What to expect as a beginner Jiu-Jitsu student

Jiu-Jitsu is one of the world’s fastest growing martial arts. It can be used as a tool for learning to defend and improve oneself. Its seeds are believed to be cultivated by Buddhist monks in India for self defense without armor or weapons. They created a system of techniques based on balance, leverage and an understanding of how to manipulate the body without the use of weapons. Jiu-Jitsu then spread throughout Southeast Asia, China and, eventually, Japan. Japanese Samurai took this martial art and developed it into a warrior’s last stand technique when disarmed or afoot. Over time, Jiu-Jitsu gained popularity in Japan while transitioning and refining into general self defense. (Source: Evolve MMA)

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu History:

At the end of the 19th century, Japanese masters emigrated from Japan to teach Jiu-Jitsu and compete in fighting competitions. One master, Esai Maeda Koma, known as “Conde Koma,” travelled and competed with a team throughout Europe and the Americas. In 1915, he settled in Belem do Para, Brazil where he met a man by the name of Gastao Gracie. Gastao, a father of eight children, became a Jiu-Jitsu enthusiast with the guidance of Conde Koma, and he eventually brought his 15 year old son, Carlos Gracie, to class. Carlos was a naturally frail boy, so Jiu-Jitsu provided him a way to become a better fighter and individual. At 19, Carlos moved to Rio de Janeiro where he began teaching and competing. He gave the art credibility by dominating opponents much larger and stronger than him in the community. After reaping the benefits of this art, he opened his first school, “Academia Gracie de Jiu-Jitsu.”

Since then, the Gracie family has continued to teach, adapt and guide Jiu-Jitsu as a global martial art. According to the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJ), “Carlos and his brothers changed and adapted the techniques in such a way that it completely altered the complexion of the international Jiu-Jitsu principles. These techniques were so distinctive to Carlos and his brothers that the sport became attached to a national identity, and is now commonly known as ‘Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu,’ practiced by martial artists all over the world, including Japan.”

“Technical knowledge is not enough. One must transcend techniques so that the art becomes an artless art, growing out of the unconscious.”

Daisetsu Suzuki (Japanese Author on Buddhism, Zen and Shin philosophies)

The Belt System:

The Jiu-Jitsu belt system is a physical representation of a student’s level of experience. The belts range from the novice levels of white and blue to the intermediate level of purple to the advanced levels of brown and black.

For now, I want to talk about the white belt. This is the belt that I currently wear around my waist when I train. I started training Jiu-Jitsu four weeks ago, and I am loving it. It is a new language, art form, tool, skill etc. that I am engaged in learning. So far, my consistent mates in class have been two active-duty U.S. Marine Officers that are over six feet tall and 200 pounds.

I am 5’8 and 170 pounds. Sounds like I’m the perfect student and in the perfect situation to learn Jiu-Jitsu, right?

Me! (Gabriel Wahl)

After my four weeks of training, I have made significant strides in my game. At first, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I come from a background of football and rugby, so I know how to use bodyweight and leverage (to a certain degree) but I was basically a Jiu-Jitsu toddler and still am.

Classes are usually structured like this:

  • 15 minute dynamic warm-up which includes Jiu-Jitsu movements
  • 25-30 minutes of instruction and practice
  • 15 minutes of rolling with classmates and instructor (a form of sparring)

The white belt is essentially the survival and toddler belt. It is the belt where you learn and get submitted the most. Recently, I completed my first submissions! I submitted my classmates three times (out of roughly 50). I got them in an arm bar and two rear naked chokes (we’ll get into what these look like in the next online iteration of my journey). This is frustrating, but ultimately the way it goes. To submit someone, it is necessary to be submitted.

Saulo Ribeiro, six-time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Champion and author of Jiu-Jitsu University, says “I compare the white belt to the beginning of a life cycle, from birth to socialization. Just as the child must trust his mother, the white belt must believe in the good will of his instructor. There will be time for questioning, but for now he must focus and train. I believe white belts should be exposed to all the possible attacks, moves, and positions that Jiu-Jitsu entails because I want them to become aware of how to do everything correctly to progress.”

On days I don’t want to show up to class, it is important that I still do. I always walk away from class with something new and a feeling of self-confidence I can’t get from traditional exercise or practicing an instrument. Just like the toddler surrounded by other people and learning from their environment, I need to be in class learning from mine.

I look forward to my journey of learning the technical skill day to day and week to week, but the transcendence of the technical skill so that it becomes an artless art, grown from the subconscious is the ultimate goal.

By Gabriel Wahl

Gabriel Wahl is a Southern Californian resident and an alumnus from the legacy public relations program at San Diego State University. He studied a mix of business, environmental science, tourism, public relations and played competitive rugby as an Aztec. Gabe is a plant-based athlete and storyteller who has a passion for sharing positive and educational content.

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