The radical malleability of human embodiment

Before my first BJJ training session I read about this martial art in Wikipedia. There I discovered that two of the basic positions “Mount” and “Guard” refer to”[I]n the mount position the practitioner sits astride the opponent’s chest, controlling the opponent with their bodyweight and hips…”, and “the practitioner is on their back controlling an opponent with their legs…In closed guard, the bottom grappler has their legs around the opponent’s trunk and has their ankles closed together to provide control and a barrier to escaping the position”.  Just reading this, imagining what it would feel like, made me feel pretty much mortified. These positions seemed awkwardly intimate, charged with sexual connotations.

Indeed, beginning was a bit crazy. In my first training session I was asked to perform a Side mount which means lying across your opponent with weight applied to the opponent’s chest- chest to chest.

To my surprise pretty soon forging close intimate contact with my training partners became a non-issue, losing its previous erotic charge. In fact, it was much easier for me to feel comfortable sitting on a person’s chest than to lose my inhibitions around pain. While it took me approximately few weeks to be completely comfortable rolling on the ground with most training partners, today, almost two years after I have entered the world of martial arts, I still painfully grapple (pun intended) with the mere thought of accidentally inflicting pain on another body.

If you would have told me that I would feel comfortable grappling before I had experienced it, I would call you crazy. It is only the fact that by that time I had already set my mind on researching gender and the body in the martial arts that gave me the courage to try. I thought, “yeah, it’s completely crazy, but it’s for the sake of science”.

I am not arguing that each and every one of us needs to challenge our normative ways of embodiment. Some of us may be absolutely content with ways of embodiment that are already inscribed by mainstream culture. Some radically different modes of embodiment may be unethical. I do, however, believe that my experience demonstrates the radical malleability of human embodiment, with its liberating potential.

When intellectual learning interferes with corporeal learning

I really like doing drills with B. Even though he trains about 1/6 of the time I train, he teaches me a lot. He sees right through my errors. He told me that I think too much about the drill, and that I should just do it. He’s right.
Whenever I’m presented with a drill, and I need to  execute it or perform it, I try first to intellectually plan or go through each phase of the drill and then do it. But then I get confused. I have this kind of very strong, inner lack of trust of my corporeal learning ability. If I physically execute a drill correctly, I’m surprised. I tell him: I have no idea how I did it. But I did it.
By saying that I have no idea how I did it I actually say that I execute the drill without figuring it out intellectually. My intellectual capacities are much more developed than my corporeal learning abilities. I have learned to trust and use my intellect much more than my corporeal knowledge or learning. And in relying on the wrong brain faculty I interfere and slow down the development of the right faculty of the brain for this kind of learning.This also makes me think about the traits that a good teacher needs to have for this kind of learning process.
More than anything else, it is our body that connects us to out fragility and weakness. My inability to trust my body partly stems from the difficulty in accepting my weaknesses.

Many people find it difficult to bear another’s weakness and so they react by patronizing -denying their own weakness. Alternatively, they expect or even try to force the other to behave as they do. This may also be another way to distance themselves from their own vulnerability.

I accept the limitations it imposes on me and it lets me do what I love best

I wrote in my last post that part of my passion for BJJ stems from it being an arena where I’m able to experiment with my mind/body philosophy. I feel that my body is a significant and not an incidental aspect of my existence only in relation to BJJ.  It is the only arena where my body is not a mute vehicle that needs maintenance to keep my mind going and allow me to work, study, talk, think; nor is it an aesthetic object to be looked at from the outside. Injuries are one type of event that highlight the increased significance of my body.

Beyond the common cliché that one should treat injury in training not as an enemy but as part of life, I found that through injuries I remap my body and connect to my body in more meaningful ways than I did before. When all of my abilities are intact, and I experience no pain or limitation in movement, I tend to take the body for granted. My body is transparent to me. It is as me/I as it can be. When an organ is injured, it’s instantly rendered alien to me. The extent of alienation usually corresponds to the extent of pain, damage or limitation. The organ no longer submits to my will, to my mind. It keeps me (my mind) from doing things, from fulfilling my will. I’m usually frightened and uncertain- because I lack the unmediated connection I have with my consciousness is lacking when it comes to my body. I can’t look into my body, and medical imaging technologies will not tell me anything. I can’t know for sure what has happened to me and what awaits me.

But when my body heals itself, I somehow love that organ more than I did before. I look at it, from outside, but differently. That organ is more mine then it had been before. It bears more significance for me, through my memories and the traces of time. I wrote before about how I feel a unity with my right arm. A few months ago, my right wrist was inflamed so much that every movement hurt and the hand got swollen. It has turned alien, and when it healed, it became more mine than it had been before. I remember the pain associated with my wrist, the limitation in the skillful execution of my will. Now my right wrist serves me again.

I  another incidence I hurt my toe.  It became blue and swollen to twice of its original size after a few hours. It was painful to step on that foot for about two weeks. After a couple of months,  that toe still doesn’t look like the other one. It’s shape may have changed permanently. It now bears significance and memory that it hadn’t before.

But these are examples of very small injuries in peripheral organs. As much as I need my foot for my balance, I can do pretty much everything with a very painful toe, and I’d suspect, even if I had lost my toe altogether. My right wrist is important for many mundane activities, but pain in that organ does not influence major activities such as standing, walking, running, stretching. Sparring around injuries that are located in more central parts of the body- such as the rib cage or lower back, organs which pose more severe limitations and influence major activities such as breathing or walking- is more challenging. After you’ve healed enough, you want to go back to sparring. But you know that if you put pressure on that organ you risk flaring the injury again. So, in order to spar painless, you need to keep the hurt organ all the time at the back of your mind. You have to remember to avoid certain movements that will burden this organ. This means that you may have to be creative ( to find alternative movements), that you have to concede more (to voluntarily assume a passive position), that you will react and play defense rather than offence, and that your training partners may try to correct you- as they don’t have the corporeal responsibility you have to remember the hurt organ and avoiding gestures that burdens it- all the time. But somehow, sparring around an injury feels more intimate to me. It augments the intimacy between me and my body. We share a special bond when we (me and my body) spar and train around a central injury.  I accept the limitations it imposes on me and it lets me do what I love best.

Measuring up to myself and not others

As a child, I was very afraid of falling, or of losing balance. I remember my mother telling me once that I tumble like a rock. One time I fell on my face and broke both of my front teeth. My entire childhood, I couldn’t do a simple forward roll. Once a friend had tried  to help me, and I rolled but I instantly felt rage because of the helplessness I experienced during the roll. So I never tried it again.

BJJ is the perfect martial art for me, because it involves mainly ground work. But when I came to my first BJJ training, I had to roll forward and backwards as part of the drills during warm-up. I cherish my first coach’s empathy, un-judgmental encouragement and competence in teaching. Thanks to him.  both the fact that I rolled at this first training, and it didn’t make me feel helpless or enraged. I persevered and now BJJ is one of the best and most enjoyable experiences in my life. Through my first coach’s help, I could transcend the limits of my body and mind, and genuinely improve myself. Improve myself in relation to me, not in relation to others.

I’ve been training for a year and a half now, and I usually “lose” sparring matches in both clubs where I train. I often get comments from my training partners, such as, ” You always gives me your back”‘, or “you shouldn’t put your weight forward in guard”, “why did you do this, last time you were better”, or “Why do you keep repeating this mistake”. I know their intentions are good, and that they are trying to help me to improve, but these comments make me feel helpless. I try to do my best. Really. I try to  follow the principles I learned, and I try to work well. But when I get these comments, I feel like I’m not as competent as I should be, or that my understanding is flawed. These comments make me appreciate all the more the teaching style of my first coach. When we rolled, he rarely criticized me. He always succeeded in finding the right level of game that will challenge me yet give me a clear sense of enjoyment and sense of competence.

When I shared my frustration with one of my current coaches, he told me to focus on my successes and not failures. So I want to focus on my success in transcending myself. Yesterday, I had to do a drill that mortified me. It involved jumping to a closed guard when you partner is standing. It was the first time I observed the drill, and taking part in it really scared me. Jumping was relatively easy. Being jumped, was another story. I don’t know whether my fear was related to my body (the fact that I am a woman, and that most partners are much heavier than me), or a mental one (the fact that I never had to stand up with the weight of another person on me).

This really scared me, and the fact that the first time that I tried it I fell on my face and on my training partner did not help. A blue  belt at the club stayed after training to teach me. He had the patience to break up the drill into several stages and I felt that he had faith that I could do it, despite my fear. After several attempts as well as escape attempts (on my part, I already said that I am a coward) I managed to stay on my feet for two seconds with the weight of another person on me. I know that it is probably not impressive in relation to others, and I know that I probably “barely” did it. But I succeeded in doing something that I was mortified from at first. And it was the best feeling I had in quite a while and an accomplishment I cherish. For me, this is the meaning of measuring up to myself, and not others.

I am my right arm but I have a left arm

I am my right arm, although I have a left arm. A sense of ownership versus a sense of being one with. I enact the most complex movements I want to execute with my right arm. It seems to execute my movements immediately and fluently. This sense of uncomplicated immediacy, the fact that the route from my conscious thought to my movement is so rapid, is probably what grants me the feeling of being one with, or inhabiting my right arm.

My left arm is a completely different story. It feels like a tool for me most of the time. It feels clumsy and a bit stiff when I try to execute complex movements with it. I can hold the tomato in place with my left arm, while chopping it with my right arm, but not the other way around. I am usually more aware of the existence of my left arm then I am of my right. The former is a small fleshy presence next to my torso. The latter is transparent to me. It was simultaneously surprising and not surprising to me to discover that my right hand is slightly more developed and large than my left.

Injury disconnects my feeling of being one with my right arm. The strange sensation, pain, damage to my normal range of motion, causes alienation. I now have a right arm. I need to stabilize it a bit in space next to my torso. When my left arm is injured it is made even more alien to me than it already is.

Perhaps it is the immediacy with which my right arm corresponds to my conscious thought that makes me feel I am it. I have a somewhat similar relation to other humans that are very close to me. If someone is close to me to the degree that he or she can instantaneously grasp what I am feeling (and I was blessed with the ability and opportunity to forge such connections), I have a feeling that we are no longer completely separated from each other.

Does this stream of thoughts bring me closer to the question of why most of the time I have a feeling of objectification/alienation regarding my body, while feeling unity with my mind? Immediacy seems to be the answer. My conscious thought immediately reflects my conscious thought. But this is a tautology. And I am no less my flesh than I am my conscious thought.

Changes in the experience and definition of pain

I want to address a specific change in the definition and experience of pain since I started to practice BJJ. It is likely that if you’ve read one of my previous posts you know already that BJJ is the thing I love most. In order to practice BJJ, I need my body to be (more or less) in its optimal physical state. Training is never completely safe, and injuries are one of the most frequent  and inevitable threats to my body’s physical ability. Before I started to train, I experienced pain mainly as a function of  subjective feeling. Now I experience pain as a function of its association with potential injury and the degree of that injury.

The most important thing for me about pain is its implication to my future training. Pain that is not  associated with any injury is now experienced as neutral, or even as pleasant if it means that I succeeded in performing a specific technique. Pain that is associated with potential injury that is very mild and that from my past experience will not interfere with my training routine (for example, poorly executed arm bar) is more unpleasant, but it soon dissipates from my consciousness altogether. When it comes to intense pain, its experience depends very much on my ability to train “around” the injury. If I can train “around” it, the pain loses its intensity and effect on my mood. If I suspect that the pain will damage my training routine, it effects me so much that I get depressed.

P.S. Since I started practicing  martial arts, I developed some connections with others who have walked the path before me, and their emotional and practical support is especially valuable to me in coping with injuries. I wish to thank them for their support.