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Alexander Darwin: Combat Codes

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Author and martial arts instructor Alexander Darwin explains how Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) connects us to nature and can stimulate mental fortitude throughout our lifetime.

I've had difficulty for the past twenty or so years running, biking, swimming, lifting weights, playing tennis; name nearly any exercise or sport and it's been tough for me to build a habit. The reason isn't that I'm not in shape or athletic. In fact, as I round the corner this year into my 40s, I'm in better shape than I've ever been in my life. The reason I have trouble doing normal exercise is because it all seems quite boring in comparison to BJJ. I've been grappling since I was twenty years old, and I can still truly say that I'm in love with this amazing martial art. To this day, nothing stimulates my mind or energises my body like getting on the BJJ mats. My goal is to practice the art into my elderly years.

Let's take a step back though. If you've ever encountered a BJJ practitioner at a social gathering, they will likely gush about their newfound love for the practice (and may have the inability to chat about anything else). It can be quite intimidating, as in this person's excitement they will likely throw out a wealth of terminologies that sounds like a foreign language: Kimura, mata leão, omoplata, osotogari. In fact, most of these terms are in a foreign language, namely Japanese and Portuguese. The art was derived from Judo in Japan, and brought to Brazil, where it was refined for smaller and more technical practitioners. The focus moved from the standing techniques found in Judo to the grappling groundwork that defines BJJ today.

Brazilian jiu jitsu is most often highlighted through its application in mixed martial arts leagues like the UFC, however there are many reasons to learn the art outside of sportive application. Self-defence is a common entry point; BJJ allows smaller and more technical practitioners to escape from and even control larger attackers. And the practice certainly provides an intense cardiovascular workout for those that want to get in shape. There's also a social benefit to learning BJJ. Not only does it require a partner to practice, but oftentimes an entire club or team will be a part of your journey. For many practitioners, these teammates who are sweating beside you can become lifelong friends even outside the gym.

And though BJJ practitioners love to represent their team and art (hats, shirts, rashguards and gis, hoodies) in reality, grappling requires nearly no gear to practice. Though it's safest done on high quality mats, you'll find grapplers will seek out their fix anywhere and everywhere: on the beach, in gardens and parks, even in the garage in the extreme heat or frigid cold. In fact, I've found that outdoor practice (with some portable mats) is an incredible way to connect with nature.

Sport and self-defence were the reasons that I personally started BJJ; it provides great confidence to know you can handle yourself or protect those you love if need be. However, those are not the benefits of BJJ that have kept me in the game, practicing for twenty years now and still thirsting for more. The mental benefit of grappling is the true treasure of the art. When I do find myself infrequently running on a treadmill my brain is still practicing BJJ, working through the infinite combination of techniques and positions, rolling with an invisible partner in my mind's eye. Even after practicing for half my life, I still feel I've only scratched the surface of what I can learn and the potential for improving my game from the previous day. Unlike many forms of exercise, BJJ will keep your mind active and engaged in constant learning. It will build your mental fortitude if you stick with it. Part of the difficult part of starting the practice is becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable. When I first began, I often felt stuck, literally, beneath larger, and more experienced practitioners. It was an alarming, helpless, suffocating experience. But practicing day in and day out, I learned that calming my mind and focusing on problem-solving was the only way I could escape these tough situations.

I've applied these lessons throughout my life; dealing with adversity or situations that seem suffocating, the only way to persevere is to stay calm and focus on the next move. When writing my debut sci-fi novel, the Combat Codes (which contains quite a bit of BJJ), I needed to apply these lessons in mental fortitude. Sitting down and writing every day, even if the work wasn't inspired, driving forward to the next paragraph, the next chapter, was a mentality that I derived from practicing Brazilian jiu jitsu.

BJJ is in the news quite a bit today as a favourite pastime of celebrities like Tom Hardy, Demi Lovato, and Guy Ritchie, so it's likely driving quite a few curious people to sign up for classes at their local gym. That's fantastic, the more the better. But if you’re interested, make sure you go into the practice with clear eyes: sport, self-defence and social groups are great benefits, but the way the art can improve your mind is the real treasure.

The Combat Codes by Alexander Darwin is out now priced £9.99 through Orbit


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