Why my first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class was so bad (but I ended up in love with it anyway)

Even the longest journey starts with a single stutter-step

Believe it or not, my first ever Brazilian jiu jitsu class was actually not a good experience and I almost gave up hope then and there. From the title of this blog you’ve probably guessed that I didn’t, but it took me about a year to try another class – and I never went back to that first gym. Here’s how that unfolded.

Home is Toronto.

I live in Toronto, and there’s a big BJJ gym that’s been a staple in the city for a long time. It was what came up on Google, and I knew where it was. This was 2008. I had done some karate through university a few years back but had to stop in 2005 when I broke my ankle in an unrelated activity. As I finished with school (which will be a separate post unto itself) I started working and was no longer training.

To the delight of my Italian step-family, I was gaining weight. I was told at one holiday gathering as they pinched my belly that, finally, I was starting to look like a man. They meant well, but wow. The office I worked at had a deal with the non-martial-arts gym in the basement and I resolved in that moment to get myself a membership.

The carbs are real.

Pause here for a second. Bodies come in all kinds of shapes and I am not conveying negativity towards any of them. The considerable extra padding I’d gained just wasn’t comfortable for me. Ok, unpause.

My office was downtown in the oh-so-trendy King & Spadina area. Therefore, the gym in the basement catered to fairly well to do clients. It had sparkling white everything juxtaposed with exposed brick, lots of plants, and big rocks for some reason. It was half a spa, and as an awkward young tech geek just a few years into my career I stuck out like a sore thumb.

Everyone was really nice and they provided a trainer who did an evaluation of my fitness (a generous term at the time). They gave me a routine of exercises I could follow. I did the list for a few weeks but two factors caused me to stop. For one, I felt really out of place and self-conscious. I was at the tail end of years of depression (more on that in future posts) and was not comfortable at all with people watching me failing at working out. In retrospect, I’m sure that literally no one cared that I was there but that’s how I felt at the time.

The second factor is that I was bored out of my mind.

Using the machines and weights just wasn’t interesting to me at the time. I’m sure a big part of it was that I had no idea what I was doing. But without guidance, I also wasn’t learning anything. Despite good intentions, my gym-going petered out and eventually I stopped going altogether.

I still wanted to do some form of exercise, so I started looking for martial arts in the city. I’d watched a bunch of UFC events and was into the idea of Brazilian jiu jitsu. So I found that big name gym and saw they had a 2-class free trial.

I showed up after work, signed all the waivers, and they gave me a gi for the class. The only problem was that the class wasn’t starting for a couple hours. But, they said, there was a muay thai class I could try out in the mean time. Because of my karate background, I figured sure – it could be fun!

The only thing I remember from that class is that it was a brutally hard workout. Even the people present that were already in shape were working hard!

Now you might be asking if I had the good sense to return another day for BJJ. And the answer is a big fat “Nope!” A brief rest and a costume change into the gi and I was ready for my first ever Brazilian jiu jitsu class!

Looking back, they’re probably used to dealing with newbies that push themselves too hard.

With credit to that gym, the instructor was very welcoming and friendly, and paired me with a purple belt for some basic instruction after the warmup (which I somehow stumbled through in my exhausted state). I’m sure he could see that I wasn’t in a good way already. Looking back, they’re probably used to dealing with newbies that push themselves too hard.

So this purple belt was also super nice. He taught some of the beginner classes, and had a good handle on how to talk to someone that knows nothing about anything. He showed me closed guard, mount, and the Americana submission.

When we rejoined the class they were moving into sparring rounds. I thought I would just sit and watch, but the instructor assured me that it was a good idea to try and use the things I “knew.” I remember trying to submit someone with an Americana while in their closed guard and getting politely told after the round why that was a bad idea. I also remember trying a triangle choke without the other person’s arm inside.

It didn’t work no matter how hard I squeezed! Funny, that.

I knew the head instructor saw me struggling with the not-really-a-triangle and I was pretty embarrassed. It was a silly thing to get embarrassed about, but I didn’t have a healthy attitude towards adversity at that time.

Chilling between rounds, surrounded by some amazing BJJ talent.

At the end of the class we all lined up and a few people were awarded new stripes on their belts. It was very informal but cool to see the team spirit and celebration. Then, mercifully, it was time to change and go home.

Well, almost. I filled my entire being with water from the fountain to try and recover from the evening’s exertion. I felt super sick and my body definitely didn’t want that much water. I ended up throwing up in the shower, repeatedly. Another embarrassment. Not only was I realizing just how out of shape I was, but I was already socially awkward and had just thrown up very loudly and repeatedly in the same room as a bunch of people I’d just met.

All in all, not a great outing for my ego. I told myself I wanted to go back for the second class of my free trial, but through the magical combination of procrastination and denial, I never did.

About a year later, a friend mentioned that he’d done a few classes at a jiu jitsu gym very close to my home and had a good experience. So after a false start with the sport, I went for another try and ended up staying at that gym for 9 years and coming this close to opening my own affiliate school.

The new place was a great experience, and I’ll tell you about that in another post.

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