GTR Archives

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Science and Sanity in BJJ*

by Guest Contributor Robert Drysdale

Posted January 17, 2019 JST

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One of my earliest experiences in Grappling was meeting a senior black-belt named Roberto Lage. He would have been in his late 40fs when I met him in the city of Itu where I grew up as a child and where I first began training. After rolling, Lage went on to compliment my skills (which boosted my moral and ego since I was an eager beginner) and went on to ask for my age, I told him I was 16, which seemed to surprise him. He said he thought I was 13 (I was a small teenager) and in a joking friendly manner said that the compliment should be cut in half (placing my ego right back where it belonged). Lage followed this with some advice that, although I remembered, I never took too seriously: gTake care of your body.h  

Professional athletes know that the repeated push over the threshold of their physical limitations come at a cost. Particularly those in combat sports. As a young adult and competitor in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) scene, I knew that I would be paying this price one day but, at the time, I simply didnft care. Life was good and I was on a mission and I simply didnft care for any consequences. Over time, I came to compare my physical health to a credit card. Itfs all fun and good-times until the bill hits you. With interest, in the case of professional athletes.  

The notion that BJJ, or other impact-sports for that matter, are a physically healthy practice, is ludicrous as well as deceitful. Selling health has become standard business practice amongst BJJ gym owners. When questioned, many BJJ instructors will tell you that it has benefits to your cardiovascular and lung capacity. True, but this also overlooks the fact that the same can be achieved after a 20 minutes light jog or fast paced walk around the park (or even a swim for that matter) Without the physical destructiveness of combat sports. 

I hope this doesnft come across as an anti-BJJ piece in any way. I simply feel the need to warn practitioners of the costs of such a practice.  

With this out of the way, BJJ clearly has its benefits and they go well beyond the self-defense and the physical exercise or even the achievements that follow its practice. Its greatest benefit, in my view, is the mental health (which is the health I am most concerned with) that comes from its social environment and practice that makes BJJ so beneficial. Additionally, I strongly feel that the benefits out-do the negatives by a long margin. No regrets on my end.

Needless to say, that we all struggle with the consequences of practice (those who practiced many years at a high-intensity level, more so) and the health-industry has no shortage of options to supply the demand. Even the term ghealthh has changed its meaning over time. Had I ever asked my Brazilian grandfather what was meant by ghealthh he would most likely been puzzled by the question. gHealthh to him, probably meant that you were alive and not dying.

BJJ has always been a skeptic's martial-art, at least speaking on behalf of my own experience. Belts donft necessarily establish the hierarchy and onefs skill must be constantly verified where it matters most. This skepticism was one of the traits that had originally enchanted me towards BJJ. You have to walk the walk daily as well as back up your rank against people constantly trying to outdo you on the mats. The gtatameh, in this sense, becomes the lab where effectiveness is scrutinized daily.  

Cage Combat has taken it a step further and drastically changed the perception the public and fighters have of combat. Traditional martial-arts full of form, false-claims and unverified techniques, are now forced to rethink their claims. Not all martial-arts are created equal. Some, through much testing, go through the process of elimination and selection that enrich its content and separate wishful thinking from the reality of combat. The result is increased efficiency.

The same standard, unfortunately, doesnft always translate towards how martial-artists in general views healing. In a recent discussion among some friends the conversation came up. A friend of ours, a successful MMA fighter and currently active had gone back to his hometown in Brazil for a gspiritual surgery.h He suffered from an injury on this back that wasnft healing at the desired rate. Suspicious of surgery performed by doctors (or perhaps unable to pay for the cost of surgery or insurance) he elected for the alternative route.  

The surgery was a success he said. The shaman had succeeded. As proof, he said he felt better and the pain was going away slowly. I attempted to argue with them, to no avail, that the body can heal itself. My friends couldnft be convinced. They were unanimous that the spiritual surgery had helped and thatfs all that mattered. It was frustrating to say the least. It was entirely missed that the slow healing fails to explain why the shaman with his supernatural ability didnft heal his back at once.

I can relate. I recall when I tore my psoas during practice. For three days I walked with a 45 degree lean to my right. I couldnft straighten my back for anything in this world. After only one session of acupuncture, my posture recovered a good 20-30 degrees in motion. But that is my opinion, or rather how I remember (or want to remember) how things went down. It is just as likely that the acupuncture had nothing to do with my recovery. Many relatively minor injuries recover spontaneously (or naturally) without any intervention. Without scientific testing, there's no way to know what caused what to happen. As someone once said, the easiest person to fool is yourself.1

Advocates of galternative medicineh will often construct a convenient narrative around the practice and advocate well within placebo. Unaware of their own bias, their advocacy has often more to do with their identity as galternativeh than with factual improvement of their overall health. Opinions, whether of a professional or not, are meaningless when they donft stand the test of empirical testing.

And here lies the great fallacy of much of what is called galternative medicineh or healing. The extent of its benefits is limited to either: a) the bodyfs own healing ability; and b) the limitations of scientific medicine. Furthermore, users of galternative medicineh often make use of scientific medicine concomitantly with their supernatural and alternative practices. Unfortunately, the credit for such healings will seldom be given to the people who have lived their lives behind books and in labs, but rather to the person who was gblessedh with supernatural abilities.

Unfounded claims of healing more often than not fail to pass the scrutiny of the scientific method and its supernatural healing properties seem to come with familiar limitations. I have yet to see any sort of spiritual healing grow back a severed limb or rid the body of a virus such as Herpes or HIV or even produce measurable effects on a simple blood test.2 It seems to me that the frontiers of spiritual healing lay parallel to the frontiers of gah and gbh. Perhaps when science pushes beyond this frontier (right around exactly the same time) will the miraculous and supernatural step up their game. Practitioners would certainly benefit from applying the same rigorous standards that are used on the mats to their application of medicine. The results will show.

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Notes

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1. Richard Feynman said it here; the idea is well-established in cognitive psychology. See also this recent useful review here.

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2. Acupuncture produces some effects, basically subjective, via psychological anticipation of effects, but has not been found to produce measurable objective effects due to the treatment (insertion of needles). See here for a brief, non-technical (but legitimate scientific) review.

Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting the links above.

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(c) 2019, Robert Drysdale. All rights reserved.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed in every detail by GTR.

Other Robert Drysdale articles exclusively on GTR:

Reflections on the Evolution of BJJ

Who Taught Oscar Gracie?

I was Skeptical

Selling Self-Defense

Rickson Gracie is Wrong

Rev. of book by João Alberto Barreto

Maeda Promotes Five Brazilians

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GTR Publications

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October 9, 2018

Craze Vol. 1: The Life and Times of Jiu-Jitsu, 1854-1904

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Choque 1, 3rd Edition 

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Choque 3, 1961-1999

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Choque 2, 1950-1960 

  

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Jiu-Jitsu in the South Zone, 1997-2008 (2018 rev. ed)

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Digital Editions are also available

GTR Archives 1997-2019

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