Each time I sense my instincts in action, I feel excitement and awe. For example, on the mat, during a sparring roll, when someone suddenly sweeps me, I fall on my side and automatically send my left to absorb the fall (so that I don’t hit the mat with my face). I will never absorb a fall in a so precise and confident manner when I will consciously do it. Years of human gendered socialization have created great walls of alienation between my mind and body. But I still have the channel of the instinct. When I observe my instinctual responses I feel as though I am watching an alien side of my consciousness, from the outside, as a by-stander.
In August I wrote about my experiences of gender and embodiment in the martial arts, specifically in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). A lot has changed. So this post is a kind of update post. From the beginning , the most important thing practicing BJJ gave me was the ability to unite my body and mind, an ability for which I found no other outlet, before or since. As a woman whose experiences with her body were objectification or alienation, practicing BJJ was a precious gift – the experience of a unity with my body (generally, I feel far more one with my mind, then with my body).
I was physically active before I started practicing BJJ but what characterized my physical activity was that it was monotonous and solitary. At the gym where I used to work out, there was anti-bacterial spray you could use to clean up the machines before you use them. I think this spray is a good metaphor to the kind of human relationships that often develop at the gym.
When I started practicing BJJ I had to become one with my body for three main reasons:
- For the first time in my life I found an outlet to express and develop intelligence and creativity through my body.
- I had to engage in intensive embodied learning that made me concentrate 100% on my body (unlike the simple monotonous movements at the gym).
- I had to be 100%in the here and now to avoid pain and feelings of helplessness that sometimes occur in sparring and drills.
However, recently, I have begun to experience unity with my body in a completely different way.
I used to be very competitive. I had to temporarily let go of that competitiveness and toughness, when I gradually returned to practice after the most serious injury I suffered. But this was only a forced concession. Because my body prevented me from doing what I love the most for nearly two months, I lost my trust in him (Hebrew is a gendered language and I think of my body in the usual masculine grammatical way in Hebrew).I was afraid of rousing my body’s fury again. As I slowly regained confidence in my body’s ability to endure the pressure, I returned to my old (relative) toughness. I measured the quality of my sparring rolls by the number of submissions, of me or of my sparring partners.
For a while, I had felt that I was improving my technique. But lately I’ve been feeling stuck, that my technique was even deteriorating. The number of submissions I succeeded in pulling dramatically decreased, and there were entire sparring rolls in which I couldn’t even reach a dominant position once.
These experiences (among others) drew me closer to the inevitable conclusion that I am simply not gifted in BJJ, and that I probably need to work twice as hard as the average male to reach his level. Surprisingly, this conclusion did not change the intensity of passion I have for BJJ. It made me realize that what is more interesting to me than winning or losing, or mastering a technique, is the primordial and primitive physical encounter of the struggle.
I noticed that I started to roll with much less physical force. I get less tired. What is most important for me in the sparring roll is making this connection, bodily communication, with another embodied human being. To get some sort of message through, with my body, and to receive the message (or messages) of my rolling partners
I feel calmer, more relaxed and more focused when I spar. I want to listen and embrace what that other person has to tell (me). His or her achievement (in submitting me, for instance) may be interesting , or it may not, but it does not automatically decrease my presence. I feel almost as though I meditate during sparring . I feel that the alertness of pain is not the primary reason I am one with my body during sparring anymore. I am one with my body because I have to focus, I have to be 100% in the here and now (being 100% in the here and now has always something to do with being one with the body, although not always in positive ways), in order to receive the message the other person sends me through his or her body and movements. I need to be precise to get my own message through.
I want to get better. I want to master additional techniques. But I know that even if I don’t, or even if it will be painfully slow, what interests me in BJJ has nothing to do with winning or losing.
An update: the fact that I love BJJ most, but I know that I’m not a talented practitioner, makes me understand this line by Nirvana: I’m worse at what I do best, and for this gift I feel blessed.
I really like this painting. It expresses a deep truth for me, as an embodied being. It strikes me as a painting of a real woman. Not just body, but body and mind. Not merely an image, a simulacrum or a cultural sign.
Something is very familiar to me in this painting. It evokes something in my past, in my childhood, even though it seems to me that today I’m younger than this woman when she was drawn. It makes me think about mother-daughter relationships, and more broadly, about multi-generational bonds between women.
It reassures me, makes me calm. Even though she is naked, drawn through the eyes of a male painter (Lucian Freud), I don’t feel like I’m a voyeur. I can identify with her, with the marks of time on her body. She seems serene to me, and strong in a way. I wish that I was surrounded with such images as a girl, as a teenager, without having to hate my body that will never conform to the images that did surround me at the time, and still do!
Why do I enjoy this painting so much? Clearly – and even though she meets some cultural norms of beauty (she is white, she seems to have an average size body) – she fails to meet others : her breasts are soft (too soft, our culture says), her tummy is loose (our culture says, too loose). I find in her body solace that I cannot find in the muscular images of men I like to identify with so much (consciously and to spite others) because they are strong, tough, not soft. I am her more than I am tough.
Flushed areas are marked on her face and she has big, wise eyes, which seem to me be absorbed in the here and now, like time itself is her lover. I feel as though this painting tells me something valuable and old about my identity, my flesh and my mind, as a woman. I am already her, she is a part of me.