Until a basic understanding of relaxation is achieved there will always be a limit on what the white belt can achieve. The first major project the white belt encounters in their Jiu Jitsu Journey is to master relaxation for Jiu Jitsu. The reminders to relax and breathe seem so easy to forget in the moment.
The first step to “un-whitebelt” your breathing is recognizing that this isn’t just your individual problem, but it is a problem every white belt has dealt with. And everyone can overcome it, but the methods, approach and time frame are individual.
Muscular relaxation for Jiu Jitsu and respiratory relaxation go hand in hand.
If either form of relaxation is off kilter it will worsen the other. When I think about lifting a heavy weight for a bench press I think of holding my breath and grunting into the exertion. This is how we can generate large amounts of power, but only for short bursts. Jiu jitsu technique is based around the concept of leverage, not strength, and one of the most important lessons to learn is that once I become exhausted I am utterly helpless, so sustainable energy conservation is mandatory. Holding my breath during Jiu Jitsu will fatigue me and leave me defenseless. The exertion of Jiu Jitsu must be approached different than exertion in the weight room.
When we are relaxed in Jiu Jitsu we gain sensitivity.
Sensitivity is very important in improving reaction time and tenseness reduces sensitivity. When my muscles are tensed and my breath is held, I am only aware of the muscle contraction I am maintaining, and I have trouble connecting with sensations in other parts of my body.
(Incidentally this is how good pick pockets operate. They don’t just sneakily snag your wallet, they bump into your shoulder on accident. The larger contact overrides your brain’s perception of the smaller input making you insensitive to something you would definitely normally notice.) Sensitivity with an opponent is what allows upper belts to have that near psychic ability to predict movements and reactions. Relaxation unlocks sensitivity.
How do we become more relaxed in training?
First, recognize that pretty much everyone who has ever started BJJ carries unneeded tension, holds their breath while applying techniques and generally uses excessive energy. Just the fact that it is normal makes it a less scary impenetrable obstacle.
The way we improve this is much like mindfulness meditation. We have a goal in mind which is to keep our breathing and body relaxed. As we are moving and we notice ourselves departing from this ideal we bring ourselves back to the moment and re-instigate relaxation. For beginners the easiest time to practice this is during the line drills. When you are shrimping or shoulder rolling across the mat, with no resisting opponent is the perfect dress rehearsal for calmness.
You will catch yourself not relaxing. Don’t get mad or disappointed in yourself. That only adds tension. Gently bring your body back to relaxation like a wandering child who is being cute but focused on the wrong thing. Eventually relaxation for Jiu Jitsu becomes more natural and the next goal is to maintain calmness during technique drilling. The final step is maintaining relaxation during live rolling.
Maybe Bruce Lee Said It Best…
“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.” – Bruce Lee
Don’t overdo relaxation for Jiu Jitsu and become a wet noodle, but keep your calmness. Until relaxation and breathing are second nature this is the new grappler’s mission. Once understood and applied this will enable to grappler to improve much more rapidly.
Upper belts, what did you do to help learn relaxation?