Engagement


By Kamil Krukowski

When I first decided to pursue Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I had no idea what I was frankly getting myself into. I found several local dojos addresses posted online, and set out on foot to visit each of them. Their lack of websites and methods of contact served as a warmup. I travelled through many unfamiliar roads to uncertain destinations. Several were closed down permanently. Others had long since moved on. For those that stayed, hours were not posted. I swung by every now and then, knocking on doors and waiting on steps.

After 3 or 4 days, I was ready to give up. A fruitless week. Yet when I turned back, head hung in defeat, a car pulled up with an unfamiliar friendly face, sporting the sweatshirt with a team’s logo and colors I’ve long pursued.

The Spanish was still hard, but our chance encounter was certain, and the situation universal enough.

“¿Quieres entrar?”

I nodded my head, as the stranger pointed out class times on their wristwatch, and unlocked the padlocked staircase.

The dojo was small, I waited in set aside corner on a lobby couch, glass windows on all sides of a 2nd story complex. Gradually, people trickled in. A mere dozen, or so, ranging from teenagers to some elderly. Nobody knew my name, nor did I theirs, but that didn’t matter.

People put on an array of white, blue, and black robes matching sets of various belts, and starting jogging for a warmup.

I joined in. 

Little did I realize, intensive sets sets of pushups, crunches, burpees, and then drills regarding rolls and somersaults were standard. 5 minutes in, I was flailing and gasping for breath while everyone else maintaining their quiet and stable perfect forms. This went on for another good 10 minutes, and then the actual class started.

The actual technique looked simple enough, and really easy to do. The chance to watch someone else while I caught my breath was welcome. However when faced with replicating such movements on the ground, my arms and legs turned to jelly. I lost all coordination and was utterly dumbfounded by the effortless and simple technique I witnessed.

And then we rolled. Oh boy. It seems everyone uses the “hang loose” surfing gesture as some confirmation of an impending war. I was thrown to the wolves. Looking up, eye contact was an immediate issued challenge, or perhaps invitation to test out what we learned. The clock is set to a countdown, 3 minute rounds ensue. I bumped fists with a friendly enough looking college student, and then I was in the air, on my back, in a threatening arm-bar calling into question the structural integrity of my elbow. I tapped immediately, and looked a bit confused. My “friend” smiled. We stood back up and started over. I saw stars as he effortlessly applied a loop choke. I looked back to the clock. 2:15 remaining. Those might’ve been the longest 3 minutes of my life. I was left gasping on the ground when the bell rang. 

Then round 2 started. I hoped that some of the other white belt beginners would be easier to manage, and I ended up getting rounds with beginner high school freshman and a man in his 50s. I was creamed in seconds by everyone I faced. I managed to thwart a few attacks with sheer strength or my height, but it was mostly luck without any technique on my part.

I was sold. This is a brutal art, but it is an immensely honest one to pursue. I faced a half dozen unique fighters that defeated me dozens of times, and at the end, I stood up and walked back home unscathed other than my ego, as testament to the “Gentle Art”.

How did I find myself here?

I was never a sporty kid, and a bit of a wimp. I pursued music, dance, and theatre. And on my 18th birthday, I went on an extended camping trip deep in the Adirondack mountain ranges of New York. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was some formational soul searching for my fledgling adulthood. I spent a week fishing, canoeing, and hiking through breathtaking views on various peaks. 

Just as wilderness survival requires preparation and a plan, I decided I needed a plan for what I’ll do after high school. After all, adhering to semisolid guidelines half the time is better than aimlessly meandering in circles all the time. On our back, we visited a rural town. The kind with only a few thousand inhabitants, a single local bank, a single grocer, a single family run bookstore. Admitably, I’m a bit of a bookworm and rushed the bookstore at the first chance I had. 

It’s funny looking back, but I snagged a copy of Doctor Faustus and a self help manual. The former, had an extensive critic and analysis guide appended by a former now deceased alumni of Tufts University, where I committed to study. The latter, was a philosophical take on the need for morals and self discipline. It denounced passivity in life, letting whatever happens happen, and championed taking the reins of one’s future to ensure it is a good one. The last third of that book was a guide on healthy eating, exercise plans, and mental health written by a former navy seal. It was intense to say the least.

What stuck with me was the concept that the mind and body are interdependent, and you can’t let one go into disarray without the other. Neither could you hone one to a razor sharp level if the other held it back.

The express recommendation to pursue an art that steels one mind and body stuck with me. Jiu Jitsu has a reputation for being the most cerebral and complex martial art, as well as softest. Titles such as “Human Chess” and “The Gentle Art” get thrown around. The art itself is not much more than a century old, and only a few decades in the international limelight. A focus on practical full intensity sparring and the common occurrence of smaller and weaker people defeating giants are popular common events that don’t happen often (or sometimes at all) in many other martial systems.

When I showed up the next day that week, a spark of amusement shone in the eyes of the teacher. This only continued as I continued each day of the week.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but very few people return for a second class. Of those that do, most quit within a few short weeks. Jiu Jitsu is exhausting, and drains the entire body. It isn’t uncommon for people to gas out during warmups, as I did during a short 5-10 minutes of a 60-90 minute experience. The altitude certainly played against me.

Despite all that, the first month passed, I was invited to stay for the advanced class, then the second passed. One day, people began to ask for my name, and put a person to the new white belt gringo face. I began to get to know my fellow students on a personal level.

Many people train for years and constantly see others trickle by. Half of a class is usually white belts. Another quarter is the first color promotion to blue. The remains are the other 3 belt colors; purple, brown, and black. People who love the art, dedicate everything to it. However, most white belts never make it, and quit for various personal reasons. They’re “expendable”, and most people don’t expect much from them. 

Once a white belt shows dedication, self control, humility, and an open mind, they’re welcomed to the family. Past that initial hurdle, the international Jiu Jitsu community may have some of the most welcoming and humble people I’ve met. I realize I’ve personally wrestled many engineers, firefighters, architects, and several medical personnel or businessmen.

The famous old adage is “A black belt is a white belt that never quit.”

It’s amazing how liberating and stressful Jiu Jitsu can be. I struggled everyday, without fail for many months, to muster the motivation to get to class. It’s hard to intentional face opponents that completely outmatch you. It is harder to safely admit defeat, instead of fighting submissions using pure strength/weight/size advantage, especially when a less experienced practitioner stumbles upon victory. Sometimes, it’s hard to stay calm instead of spazzing out and accidentally hitting people when someone sits on your chest. These are all learning processes, and bear a striking resemble to Stoic philosophy. 

I made close friendships as one would expect from constantly working hard on a common goal with a core group of peers. By far the most rewarding parts of the process have been catching up to peers, experiencing their improvement during sparring, and improving in response to the changes they apply to their game. That, and Jiu Jitsu feels like a super power. The knowledge of a minor detail, a specific angle, a grip here or a foot there, can catch opponents completely unaware with an insurmountable leverage advantage.

I eventually started competing. I didn’t do too well the first few times. I plan on pursuing Jiu Jitsu to the best of my ability in the future, and to hunt the elusive black belt (After a decade of training.)

It might come as no surprise, that Jiu Jitsu is not for everyone. Not anyone can set aside their ego, willfully be “bad” and constantly reminded of that fact. Of those that can, momentary setbacks, bad days, and bad luck can eat away at the mind and willpower. However, I would say that most people find it hard-pressed to say any of the virtues promoted and required by Jiu Jitsu are vices in disguise, and that people are better off with such qualities, through avoiding the art.

I’m excited to see where my journeys take me, and what sort of future bonds and friendships I will find in the friendly international Jiu Jitsu community.