What it’s like returning to BJJ during COVID Phase 3

I live in Toronto, which recently entered phase 3 of its COVID-19 response plan. That allows certain businesses to reopen, including martial arts gyms. There are strict precautions in place, some of which I’ll discuss below.

But no matter what restrictions are in place, there is still some element of risk involved. We each have our social bubbles, and a nexus (like a martial arts school!) that draws disparate bubbles together is going to introduce greater risk.

If training is an option for you, please first consider all risk factors you might face. And not just for yourself, but who you could expose to COVID should you end up contracting it. I hope that we are all being responsible and careful, but it doesn’t hurt to hear this message one more time.

How I made my decision to resume training


At our school, we are “locked in” to one training partner; we can work out solo or with that person, but no one else. I’m paired with another brown belt whose social and work bubble is very small. The same is true for me; my work presents very limited (and screened) exposure to people, and my in-person social bubble is incredibly small.

All the usual precautions are also in effect: We are required to wear masks at all times in the facility when not actively training; physical distance is required from everyone but your dedicated training partner (even water breaks are staggered by pairs); the mats are taped off to limit distance between pairs; everything is sprayed and cleaned constantly.

Even going anywhere in the world presents some risk, and we all have to assess what is necessary, what is acceptable, and what is too far. For me, these factors combine to an acceptable level of risk.


Ok so real talk. One of the biggest changes in returning to the gym is how our community interacts with one another. Our school is a close-knit group of people and hugging (in the past) has been very common. This isn’t unique across gyms, yours is probably the same. It’s a close-contact sport and there’s a certain level of physical intimacy and comfort that comes along with that.

But in the COVID times, you’re staying 6 feet apart from everyone. Even having been warning in a group message prior to returning that we are not hugging for now, it was a bit jarring to see my Senseis after 5 months and not be able to go in for a hug.

It’s a little thing, but it feels big.

I have traveled to Brazil with my sensei, and stayed in his home. I’ve eaten his mom’s cooking. When I see him, the natural reaction as a human is to show affection with a hug. I settled for learning to say “I missed you a lot” in Portuguese. Cute, but not the same.

Where is everyone?

Not everyone is able to return to training right now. For some of our community it’s a risk too far. Finances are a barrier for some, too. Work conditions and shifts have also changed for, well, almost all of us.

On top of that, our class sizes are severely limited because mat space is carved up to maintain distance. We’re booking online for spots in class, and there are fewer classes throughout the week right now.

Are there even ghosts in this town?

I’ve kind of become used to a more isolated life existence in general, but in returning to training I guess I had (foolishly) hoped to see more of our community. But it makes sense that it’s a bit of a ghost town. Smaller and fewer classes mean fewer people at the gym. This is, in the big scheme, a good thing. For now.

I also recognize a great deal of privilege in being able to go and train right now. I am healthy, working, and have some free time that I can dedicate to exercise.

The actual classes are different, too.

So that this post isn’t just about my feelings, I should probably also describe how classes themselves are changing.

First off, they’re shorter. We used to have 90-minute classes and now they are 60. This allows time in between for cleaning. Given the shorter class, every warm-up and technique drill is on a timer, to make sure we stay on schedule.

Warm-ups are designed to most be in-place, and have integrated more equipment (like big yoga balls), since we can’t run around or do line drills. I can see already that the Senseis are thinking creatively about how we’re warming up.

Sparring is only with our dedicated partner, of course. This is an interesting development and I am curious to see how it plays out. On the one hand, I can see opportunity for going deeper in exploring positions and techniques with the same person. That kind of continuity can really help. But exposure to a variety of training partners also puts you in unexpected positions more often and you’ll see different game plans or techniques.

Looking ahead…

I have to say that overall I can tell a lot of thought has gone into how our space is operated, and how our classes are being run. Between provincial requirements and the over-the-top nature of our gym’s owner, everything is being examined carefully.

I am grateful that I can train at all, as it really does a lot to benefit me both physically and from a wellness perspective. I feel for my friends who cannot train right now. And if that includes you, reader, I feel for you too.

I hope that as things progress, it will continue to be safe to train and that more of us will be in a position to return as well.

Eu senti tanto sua falta.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. b4tm4nx says:

    How do you foresee the way dojos will run in the future, POST Covid-19? Do you see any lasting permanent changes after what the world has gone through (and is going through)?


    1. How I wish I could see into the future on this one… There’s so much uncertainty around everything, and so much depends on what COVID-19 turns out to be. Will it be like a second flu, where people need to get vaccinated each year and stay home when sick? Or maybe we don’t get a vaccine but there are therapies to treat those who get sick. In those cases, I think we return to a *mostly* normal state but with elevated hygiene and sanitization protocols. That wouldn’t be so bad.

      But what happens if the vaccine trials and therapeutics don’t pan out? I honestly don’t know. Such a big part of how jiu jitsu evolves (and how we learn) comes from having a variety of training partners and teachers. Maybe online learning becomes more of a factor. There have been programs for distance learning BJJ for years.

      This is a question that also really looks different depending on where you live, and what prevention and treatment cost for you. If people have to pay out of pocket (and in some countries that is very easy to imagine), that may very well become a financial barrier that stops a lot of people from training any martial art.

      What do you think? Are there things that gyms can do now, or should prepare for?


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