When I first walked through the doors of a Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym, I had a second-degree black belt in karate.
Six years of training under a rather militant version of Japan’s “hands free” art had accustomed me to a highly structured and disciplined form of fighting. I addressed instructors by their proper titles, stood at our school’s version of “attention” when they spoke, and only moved when someone told me to move.
However, when I fell down the jiu-jitsu rabbit hole six years ago, I became part of a world completely alien from the one I had known.
Karate is a diverse and evolving martial art. I therefore do not claim to represent all or even most karateka who make the transition to BJJ.
But if you had an experience like mine, here are four oddities you may have noticed about the world of Brazil’s “soft way.”
Titles are not demanded
Throughout my jiu-jitsu career, my instructors have been known by many names: Jeff, Mark, and Demitri, just to name a few.
However, not one of these names came with a title. I never once referred to my instructor as Sensei Jeff, Professor Mark, or Sith Lord Demitri, Destroyer of Galaxies or Eater of Souls.
This is a far cry from my karate days, where I would sooner slap my own mother in the face than address my instructor as anything other than “Sensei” or “sir.”
Unlike karate instructors, jiu-jitsu instructors seem to be perfectly content maintaining a first-name relationship with their students. Sure, these instructors have titles, but in my experience (and I have trained at five different schools) none of them demand to be addressed by them.
Jiu-jitsu is generally a first-name sport.
The atmosphere is far more casual
When a karate instructor spoke at my school we stood in a “hands front” position. That means we clenched our fists in front of us, stared at a random point on the wall, and did not dare move a muscle.
Those caught “fidgeting” were immediately greeted by a swarm of black belts screaming at them in a way that would have made even the most hardened marine befoul herself.
Jiu-jitsu is entirely different. Yes, all students are expected to remain quiet and listen to the instructor, but the military-style staring and prohibition against any type of movement other than breathing is completely absent.
The only time I fear scratching an itch in jiu-jitsu is when I am rolling.
Human contact is the rule
In six years of karate, I can count the number of times I came into contact with someone who was trying to hurt me. The other 99.9 percent of the time was spent soldiering through katas, striking imaginary opponents, and making sure I did not fidget while my hands were front.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu, on the other hand, puts me in constant physical contact with my teammates. Drilling and sparring are daily practices at my gym and always involve someone trying to either choke me or bend my limbs in ways they were not meant to bend.
It is little wonder that good hygiene is such an important part of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
A light touch is best
There is a good reason my karate school did not offer much sparring; if it had, most students would not have lived to talk about it.
Along with standard punching and kicking drills, most of the moves I learned en route to my black belt were meant to kill or maim, not force my opponent to tap.
If someone put a gun to my head, I knew (or thought I knew) how to disarm him while simultaneously breaking his wrist. If he somehow got up and attacked me with a knife, I knew how to redirect the knife into his rib cage before gauging his eyes and severing his spine.
My jiu-jitsu instructors, on the other hand, have taught me the virtues of a soft touch. Holding an opponent down or helping him get a good night’s sleep are far more important to me than giving him and all expense paid trip to the hospital or morgue.
True, I know how to make an armbar as painful as possible, but nothing I have learned in jiu-jitsu would kill or seriously injure a healthy adult.
It may, however, result in a good flip-flop walloping.