Monday, July 26, 2010

Unpack Your Bags

The office of our gym, Warrior Way, overlooks our parking lot. About 20 to 30 yards beyond the parking lot is the road our gym is on, and a few yards beyond that lies yet another parking lot. For years I noticed a particular habit of one of our students. Though he was one of the first students to arrive for class, and even though there was plenty of parking spots right in front of our facility, he would always park across the street and make the 100 yard or so walk to our front door. Time and time again I would witness this, and though I found it odd, I never questioned him about it. It wasn't until a few months ago that I finally brought it up to the student and asked him why he does this. The answer I got was amazing! When he exits his vehicle, throws his gear over his shoulder and begins his walk to the gym he goes over all his thoughts and stresses of the day. As he makes his way closer to the front door he imagines dropping off his "baggage" of the day and visualizes setting down his concerns along his path to the gym...

In my previous post, Lifelong Learning, I discussed the need for students to have an empty mind as they journey through the process of learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. We can not keep our "cups empty" if we allow thoughts of our stress and concerns to flood our minds as we step on the mats. I was teaching a class recently and when I looked out in the class I was troubled to see a few of the lower belts day dreaming, looking around, and otherwise allowing their thoughts to drift off. Whatever they were thinking about at the moment, I definitely could tell it was not the technique I was demonstrating. I stopped and discussed the importance of what I call active learning. Again, this is a catch-phrase I came across in teaching and I use it with my 7th graders all the time. Learning is a two-way street. I can teach all I want, but if a student does not focus their efforts on taking in the knowledge I try to give them, they are not going to be successful. We may all know someone like this in our Jiu Jitsu classes. When class is going on and the instructor is teaching, they run off the mat to get a drink of water, check their cell phone, or otherwise take themselves out of the learning environment. Perhaps, while the instructor is teaching, they too allow their minds to drift, daydream and wander. Or maybe they are the person that is talking or otherwise not focused on the technique or drill at hand. Don't get me wrong, one of the main reasons we all love Brazilian Jiu Jitsu so much is that is after all a social activity and most gyms have a close-knit social group off the mats. My point is that for a student to reach their fullest potential, they need to commit themselves to active learning for the one or two hours they are on the mats.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu's greatest advantage is that it allows it's students the ability to practice techniques at full speed in sparring situations. Allowing partners to "tap out", gives us the ability to practice the effective submission holds without hurting ourselves or our partners. This, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu's dynamic nature, make it necessary for the student to give full attention to the task at hand. Countless times I have come to class stressed or worried, only to allow myself to put my trouble aside for an hour or two as I train, spar and get a great workout. Remember my Jiu Jitsu class full of daydreamers? After I discussed the importance of active learning to the class I assured them that whatever troubles they set aside for the hour they are in class will be waiting for them when they leave the gym. Just like the techniques they practice in class, they need to practice clearing their minds to allow them to take in all the information being taught with each new position and technique.

We know that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu requires more than just size, strength and athleticism. It requires the practitioner to "feel" the nuances of each position and upcoming transition. As BJJers, our minds and bodies need to be in tune with the task at hand. If you've ever competed in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournament you can relate to the feeling moments before a match. Almost as if you are donning armor, getting ready for battle, you cross the lapels of your gi, and tighten your weathered and torn belt around your waist. Both your body and mind are so focused at the upcoming battle that when you step onto the mats you can actually feel the texture of the mat under your feet. As a sign of respect, you bump fists with your opponent, trying to size him up as you barely pay attention to the referee giving final instructions. The referee motions you to step back to your starting spots and you shake your hands out or bounce up and down as you try to get the last bit of nervous tension out of your body... Imagine at this exact moment allowing your mind to drift to thoughts of what groceries you need to pick up tomorrow, or remembering duties you need to complete at work first thing Monday morning? What do you think the outcome of your match would be?... Life is about balance and in no way am I suggesting Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is, or should be, more important than anything else in our lives. Obviously responsibilities to our families, friends and loved ones should come above all...

For many people just getting to the gym or dojo to train is a task in itself. Leaving work on time, dropping the kids off at practice, running errands, etc. are all tasks we must complete before many of us can even think about grabbing our gi and our belt and running out the door to Jiu Jitsu class. However, once you do make it to class, do yourself a favor and take a few moments to clear your mind of stress and concerns as you focus on your learning and practicing.

Even though they'll be waiting for you outside, allow yourself the freedom to unpack your bags for an hour or two.


  1. Nice work my friend. What you wrote here is bigger than BJJ. As i read this I repeatedly hear myself saying “being in the moment” It’s a wonderful concept/philosophy about life, learning, loving, losing… all of which can be summed up in the word “experience” which is at the same time intimately unique and profoundly universal.

    Our society runs on the bigger-better-stronger-faster program and empty is not rewarded…so the idea of first being empty so we can be filled is a counter intuitive, powerful concept few really grasp.

    Sure, when you think of a glass of water it’s easy to see the empty/full idea but you may ask why become empty when you’re already full (what more could you want) and when we begin to speak of learning and growth it’s not so clear anymore.

    I remember something I read that described being open (empty) to experience as catching something beautiful in your hand. When you close your hand to keep it you cannot then catch the next…so instead you appreciate the moment, the beauty, the experience; you keep that, you allow it to change you to add a layer of experience to who you are and then you open your hand and become ready for the next….

    Easy to type yup….easy to embrace change? Look forward to letting go…not so much….

  2. Thanks for the excellent comment Marc. Exactly my point for posting this entry. We all strive to leave troubles behind and accept the things we can not change and enjoy being "in the moment." BJJ requires us to let go and be in the moment of what's going on.

    If we can master this on the mats, perhaps we can use it in our everyday lives off the mats as well?

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