (I look back now and wonder how I had the energy to dance, work and study). Before I even set foot in a class, I bought a DVD and learned moves, terms and patterns. Once I did start attending, I went to class twice a week, sometimes two hours at a time. I danced for half an hour to an hour every day after work. I developed a plan to learn to spin (more difficult for tall people, so it took me a while) that involved 3 practice spins in either direction every time I used the restroom at work. I posted daily on salsa message boards. I bought belly dancing DVDs to learn isolations and smooth out my movement. I kept a notebook of all I learned in private lessons, with plans on what techniques I wanted to work on for the week. My YouTube favorites overflowed with styling demos, videos of dancers I wanted to emulate, tutorials and clips of live social dancing. I bought a mirror for home practice so I could see what every movement I made looked like. I would spend Friday evenings (when I didn't go out) watching clips over and over, breaking down moves and timing to the smallest detail. I bought DVDs on styling by dancers from all over the world in an effort to find my best individual style. I would sit at work, knees throbbing and hot, ankles sore and feet calloused, searching the Internet for the next salsa festival. After I'd reached a plateau in Cuban style, I began branching into New York and LA style, driving 45 minutes for private and group lessons in another city. I was stocking my wardrobe with tops specifically for dance and suede soled shoes. I knew things were coming to an end when I backed off buying a pair of custom shoes that cost almost $150 because I didn't feel like they were worth the investment. I think my time officially ended with a dance in Beijing with the guy in the video. David Huo...he's an instructor my best friend and I had been dying to dance with since we both started dancing.

Looking back on that paragraph I have to ask myself, "what did I get out of those 3 years?". It was great stress relief while I was in school. I lost weight. I met tons of people. I was introduced to physical expression of music. I can hold my own when someone puts on Marc Anthony or Joe Arroyo. ...But were all the tired mornings at work, dragging myself in on only a few hours of sleep worth it? What does it mean that I, a person who keeps good friends for a lifetime, can only think of one dancer that I'm still in contact with? Was it worth the constantly injured toenails, cracked well beyond the quick? Was it worth sitting in clubs and bars (which I loathe...deeply) where I never felt safe, waiting for that one dance that would justify the time and anxiety of getting ready, driving and money spent on cover? Overall, salsa was a great experience. I can dance on vacation (salsa is huge internationally and very popular in most major American cities, and being the new, mystery salsera is a lot of fun) and still style on my own once a week to keep my skills up and add some variation to my workout routine. I'll also admit that without it, I probably wouldn't have been comfortable enough with physical proximity to do BJJ. I do think though, that the experience could have been more pleasant (and longer lived) had I had more insight into some of the social practices, availability of venues and expectations of how long I expected to be an active dancer.

...and jiu jitsu?
BJJ is very similar to dance. The class structure is almost identical. Most of the best in both fields started young, but they both attract new practitioners well into their 40s and some beyond. There are countless variations on moves and techniques and one has to be able to read slight changes in your partner's/opponent's posture, balance and weight placement to respond properly. There are rivalries between schools, big egos and nasty attitudes. There are a few key differences though, that I believe make a huge difference for me. BJJ, unlike the flashy salsa, seems to attract a lot of introverts. On the Myers Briggs personality typing system I'm an INTJ, meaning I'm an introvert and I like things to have a purpose. I've found most other jiujitsukas to be open and friendly but not overbearing. People hang out after class, but they have lives off the mats. Even those whose lives are dedicated to the sport, have families and obligations that they seem to take very seriously. BJJ is also very complicated. Salsa can be too, but not necessarily so. People don't show up to muddle through class just so they can have some social time. If someone keeps coming back, banged up and bruised, they're there to learn.

So what am I expecting from the time I put into the sport? I've been taking a look at what it's done for me so far...
•It adds an element of play to my life- Not entertainment, play. It can be difficult to find as an adult. Life can be heavy and serious and you need time to do things that you not only enjoy, but are actively involved in. Yes, you have to pay attention, but training with people you trust is really enjoyable. Focused fun if you will.
•I now have a clear delineation of care for my physical self-Anything left unchecked can seep its way into all aspects of your life. I believe that certain things in life are more likely to do this than others, but it happens quite easily and frequently.The core of what I do hasn't changed. I still move more and eat less and better. Now though, since there is a goal, I no longer feel like I should have gone an extra 10 minutes or feel guilty for the cookie I sneaked at lunch. I know what I should be eating and my workout is already planned.
•I get contact with similarly minded people-Being an introvert in an extroverted culture can be tiring. I've found that I interact relatively easily with most of the people at the gym and I appreciate that they take what they do seriously.
•I do get injured...I've been bruised, still have scars from mat burn, an am currently nursing some strained muscles on the top of my left foot, but nothing feels chronically wrong like it did when I was dancing.
•I've learned how to push through a different kind of pain-Conquering barriers in an area you're good at is one thing. Doing that in an area you're not? Whole different ball game.
My biggest concern right now is getting over the feeling that I may have bought a little too "high end" for my needs. My head instructor has a stellar resume and trains some of the best in the game. Is that something a part-time grappler needs? I used to worry that I was wasting people's time (even though I pay just like everybody else and receive plenty of critique.) I also worry that I may not be taken completely seriously but there's nothing I can see to support that, so I'm counting it as pure insecurity. I think I've passed the stage of potentially running away in shock (I'll never forget how surprised the head instructor was that I came back). I'll just keep showing up and see what happens.

Learning what I have about myself from my time on the dance floor, I know that I will ease my way into BJJ. Everyone's really nice, but if I'm never fully accepted, that's ok. I'm not looking for a new social circle. I own only one book that I review for one or two moves at a time. No cramming or deep analysis. I go to class twice a week and gear my breaks at work to help with my training. That's all. I could be learning much more quickly, but I don't want to. Not only am I a bit short on will from school and language studies, but I also don't want to rush into such uncharted territory. I also may never compete. Also fine. I have enough awards in life and have come to realize they mean much less to me than the bonds I've created with those around me. All of this is subject to change, but I'm open to that also.


A.D. McClish said...

A well-balanced take, I think. I had to have a "take stock" moment recently, to grapple with some of the same questions as you were facing. Why am I doing this? Is it really worth it? I came up with a lot of the same things on your list, but here are a few more that were on mine:

- First, BJJ is challenging me to have more confidence in myself. As a woman coming into a sport dominated by men, I've sometimes wondered if people view my Jiu-jitsu as equal to the mens'. But I realized recently that it doesn't matter what they think. And it shouldn't matter in other areas of my life. Just do what I know and do it as well as I can and trust that the rest will come eventually.

-- Also, I do value the self-defense aspect of the sport. Even if you never compete, you will at least know how to handle yourself should you ever have to.

Great blog! :)

Megan said...

Thanks're dead on about not being concerned with the opinions of others in the gym. I've never had big issues with this in other aspects of life but BJJ is so, so special. I've recently been worried about being taken seriously, but at the end of the day, I'm improving and learning and that's why I train.

I always, always forget about the self-defense aspect, but it's honestly one of the reasons I signed up. Thanks for reading!

slideyfoot said...

Cool - are you moving over to blogger from Posterous, then?

Jiujitsunista said...

Great blog! =)

I love reading other women's views and thoughts on BJJ.

And I especially love the description of your blog. "A NON-ATHLETE, SELF-PROFESSED NERD'S JOURNEY INTO THE WORLD OF BRAZILIAN JIU JITSU...OH YEAH...AND I'M 30."

Change the 30 to 27, and you could be talking about me. =)

Can't wait to read some more.

Megan said...

@ Slideyfoot
I'm posting to both (thanks to email posting). I really love Posterous and keep my non-BJJ blog there too. What got you over there?

Thanks! My age really concerned me at first, but it's meaning less and less every day.

slideyfoot said...

I followed a link to the Posterous blog on your Jiu Jitsu Forums signature, I think.

Megan said...

Ah's a very nerd-friendly blog site.