My Greatest Enemy is Food: Part II

unnamed (1).jpg

About a few months ago, I went on a diet excluding both carbs and sugar. It wasn’t a voluntary decision, but rather a challenge brought about by someone very close to me. The idea of enduring a month without sugar was disgusting to me, but I am too proud a person to back out of a bet confronting my eating issues, so I reluctantly went with it.

I couldn’t stomach the idea of not eating sugar. Everything I was consuming up to that point had some kind of sugar in it, or was some type of carb. The bagel I had for breakfast, the seemingly innocent salad bowl overloaded with caesar dressing and croutons, and most hurtful of all, the protein bar that was my savior meal replacement and placeholder dessert. It felt physically painful to part with my regular snacks and meals, and soon, I was lashing out at anyone that had anything food-related to say.

 

The first weeks were taxing and tested my self-control like never before. Breakfasts were okay, since I’m a big fan of eggs and sausage, and I felt content enough to not complain, at least for a little while. Lunches and dinners were trickier. The more I repeat a certain meal, the more averse I grow towards it. At the time I really liked eating everything with guacamole and avocados on top, but after eating guac for breakfast a few days in a row, I started feeling ill anytime I thought about avocado. I soon removed it from my palette, and still can only handle small doses of guacamole at a time.

This issue of food aversion would occur mostly with the meals I was used to eating before, and actually liked. I really enjoyed greek salad as a side dish to chicken or salmon at the time, and ate it with almost every meal for a week. Soon I couldn’t look at feta cheese without gagging. The only way I really learned to work through the negative effects was to try and rotate meals so I would never eat the same thing too much. This proved it’s own problem as I ran out of meal ideas fairly quickly, and had to consult a lot of keto websites and keto-people for ideas.

 

The cravings took a good two weeks to subside. The most frightening aspect was having my thoughts ruled over by thoughts of creamy nutella. It was slightly embarrassing to admit to myself I had a problem with sugary and toxic foods when my mouth would start salivating at the mere thought of donuts. The severity of my addiction and dependence on sugar and terrible food revealed itself through anger and frustration. I lashed out at people for simply being able to eat without these “rules.”

Towards the end of the month, I began taking in the noteable changes I’d experienced. I now had more free time, in my thoughts and schedule-wise. Since I wasn’t constantly thinking about my next meal (read: emotional binge session), I spent more time reading, taking walks, and creating art. The changes were subtle but significant: I was no longer bound to this all-encompassing voice that screamed for food. It sounds silly even writing it, but being free from those intense cravings was a novel sensation to experience. I truly felt “normal” and under control.

 

Now before I say anything else, I’d like to just clarify a few things: I did not feel like I had an endless supply of energy, I did not have an easier time going to sleep and I did not become an entirely different person after undertaking this diet. I feel as though all the stories I hear about diet-changes involve some embellished and over-dramatized version of the events in order to convince the audience about the epicness of the events. The change was truly epic, I did feel happier, I did feel more alert and less distracted by negativity, but most importantly, I felt like I had finally proven to myself that my life wouldn’t stop without the ingestion of sugar, no matter how badly I might want it.

 

The thing is, I’m not a superhero. I might be a world champion, but I claimed all those championships while either eating terribly or starving myself. Undertaking no sugar and no carbs for a month is an entirely feasible act. It’s extremely hard, at times inconceivably frustrating, but it is entirely possible for us, humans conditioned to buy ready-made food that comes from a mystery place, to subtract these agents from the equation. Perhaps the most important thing this diet taught me, is that the body is to be respected, and one cannot get away with respecting theirs by over-indulging in things that bring about its destruction.

My Greatest Enemy is Food: Part I

unnamed.jpg

 

Since I have once again entered the zone of the sugar-free diet, I feel it is the right time to be candid about the serious and non-serious issue of food. I’ve never been the type of person to be interested in obtaining a slick set of abs, nor was I ever really concerned about what my body looked like. I remember thinking in my young age that I would never strive to be a pro-athlete because of the crazy amounts of push-ups they would have to do. I also recall hearing one of the male gymnasts in the Beijing Olympics discuss “not touching dessert for three years” and being horrified at the notion.

 

Upon assimilating myself into the world of competitive jiu jitsu, I soon began to feel cheated by the rules and regulations of the sport. Persons are divided into weight categories, and somehow, even at the ripe age of twelve, I was always forced into enduring this ritual of weight loss for the sake of admittance into a tournament. I often lamented to whoever would listen that jiu jitsu people and wrestlers had it the worst; I had never seen basketball team members restrict calories and get locked in the sauna to lose that last pound of water weight.

 

This process escalated the buildup of resentment I had towards anything related to weight or food restriction. My teenage diets would fluctuate from salads and oatmeal as my only meals to overindulgence in chocolate, cereal, pasta, basically anything around the house I could get my hands on. The restrictions formed a fallacy of sorts in my mind: when I wasn’t forced to eat tiny portions of bland, “healthy” foods, I was going to cram my face with whatever savory, or sugary treats I could find, just in case the next dieting period was right around the corner.

 

I can’t even adequately express how damaging this thought process was and still is. The entire school day I would be consumed with thoughts about what my next meal was going to be, and how I could supersize it. That I would have popcorn fried chicken or pizza for lunch, and I’d better add in a giant cup of ice cream or I’d feel as though I did not utilize my non-diet days properly. My weight fluctuations would reach an extreme; by the time I got to sixteen I was up to losing thirty pounds of weight for Europeans, just to make it into the same weight class as my previous tournament.

 

It was incredibly disheartening and awful. I remember staring into the mirror and seeing a line down my belly I had never been before. Some people, especially family members, praised me on the weight loss and told me I was “beautifully skinny.” This was all praise for a teenager eating one meal a day that was either an omelette or a plate of vegetables and a little chicken. I almost passed out during training on four accounts. When I got to Europeans, I won my matches by the skin of my teeth. I couldn’t even pass standing up because my legs were giving out from underneath me. I couldn’t breathe, I was seeing spots, and after I won, I was criticized for having the poor performance of a lifetime.

 

When I got back to the gym the next week, I had already gained back most of the weight I lost. A friend of mine congratulated me on the win and told me I looked better and happier. When I pushed him to explain he said “You looked skeletal before. Like the life was drained out of you.” I looked in the mirror that day and saw no stomach line present and couldn’t help but smile. That same day I signed up for my next tournament at a higher weight class.

 

I had no idea how to diet in my young age, and the only positive feedback I recieved about my eating habits were the remarks of others and the number on the scale I checked religiously. When the numbers wouldn’t shift for weeks at a time, desperation would take over: I would decrease my calories and increase my training. Somedays I was ingesting as little as 700 calories and training for three hours. Instead of consulting true nutrition advice, or experienced and healthy weight-cutters, I let superficiality guide me in the wrong direction.

 

I wish now that I had learned to listen to my body rather than opinion. Yet without these experiences I never would have learned to be okay with moving up a weight class, and I never would have learned to confront and change unhealthy eating patterns. I still struggle with this cycle of bingeing and extreme restriction, and sometimes it feels like I may never get to an eating equilibrium but I hope by opening up about my issues with food, I can work towards positive change.

 

Developing a Game Plan

bia smash.jpg

Most of us immersed into the world of BJJ idolize and obsess over specific “fighters” or athletes. Maybe it’s the way they smile or tie their belt, but chances are this adoration stems from one’s fascination with their technique. Articles spend pages poring over just how impressive that one world champion’s closed guard was this year, whole seminars and video productions are dedicated to those with an intricate manner of taking the back.

This athlete obsession is fine; in fact, it’s absolutely natural. A problem develops, however, when someone freshly introduced to the jiu-jitsu scene decides to devote themselves to following in the footsteps of their favorite fighter. They exercise, like said competitor, eat, like said competitor, even try to evoke a similar social or online presence as said competitor, but worst of all, they try to copy said competitor’s exact game.

 

“Hold up,” you may be thinking, “Where’s the logic in it being bad to emulate a champion? Isn’t it counterintuitive to say that using the same strategies they used won’t lead me to be like them?” Well, friends, as much as I admire Leo Hulseman’s invention of the solo cup, I will never attempt to re-create his product to reach his level of success.

The trouble with following in someone else’s footsteps is finding yourself wound up in the trap of using techniques completely unfit for your body and movement patterns. Bia Basilio’s lightning scrambles are her thriving end-all moments and may be perfectly slowed down by Nathiely De Jesus’ long-leg, spidery guard game. Roger would have a hard time berimbolo-ing Bruno Malfacine just as Bruno would have an even worse time trying to out-spider Roger. Each successful competitor finds the niche that works best for them, in a completely organic way. There is a pick-and-choose process at play: you study the fighters best at playing a specific branch of BJJ, and you select the moves most applicable to your own style of play.Once you have your arsenal of high-level movements drilled into your muscle memory, you can start creating chains of reaction. A grip lost in open guard will be supplemented by a foot in the hip or a hook behind the knee. A loose knee cut that leaves one open for an underhook will spur a quick run-around to take the back. Each go-to will have three or four differing and completely expected reactions that will breed into you a sense of direction. Once a position is compromised in your disfavor, and you instantly know what reaction is needed to reverse the situation, you have begun building yourself a game.

A strategy I always employ is the mapping out of my arsenal: I choose ten or so positions that are both effective and easy for me to execute. Once I have them down, I begin to branch out what paths an opponent can take to counter the move, and continue going down the list until I successfully lock down at least three counters-to-the-counter. It sounds simple enough but too many individuals rely solely on the moves directly passed on by their instructor to completely supplement their training.

None of us are built the same, I for one will never be a quick passer because of both my size and stature, but also because I feel too awkward jumping around, like Lo with his toreando. Instead, I try to reach the highest level of efficiency and effectiveness with my favored sweeps, passes, and submissions, and let my own style flow through.

 

Battling Good Old Mat Aggression

_LC56393.jpg

When I was around seven or eight years old, my days were plagued by a typical schoolyard bully who delighted in slapping girls within an arm’s reach in the face. One day, my boiling point passed the point of no return and my small-ish hand was balled into a fist that met my bully's forehead with a sharp whap! The slaps were no more after that incident, and I later recognized the importance of temper in guiding the flow of reactions and interactions.

As I've grown older and more obsessed with jiu jitsu, I've been able to pinpoint exact moments of my own misguided mat aggression. There have been moments when I feel my jaw clench, teeth grit, and nostrils flare with imminent rage, a rage that manifests itself into a fireball of energy directed at my unsuspecting training partner. After the roll, I would usually bow my head in embarrassment, not only because of the possibility someone noticed my aggressive outburst, but mostly my inability to control my own misguided emotions towards an undeserving person.

Where does such aggression stem from? I used to think it was simply an aftereffect of my partner's overtly spazzy actions: knees flying, extra-competitive grunts, a knee-on-belly right in the neck. But then why would some days warrant a simple "it's okay, I'm fine" for the roll to proceed, while others call forth an unspoken war cry?

The aggression I so often faced usually proved itself a by-product of my own stress and whatever emotional extremes I was experiencing that day. Bad grade in school? Boss chew you out? Awful breakup? We tend to use jiu jitsu as our excuse to get away from the infractions of reality. Unfortunately, it's not so simple to detach our very powerful emotions from the intricately delicate process of training unlike an asshole.

Uninhibited anger and even sadness can poke their way through your carefully practiced techniques and maneuver their way through your grips and movements in the form of anger towards your partner. It may not always feel like it, but chances are, if you've ever felt like having a good cry or screaming session after training, you've experienced the fun process of an emotional purge. Such aggression is often difficult to pinpoint as we like to believe we have our thoughts and feelings, much like our body, under control.

The danger with repressing all of one's stress factors until they explode in class is the outcome of the borrowed body you unspokenly promised to return unscathed. I've been on the receiving end of overtly aggressive rolls more times than I've given them, and the sudden onset tension you feel is real. It's almost as if your partner's body turns into a shaking wrecking ball ready to attack at any flinch.

As a person battling aggression on the mats from nonspecific people, it's a good idea to let such persons know their behavior in the roll is a little out-of-sorts, to say the least. A good, old “how are you? Anything wrong?” sometimes works to stop the person in their tracks to really consider if they’re okay. It’s also entirely within your rights to call off the roll and point-blank tell your opponent they’re being an overbearing jerk, nicer terminology optional.

Just remember that your body is your own to take care of, so consider wisely the roll you are experiencing, and consider whether someone’s misplaced anger is worth a black eye or a new surgery. And for all you mat-aggressors, we know you’re not inherently bad people. But just like I came to find out, perhaps it is better for your well-being to take the day off, or opt out of rolling for the class, just to save yourself and your partner the possibility of harm.

The Rocky Road of Injury Recovery

IMG-3212.JPG

Most people do not recognize the awkward liminal space I occupy between hearty, jiu-jitsu obsessed competitor and full time student who constantly contemplates the doom of real world job-dom. I used to exclaim in interviews that jiu jitsu as a career was a waste of time, I would never subscribe to such a path for myself.

Little did I know that the more I would train, the more I would fall in love with jiu jitsu and all of its gritty aspects: the training, the teaching, the bitterness of loss and the joy of progress all rolled into one. The more attached I’ve grown to BJJ, the more fearful I’ve become. As a 22 year-old nursing her third, and most serious surgery, I’ve been forced to consider the fragility of a body abused by years of disrespect and neglect.

 

I’ve been overzealous and carefree in my training:  refusing to tap, landing wrong on certain body parts, telling myself I can escape positions that contort my body in unnatural shapes. Such was my mantra for years. Now cursed (or is it blessed) with an injury severe enough to take me away from major competitions and even regular training, I am forced to reflect upon how I got here and how I may recover.

The first months post-surgery were nothing but utter depression. I attempted to focus on other enjoyable life-things: painting, reading, trying to teach myself new things. Expectedly, nothing came as a perfect substitute for the sweaty, mind-numbing therapy sessions I endured on the mats. Sitting on the sidelines and watching class go by did nothing to satiate the ravenous hunger I held on to for the sport. If anything, watching the class go by without me forced a rather egotistical thought to secure itself within me; I was excluded from my class, my gym and by extension, the community and livelihood I used to give myself agency and purpose.

My emotional and mental well-being continued to be compromised and it seemed that no matter what “other” I looked towards or immersed myself in, jiu jitsu kept calling back to me. I finally understood the obsession. I used to roll my eyes towards those who exclaimed they couldn’t go a week without jiu jitsu. It was a humbling discovery to notice how truly dependent I am on the sport to keep myself sane.

I wish I could tell you all that in my difficult journey towards getting my body back to training-shape, I found some secret formula that prevented my traveling down a pit of despair. Those uncomfortable moments of not knowing what to do will always be there. It does, however, help to drive focus towards a new goal or a new thing to try. I’ve always been a fan of horror fiction, and immersing myself in Stephen King was a good distraction. So was learning about new recipes and food combinations to try.

Working towards caring about my body is an entirely different concept with which I am just now being familiarized. Gone are the days of assuming my youth makes me immune to the debilitating forces of over-training. I’m done listening to big-brand athletes hyping up hard training over careful and considerate rolling. Your body is yours to care for only, and we must learn to listen to our bodies’ strained cries for help. I’m no longer willing to entertain the sentiments many grapplers advocate; the three hour non-stop sessions, twice a day plus conditioning. The sweating and training until your fingers bleed and muscles scream for relief.

There is a method to training, and it is not to be the one at the gym most, grunting the loudest, and sweating the most profusely. Take it from me: upon realizing the defunct-ness of my shoulder I ignored the symptoms as something trivial, something that would pass over time. I competed with my shoulder, trained hard and landed wrong on my shoulder, used my shoulder to lift heavy things, worked it beyond simple repair. All that wear and tear can only attribute itself to my stubborn nature and denial for fear of missing out on jiu jitsu.

The most important thing I’ve taken away from the stress and grind of coming back is to wisely persevere. Don’t push the limits of what your body can do post-injury, do not try to convince your training partners and physical therapists that your pain has subsided when it hasn’t, and do not compromise your own well-being to satisfy a craving. Jiu jitsu will be there for us no matter what, it’s time for us to be more considerate towards ourselves.

You Should Take Seminars from Women

 Dominyka Obelenyte: Seminar at Renato Tavares BJJ

Dominyka Obelenyte: Seminar at Renato Tavares BJJ

In the grand modern age of female CEOs, female Olympians and athletes, and basically all female insert-occupation-heres, we dangerously assume that all is well and dandy in the gender framework of society. Within the world of martial arts, it seems as though woman’s mere presence in the dojo/ring/what-have-you screams equality. She has been accepted! She becomes one of us! But does she really?

I wanted to not-so-subtly veer this piece of writing towards myself and my own experiences, especially as those of a practicing jiujiteira. I’ve been training for almost over twelve years, competing in jiu jitsu for ten, and just recently entered the lucrative world of teaching and seminar-ing. I knew what question to expect from organizers when planning seminars: the seminar would be women only. Right? There are a few good reasons for making this assumption: women want a safe space to train and learn among their female peers, perhaps they would also enjoy learning in a similar environment.

To an extent, it’s true. Learning in a roomful of women, from a woman is comfortable and exclusive. But a small part of me attaches itself to such a sentiment and gnaws at it constantly. Is it really about comfort? Or is it about numbers?

Is it because women are usually the only people that show and create interest, pay in advance, post their statuses of excitement on Facebook? Of all the large seminars I’ve done, the number of men in attendance never exceeded the number of women. In fact, the numbers have never even reached sameness. When I arrive at a seminar, I’m usually met with a roomful of women with only a smattering of men. Where have they all gone? I know for a fact, that most schools I teach at have more male students than female, so where are these guys spending their technique-less Saturdays?

Gym owners and organizers tend to confirm my worst fears: “oh you know, they hear it’s a girl and run in the other direction. They say, I don’t know what I would learn from a woman. It’s all Tiago-this and Marcos-that until they find out it’s a lady. Then it’s she has nothing new to teach me.” I’m not surprised by the ignorance, it would be a lie to say I didn’t know why the number of male students in attendance is low. It is simply sad to hear these words come out of the owners’ mouths. It is even sadder to see their expressions that reveal how hard they did try to promote and coax the guys into coming.

Guys. When you attend the seminar of a jiu jitsu woman, any jiu jitsu woman, know that she is going to bestow upon the class techniques that worked for her against her training partners. Plot twist: remember my statement from before? The whole “most schools have more male students than female” thing? That statement remains true for that jiu jitsu woman. She had to endure crushing roll after roll against persons heavier, stronger, more biologically-inclined to squash her. She had to centralize the game she plays in her dojo to out-maneuver the big guys. The strong guys. In the battle where her strength didn’t come close, she had to make her way with technique.

Besides this simple fact, I have another news flash. Women learn the same moves as men. They execute the same moves as men. They didn’t win Pans on account of having the nicest hair or the longest eyelashes. They won because they choked the hell out of someone with a triangle. Oh yeah, and that defense her opponent did to keep the choke from happening? The one that one dude uses on you every Wednesday in class? She knows a counter to that. And she’s willing to share it, for a nice fee that is.

 

Fellas, I can’t and won’t beg you to come to my seminars. I can’t force you to attend those of powerhouses like Michelle Nicolini or Hannette Staack. I can, however, tell you that your assumptions (if you have them) that you have nothing to learn from us ladies are based on nothing.  Everyone has something to learn, whether it is a slight detail for a finish or a pass, a crucial grip change, a specific foot movement or just general competition advice. That’s the beauty of jiu jitsu: no one is allowed to call themselves all-knowing because it is literally impossible to know all of the jiu jitsu things.

Bottom line is, every jiu jitsu fighter has their own set of unique skills, techniques and adaptations. If they also happen to be competitive and successful, their techniques have likely been tried and tested by the best of the best. It is important to diversify one’s game. It is critical to adapt and evolve with the practice of new techniques. Otherwise one may just get left behind as the metamorphosis of BJJ continues along. Choose to learn from high class athletes, regardless of gender. Open up to the possibility that they might just know more than you, or at least more about insert-specific-technique here more than you. If you don’t, chances are you missed your chance to expedite your progress and learn the escape to that one de la Riva tangle you keep getting caught in.