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.

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Why are we afraid of women competing with men in sports?

Lindsey Vonn, one of the most successful skiers the United States has ever produced, requested the opportunity to compete against men at the prestigious Lake Louise competition. The International Ski Federation rejected her request because “one gender is not entitled to participate in the races of the other.” If men are biologically stronger and faster than women, why is there a need to shelter them from competition with women? Skiing is not a contact sport – one races against the clock and the slope.

Professor Mark Stoddart from Memorial University of Newfoundland argues that skiing is charged with gender associations, as risk-taking and speed are associated with masculinity, whereas caution and control are interpreted as “feminine”.

This is hardly surprising: the belief that there are inborn, permanent and biological differences between genders is the foundation of social order, not only in relation to sports but also to sexuality, parenting, work and combat.

In this context, the gendered and sexual identities of women who excel in “masculine” professions often come under scrutiny. Just last year, it was decided that South-African middle-distance runner, Caster Semenya, must undergo a “gender verification test” before she can participate in the World Championship competition, a test which she eventually passed successfully.

Nonetheless, in marathons and golfing, women have already been permitted to compete against men, following legal action. This has not just changed the lives of women who practice these sports, but also these sports’ gender biases and masculine codes, and gradually, our society in general.

There are many ways to create gender-equitable sports contests, yet still match equivalent competitors, such as introducing an “open weight” category, and adding another gender-open competition, alongside the separate ones. These changes are a necessary and positive adaptation and manifestation of women’s gain in physical and social capital.