Those who have followed recent posts from our sober house will know that we believe in bodywork or ‘somatic experiencing’ as a crucial modality for working with addictions. Bodywork is as important as talk therapy when you are in treatment for addiction or in early recovery from drug and alcohol issues. We have previously written about Muay Thai as a great sport to help people with their addiction issues.
Muay Thai has become a popular modality in primary drug and alcohol rehabs here in Thailand, since our founder Alastair pioneered The Edge programme at The cabin in 2015, which focused heavily on encouraging addicted young men to take up the sport as part of their recovery journey. In this blog we will explore how Alastair and the Alpha Sober Living team have explored Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and how it too, can be a great therapeutic tool to use in your recovery.
WHAT IS JIU-JITSU?
Jiu-Jitsu developed in Japan between the 15th – 17th century. It is thought that it was devised to enable ordinary people to fend off armed (and armored) samurai. In order to balance this unfair advantage, Jiu-Jitsu was developed as a series of grappling techniques which neutralized the advantage of an armed opponent by applying joint locks and chokeholds. Jiu-jitsu went on to become a seminal martial art out of which sprung other well-known arts like Judo.
HOW IS BJJ DIFFERENT TO JIU JITSU?
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu specifically, developed in the 1920’s when Japanese Jiu-Jitsu instructors travelled to Brazil. Members of the famous Gracie family (and specifically Helio Gracie) learned the art and developed it into a self-defense technique that was much more focused on ground fighting. In this system much smaller opponents could defeat larger opponents by taking them to the ground (where most fights end up anyway) where they would use weight distribution and leverage to minimize the advantage of the bigger, stronger person.
Like Jiu-Jitsu, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a grappling art which has some similarities with Judo, Wrestling and Sambo. The difference is that it takes place mostly on the ground (on soft mats). In its sport format, there are no strikes in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The focus is on submitting opponents by way of joint locks or chokes. This makes it ideal as a combat sport for use in a therapeutic community such as a sober living programme for men, because it is fun, slower paced than Muay Thai, and yet in many ways much more challenging and rewarding. The art of Jiu-Jitsu has so many parallels with the process of recovery from addiction.
BJJ AT ALPHA SOBER LIVING HOUSE
At Alpha Sober House we have recognized the importance of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a sport and how healthy it can be for men in recovery since it first became popular in the Chiang Mai area several years ago. There are many top gyms in Northern Thailand now teaching Jiu-Jitsu and a strong community is developing that we at Alpha Sober House are proud to be a part of. Clients at Alpha are regulars at these venues, and we roll with instructors and other students whenever we can (several times a week). We also practice the art in-house in our own dojo.
So what can benefit does Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (otherwise known as Gracie Jiu-Jitsu) really have for men in recovery, and what are the parallels with the recovery process.
1. MEN IN RECOVERY NEED SOMETHING THAT CREATES BONDING & INTIMACY
In BJJ you work in pairs. Human touch is vital for good psychological health and it is rare for men to touch and grapple with each other these days. We believe this is the number one healing component of Jiu-Jitsu. It creates healthy intimacy between men.
2. PEOPLE IN RECOVERY FROM ADDICTION NEED A CHALLENGE
BJJ is challenging and yet safe. It is challenging because you can actually ‘roll’ (spar or fight) with others of varying abilities right from the get-go, and safely too. This is not really possible with striking sports like Muay Thai. It is much more difficult to control the intensity of a punch or kick than it is to control grappling. This is why young male primates of all species grapple with each other rather than punch each other. It’s a way of developing strength and agility without harming the opponent – and it’s fun.
When you grapple, you can feel each other’s strengths and weaknesses and take account of it and work at the pace of the weaker, or less experienced practitioner, but still push yourself at the same time. People with drastically different abilities can enjoy working with each other. As you get better, you too can enjoy taking the time to teach others what you know. This is very rewarding and especially helpful for people in recovery.
3. RESPECT & TEAMWORK IS VITAL FOR LIVING A SOBER LIFE
BJJ ingrains respect and teamwork. Part of the ethos of most BJJ schools is to grow together and learn together. It is much more team focused than strike sports which tend to develop the individual more. In strike sports you drill with an instructor (who is holding the pads) but there is no direct experience of learning together with your peers. Each of you is developing at his own pace. In grappling you work with your buddy, whilst the instructor looks on and advises.
4. HUMILITY IS A USEFUL CHARACTER TRAIT FOR SOBER PEOPLE
BJJ can be humbling. When you meet a weaker opponent with superior technique (and you will) it can be very humbling. This is extremely good for modifying our beliefs and expectations and bringing them more into line with reality. In drug and alcohol treatment settings, such as here at Alpha Sober House, we have noted how this is particularly beneficial for young men who sometimes have a warped idea of their own toughness. Coming into line with reality is absolutely essential for good mental health. Ironically, by acknowledging your own weaknesses, you actually become tougher and stronger in reality. This is another amazing parallel with the process of recovery from addiction and the sport of BJJ.
5. IN SOBRIETY YOU NEED TO DEVELOP A SESNE OF COMMUNITY
The Jiu-Jitsu community is largely ego-free. Most BJJ gyms are ‘meathead-free’ because people who are obsessed with aggression and dominating others usually get found out pretty quickly and move on somewhere else. BJJ is a strongly anti-bullying type of environment, and is arguably THE NUMBER ONE martial art for teaching, less-strong, physically smaller people how to contain and subdue larger more aggressive people. For this reason, BJJ gyms often seem to be populated with a slightly more diverse group of people than other martial arts gyms.
It is a similar ethos and demographic to what you mind find in a rock climbing club and a group of surfers. It’s the ‘thinking persons’ martial art. It is imperative for people engaging in sober living to access sports or physical arts which are constructive and not based in ego. Early recovery and long term freedom from drug and alcohol addiction is to some extent contingent on the company you keep. Also, many people in recovery practice BJJ.
6. TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR ABILITY TO DEFEND YOURSELF
Finally, BJJ in particular is an awesome martial art and self defence technique. It is front and centre of most of the worlds unarmed military training techniques and is widely used by law enforcement and security personnel as the frontline set of skills to deploy when you are unarmed and confronted by an aggressor. In recovery from addiction we learn how to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions. Our ability to make ourselves as safe as we can be, is arguably one of those responsibilities.
In summary then – when we have made a decision to live in sobriety and work on our recovery from addiction, we need to submit to reality. This is also the case with BJJ. When we give up drugs and alcohol, we need to rely on the help of others. This is also the case with BJJ. When we are in recovery, we need a challenge – we need to grow along spiritual lines. This is the same with BJJ, which focuses on mental and psychological balance, as much as physical prowess. And finally, if we want to remain drug and alcohol free, then we need to learn techniques rather than ‘strong arm’ our way through, and this is also the case with BJJ.