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.

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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.

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.

What I love about BJJ has nothing to do with winning or losing

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:

  1. For the first time in my life I found an outlet to express and develop intelligence and creativity through my body.
  2. I had to engage in intensive embodied learning that made me concentrate 100% on my body (unlike the simple monotonous movements at the gym).
  3. 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.