The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Hooked: To BJJ from Tai Chi Chuan

Today we have a guest post form Graham Barlow, who practice both Tai Chi Chuan  and BJJ in Bath, England. He is the author of Tai Chi Chuan Notebook

For myself, I think that Tai Chi Chuan and both Judo and BJJ are a great combination. I bet that both Graham's TCC and BJJ have improved on account of practicing both.

Hooked: My journey to BJJ from Tai Chi Chuan, in my forties

What it’s like to transition to BJJ when you’ve been doing Chinese Martial Arts for years.

By Graham Barlow

Seduced by the appeal of the Taoist philosophy I’d read about in a book by Benjamin Hoff called The Tao of Pooh, and buoyed by the vague notion that I’d like to be able to do something martial arts related, yet vaguely spiritual, whilst looking cool on a beach as the sun set, I sought out Tai Chi Chuan.

This was 1993 and I was in my early twenties, living in London and looking for my place in the world. I was a laid back, long-haired student into bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. I had a penchant for Chinese philosophy (or at least the 1960’s California-influenced version of Chinese philosophy that we all know and love) and I wanted to be like David Carradine’s wandering monk from the ‘Kung Fu’ TV series I loved so much growing up, so Tai Chi Chuan sounded like the perfect fit.

Luckily the first Tai Chi class I went to turned out to be a genuine martial arts class, albeit an informal one which didn’t require silk pyjamas, bowing or shouting out strange oriental sounds. It was exactly what I was looking for: they actually used Tai Chi for fighting.  One of my first Tai Chi Chuan teachers hit me in the chest with a palm strike that knocked me back several feet, as if I’d been hit by a tidal wave coming up from the ground. It was freaky. It didn’t feel like normal strength. It was something else, and I was hooked.

I was told the power of the hit was wrapped up in something called “chi” and I spent the next 15 or so years trying hard to untangle that particular knot. In every class I went to there was some sort of epiphany, and it felt like I had got a bit closer to unpicking the answer, yet in a few days it had slipped through my fingers again, and I was back to trying to figure it out again from a new perspective.  (In fact, I still chip away at the fascinating puzzle that is Tai Chi Chuan today - I haven’t given up). But by the time I was 39 years old, I felt like martial arts had moved on and I wasn’t keeping up. I needed something... different.

I still enjoyed Tai Chi (and the other related Chinese arts I’d picked up along the way). They had made me healthy, but with my 40th birthday approaching and having a full time job, two kids and teaching Tai Chi more than I was training it, I wasn’t feeling particularly fit, and I was definitely on the wrong side of “tubby”.

I had also become frustrated with the Sisyphean task of teaching Tai Chi Chuan to people as a martial art when most of them didn’t really want to do it as a martial art, and the ones that said they did, didn’t really want to put up with all the physical discomfort that actually entails.

It was hard to find training partners in Tai Chi who had exactly the same goals as me. If I was going to switch to an art that challenged me physically I felt like the clock was ticking.

Looking around for what else was on offer I felt drawn to Brazilian Jiujitsu. I’d always been better at locking and throwing than punching and during the times I’d put on gloves and body armour to spar I’d always felt instinctively drawn to the idea of clinching tight to your opponent, so they couldn’t punch you in the head. I decided to try BJJ mostly because of simple opportunity - there was a local class in my city -  but what kept me coming back was something deeper, as I’ll discuss.

Youthful folly

 In my youth I’d outright rejected the idea of learning any martial art that came from Japan in favour of arts from China. As a headstrong young man I seemed to have a penchant for making these sort of ridiculous prejudiced decisions based on poor evidence, a snobbish attitude and a ridiculous ego - all things I’ve learned to keep in better check as I’ve got older.

 Having swallowed the marketing schtick of Chinese Martial Arts (and its implied superiority) hook, line and sinker, I naturally assumed all Japanese arts to be inferior versions of the original Chinese martial arts. I hated the idea of having anything to do with Karate particularly, which was derided universally by every Kung Fu practitioner I’d ever met, and whose adepts formed the main contingent of the white pyjama-wearing cannon fodder of every Bruce Lee film you’ll ever see.

My Tai Chi teacher had been a black belt in a traditional Japanese style of Jiujitsu before he started Tai Chi though, and always held the art in high regard, but to me the Japanese arts seemed somehow basic and rigid, whilst the Chinese arts were fluid, sophisticated and more effective. (At this point I refer the reader to my previous point about my penchant for making stupid snap judgements).

However, murky Japanese origins or not, it was hard to deny the effectiveness of the Brazilian brand of Jiujitsu, as evidenced by pretty much every MMA fight I saw on TV. MMA was a sport that was only just beginning to creep in to mainstream TV channels in the UK. Not really being part of the MMA scene myself, I’d completely missed the impact of the early UFC events, back in 1993, where style was pitted against style and Brazilian Jiujitsu wiped the floor with everybody.

When I watched MMA fights it seemed that any time the action went to the ground it was clear when one of the fighters had a significant advantage over the other, and that advantage turned out to be a background in BJJ. Besides, if it was Brazilian then I wasn’t learning something Japanese, right?

 Fortunately there was an official Gracie Barra Brazilian Jiujitsu academy in my town, so I popped along for a free first class, met the black belt instructor, who seemed like one of the most confident and relaxed people you’ll ever meet, got tapped out a million times by a blue belt who didn’t even seem to be trying that hard, and the rest, as they say, is history. You can think of it as some sort of midlife martial arts crisis if you like, (since it probably was), but I was instantly hooked on the art and jumped in with both feet. Today I’m a brown belt and I still get the same rush of excitement every time I step on the mats.

Informal formality

I turned 40 while I was a white belt and I got that milestone blue belt about a year later. Unlike some other martial arts, belts still mean something in BJJ, but at the same time the promotion criteria is utterly informal. Basically, if your black belt instructor thinks you’re ready for a blue belt, and feels the time is right to promote you to that level, then you’re a blue belt under that Professor and you have official rank.

Some academies have grading tests to pass, some don’t. Some require a minimum time training or competing, other don’t. Some factor in things like your character, and others don’t. If you haven’t received your belt legitimately (no matter what colour it is) then people in the BJJ community in the UK will find you and call you out. It’s a big deal. Frauds are very quickly dealt with. This way the standards are maintained.

Getting your blue belt is the major goal for anybody starting BJJ. As a rough guide, it takes about 2 years on average. There’s still a long, long way to go, but having a blue belt is a sign that you’ve got the basics down, you’ve become proficient enough in the art, you know what you’re doing and you’re ready to learn some more of the complicated techniques. Over the years I’ve seen so many people start BJJ and drop out before they get their blue belt - either life gets in the way, they find it just too hard, or they realise just how much work it’s going to entail and they give up. It’s definitely not easy.

It’s hard starting BJJ for anybody, but particularly so later in life. Your body needs to go through an adjustment period for the first 6 months. You go from being soft and squishy to toughening up, but that comes at a price; mainly aches and pains. Recovery time is important, especially if you’re over 35.

I remember being so stiff the day after training that I had to modify my Tai Chi practice because I couldn’t drop low in certain postures without my hips really hurting. No more super low ‘Snake creeps down’ for me! Over time my body adjusted, but it was definitely a painful process. Even your skin needs to toughen up because friction with the mats and gi leads to various ‘mat burn’ symptoms. Your grip strength is constantly trained, so your fingers ache. Stray knees and elbows are inevitable, so you get bruises and little cuts on your face and body.

Warm ups for BJJ involve things like press ups and sit ups, which Tai Chi isn’t particularly known for. You also need to get cardiovascularly fit, which is a bit of a challenge when you’re in your forties and especially because BJJ involved a different type of strength to anything else I’d ever done.

To this day I still see beginners in BJJ who would be considered “fit and healthy”, (maybe they regularly go running or workout frequently in the gym), having to sit out of rolling in BJJ after a couple of minutes because they’re gasping for breath so hard that they can’t continue. Being trapped underneath somebody and using all your strength to escape, and it not working, is absolutely exhausting. And as a beginner that’s what you’re faced with when you roll with a higher belt. BJJ conditioning is different. And so is the sparring, which is where BJJ really differs compared to other styles of Jiujitsu.

 Big in Japan

 In Japan, where tradition demands that they preserve their indigenous martial arts almost as time capsules, the art is passed on using devices like solo kata and partnered techniques, which are taught in a ritualised kind of way. (I’m generalising here - don’t get angry with me if your art is one of the exceptions).

One of the innovations that set Judo aside from traditional Jiujitsu was the adoption of a free sparring element using only techniques that were safe to train with 100% resistance, provided a ‘tap’ indicating submission was respected. BJJ comes from that particular line, but transplanted deep in the heart of the Amazon, without the need to respect Japanese tradition, it evolved even further. It focussed only on those techniques that worked in combat, in whatever environment and condition the practitioner finds him or herself in.

Jiujitsu was brought to Brazil by Mitsuyo Maeda, a student of Kano Jigoro (the founder of Judo). There are different theories about why he was sent to Brazil, one of which is that he was sent there to help prepare the ground for continued Japanese emigration. We don’t really know.

Either way, the heat, disease and conditions in the Amazon over 100 years ago must have been like hell on earth. He ended up making a living as a prize fighter and by teaching Jiujitsu. His Jiujitsu was therefore already predisposed towards “what works”. Here he met a Scottish immigrant family called the Gracies and Maeda decided to pass his art on to Carlos Gracie. The Gracies had even less respect for tradition and set about modifying the art further to create what we now know as Brazilian Jiujitsu based only on the idea of “what works”.

My first lesson

Coming from a Taijiquan background, people often ask me - “can you use your Tai Chi in BJJ?”, or, “does your Tai Chi help your BJJ?”.

 Let me answer that by describing my first BJJ lesson: After a short-ish warm up, that left me gasping for breath, we learned a technique from a position called “closed guard” where you are on your back, legs wrapped around your opponent’s waist. The technique we learned involved pulling the lapel of the gi out from their belt, passing it from one hand to another as you bring it up over their head, then securing a chokehold around their neck using it in conjunction with a particular set of grips. It was quite complicated. (It was only later I realised I should have started in the fundamentals class.)

The second half of the class (a full 30 minutes) was dedicated to rolling, which is sparring starting from sitting position or on the knees. These days we do it in 6 minute rounds with a 30 second break between them, but back then you did 30 minutes solid with however you were paired up with.  I was paired up with a blue belt who was about my size. In BJJ each roll is preceded by a strange fist bump and slap. (Hey, at least it beats bowing). After that it’s up to you how you fight, so long as there’s no punching, kicking or “playground stuff”, like bending fingers back or biting. Not really sure what to do I quickly jumped on top of him, knocking him over, pinned him to the ground and locked up his arm using a technique I’d seem Fedor finish Kevin Randleman with on YouTube - I later learned that this was called a Kimura. He tapped quickly, gave me a nod of approval and said “well done!”. This is going pretty well I thought, feeling confident my previous Tai Chi training had proved worthwhile.

We fist bumped again and went for round 2. He then proceeded to act out a BJJ clinic on me. He was tapping me out using every sort of conceivable lock or choke hold I could think of at a rate of one tap every 2 minutes. And worse, he wasn’t even trying. I quickly realised he’d let me tap him the first time just to see what I could do. This went on for the full 30 minutes. It wasn’t a matter of being out-muscled - it was clear that he possessed a knowledge that I didn’t. I wanted to lie down, curl up and die after about 10 minutes, but something in me refused to give up and I lasted until the end of the class. The black belt running the class was keeping an eye on me, and expressed some concern about the curious wheezing noises my breathing was making and asked if I’d like to sit out, but my pride wouldn’t let me. I kept going until the end. It took me about 2 days to recover fully. My next class was the same, but this time the blue belt I fought was a smaller female, who repeatedly jumped on my back and tapped me out with chokes until time as up.

 That was it, I was hooked.

 There was a type of knowledge here I could learn, and it worked in a fight, and it didn’t matter if the other person was stronger than you. There were no forms, deadly techniques or imagining ‘what if’ scenarios. You were hit by reality from the first fist bump.

Did my Tai Chi help me? No, not at all on that first day, but it has helped me in a multitude of little ways since then that are hard to explain. I think the biggest thing was that I’d spent a lot of time learning how to learn.

Learning Tai Chi is a constant process of having your mistakes pointed out to you, trying to correct them, then moving on to the next thing. The key to getting good at BJJ is similar - you don’t want to focus on winning, since you end up muscling things instead of being technical and correct. But just like in Tai Chi, it’s learning from your mistakes that matters.

 The techniques in BJJ are taught in a very precise and technical way - this arm goes here, your weight should be here, and you push there. But in BJJ I also found the freedom that Bruce Lee wrote about in his Tao of Jeet Kune Do, of being able to express yourself completely in your martial art.

Learning BJJ is almost a process of self-invention. You put out feelers and find the techniques that work best for you, and then build your game around them based on the live feedback of what works and what doesn’t in rolling. Different body types suit different techniques and strategies - long legged people quickly gravitate towards being guard players and catching triangle submissions and armbars off their back. Shorter people have more success with butterfly guard and hunting for submissions on top.

Interestingly, my Tai Chi teacher had encouraged a similar methodology in his teaching. He’d borrow animal styles from XingYi and Shaolin arts and use them as a kind of ‘coat hanger’ for hanging different techniques off in sparring. Different animal styles suited different body types, so I was already familiar with this idea.

These things are really only on the surface level of Tai Chi, of course. It’s only much later in BJJ that you can start to realistically create the head space necessary to try some of the more “Tai Chi’ ways of moving the body under pressure. But here you find that BJJ has it’s own set of ‘internals’ that are different to Tai Chi. It’s the sort of things that the legendary Rickson Gracie calls “invisible jiujitsu”. In each of the key positions there are little things you can do with your posture, weight distribution or grip that completely change the position. These are things you can’t really see, but you can feel them. One little change and suddenly your opponent is unable to exert any pressure on you at all, or you suddenly feel twice as heavy to them as you really are. It’s fascinating.

 Ironically, in BJJ I found an art that actually delivered on a lot of the promise of ‘soft’ martial arts like Tai Chi Chuan. Size and strength do matter in BJJ, but only when both people are equally matched in knowledge. A person with knowledge of BJJ against somebody who doesn’t have it usually results in what we saw in the UFC in 1993.

I got my blue belt relatively quickly, but I’d say that had more to do with having a good attitude to learning martial arts, and nothing specifically related to Tai Chi. I still practice Tai Chi and as well as being a great way of loosening up your stiff muscles the day after training it’s perfect for keeping injuries to a minimum. People tell me I move “different” to what they’re expecting in BJJ, but I don’t really know if that’s to do with Tai Chi training or just the individual expression that is encouraged in BJJ. I think that really there’s no time to think when you’re sparring, so whatever way you’re used to moving (i.e. whatever way you train the most) tends to come out.

I have asked myself many times since that first class why I’ve continued with BJJ. The answer is twofold, and was personified perfectly in my experiences in that first class: I love it, and I’m not a quitter.

With thanks to my Professor Salvatore Pace and my friends and family at Gracie Barra Bath -

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