Stay in the game: Getting over “hot yoga” and “super-bad MMA” delusions


You know the feeling. You tell someone you train in jiu jitsu, and they get this faraway gleam in their eye. Like they are seeing themselves in a super hero costume in a ring surrounded by applauding fans. “I’ve really been thinking about trying that,” they say, “where is it you train again?” You know they will never leave the comfort of their comfy sofa and illusions of what being trained could be. They will never feel the sting of sweat in their eyes as they try for one more round of practicing a technique, knowing that after this night there will be dozens more before it really begins to sink in.

Both yoga and jiu jitsu are undergoing sea changes in American and global culture today. And guess what, it ain’t all good. Big surprise, American propensity for instant gratification and commercialization of experience is pushing both of these traditional arts towards more intensity, more surface-level drama, easy wins, and less deepening of awareness and disciplined dedication to making one’s entire life better, as well as the lives of those around them. Now we want yoga and jiu jitsu to make our egos better. To make us feel like we are more special than the other guy. To make us seem powerful, when really we hardly know ourselves. Nah. This ain’t right and I’m not having it.

A friend said to me recently, “it’s only a matter of time until hot yoga hits Jackson,” with a tone of doom in her voice. Here’s my response to that: NO. Those of us who get the benefits of the deep practice of these art forms MUST hold the line. We must educate others, continue to cultivate strong practice, give all effort towards self-improvement in the context of making everyone else in that class better as well, and for sure we must stay in the game. No quitting. No leaving the spoils to the victors. This is but a moment in time and this too shall pass.




In the ring: lessons learned from my first Jiu Jitsu tournament


I get this text from my roommate Jessica, it’s meant to be simply informative. She knows it’s my first jiu jitsu tournament and I am not clear on how it all works.

“Pit times is like being on deck, where they’ll get the people in your division together first and then take you to your ring.”

Simple, right? Merely factual. Yet the words “take you to your ring” sent a thrill of powerful fear and excitement up my spine. For someone who never intended to train in grappling arts, the idea of being in the ring with anybody seemed so foreign – maybe even insane. Life is hard enough, filled at times with complications and difficult people…why voluntarily step into the ring for a fight I didn’t actually have to engage in? Why not stay home and watch Netflix?

The choice to compete in the AGF tournament at Millsaps College was a last-minute decision, based in part on the assumption that competing is an efficient way to identify important holes in my game. Thus, a way to make my training more effective. I was also curious. Maybe I would hate it…maybe I would love it. There’s only one way to find out. As one of my teachers says, “you can’t learn to swim if you won’t get wet.”

So, I signed up and showed up. As I packed my stuff to head out, my well-worn yoga mat beckoned me from the basket I keep it in. “Bring me,” it seemed to say. I thought, hmm, I may be the only person there with a yoga mat. The only person doing yoga prior to a meet. But that did not dissuade me. Over the course of my life it happens more and more that I’m the only one doing a particular thing. If I let that stop me I would miss out on a lot of fun and also not be able to achieve excellence. Think about it – excellence is often defined by innovation. And innovators by the very definition do something no one else does.

I signed in at the tournament, and weighed in. That part was strange because I’ve lost so much weight. I was slightly terrified that the weight I had used to register was a bad reading from the scale at the gym. I feared getting on the scale on tournament day and some huge number popping up that would delay my match and create the need for a reshuffle of weight classes. None of that happened. The number on the scale was a little less than one pound off what I had used to register. Mischief managed.

The fear that had been getting to me in the week leading up to the tournament was my nervousness about the take down. I’ve always been able to have that experience in the controlled environment of a class with a training partner I know. This match would be different. I feared getting thrown hard or slammed to the ground and then having some kind of mental or emotional freak out that would be unpleasant, negatively affect my game, and cause me to not have a good experience.

So far, one of the best lessons jiu jitsu has taught me is to take action – to move – rather than to wait passively to see what happens. Or to wait for someone else to take charge. As I debated how to handle my fear on tournament day, I realized that I could think of some proactive options. Rather than being afraid of how I would get taken down, I thought of a way to initiate a take-down that would help me to avoid the situation I feared, namely, getting slammed to the ground too hard.

I asked one of my coaches if I could do a level change, drop down to one knee, and take my partner down by the legs.  He thought that would be fine. In this way, I would already be on the ground, and so not stuck in my intense fear of getting slammed down from standing. In my match, I applied this technique and it felt so great both to have faced my fear and also to find a reasonable solution or strategy.

I didn’t win my match but I did get the take down. That was fun!

The other key for me was that well-worn yoga mat. While I did take an hour to cheer other teammates on and talk to some friends, in the period right before my match something inside me said, do some yoga, do it now. While most of the students were still chatting, I rolled out the mat. At first I was a bit self-conscious, but yoga, my faithful practice, never ever disappoints me. After a few minutes my focus shifted to my breathing, my balance, and the familiar poses. I allowed my mind to still. And when they called me to the pit I felt ready and at peace. As I stood in line, I felt excitement but almost no nervousness. Even when my opponent came towards me, I had a calm feeling –  a happy excitement I could almost call joy.

The lessons learned from this day are this: when facing fears in an unfamiliar setting, it’s possible to take control by assessing options and picking one that suits my needs. I don’t have to wait for someone else to help me do that; I can initiate the process and thus gain confidence. And, I can prepare mentally for any challenge by going back to what always works for me. For some folks, it might be talking to classmates or to their coach. For me, it’s the practice of yoga which inevitably calms and centers me. Even if I was the only person with a yoga mat, it was what I needed and I’m happy I did it.

As I said, I didn’t win my match. The day felt like a personal win however. I tried something new. I faced my fear.  I gave it my best shot. I enjoyed doing jiu jitsu with a stranger, and I found out some of the areas of defense I need to study up on. Are you wondering, is she going to try tournament competing again? If you are, well, I’m wondering the same thing! Stay tuned….




Uttanasana, I’ve Missed You!


Uttanasana, I’ve Missed You!

This morning I made it to my first “Level One – Gentle Yoga” class since I was sidelined in the late summer by a fall on my bicycle. I have been going to class and doing yoga, but not standard poses. Instead I did a class called “Yoga Therapy” at Tara-Yoga, which used modifications of poses in a chair. It was very basic, very gentle, and very healing. It’s been good to be aware and nurturing, and yet I’ve missed the classic poses I’m used to doing.

So today, with permission and enthusiasm, my body entered into the yoga pose “uttanasana” for the first time in several months.   The pose, if you don’t know, is a deceptively simple one, also called “forward bend.” You stand tall and then bend at the waist, slowly lower yourself into the pose, keeping your back fairly straight and, while you may touch the floor, you keep most of your weight in your feet.

As with any yoga pose, I made the effort to tune in to subtle elements such as the placement of my feet and the weight of my body as it moved down through my feet into the ground. I made an effort to evenly distribute my weight between the front and back of my feet, as well as between the inside and outside of my feet. And for good measure I remembered to lift and spread my toes to have a nice wide space to make contact with the ground. And that’s just the feet! Breathing is important, too, and there are several other areas to focus on that I won’t get into now.

I’ve always enjoyed uttanasa, maybe because it is one of the poses that my body took to naturally. I have fairly loose hamstrings so I can pretty easily touch the ground with my fingertips. When I’m loosened up, I can usually even extend my arms and fully press my whole hand flat onto the floor. I really love the process of folding forward, too, because I find it akin to a prayer motion where I bow my head.  Only it’s even more intense, because instead of just bowing my head, I bow my whole body. I find peace in this release; great peace and also a kind of simple but deep joy.

When I settled into the pose this morning, it was as if I was seeing an old friend after a long time. The intimacy of knowing a yoga pose, of being “in relationship” with a yoga pose is difficult to explain to someone who has not had the experience. I suspect it may be similar with other kinds of spiritual and physical practices. You can describe them in words all you want, but you’ll not truly “know” them without trying it out. And by trying it out, I don’t mean just one time. Or, doing it a couple of times,  like Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Meet the Fockers,” who had been doing capoiera for “a few weeks” and was really into it.  To really “know” is to know the pose in your body over an extended period of time. To have done the pose on good days, on crappy days, and on those middle-of-the-road days when nothing special seems to be happening. There is an understanding that comes from an amalgam of those days, of the pose in multiple frames of mind. You find wisdom in the overall experience by connecting the days together. To me, this is the path to “knowing” the pose.

Just as a relationship with a friend might have ups and downs, moments of joy and frustration, and an ebb and flow of giving and taking, so the relationship to a yoga pose can change. One day I might find it super easy to go into the pose deeply, while another day I might be extra tense and tight, and have to try not to fight myself. I have to remember breathe and be patient – both with myself and with the pose. Patient, yes, and determined with a soft and even kind of strength.

So today, as I sunk into the gentle, self-aware and self-respectful state of being I find when practicing yoga, I noted the joy I felt at doing this pose. Like coming back to a familiar place and looking around. Like finally meeting up with an old friend and finding out what we have to say to one another. It really hit me that I’ve been in relationship with this yoga pose for over 20 years and I plan to continue that relationship until I die or am no longer able to practice it. I’ve become aware that the pose is a friend for life. Uttanasana, I’ve missed you!

Important Note: Laurel Isbister Irby has practiced yoga for 20 years, always under the supervision of a professional yoga teacher. She is not trained to teach yoga and any description of yoga poses is intended to share her reflections on her own experience as a student, not to teach others how to do yoga. If you are interested in learning yoga, please get permission from your physician and seek out a trained, certified teacher who can help you get oriented to the practice of yoga.

Photo courtesy of GNU General Public License via Wikimedia Commons.