Is there a philosophy of Jiu-Jitsu? It makes a great metaphor for life, but there are also great analogies to explain the learning process of this beautiful art. Let’s address the question with a little help from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu phenom and MMA fighter Ryan Hall.
In a recent video, Hall explains his philosophy of Jiu-Jitsu. His words are beautiful, not just to a martial arts geek like me, but also because part of my academic background is linguistics and communication. I was giddy watching the video, with many of Hall’s ideas being similar to my own.
He says, “I think the great expression of anything physical is ultimately studied as a science but expressed as an art.” In Jiu-Jitsu and other grappling arts, you may find elements of physics and leverage, geometry and anatomy, all common in the scientific realm. But we also label what we practice as an art, the literal translation of the term “Jitsu.”
Where Hall believes we lose sight of the art aspect is when we get too specific with training. “I think that’s something that gets lost in Jiu-Jitsu a lot of times when it gets a little bit nerdy. Like, ‘do this, hand here, hand here.’ Like, the more details I have, the better. But, in reality, that’s not in my experience how it’s done,” he says. We need guidance and structure to learn the system, but we also need a degree of freedom to create and express our version of it.
Hall discusses learning Jiu-Jitsu to learning a new language, an analogy I often use in my gym to explain the time and effort it takes to develop proficient skills in the art.
He says, “The more that I’ve been able to understand Jiu-Jitsu… it’s given me a look into how we learn language, where instead of learning five bazillion adjectives, I understand what an adjective is… I understand what an adverb is; I know what a noun is. I know what the component parts of a sentence are… It allows you to be interesting and artistic with your language.”
Instead of attempting to teach ten throws, illustrate the fundamentals of Kazushi. Rather than showing twenty armbars, demonstrate the anatomy of an armbar. Once you begin to learn the fundamental components of the art instead of the endless techniques found within it, you are better able to be more “artistic” with your version of it.
Returning to the language analogy, Hall says, “The way that I perceive the world is affected deeply by the language that I learn,” which often starts “with a technique collection, a vocabulary collection the same way we learn in school.”
We all began as white belts. We had to see various parts of the system in isolation before comprehending it in its entirety. During that phase, we were technique gathering: a cross lapel choke, an armbar from guard, a scissor sweep, etc. We threw some tools in our bag and hoped for the best during a roll, but it was often jaunty and ugly to watch. Imagine trying to listen to someone who was just learning a language try to give a speech. It would be painful to hear, wouldn’t it? That’s where we are in a roll as relative new students.
Hall urges us not to get stuck in the technique-gathering phase. You wouldn’t want to end up with a vast vocabulary but no ability to form a coherent sentence, would you? No, and you also wouldn’t want your techniques to work only when your opponent is in just the right position.
When you watch black belts roll, it’s like watching poetry in motion. The reason is these individuals have typically mastered the language of Jiu-Jitsu. They don’t just know the vocabulary or grammar. They aren’t just writing sentences; they are poetic and elegant in their expression of the art.
Are you fluent enough in your art to write poetry? Or are you still working on the basics and vocabulary? Just as you can’t learn a language statically without others to speak with, you won’t learn Jiu-Jitsu without testing it.
And remember, the language is universal, but the poetry is yours.