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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

21 June 2011

21/06/2011 - BJJ at the Martial Arts & Poetry Seminar

Teaching #008
University of Warwick, (BJJ), Can Sönmez, Coventry, UK - 21/06/2011

The third issue of Jiu Jitsu Style is now out: it's available all over the place, with print issues available from the main site as well as Budovideos, or digitally through iTunes. Most of the usual blogger crew have pieces in there: in case you're wondering what I contributed this round, I was responsible for two of the interviews, with Carlson Gracie Jr and UK standout Luke Costello, along with a history of Gracie Barra. There is a bunch of cool stuff in this issue, like Meg's article on families in BJJ (featuring Kev, Yas and Family Mat-ters, among others), J-Sho's detailed analysis of the 2011 Mundials (although the version I read, from a pre-release of the magazine a week or two ago, didn't go into depth on the women: see Jen Flannery's awesome site for a great review of the women's results) and an inspiring chat with cancer-survivor and Abu Dhabi World Pro champ, Lagarto (interviewed by Oli Geddes, himself a notable figure on the UK BJJ scene).

My class today was rather unusual, as I was teaching BJJ as part of a seminar combining poetry and martial arts. The MA in Creative Writing at the University of Warwick does lots of fun stuff like that: after my seminar, I was able to pop along to another seminar in the same series, this time on fractals. I'll just focus on the brief bit of BJJ teaching, but if you're lucky (depending on if you think the martial arts and poetry crossover sounds dubious or not), there may be video up later, as it was recorded. :D

I had to think carefully about what to teach beforehand. Normally, my main concerns would be things like the most useful techniques to help beginners, or the kind of class I would have liked to have as a white belt. However, this time I wasn't teaching BJJ beginners at a BJJ school. I was teaching Masters students who were studying creative writing, who for all I knew didn't care in the slightest about martial arts, or indeed sports in general.

BJJ also isn't something that comes naturally to most people. It involves a lot of close physical contact, in positions that can understandably make people a little uncomfortable at first. My initial thought was to go with a simple trap and roll from the mount, as I thought that out of all the possibilities, that was one of the least potentially awkward positions. Unfortunately, mats weren't available at the venue.

I'd anticipated that might be the case, so my back-up plan was to go with the rear naked choke. Arguably that is more intimidating than rolling out of the mount, but it does have the advantage that mats aren't so important, as both people can simply sit on their bums when drilling this technique. I had a few concerns, as some people might well be scared of the idea that someone is trying to choke them, and it can also be hard to incorporate resistance without mats. I couldn't do without resistance, as that was integral to the whole lesson.

When I got the physical part of the seminar, I could see a few people were already looking worried. I tried to calm them down as best as I could, saying that nobody had to do anything they weren't comfortable with, and they could practice on me if they would rather not have anybody choking them. I wasn't convincing enough, as two people left at that point (though I guess it might have been they had something else to go on to).

Still, I had around ten people who stayed and were willing to give it a try. We began with a brief warm-up, which I included for safety: I didn't want anyone to somehow pull a muscle or something. I thought it highly unlikely given we were just drilling a rear naked choke, but you never know. So, we went through some star-jumps, squats and sit ups, then did the usual stretching routine for the legs, arms, neck and back.

I explained that the rear naked choke was due to not gripping material, rather than people being nude (I know if the situation was reversed, I'd raise an eyebrow if some guy said "now we're going to do a naked choke" ;p). In terms of technical detail, to begin the choke, you can start from either a proper back/rear mount hooking inside their legs with your feet for control, or simply sitting behind them. Naturally you wouldn't do this in a normal BJJ class, but for the purposes of the seminar, it wasn't essential.

Bring one arm around their neck, so that the point of your elbow is under their chin. You don't want to leave any space, as the idea is to press into both sides of their neck. This will close off their carotid arteries and prevent the flow of blood to the brain. That is an efficient and safe way of subduing an opponent. At this point, I emphasised that you should immediately tap on your opponent when you feel that choke, again for safety (not that you're going to fall unconscious straight away, but that will eventually happen if you don't ask your partner to release the choke).

You are then going to grip the bicep of your free arm. This is to lock the choke in place. Bring the hand of that bicep arm to the back of their head: generally I'd recommend you press the palm into their skull, but there are various options, coming down to personal preference. Also bring your head next to theirs on the bicep gripping side, to further cut off any space.

Staying close to their back, expand your chest and squeeze your grip. This should block off the arteries, at which point your partner will tap. Make sure you haven't left any space, and also try to do it with control. There is no need to pull their head off, as one of the great things about techniques in BJJ is that they can be applied gradually.

Interestingly enough, it seemed that the women present were more willing to get involved than the men. Attendance was about even between the genders, but it was a woman who volunteered to help me demonstrate, and the women were the ones asking questions about improving their technique during drilling (e.g., they asked about other positions you might apply it from, meaning I could talk briefly about how you could flatten them on their front after they roll over under mount, a common application in early MMA).

The men, on the other hand, frequently stopped and started chatting, rather than continuously drilling for the allotted four minutes each. I'm not sure if that was because they were less comfortable with the contact, or they simply didn't like the sensation of getting choked (which would be understandable!).

That was also true during progressive resistance, which I introduced as trying to prevent your opponent applying the technique: pull on their arm, block their attack with your hands, try and turn around towards them and so on. Like in my regular classes, that was for three minutes each, starting off light, then encouraging them to up the resistance at the one and two minute marks.

The practical part of the seminar finished with a warm down stretch, again for safety, before we continued on with more poetry. As usual I left my email, along with further reading, which included the websites for two local BJJ clubs (Gracie Barra Birmingham and Combat Athletics, both of which I've trained at, so there are log posts here and here). I'll be very interested to hear if that has sparked an interest in BJJ or grappling in general among anybody who attended. Would be awesome if so, but then the aim was to present a different angle to their writing rather than proselytise for BJJ. Would nevertheless be cool if one of them started training. ;)


  1. Wow! Sounds like it was a really neat seminar. I see the poetry in jiu jitsu so I think the connection is absolutely perfect! Wish I could have been there.

  2. Would have been cool to have you there! Hopefuly that video will be up in future, so you can laugh at my babbling. :)

    Have you ever managed to fit any BJJ into Latin class? Some pankration or something, maybe?

  3. I think for the poetry students it would have been better to call it the Mata Leao instead of rear naked choke. It would avoid the uncomfortable discussion of nudity and draw a line between Martial arts and Heracles slaying of the Nemean Lion in Greek mythology.

    I really like your Blog. Good reading.

  4. Cheers!

    I hadn't thought of the potential mythological reference, though I'm not sure how well they know their Hesiod. Not that I know it much better: I love mythology, but I've probably spent more time watching Kevin Sorbo camp it up than reading the originals. ;)

    I did mention it was called mata leão in Brazil, but noting that it was a somewhat flowery way of referring to the choke. Ended up making a joke out of the name, which is what I normally do when describing it to non-BJJers.