“Because becoming a Black Belt is not only a physical change, but also a mental and spiritual one as well, your Black Belt test will include a written essay. That topic is: WHAT MARTIAL ARTS MEANS TO ME.”
Intention 2015 Black Belt Testing Book
The morning after I failed to get even one measly dead-hang chin-up at the pull-ups test, I was never so happy in my life to see another person as I was when Judith and Danelle arrived at the Reno High track for the mile and quarter mile test. I may have cried. Ok, I definitely cried.
After class, when I’m thinking about jetting home to make dinner and play video games with Jordan, I stick around just in case any colored belts are tip testing, because Glenn was there for every single checklist.
The other night, Rich asked me to stay after class and go over his grappling pattern moves with him, and it was so incredibly gratifying seeing him start to grok guillotine, kimura and pendulum sweep that I couldn’t stop smiling all the way home.
Those are some of the things that go through my mind when I think about my personal experience of martial arts. Which is odd, because none of them are particularly martial. It’s strange to have the word “martial” in your favorite hobby when you’re a non-competitive person like me who actively avoids confrontation. It’s doubly strange when, instead of doing one of the artsier martial arts, you end up in a mixed program that borrows heavily from the UFC.
When I was a one-stripe white belt in jiu jitsu, I didn’t even know if I liked grappling, perhaps because from the moment you grab a drilling partner you have to cope with a higher level of confrontation than at the early levels of most other martial arts. Scott somehow convinced me to attend the Groundswell Grappling women’s grappling camp that came to Reno that year even though I was skeptical that someone like me could get anything out of a program aimed at women who love jiu jitsu enough to travel across the United States to attend this camp.
Quite literally overnight, I went from making Heidi very uncomfortable with all my crying from mount bottom, to laughing when I’m rolling with KJN Tres because I’ll tap to two different submissions while one arm is pinned behind my back.
I don’t even know if I could pinpoint what exactly happened to cause such a drastic shift, but the grapplers in my life have both knowingly and unknowingly helped me through a lot of real life issues that somehow had perfect analogues on the mat. So what if I, as a woman, am bigger than even some of the guys I grapple with? Mount pressure! How do you resolve one of those weird friendship-slash-rivalries that sometimes appear in your peer group? Don’t downplay yourself or your abilities, just be supportive and positive. Got yourself in an uncomfortable situation due to inexperience and poor decisions? Tap out, accept it, move on and get better. I’m even learning to be more confident and less apologetic both on and off the mat.
That’s why, while I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by hard-charging, motivated and generous people on the mats every day, particularly dear to my heart are my Brazilian jiu jitsu girlfriends, who completely transformed the sport for me then and continue to do so today.
“Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.”
Even outside of ground fighting, being able to touch my toes, roundhouse kick at face level, run a 7:15 mile, remember and perform all of palgue seven in front of a room of strangers — those are all byproducts of the way martial arts has connected me to other people.
Sure, there are those moments where your body aligns perfectly to throw an amazing kick, or you pull off a flawless sweep with just the right angle and timing. But, especially looking back on my own personal history regarding sports, those are all things that I doubt I would have achieved on my own.
In a 2013 interview, UFC champion and Marvel bad guy Georges St-Pierre said,
“There is a difference between a fighter and a martial artist. A fighter is training for a purpose, he has a fight. I am a martial artist. I don’t train for a fight. I train for myself. I am training all the time. I am training for perfection, but I will never reach perfection.”
Georges St-Pierre, Men’s Health Magazine
This idea of martial arts as a journey towards perfection or a path towards personal betterment is a common thread between martial arts disciplines. The names of many specific styles reflect this idea. The term kung fu is a general phrase for a study or practice that requires long-term dedication. The “do” in aikido and judo means “way.” The “do” in tang soo do and tae kwon do means “way of life,” or “art” — much like our own English term, martial arts.
And what is art, but the artist’s journey to uncover perfection, beauty and meaning, and their dedication to share it with others? No matter what the medium, it’s not art if it doesn’t spark a conversation, influence people to interact with it, with each other, or influence the way they experience life. Great art might even change people’s lives.
That’s closer to the core of what martial arts means to me.
While many of the subtler benefits I’ve experienced through my martial arts practice aren’t “perfection” in a competitive sense, they are all stepping stones on the path to a life well lived, which may be as close to perfection as I’m bound to get.
Martial arts, to me, is about community. True martial artists are good people. Good people support each other, make each other better, celebrate each other’s victories and troubleshoot or commiserate when we struggle.
We just get to do all that while punching, kicking and choking each other.