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Archive for : February, 2017

Integrating Yoga with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) by Jack Simpson- Himalaya Yoga Valley Internship Program 2017

People come to Yoga from all walks of life, and for many different reasons. For me it was quite simple, I had just taken up a new sport, Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), and I realised my body required more flexibility and awareness in order to carry out many of its complex movements. Yoga also brought an added relief to the sore muscles, lower back and neck pain I was starting to experience. As time passed and my Yoga practice became more regular I began to experience more positivity and calmness in my daily life, which led me to examine the philosophical aspect of Yoga more deeply. Fast forward roughly three and a half years on my yoga journey, I am now a qualified yoga teacher and sit writing this article at Himalaya Yoga Valley Training and Retreat Centre in Goa, India where I a have completed my Internship and am continuing my yoga studies with Yogacharya Lalit.

My understanding of Yoga shifted to appreciate that it is actually a way to enjoy a healthy life rather than an exercise class. With this came a new perspective on the combat sport that originally led me to Yoga. Key aspects of a Yoga practice involve a heightened awareness of the breath and body, dissolution of the ego and bringing presence into our every-day existence. When carried onto BJJ mats, this can have a profoundly beneficial impact on practitioners of all levels, from the day one beginner to professional fighters. Such benefits include reducing risk of injuries and improvements in stamina and performance.

What is BJJ?
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is also known as Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, named so after the family who developed and championed the art in the early 20th century. Its origins can be traced back to India around the time of Buddha. Here the original Jiu-jitsu was created before spreading throughout Asia to Japan, and then eventually from Japan to Brazil and the Gracie family. This knowledge is held by several members of the Gracie family including Grand Master Reyson, who contends that they unquestionably have their roots in ancient India. Therefore, it is no surprise to see much of the Yoga philosophy mirrored within BJJ, which is also often seen as a lifestyle more than a sport, with the focus on constantly improving the self through a disciplined practice. It is commonly said that superior Jiu-Jitsu appears to flow, implying presence, and that to continually improve it should be practiced free of ego, maintaining the mind state of a perennial student. As in Yoga schools, BJJ academies tend to have a strong tradition of honouring their lineage of teachers, displaying pictures of Jiu-Jitsu grandmasters on their walls.

With regards to the physicality of BJJ, it can be viewed primarily as a ground fighting system that emphasises the use of leverage and efficiency of movement, enabling a smaller practitioner to defeat much larger and stronger attackers. It focuses on subduing opponents and forcing them to submit (or give up) by using chokes and/or joint locks. Starting in the 1920s with Carlos and Helio and then later in the 80s and 90s with Rickson, Royce and Renzo the Gracie family campaigned to prove the effectiveness of their art, challenging athletes of all styles and sports to compete in fights with virtually no rules, no weight limit and no time limit. Helio, a physically small and frail man who reportedly could never do a single pull up, famously defeated the one time world heavy weight wrestling champion, Wladek Zbyszk. However, it wasn’t until the 90s when Rickson and Renzo were fighting in Japan, at times in front of up to 90,000 spectators, that the world began to take notice. In 1993 and 1994 the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) events were held in the United States and broadcast on national television. Huge audiences witnessed Royce Gracie overcome all challengers from several prominent combat disciplines, who outweighed him by up to 100 pounds. Many martial artists began to learn BJJ so they could defend against it, while others sought to become highly proficient. Once defences were developed, new techniques were added to overcome the defence, leading to exponential growth. In this way, the modern sport evolved to showcase battles of Jiu-Jitsu vs. Jiu-Jitsu techniques.

Jiu-Jitsu Posture
One of the defining features of BJJ is “the guard”, a position which allows practitioners to be offensively fighting with their back on the floor. In this position the player on the bottom effectively uses their lower body as a shield to keep appropriate distance between them and their opponent. It can be likened to the ‘happy baby’ Yoga pose (Ananda balasana). The guard player can also sweep or submit their opponent from this position using techniques such as the “triangle choke”. The majority of time in Jiu-Jitsu sparring or matches is subsequently spent with one player on the bottom playing guard with the other hunched over or squatting while trying to get past the former’s legs and secure a dominant position where they are also less vulnerable to being reversed or submitted.

Therefore Jiu-Jitsu practitioners spend a majority of their training and competition time with their hips in extreme flexion and their backs rounded.

Most BJJ students, like almost everybody, spend a lot of their non-training time at work, school, relaxing at home, commuting and sitting in chairs or couches. When upwards of 4-5 hours per day are spent in this pattern, combined with BJJ training and a lack of proper counter balancing exercises (stretching) practitioners will almost invariably experience chronic pains and postural issues. Many times during Jiu-Jitsu sparring and matches players also have the combined weight of themselves and their opponent aggressively stacked onto their upper back, compressing the spine. Ignoring imbalances and chronic pain and continuing to train hard and compete can therefore be very destructive in both the short and long term.
The persistent state of hip and spinal flexion in BJJ practitioners often results in what Czech physician Vladimir Janda coined as “upper cross syndrome” and “lower cross syndrome”.

BJJ injuries
A symptom of the upper cross syndrome which many BJJ practitioners may experience is a continuous soreness in the upper back and neck along with regular pulling/ tweaking of the muscles in this area. However it is the problems associated with the lower cross syndromewhich are by far the most prevalent among Jiu-Jitsu players. As we have established, the hip flexors are constantly overworked in relation to other major muscles which can cause them to become tight and inflamed. The primary hip flexor muscle is the psoas, which attaches to the lumbar (lower) section of the spine. When it is extremely tense or impaired it results in an anterior tilting of the pelvis transferring pressure and pain to the lower back. In 2016 the first ever scientific study was conducted on the prevalence of chronic lower back pain (CBLP) in BJJ and it produced undeniable results.[1] Felipe Reis and his colleagues visited 16 different academies in Rio de Janeiro sampling athletes of all levels ranging from white to black belt, dividing them into professional and recreational categories. Participants were asked to answer questions on length and frequency of training, training duration, belt grade and history of back pain. They were given a score on the Quebec back pain disability scale (QBPDS). 72 total subjects were tested, 36 professional and 36 recreational. CLBP was present in 58 of the 72 total (80.6%), in 32 of the professionals (88.9%) and in 26 of the recreational (72.2%), with the median QBPDS score also being higher in the professional group. In other words, if you practice BJJ you are likely to endure lower back pain at some stage. Another symptom of the rounded BJJ posture is that the ribs and diaphragm are often compressed and breathing therefore becomes shallow. In severe cases parts of the diaphragm can even become stuck to the lower ribs, significantly reducing the potential of each inhalation and exhalation. Common treatments include prolonged periods of rest as well as chiropractic and physiotherapy work but BJJ players often forego preventative efforts to reduce their risk of injury.

Yoga benefits for BJJ
By implementing Yoga practices in your Jiu-Jitsu approach it is possible to realign some of the common imbalances, prolonging time on the mats while also making it more enjoyable and less painful. Not only this, but the balance, core strength and mobility cultivated through Yoga is also directly applicable to improving BJJ performance in many ways. Yoga postures focusing on extension of the front body such as backbends like Ustrasana or Urdhva Danurasana and front hip openers like Virabhadrasana help to alleviate compression of the torso and spine while pranayama practices enable us to better engage the diaphragm and utilise our full lung capacity. Research has been carried out to examine the beneficial effects of Yoga practice on lung capacity.[2] One study showed that participants significantly increased their lung capacity after practicing Yoga postures and pranayama 5 days a week for just 8 weeks.[3] This would of course be useful for any athlete, but the breath is of particular importance in BJJ. Learning to coordinate smooth breathing with efficient movement is another hallmark of high level Jiu-Jitsu. This is a pattern that can be instilled through a regular yoga practice. Vinyasa refers to a specific sequence of movements that are synchronised with the breath to transition between asana. Vinyasas teach how to harmonise breathing with physical actions so as not to waste energy by sharply or forcefully inhaling or exhaling. Even the physical action of Yoga postures is seen primarily as a breathing practice. The challenge is to keep the breath as smooth and steady as possible while stretching and moving the body to its limits and often beyond them. This even flow of breath also helps to cultivate a still mind and control emotions, which is very important in BJJ as practitioners are often forced into uncomfortable/stressful positions against their will. The word yoga comes from the root yuj and it means “to unite, to join”. To bring the prana and apana vayus (or inhalation and exhalation) into union is Yoga. By doing this the yogi can attain control over their mind and emotions. A person who is panicked or experiencing fear will have sharp, shallow breaths from the upper chest, wasting energy. Taking deep, full breaths instils calmness and clarity. When this is understood, a regular Yoga practice becomes an invaluable preparation for Jiu-Jitsu

Case Studies

Integrating Yoga with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is not a novel idea, in fact many of the greatest fighters in the sports history attribute much of their prowess to having a regular Yoga practice. The following are just two examples:

Rickson Gracie:
Rickson Gracie is considered almost unanimously by Jiu-Jitsu practitioners as the greatest ever fighter from the sport, with other members of the Gracie family supporting this belief. Rickson was also an advanced Yogi who regularly talked about the importance of his stretching, breathing and meditation routines. Rickson can be seen in this video performing Kapalbati pranayama, as well as Nauli kriya (abdominal churning) which is traditional yoga cleansing technique. If you watch closely footage of Rickson sparring or during his fights, you can at times see him implementing these breath control techniques. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CB_KRHXU1BA

Sebastian Brosche
Sebastian Brosche is a world champion in BJJ and was named as one of the best brown belts in the world in 2015 before recently earning his black belt. He is also a Yoga instructor at Joy Yoga in Oslo, Norway and is the founder of yogaforbjj.net. Sebastian credits Yoga for allowing him to enjoy training Jiu-Jitsu with less pain and has stated in an interview that due to his regular Yoga practice and commitments, he only needs to train 3-4 times a week in BJJ.  This is a far cry from the majority of athletes at the world-level, who spend hours upon hours each week between Jiu-Jitsu gyms and weight lifting, often damaging their bodies in the long run. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iaXngbJoDRs

The aim of this article is to encourage more BJJ practitioners to take up a regular Yoga practice so that they can reduce their level of pain and risk of injury. Integrating a yoga practice into a daily life will help students to get the most out of their BJJ training, bringing greater enjoyment as well as personal growth and development. I have personally experienced my approach to Jiu-jitsu change with an increasingly regular Yoga practice. Devoting myself more seriously to Yoga has enabled me to train BJJ with less ego and a greater sense of clarity as to what is useful and what is not. When I practice Yoga I feel I am helping my BJJ just as I am when drilling techniques or sparring. Conducting research for this article has confirmed much of what I had already observed while training in Jiu-jitsu with regards to back pain and injuries. Here I have presented Yoga as a perfect supplement to help with these problems as well as benefitting performance and overall health.

Reference studies
1. Reis F.J., Dias M.D., Newlands F., Meziat-Filho N. and Macedo A.R. (2016) ‘Chronic low back pain and disability in Brazilian jiu-jitsu athletes’, Phys Ther Sport, 1(4), pp. 340-343.
2. Abel,AN, Lloyd LK and Williams JS (2013) ‘The effects of regular yoga practice on pulmonary function in healthy individuals: a literature review.’, Journal of alternative and complementary medicine, 19(3), pp. 185-190.

3. Vempati R, Bijlani R and Kumar Deepak K (2009) ‘The efficacy of a comprehensive lifestyle modification programme based on yoga in the management of bronchial asthma: a randomized controlled trial’, BMC Pulm Med., 9
About the Author
Hailing from Northern Ireland, Jack Simpson was a teacher at Northern Regional College, lecturing in biology, anatomy and physiology. He completed his 200 Hour Teacher Training with Himalaya Yoga Valley in Ireland in 2016 and followed this with an Internship and teaching assistance position in Goa through to 2017 where he became a valued t member of the team. As well as BJJ and Yoga being the prime motivators for a healthy and interesting lifestyle, Jack enjoys reading, cooking and music. Jack’s future plans are to teach yoga to BJJ practitioners in Belfast and other locations around the world.

The Art of Self Inquiry with Viriam Kaur


First published in Yoga Magazine UK 2010.

“We have a moral obligation to the entire ecological web of existence
to wake up from self-pity and self-promotion in order to attend
to our place in the world with sensitivity and wisdom.”
Michael Stone

On some level, we are always practicing self analysis – but alas, not in a conscious way. Every day, we judge our actions, our words, our looks and we compare and contrast ourselves with those around us. It gives us our sense of self day-to-day. It gives us our imagined sense of place within society. It gives us a sense of the progress we have made or a sense of the goals that we want to achieve.

Self enquiry can be where we get our juice to start a business, write a novel, or alternatively what makes us chuck it all in and travel the world. We start to ask ourselves where we want to be in the world. We start to ask ourselves if we are on the right path.

Alternatively, it can keep us limited. Our self analysis is often fuelled by the thoughts, analysis and judgements that have been passed onto us from others – family, friends, teachers – and we carry these comments with us and often use them to justify our decisions in life.

Often our self analysis can be crippling – it keeps us in a state of judgement about ourselves. We cannot achieve our goal because we are perpetuating a myth about ourselves that our families planted. We are constantly trying to put our lives into perspective – but the lens we are looking through is clouded by judgement.

In yoga, the art of looking at ourselves from a neutral or non-judgemental perspective is viveka – discrimination. We discrimate between the real and the illusion, between our desires and our truth, our pleasures and our purpose.

“Discrimination allows subtler introspection: This one-pointed attention and discrimination, which comes from the practice of the eight limbs, is used for examining, exploring, and attenuating the colorings of the subtle impressions of the mind field (2.10), so as to go beyond, inward to the pure, eternal center of consciousness.” Swami Jnaneshwara Bharati

So again, we come back to the roots of our yogic practice and the 8 limbs of Patanjali. In order to practice discrimination, we need to absorb ourselves in our practice.

“The 8 limbs are for discriminative enlightenment: The reason for practicing the eight limbs of Yoga (2.29) is to develop attention as the tool for discriminative knowledge, which is the means to discriminative enlightenment and liberation. It means using razor-like attention (3.4-3.6) to separate the seer and the seen (2.17), so as to break the alliance of karma (2.12-2.25), and to get past the four mistakes of ignorance, or avidya (2.24-2.25), which are: 1) confusing the temporary for the eternal, 2) the impure for the pure, 3) misery for happiness, and 4) the false self for the true Self (2.5). Resulting from this systematic discrimination, the seer or Self is eventually experienced in its true nature (1.3).” Swami Jnaneshwara Bharati

So our practice of discrimination comes straight from the roots – the yamas. The 8 limbs contain everything we need to instill awareness.

It is essential when we live with an enquiring mind that we practice ahimsa. Ahimsa is the practice of non-violence and this should apply to every aspect of ourselves and really needs to start with turning our attention inwards to our thought process and our inner soundtrack.

Self enquiry can help us go beyond the judgements. Whenever we come face-to-face with one of these stories that hold us back in life, we need to ask ourselves if this is true? If we were told that we would never amount to much, we need to ask the question ‘is this true’? If we were told that we were destined for greatness as a lawyer for example, we need to question it.

Often we programme ourselves with a whole litany of demoralizing statements that keep us in fear from fully embracing life. And because we mentally programme ourselves with thoughts like ‘I’m not good enough’; ‘I’ll never find a better job than this’; ‘But what if they hate my book proposal?’ – we hold ourselves back. We get stuck in our habitual thought patterns. We need to catch every time we enter into a negative monologue – that ongoing soundtrack in the mind that reinforces our negative beliefs about ourselves.

“Wisdom is knowing the extent to which self-dentity is manufactured,” says Michael Stone in his book The Inner Tradition of Yoga “and then projected onto all expereince, and the way this ‘self’ construction hinders a spontantenous and ethical response to life and the greater questions it presents.”

Self enquiry is living consciously and catching ourselves in each moment. We start to question our thought process, we start to question ourselves, we come back to Source.

Our preoccupation with Me-Myself-I
Asmita is defined as the “I”-maker (sometimes referred to as the storyteller). Asmita is one of the five kleshas or afflictions that hinder our growth.

“When you contemplate your own thinking process,” says Michael Stone. “you may come to notice that almost all of your thoughts are stories about you! Most of us go through the day telling ourselves endless stories about ourselves. Our perceptions in daily life seems to pivot around this ongoing narrative of ‘me’. We talk to others about ourselves, and if there is no one around, we talk to ourselves about ourselves and call it thinking!”

I am – it puts us in a place and time. It states our permanence and our impermanence. I am and I am not. Every time you define “I am”, you also acknowledge everything that you are not. There are two sides to the coin… “I am” can define us – it makes us value all the aspects of ourselves; whether it’s as a writer, a mother, a maths genius, a generous person, a wise woman… it also limits us by all the things that we leave out. The ultimate path is to go beyond “I am” – because you are everything.

‘I am that I am’ is at the heart of many spiritual doctrines around the world. “I am that I am” or ehyeh asher ehyeh is one English translation of God when Moses asks his name.

Indian sage Sri Ramana Maharishi felt that ‘I am that I am’ was the best description of God. His first teachings in Tamil questioned Nan Yar – ‘Who Am I?’ So as we unweave the web of our personality, the ultimate question is ‘who is this ‘I’ that we refer to?’

“When sought within ‘What is the place from which it rises as ‘I’?, ‘I’ (the ego) will die! This is Self-enquiry

The essence of Ramana Maharishi’s teachings was that “For all thoughts the source is the ‘I’ thought. The mind will merge only by Self-enquiry ‘Who am I?’ The thought ‘Who am l?’ will destroy all other thoughts and finally kill itself also. If other thoughts arise, without trying to complete them, one must enquire to whom did this thought arise. What does it matter how many thoughts arise? As each thought arises one must be watchful and ask to whom is this thought occurring. The answer will be ‘to me’. If you enquire ‘Who am I?’ the mind will return to its source (or where it issued from). The thought which arose will also submerge. As you practise like this more and more, the power of the mind to remain as its source is increased. He state we call realization is simply being oneself, not knowing anything or becoming anything. If one has realized, he is that which alone is, and which alone has always been. He cannot describe that state. He can only be That.”

“I am that I am” is like polishing the mirror. It is an opportunity to see God looking back at you.

Self Enquiry as Daily Practice
Yoga is the practice of Self Enquiry. On a practical level, our daily sadhana of yoga and meditation give us the space and time for self enquiry. As we practice, if we can sink into the body and into the present moment, we can start to drop the judgement of the mind and the notion of ‘I’. When we are ‘of’ the mind, we tend to be in the past thinking back to some glory days or dwelling on past troubles, or fast-forward into the future and we are projecting some rose-coloured future, a fantasy life. The more we can sink into the body bringing awareness to the breath, to our subtle energy flow, the more we can surrender to the present moment. When we dwell in the past and future, we are often stuck in a place of judgement – we judge this moment compared to what we thought it would be like (especially if we are struggling with a particular asana today or finding it hard to settle in meditation – it ignites judgement and mind games). So we don’t value this gift of a moment for what it is. Simply that it is. The present moment is the place where we can plant the seed of awareness and watch it grow. In each asana, in each breath, in each mantra, there is a chance for that seed to grow.

See yourself as bigger than your definitions. You go beyond the body and the mind. Beyond limitations, beyond the universe. I am and I am not. We are all one.