14 unobvious benefits of Brazilian jiu-jitsu / by Alexander Lyadov

The lessons I learned while studying this “gentle (sometimes not) art”.


Imagine you are 43 years old. And you start training martial art. Practicing 3–5 times a week. Building a collection of traumas. Earning a blue belt. Participating in local and international competitions. Why would you do all that? What Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) can give so precious that you would exchange cozy couch for a sweaty, uncomfortable, often painful and always intense wrestling on tatami with other people of various ages and skills. Well, there are some obvious benefits and there are some quite surprising:

  1. All-in-one. If you are not a professional athlete, then any sport you do in life should be more like a marathon, than a sprint. Ideally, you are ready to practice it forever. Of course, you can invest your will and energy into a few months of hard training you dislike in order to get the perfect abs for the summer. However, it’s not sustainable and next year the torture cycle should be repeated again. Or you can choose an ambitious and admirable goal, but once it’s attained, you drop the training. The perfect lifestyle sport is as rewarding in a process as in results. This is possible when training is intrinsically fueling your soul while making your body healthier as well as sharpening the mind and will. The deeper sport intertwines your life, the easier is to keep training for decades. BJJ is is a strange mix of yoga, cardio and weight-lifting. If you want it can be a fun game but is easily activated as a deadly weapon. The complexity and sophistication level is ever increasing even for the black belt and there is no limit of proficiency one can attain in a journey.
  2. Your Game. Famous Coach Zahabi, who trains arguably the best ever MMA fighter GSP, said in recent interview that all people are created perfectly for self-defense, but each one with his/her own uniqueness. After learning the basics, one should focus on discovering and developing his own game. Interestingly in BJJ everyday vocabulary the word “Game” is central, as both encouragement to find own style of fighting and always keeping it fun. There are only a few possibilities for how to break a joint or strangle the neck, but there are infinite ways of how one can get to the destination. The fact that BJJ as a discipline is growing in complexity and sophistication every day is the best illustration of cumulative human endeavor.
  3. Non-linear progress. Life is unpredictable and difficult to understand. No wonder people like simple explanations. One the most popular is the linear progression. We tend to expect that our skills grow in direct proportion with efforts. And the greater/longer the effort, the greater will be a result. However, this is oversimplification which is rarely met in real life. The stock market chart for a few decades is a much better illustration of how it works. Some periods of initial growth replaced by a plateau then can be a fall, then temporary rise, then again fall etc. Over time — yes, there is a steady trend of growth, but at any certain moment in time, it’s not clear what’s coming next. The BJJ is teaching kind of patience everyone needs in life. When one is in plateau stage the best strategy is to keep showing up for training no matter what. At a certain moment there will be a burst and jump to another level. Like a compound interest that Albert Einstein believed to be the eight wonder and the most powerful force in the universe, the true progression for long stays invisible to everyone including yourself. However, the process of hidden growth is there under the earth even if the gardener doesn’t notice it. His role is to keep pouring water… and be patient.
  4. Life scenarios. You may know that while most of the time people wear masks, there are some situations when we show our true nature. This happens for example during sex or driving the car or in extreme overwhelming situations. At that moment we reveal who we are. Sometimes it’s interesting, but other times quite terrifying. From a personal development angle, it’s quite useful to observe yourself in those situations, which is obviously complicated. Moreover, the situations tend to camouflage themselves in various decorations and be separated in time. Hypothetically one could learn a lot from his first and second broken marriages, but each one took a decade with various partners in different settings. It’s hard to see a pattern of one’s behavior from instances which seem so unique, although one can feel there is something in common. Luckily BJJ provides us with unique chance to learn from our behavioral patterns. On one hand in the fight (called rolling) people tend to reveal the true nature due to inability to control themselves in the environment requiring their survival. On the other hand, the fights are very frequent — every training there are 3–5 of them and they are normalized, i.e. each lasts for 5 minutes in well-structured settings. One repeatedly gets into trouble, taps and starts rolling. Again gets into trouble, taps, starts rolling… Quite quickly you get enough statistics and slowly your personal patterns start to emerge. You notice that no matter who you roll with, you tend to be caught in the same trap and act in a similar manner. Ironically noticing the trap does not mean escaping it. It will take another 30–70 fights to gradually figure out reliable way out. But the most amazing thing happens when you realize that trouble-causing pattern in BJJ is very similar to the one you keep experiencing in personal life or business. There is a great hope is such insight.
  5. Shadow integration. Genius Austrian psychotherapist Carl Jung once said “No tree can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell” and his works wrote extensively about the need for “ shadow integration”. Unfortunately, modern culture is very good in teaching youngsters how to behave properly in society and very bad in teaching when and how to integrate our “dark” impulses. This creates the plethora of problems both personally and socially — from the inability to defend him/herself when needed to passive-aggressive behavior, bursts of extreme violence in public and obsession to create “safe spaces” everywhere. Whether someone accepts them or not, but aggression is part of our psyche. Denying doesn’t eliminate it, but rather makes it implicit and let it act on the subconscious level with risk to shock us with its intense manifestation in an unexpected manner and time. However, aggression is a natural gift and a powerful force that can be amazingly beneficial if mastered and properly applied. But where and how a boy or a girl can learn it if kindergartens, schools, and universities would do everything possible to suppress anything that resembles conflict or active confrontation. No wonder we grow up losing intimate contact with our aggressive self. To help ourselves we need an environment where our natural aggression is allowed and even welcomed but is wisely structured for its careful exploration. BJJ does just that. People agree among themselves about how hard they go in particular rolling and thus can learn what it takes to survive and win under tough pressure. If one wants more, you can participate in the competition where your opponent will do his best to hurt or strangle you. However, in any fight there are clear and strict rules when one can just gesture or say “Tap!” and the danger is over. It’s very similar like kids have fun in rough & tumble play until someone crosses the line, the secret word “Stop!” is said and then the game is over. In BJJ fights can be anything from soft like puppies play to brutal like lions treat the rivals. As a result, you can gradually learn how to access your gem — the source of power hidden in aggression. The great modern intellectual Jordan B. Peterson once said: “It doesn’t mean that being cruel is better than not being cruel. What it means is that being able being cruel and then not being cruel is better than not being able to be cruel. Because in the first case you are nothing but weak and naive. And in the second case, you are dangerous, but you have it under control… So the strength you are developing in your monstrousness is actually the best guarantee of peace”. Too often people hide their cowardness behind the peacefulness. And it’s far often then we prefer in order to achieve peace and harmony some kind of conflict and confrontation is required. If one is intrinsically afraid of aggression from other people or, even worse, is afraid of his/her own aggression, he will hardly be able to engage in conflict when needed, defend his point of view, his moral, intellectual or physical territory. BJJ can help to some degree. I bet you will be very surprised and glad to get familiar with your shadow.
  6. Meaning. I think it was Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Laenge (or his teacher Viktor Frankl) who in one of his books said that life of psychologically ill people goes along the horizontal axle where on the left sits “discomfort and pain”, while on the right there is “comfort and pleasure”. So those people tend to avoid the former and seek for latter. However, he wrote, the psychologically healthy people tend to move perpendicularly, i.e. along the vertical axle which goes from “emptiness” at the bottom to “meaning” at the top. Instead of focusing on pleasure or eliminating pain psychologically healthy people are searching for life meaning. Due to its design jiu-jitsu forces one to tolerate all the burdens of training, inevitable traumas, anxiety, and upsets in order to move your game forward. No one in a sane mind would agree to “enjoy” those sweat and tears without a clearly valuable “reason why”, no matter whether it is explicitly stated or just implicitly felt. This is the opposite of instant gratification the society is pushing us to. In BJJ you learn how to make proper sacrifices, which in essence mean willingness to forego something dear to you now in order to get something greater later on. It’s an investment deal between current (insufficient) You and the future (ideal) You whom you admire.
  7. A better version of Yourself. Starting as a white belt you quickly realize your vulnerability and imperfection. Naturally, you start comparing your progress with other guys, which often causes irritation. Failing in competition makes it even worse. However, sooner or later everyone eventually gets the insight who we really fight with. In my recent European competition, I was extremely anxious and afraid as I was just promoted in the blue belt division and was expecting scary beasts to meet. There was only one idea that helped me calm down and do the proper work. Inside my head, there was a voice saying: “Just try to be the best version of yourself. Show what you can and then come what may”. Few fights later I found that I won the gold medal. Wow, the champion of Europe. With that powerful insight (for me), nowadays every time I am the envy of others or upset with my setbacks I ground myself in that simple idea “Do I do what I truly can in my unique circumstances? Am I the best version of myself?”.
  8. Learning to learn. Jiu-jitsu is quite remarkable in demonstrating our learning process. First, you don’t understand anything — simply found yourself tapping to your opponent because of pain or danger. That situation repeats again and again and again. You become quite anxious as it feels like a cursed cycle in a movie “Groundhog Day”. After many failed and desperate attempts to prevent or escape the trap, you suddenly do that. But you can’t understand what just happened. Then goes again a sequence of taps, but suddenly you manage to escape for the second time. Later it happens again. And once more. Then you get how you did it. Suddenly it’s not a miracle anymore, but a predictable and clear pattern. Soon it’s very hard for any fighter to get you in that trap. Congratulations! You earned your freedom. More than that you just learned meta-skill — how you can and you will learn anything.
  9. Problem-solving. Often when encountering problems people tend to look for solutions outside, as if a priori we lack something valuable which can only be found far away. However, Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg said in their book “Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results”: “The shortest and most effective way to innovate is to explore the resources at hand”. I recall I got my leg injured and could not roll. In fact, the doctor told me to skip training. But I really wanted to roll and didn’t want to get behind. So I offered all my training partners… to try strangling me from the back mount. This is the weakest position in BJJ where one is extremely vulnerable. But the good side was that legs are not involved in that exercise and can’t be re-traumatized. Well, first 2 weeks were a true hell for me, but at least I could use keep training as if I am not injured. Then I realized that my ability to defend myself in that dire conditions improved so much that I was getting quite comfortable and soon there was probably one or two people in our club who could really submit me from the back position. After my health restored and I could roll in normal mode, I am not at all fearful of that “vulnerable” position and even tempted to get into it in order to surprise my opponent by escaping. The unexpected and dramatic improvement of skills happened because of a difficult dilemma and act of spontaneous creative problem-solving. BJJ gives one plenty of such dilemmas. Well, as does the life.
  10. Leverage. There is a great temptation in jiu-jitsu to apply brutal force when there is a lack of technicality, but stakes are high. Especially if you are physically gifted. Sooner or later you will say that idea good-bye. As my friend who is an experienced surfer once told me: “When ocean wave smashes you and you find yourself deep in the water, it’s quite stupid to resist the force of the ocean. It doesn’t matter how much you are strong. You are nothing against him — 80 kg of flesh vs 10 tones of high-speed water. The smart thing is to relax, conserve your limited oxygen and wait for the wave to calm down”. The same is true in BJJ in the sense of realization that your resources are quite limited. After forth intense fight in a row one’s gas tank is often almost empty. Imagine there are ten fights or real life situation where there is no time limit. There should be something else able to help one to win. This is leverage. While I can improve my endurance and strength by 30, 50% or even 100%, multiplying them by x10 is physiologically impossible. At the same time, proper technique can easily make you 10 or 20 times more effective and deadly. It’s almost like a fight between unarmed men vs man with a knife or a baseball bat. The victory of the former is highly unlikely. There is no limit in force multiplication by technology. No athletic power can compete with a flying arrow not to mention a nuclear bomb. By learning the repertoire of techniques the fighter literally becomes superhuman as his dangerous skills are not even recognizable by his naive attackers. One thing to get this idea intellectually, another thing to experience it in through your body in the fight. No wonder that after such experience you start looking for such magic leverage in every aspect of your life and business.
  11. Gratitude. It’s quite easy to distinguish mature fighter from the novice. No matter how old, weak or injured the mature fighter does one very special thing. Once he gets an advantageous position over you, he will never ever give it back to you. Young and experienced people feel the whole world is focusing on them offering infinitude of possibilities. If not now, then tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then in the next decade. They feel they can pass the current opportunity because there is plenty of time ahead and a horn of plenty would keep generating wonders. The mature fighter knows what real life is. His naive beliefs left him with every blood drop when he was injured by adversities. He learned the hard way how rarely truly great opportunities come and how long periods of drought can be in a savanna. The old fighter is wise and deeply thankful for any lucky chance the fortune gives him. Anything that helps to move toward his goal, even marginally, is a blessing. No one knows what will be a final drop for winning, so anything that makes your position better than before should be grabbed and utilized with great care.
  12. Humility. Gratitude comes along with humility because without latter you can’t feel the former. Whether you Ego is big or small, in BJJ it will suffer. Tapping is a symbolical act when one human being accepts the superiority of the other. He subdues you. You tap because you can’t stand the pain anymore or afraid of going to sleep due to choking (symbolical death). Being submitted by someone feels terrible I can tell. And yet in BJJ one get submitted several times during training. Moreover soon you realize that the speed of your progress is a function from your willingness to tap often. It means you are ready to leave your known territory and get your nose into chaos where all the learning takes place. It’s not surprising that the fastest learners are people with the smallest Ego.
  13. Tribe. Due to the intense pace of modern urban life, many of us live in a world where our relations are limited by the family members, few friends, and colleagues at work. These are important and valuable. However by design human beings are tribal animals. Of course, tribalism can be dangerous and murderous when it’s aligned against other (foreign) tribes. However, it can be extremely rewarding, inspiring and supportive to you as it’s member. The good tribe unites people around one healthy goal. In our BJJ club, it is a pursuit of personal excellence with help of friendly others. Unlike many other sports in jiu-jitsu, you simply can’t grow without the help of others. And vice versa. So we are interdependently working on the similar individual goals. If someone tries to get more for himself from others than he provides in return, soon he is given small lessons, changes behavior or never comes back. In economics, there is a exact term coopetition, which is a sum of two — cooperation and competition. One should become a master of balancing in-between them. in his article “Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity” Jordan B. Peterson provides curious case: “When juvenile rats are paired together, repeatedly, in rough-and-tumble wrestling bouts, one rat will end up on top more frequently. However, if the now-dominant rat pins its playmate more than 70% of the time, the subordinate, who initiates play sequences, begins to ignore the victor, and play diminishes (Panksepp, 1998). The dominant rat must learn to respond to the cues of the subordinate if it wishes to keep playing. Such modulation lays the foundation for the higher-order morality keeping aggression and other potentially antisocial schema properly regulated — even among rats”. Ironically people often have to learn what rats know by default. However, when there is a positive and encouraging culture, there is a joy in attending your club and meeting your dear friends. Jokes, laughter, and growth in growth times. Support, care, and protection when times are tough. And weird, precious and almost forgotten feeling of being an independent individual who is happy to be part of a great clan with minds alike.
  14. Free Hugs. It’s well known in the scientific literature that “developmental delay is common in children deprived of normal sensory stimulation — for example, in premature neonates and some institutionalized children. Touch has emerged as an important modality for the facilitation of growth and development; positive effects of supplemental mechanosensory stimulation have been demonstrated in a wide range of organisms, from worm larvae to rat pups to human infants”. Also in another source: “regardless of whether a baby is born at full term or whether they are delivered very preterm, touch is an essential component to help them reach their optimal potential.” What is obvious for infants, somehow forgotten for adults as if they stop their development or become invulnerable and self-sufficient. I like to think of human being as not so much an object, but rather a process of constant interaction with the surrounding him or her world. Everyone needs a hug. Sometimes less and sometimes much more. There is some magic power in human touch for our psyche. While living in the city with its overpopulation and virtualization quickly alienates us from each other, we are in need to keep our physical connection strong more than ever. Dance or basketball can help. But in BJJ hags are very special. They range from puppy’s light touch to grizzly bear trap. You working day may suck, but after 1.5 hours of intense hugging, you are a totally different person. Much better person. Exactly what you and this world need.