Roll

"The aimless aim of rolling was to be never still because to stick in place was to stop the game and everyone knew that no moment was meant as an end to itself..."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

I as a martial artist feel a certain pressure to love anything related to the martial artist, even if it's a small mention — a link is sent, and the sender awaits for me to reply back with an affirmative response of glee. Well, shit, I can't even. Because most of the time, it doesn't interest me. It's equivalent to: "Hey, you drink water, right? Here's a picture of water. What do you think???" But what is new, what is the new insight, what is there to appreciate? Then in reading Kerry Howley's Thrown, she describes the sparring that happens in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and it had me in a trance for weeks. It gave me a new appreciation for my worn art, something that could only come from someone with fresh eyes, that could articulate what she was discovering in Garamond, and not the Impact sans-serif of jiu-jitsu that I was used to, that spoke to a feeling that my heart knew to be true.

Howley writes:

[T]o describe the practice of jiu-jitsu — roll — suggests the very opposite of fixity, an openness to the universe, a making vulnerable. The aimless aim of rolling was to be never still because to stick in place was to stop the game and everyone knew that no moment was meant as an end to itself, that every position — guard, mount, half-guard — was a phase on its way to a new one, some self-contortion he didn’t even notice until he found his body passing out of it and into some new form he may or may not have a name for. Positions were something to pass between, brief moments that happened to occupy semantic categories.

There are many thoughtless words and phrases we use to mean this, to keep moving, but none of it captures the aesthetics of our addiction. But, maybe it's not beyond words, it's just beyond our words. Jiu-jitsu itself is a language, that's what we practice, and to translate that into public language requires wordsmithing, which requires its own painstaking practice. Practice that takes time away from the mats.

But sometimes a person comes along to break up the conversation of the mat, someone who doesn't get it. Rather than speaking jiu-jitsu, they insist on speaking ego. Maybe they won't at first be noticed; we will try to be polite, we don't want to complain or make a fuss, which gives them time to change and develop into a responsible martial artist. If not, they will be discovered. (Ideally.)

His name was Joe Vedepo, and he did not play with the gentle scrupulousness of the others; when he had another man by the arm, even in practice, he would pull until it hurt. In this way he tore the fragile tissue in Erik’s left elbow; and Keoni, incensed, banned Vedepo from the gym for life. This was what happened when people who did not belong in the gym were permitted to play. It was also about how to leave Valhalla, forever, and transform a bunch of brothers with whom you shared a tattoo into strangers.

If you train, you know a Joe Vedepo, maybe several, with more waiting in the periphery. (You might even be a Joe Vedepo.) When you enter the dojo, you give your back to the mats and leave your heart vulnerable to the sky. We learn through others, your partner's body is the conduit for your learning, it is how jiu-jitsu knowledge is transmitted. So there is no greater betrayal than when someone takes advantage of your willingness to give them your body. Rather than talking to others through your roll, your only interest is a conversation with yourself. As tough as the dojo is, it is a den of vulnerability and must be carefully guarded from those who intentionally mean to harm us, but also from the mad men who talk to themselves.

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