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Be inspired every day with Living North
men doing BJJ
Health and beauty
April 2016
Reading time 2 Minutes

Committing to an active, healthy lifestyle can be hard and (let’s face it) often dull, so we decided to find something new...

From cartwheels to chokeholds, here’s what happened when we tried Brazilian jiu-jitsu and why we think you should too.

The great nation of Brazil has brought us many things, from waxing and the açai berry (which we still don’t know how to pronounce) to Gisele Bündchen. It’s also brought us some rather unique fitness fads. One Brazilian pastime that is far from a fad however, is Brazilian jiu-jitsu. 

Based on the fundamentals of judo, and introduced by a family in Brazil whose patriarch learned it in America, took it back to Brazil, fathered 21 children and taught it to them all, it focuses on the principle that a smaller, weaker person can master a larger opponent through technique alone. It can be practised as a competitive sport, as a form of self-defence training or simply as a way of life, promoting body and mind awareness. 

‘Only in a situation of real self-defence would any great pressure be applied; in practice, the partner in the hold ‘taps out’ by tapping their opponent at the point of discomfort ’

The dojo where I’m trying my hand at a beginners’ class, Origin Jiu-Jitsu, is hidden in an archway of King Edward Bridge in Newcastle. There are mainly men in this session, but there are some women too, all clad in the familiar pyjama-style clothing – in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) it is called a ‘gi’. The room is large with its vast, curved ceiling hugging the shape of the bridge’s arch. Almost all the floor space is taken up by interlocking foam mats. Despite being slightly looked at when my friend and I walk in as newcomers, the atmosphere is friendly with everyone chatting and catching up. 

Having been told in no uncertain terms by this BJJ-practising, purple-belted (and therefore knowledgable) friend of mine that etiquette dictates never stepping on the mats in shoes, I dutifully remove my trainers and socks revealing my cold and pre-emptively semi-manicured feet. I put on my gi, comprising white loose-fitting, but heavy-duty trousers, and a jacket made of the same material with a reinforced collar (perfect for grabbing). I was also warned in advance to wear something underneath, advice I’m glad I took as I realise halfway through that the jacket has a tendency to come open. With little other knowledge, I join in on the mats for the warm up as the gentle shudder of trains rumbles overhead. To my horror it involves forward and backward rolls and optional cartwheels... However, I can reassure you that this is in fact, for me at least, the scariest part of the class.

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The aim of the game is to get your opponent into a position from which they cannot escape, ideally with your hands or arms around their neck. Of course, only in a situation of real self-defence would any great pressure be applied; in practice, the partner in the hold ‘taps out’ by tapping their opponent at the point of discomfort. Speaking to Lesley Harrison, a dedicated participant of BJJ who trains up to 15 hours per week, I am told that people don’t get injured by these choke holds: ‘In all my years of practising I’ve only ever seen one person go unconscious, and that was because of his ego, he didn’t want to admit defeat and so just didn’t tap out.’ 

Lesley trains because she enjoys it: ‘Out of all the martial arts I’ve tried it’s got the best community. Everyone is really welcoming from the highest level competitors to the older guys who are just there to get fit and let off steam. It’s a full body workout, and it’s something that you can make work for you.’

After the dynamic warm up we watch as instructor, Ian Malone, positions himself in the middle of the floor with a partner to demonstrate a move. It involves one person sitting on top of the other’s hips, while his partner beneath attempts to squirm out using various techniques. It is at this point that I am relieved I came with a good friend, and I would suggest this to anyone considering giving BJJ a go, as straddling a stranger is a somewhat bizarre experience. I am assured however that you eventually become desensitised to the closeness of the sport, and indeed by the end of the session I have rolled around with Lesley without feeling the awkwardness I had 50 minutes earlier. She explains that one advantage of BJJ is that there are no gradings that you have to perform to get your next belt: ‘I can just build my game around the moves that work for me, and still progress in the art,’ she says, ‘That’s what keeps me coming back’.

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Ian, who owns this branch of Origin, tells me he has been practising for 15 years: ‘Back then there were only a couple of places around the UK where you could do real jiu-jitsu. As it happened I met a guy who had lived down in London and practised it down there and then started training others in the North East, and it just went from there’. 

Despite the many different aspects and techniques I am observing and trying to take in, the class goes by incredibly quickly. I have enjoyed it and I am encouraged by the fact that being small and light doesn’t mean I can’t learn different ways to protect myself. Lesley however warns me that although this is true, she cautions women against trying BJJ purely for self-defence: ‘I see women come in and do a few lessons for self-defence, they get over-confident because guys are going easy on them. Then they quit and think that they can choke out an adult male or break his arm if they need to.’  

The next day I’m feeling it in muscles I didn’t know I had, confirming the ‘full body workout’ claim. The fact that you can attend almost any level of class (the nature of BJJ means people of all levels can train together) so you don’t have to commit too much, you simply pay at the end of the class. Based on my experience I’d certainly agree with Lesley that the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu community will welcome anyone who wants to try the sport, and I’d certainly like to go back again. After a little forward-roll revision of course.

For classes and further information visit Origin’s website

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