BJJ and Yoga, the Arts of AlignmentLaurien Zurhake
Recently, Yoga, or rather Asana, which is the physical aspect of Yoga, has become increasingly popular in the BJJ community. My boyfriend, Alex, and I are in that respect a prime example of this trend as we just graduated from our RYS 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training Course under Yogacharya Lalit Kumarat Himalaya Yoga Valley, Goa, India. Even though I practiced Yoga before BJJ, it was only after my BJJ-related lower back injury that I started to comprehend and appreciate the benefits of Yoga in all its aspects.
Yoga and BJJ have much in common and complement each other perfectly as they are both arts of Alignment. What do I mean with ‘Alignment’?
In the BJJ, in order for a practitioner to technically “force” his training partner to tap, he or she has to be as much as possible in perfect physical and emotional alignment him/herself, i.e. in balance, good pressure, right positioning of the body, and right mind-set, to de-align his/her partner to such an extend that he/she has no other option than to give up. His or her spine, for instance, is so out of balance, the joints no longer stacked, that there is neither (explosive) strength left nor sufficient movement possible to escape and turn the tides.
At the same time BJJ also tends to cultivate positive behaviours and virtues, which come most to fruition off the mats – after all the ‘real’ challenges to overcome are found in daily life where we have the opportunity to apply what we have learned regarding respect, compassion, patience and passion. BJJ, therefore, is more of a lifestyle than solely a sport.
Yoga, although employing different methods, is very similar, as it is also a way of life. Let me explain a bit more about the 8 limbs or parts of Yoga as it could be applied in BJJ. The first two limbs are the Yamas and Niyamas, which are our attitudes towards the world and others and our attitude towards ourselves. These two consist of 10 virtues or characteristics that largely overlap BJJ codes both on and off the mats (respect, truthfulness, non-violence, cleanliness (wash your gi ;)! etc.).
The fourth limb is Asana, the physical practice of specific postures. Asana moves the body in 3 dimensions (sagittal: left – right, coronal: back – front, transverse: upper – lower) and positively stresses the body in every angle that is natural for our bodies (flexion – extension, medial – lateral, internal – external rotation, abduction – adduction).
Yet many of these movements are often overlooked, exaggerated, or not practiced enough, especially by BJJ practioners who (over)use specific muscles without countering them. For example, think about opening your chest (upward facing dog, low cobra, fish pose), extending your arms and legs (downward facing dog, warrior 1-3), extending and flexing your back (wheel, camel, bridge pose, forward bends), fine-tuning your smaller muscles (arm balancing: crow, side-crow), and opening your hips (butterfly position forward bend) after a good roll.
The 5th limb is Pranayama, which are breathing techniques. These techniques awaken the body and sharpen the mind. It also teaches you how to bring your breath to other parts of your body. Before, after someone had a good knee on belly on me, I realized that I couldn’t breath anymore and was in trouble. Now, I can breathe to different areas in my body, thus creating (hopefully) enough alignment and momentum to escape.
Whilst focusing on these five limbs, one naturally cultivates the next two limbs, namely Pratyahara, which means sense withdrawal, leading towards Dharana, concentration or focus. In order to be fully in the moment, especially during rolling, distractions caused by the senses may prove troublesome and can limit your focus, hence affecting your performance.
The last two limbs are Dhyana, meditation, and Samadhi, Oneness. When I see fellow BJJ practioners flow-roll it looks like a moving meditation. The faces after a good training are one of total exhaustion but also of total relaxation – balance.
Yoga and BJJ are certainly not to be understood as one and the same. They are different systems of Alignment, but certainly systems that benefit each other to a great extend. Yoga enhances focus, self-awareness, physical and emotional mobility, flexibility, balance, (core) strength, heals and avoids injuries. BJJ too enhances self-awareness and physical and emotional fitness.
After practicing Asana twice a day for 1.5 to 2 hours, I witnessed how my body changed. My muscles, especially the smaller supportive and fine-tuning muscles got much more toned, resulting in strong yet flexible muscles that work much better together. My overall awareness of my own alignment and of my training partner’s improved which enhanced my position control as well as timing.
I am looking forward to teaching my first Ashtanga-Iyengar Yoga class in our new gym in Munich, Germany.