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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why I Love Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

It's crazy to think that we'll be in Toronto on Friday.  Our time in Philadelphia has flown by so quickly!   Just over two years ago, I can still vividly remember my first drive into Philadelphia.  That day, I flew into Baltimore, picked up my dog (who flew on Pet Airways into Baltimore), and rented a car for the 2-hour drive into Philly.  Sarah was still in LA and would visit Tokyo before moving to Philly in the late fall;  my first couple months in Philadelphia without her were rough!  I'm so happy that we're moving together this time around!

Anyways, one of the things that was most challenging about my move to Philadelphia was my radical change in lifestyle.  I've basically always been a swimmer.  I started swimming when I was 6.  I started competitively swimming when I was 7.  In high school, I attended an elite prep school in Jacksonville, FL known as The Bolles School.  I competed and trained year-round at Bolles.  I then swam at UC Berkeley.  After retiring from competitive swimming, I continued swimming 5-6 times per week.  Then, I moved to UCLA to get my PhD.  I swam 5-6 times per week at UCLA, which on a sidenote has some of the nicest recreational swimming facilities in the US.  In addition to two 25-yard outdoor pools on campus, UCLA also has Sunset Canyon Recreational Center, a large swimming facility that has 1 50-meter outdoor pool and another 25-yard pool (both of which are surrounded by sunbathing areas that are in use about 10 months out of the year).  [On another sidenote, Sunset Canyon is probably one of the only swimming facilities in which you can regularly bump into celebrities who are trying to stay in shape with swimming.  There was a stretch of time when I used to see Owen Wilson at Sunset Canyon; I once gave him a pointer on his freestyle arm recovery, which he appreciated].

50 meter pool at Sunset Canyon: My favorite rec pool
Anyways, when I first moved to Philly, I stopped swimming all the time.  Although I continued swimming at UPenn's Pottruck Center pool, I didn't enjoy the process of trekking through rain, cold weather, or snow to get to an indoor pool that's underground.  Swimming just isn't the same when you aren't staring up into a blue sky and the sun.

Near the end of my first year in Philly, I felt myself becoming older.  I gained weight.  I noticed that my energy levels were slipping.  I also felt tired and sleepy a lot.  Although I had started lifting weights and occasionally running, I didn't really look forward to these activities.  I've never enjoyed running or going to the gym, so it was hard for me to stay disciplined and committed to either of these forms of exercise.

Then, a curious thing happened.  By chance, I became fascinated with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ).  At that time, I had a research assistant, John Dominski, who had moved from the midwest to help me with my research on gunshot victims (on a sidenote, John is now a PhD student in Sociology at Notre Dame; this guy has some serious sociological skills and I'm interested to see what he does in the coming years).  An avid crossfit person, John signed up for the BJJ beginner's program at Balance Studios in Philadelphia.

I can still remember a particular afternoon in which John started practicing "standing in base" while in my office.  For those who don't know, standing in base is one of the fundamental and basic self defense moves that you learn in BJJ.  This is basically a drill designed for real self defense situations.  In it, you practice standing up and having a solid base or sense of balance beneath you.  In a more combative situation, it's a good drill for learning how to shield yourself from an attacked and get away unscathed.

Anyways, in the middle of a work day, John slipped off his shoes and began doing "standing in base" drills in the middle of my office.  I immediately became fascinated and asked him to teach me a couple of the moves he'd picked up.  That was the beginning of my transformation.


John continued taking classes at Balance Studios for the next several weeks.  On different days, he'd come into the office and show me moves or drills that he'd learned.  In addition to hearing his enthusiasm for learning BJJ, I could also see a change in his overall affect and demeanor.  He's not a high strung person to begin with, but John appeared more calm and more relaxed after he started training.  My interest continued to grow.

Then, on some random day, I finally decided that I would give BJJ a try.  A couple months had passed and John was talking about BJJ and Balance Studios all the time.  I thought to myself, "There has to be something about this place, Balance Studios.  There has to be something about BJJ if  John is so into learning it."

I then called Balance Studios and was invited to come out and try an introductory class.  This was one of the best decisions I've ever made in my adult life.  During the first class, I became increasingly interested in BJJ.  Although we weren't actively sparring or rolling yet, I was learning real stuff.  I can remember doing "hip escape" drills, which are used when you need to get out of bad situations when your opponent is on top of you.



After taking the beginner's class for a couple months, I signed up for a long-term membership and joined the advanced and intermediate course.  At first, I trained 4 times per week.  Then, as my interests grew, I started training 5 days per week.  Within 2 months, I was training 6 days per week on a regular basis.  When I'm not training, I find myself thinking about BJJ, drilling the techniques, watching Youtube videos, and talking with people about it.  In a short time, BJJ has become an integral part of my everyday life.  In the process, it has also changed my life.

So far, I've trained for almost 10 months in the advanced and intermediate program at Balance Studios.  It's been easily one of the most humbling and gratifying experiences of my adult life.  In my first two months of training, I lost 30 pounds.  Since starting my BJJ journey, I have become more flexible, stronger, more alert, and feel younger.  BJJ is one of the sneakiest workouts I've ever had.  I never feel as if I'm working hard, and always look forward to going in and training with folks.  Moreover, I always leave a training session exhausted and sweating from head to toe; I don't know if I could ever reach the same levels of exhaustion on my own or in some other kind of exercise structure at this point of my life.  It's not uncommon for me to lose 3-4 pounds in water weight from training!  BJJ is also a great way to build lean muscle mass.  Although I don't life weights, many of the things you do in BJJ are great for muscle toning and overall cardiovascular health.  This video of Andre Galvao--a world champion--shows some of the drills I enjoy doing when I'm not actively drilling and "rolling" (sparring) on the mats with people.


But, beyond the physical benefits of BJJ, I've also noticed several other positive changes in my life.  My training has been perspective changing.  To put it simply, BJJ has made me a more humble person.  Recently, I heard a great interview in which Joe Rogan talks about the benefits of learning BJJ.  At one point, he says that BJJ is great because "It's good for you to get your ass kicked."


He has a more "eloquent" way of putting things, but I think Joe Rogan is right on the money.  Although there are days when I feel totally overwhelmed and incompetent while training with folks at Balance Studios, there is something extremely satisfying about continuing to train hard and learn in spite of being physically dominated and submitted on multiple occasions (on a sidenote: It also doesn't hurt that Balance Studios is a place where everyone is very eager to help you learn and develop as a martial artist).

Anyways, it's about 6:40 in the morning now.  I was up for a few hours working on my book and then took a break from writing.  For some reason, I feel like I write best really late at night.  I need to work on this, because it makes having a semi-structured schedule difficult to hold at times.  During my writing break, I started watching BJJ videos and then became inspired to write this blog.  In 5 short hours, I'll be going to Balance Studios to train.   Even though I'm exhausted and will most likely get my ass kicked, I'm looking forward to it!

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