You try to push her off with all your strength, but it’s no use. She stays calmly mounted on top, and methodically places her left hand deep beside your neck. With both of her hands grasping opposite sides of your collar, she squeezes her hands and twists her wrists. A gagging noise involuntarily escapes from your mouth, and you find yourself unable to breathe. At this rate, you’re going to black out and there’s no way you’re going to be able to throw her off. You quickly tap her twice on her back and she lets go. You lie there gasping for breath, letting sweet, sweet oxygen fill your lungs. “You okay?” she asks.
There are few experiences more humbling than lying helpless while someone smaller than you strangles you with your own clothes. Normally that would be traumatic, but when you experience it for the first time in a Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) class, it’s strangely addicting. You can’t help but want to understand exactly how someone can so effectively use your own body against you.
My interest in grappling started with joining the wrestling team during my sophomore year in high school. I had considered joining the water polo team, but the stories I heard about opposing teams trying to push your head down underwater when the referee isn’t looking wasn’t exactly encouraging. But then again, drowning would have been better than continuing NJROTC (Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps), a federal program at my school that you could take for physical education credit. You learn about how great the Navy is, regularly spit shine your shoes to avoid being embarrassed in front of your “platoon”, and march around while a retired military officer tells you that you should ignore the gawking students making fun of how ridiculous wearing uniforms and marching around as a high schooler is. Most people spend freshman year trying to appear as cool as possible, but apparently I had no problem forging my own path in the opposite direction. Thankfully, I came to my senses before I spent the rest of my high school years collecting badges to pin to my perfectly pressed shirt.
The swim team was my escape from NJROTC, and once the season ended, I looked for something new. My friends Kyle and Nick told me how great wrestling was and offered to show me what it was like first-hand. When I agreed, I probably didn’t realize that this entailed going to the mat room and receiving repeated demonstrations of just how easily they could beat my ass, but I was convinced. I would learn whatever they were using to take me down and pin me to the floor.
The next few months were filled with spending countless hours learning how to take someone down and trap their head under my arm, running with multiple sweatshirts on blazingly hot days to cut weight for the 119 lbs. division, rocking a spandex singlet, and learning to squeeze out bits of energy in the last 30 seconds of a match when my body refused to move. Nothing provides an adrenaline rush like facing someone trying to take you down with all their strength and you trying to beat them to it. The repeated practice of reaching your limit only to break past it builds a toughness that’s just as mental as it is physical, and that made wrestling one of the most grueling but rewarding experiences in high school.
Eight years later, BJJ helped me rediscover the thrill of pushing my capabilities. Thankfully this time, it doesn’t require dealing with overly aggressive high schoolers who have no problem repeatedly grinding their knuckles against your eye socket (I’m still convinced this is what led to a very fun episode of retinal detachment where I almost went blind in one eye) or coaches who tell you to stop being a pussy and train despite the fact that you’re pretty sure the fact that your shoulder being on fire means you should see a doctor instead.
The beauty of BJJ lies in discovering how proper technique can be so effective against raw strength. Try sparring with a BJJ expert around your size and you’ll know what I mean. Even if you're just as strong as them, their knowledge of how to position their body and strategically apply their weight against yours means you often end up feeling like you’re getting mauled by a bear. When fighting on the ground, knowing BJJ is the difference between knowing the code for a combination lock or not: You can either push and pull and hammer away at steel in frustration, or calmly turn a knob a few times to get exactly what you want.
If you’re interested in learning to defend yourself or looking for an intense workout that'll kick your ass, give BJJ a try. You'll find that getting strangled can a lot more fun than you thought.