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

9 February, 2017
Yoga Internship student giving a presentation

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.

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 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.

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.