This is an article I wrote about yoga & jiu jitsu which was recently published in America’s premier bjj publication, Jiu Jitsu Magazine. You can order back issues and get your subscription here.
Because my surname isn’t Gracie and I didn’t start training when I was five, I’ve had to constantly and relentlessly search for supplemental training that will improve my game and allow me catch up with my Brazilian contemporaries.
Of all the additional systems and methods I’ve used to improve my jiu jitsu ability, I consider yoga to be by far the most effective. So much so, that I’ve eliminated almost all other supplemental training from my regime. This includes, kettlebell training, olympic lifting, swimming and rock climbing. I’m not claiming these aren’t great ways to improve your jiu jitsu. I’m saying that, at this point, I get a far bigger return investing my limited time into the practise of yoga.
The Gracie Connection
At the very start of my grappling career one of the first videos I watched was ‘Choke’, the documentary about Rickson Gracie. I was completely blown away by the levels of grace, balance and power which Rickson brought to his practice of jiu jitsu.
I was also astounded by the physical feats of breath control and balance that he displayed during his training sessions. I later found out that many of these were advanced yoga techniques, and realised that Rickson owed a large portion of his legendary abilities to his yoga prowess.
This planted a seed in my mind, and although I didn’t take up yoga seriously until several years later, I instinctively knew that there was truth in it.
What is yoga?
Yoga is a commonly used generic term for a collection of physical, mental, and spiritual disciplines which originated in India. It is an extremely complex and diverse system which embraces many different aspects of the human experience.
The yoga most commonly practised in the west, which you see in health clubs and studios, is usually some derivative of the physical component of ‘Hatha’ yoga. So we could say that Ashtanga, Iyengar, Bikram and most of the other styles you may be familiar with all fall under the umbrella term of ‘Hatha Yoga’. For the scope of this article we will be referring mainly to Hatha yoga.
This aspect of yoga is largely concerned with asanas, which refer to the body positions and phsyical postures which are held during practise, and vinyasa – a specific sequence of breath-synchronised movements used to transition between sustained asanas.
How will it help my jiu jitsu?
It almost seems as if the arts of jiu jitsu and yoga were designed to complement each other. There are so many similarities and mirrored truths between the two of them. It’s not surprising that they both have roots which are entwined with buddhism and ancient india.
Besides having been proven to alleviate depression, high blood-pressure and a host of other physical ailments, yoga will also help your bjj is many specific ways, several of which I have outlined below:
Correction of imbalances
Jiu jitsu often causes poor posture and and skeletomuscular imbalances.
There’s an acronym in sports science called ‘SAID’. It stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. It refers to the observation that the body will quite rapidly become adapted to the positions or activities it encounters most often. One of the most commonly ‘imposed demands’ of jiu-jitsu is contraction. When you’re in guard, attacking from the side mount, back and many of the other positions, your body is in a contracted state.
The upper back is often rounded as you are holding onto your opponent, the hip flexors and psoas are usually tightened because the knees are tucked up towards the chest, and as for the neck and shoulders – well if you’ve been training for any length of time you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.This excessive contraction is even more pronouced in the primary defensive postures, like the turtle postion. (Interestingly, the ageing process is also characterised by contraction – this is why old people start to hunch over.)
Regular practise of the various asanas and vinyasas is the best remedy I’ve found for this imbalanced state, due to their twofold effect of lengthening and opening the body. As an added bonus, many of your submissions will also improve. Consider that many of the finishes in jiu-jitsu require an exaggerated expansion out from the center (Think of a straight armbar for example -you arch your back and drive your hips forwards to apply leverage). Very often your effectiveness with these movements is hampered by the imbalances mentioned previously, and you can see how addressing them with yoga will alow you to generate more power.
I’ve never been a particularly flexible individual. I’ve always looked at the more supple jiu jitsu practitioners with equal parts of both awe and envy. We all know that guy who can wrap his legs around your waist from the bottom of mount and sweep you off – there’s one in every academy.
About three years ago, when I turned 30 I made a promise to myself that I would do whatever it took to become a flexible person. I investigated several stretching methods and found that few of them increased my flexibility as quickly or extensively as yoga.
Although you can get away without being flexible in jiu jitsu, it’s an attribute that’s unquestionably beneficial. The greater the range of motion in your joints, the more options you will have in each position. In fact, some parts of jiu jitsu will be completely inaccessable to you until you develop the required suppleness, the rubber guard being a good example.
Increased strength and balance
The kind of strength developed through yoga practise is unlike anything else I’ve experienced. Over the past couple of decades the phrase ‘core strength’ has become a popular in sports training but yoga goes beyond that.
Diligent practise develops what I call ‘intelligent strength’. Not only does it train the central nervous system to fire muscles in the correct sequence, it also teaches you which muscles to engage to to maintain postural alignment and efficiently move your anatomy through space. And we all know that good posture and moving efficiently are hallmarks of superior jiu jitsu.
Also, holding the asanas develops an muscular endurance which is perfectly suited to the isometric contractions required for applying chokes and strangles. And although it tones and strengthens, yoga does not produce excessive muscle hypertrophy. Too much muscle mass is not good for jiu jitsu because it burns oxygen quickly and inhibits movement. Consistent practise (combined with good diet) will reset your body to its optimum tissue composition.
My first coach used to say ‘One of the best things a fighter can have is balance’. Over the years I came to understand just how true that was.Yoga is exceptional for developing balance. Many of the standing asanas are done unilaterally (on one leg), which not only improves stability but sport-specific strength as well.I’ve seen professional athletes challenged by the most simple of these postures. Mastering them will massively improve your top game by making you far harder to sweep. It’ll also improve throws and takedowns.
Body awareness and breath control
Your body is the tool with which you create your jiu-jitsu, and the more you know about it and more effectively you can operate it the better you’ll be on the mat. The increase in body awareness gained from yoga practise cannot overstated.
One of the most valuable ways this is achieved is through breath control. Not only will the vinyasas teach you to coordinate your movement and breathing, but yogic techniques such as pranayama will enable you to engage your diaphragm and utilise your lungs to their full capacity. This will greatly improve your stamina during rolling.
Polishing the mind
Besides all the numerous physical benefits, yoga has extensive, positive mental effects..
Some of the more challenging asanas require immense concentration, and sychronizing the movement and breathing during vinyanasa cultivates a certain focus and stillness of the mind which is invaluable during the heat of a a difficult sparring match. I’ve also noticed that memorising the sanskrit names of the various asanas as well as their correct alignments has much overlap with learning bjj techniques.
Where do I start?
Now I know that some of you are thinking ‘I’m too old to start’. I understand the sentiment. I felt the same way about BJJ when I started at 19 years old. But there is a chinese expression: ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is now’.
Take the risk, move out of your comfort zone and try a yoga class. I personally do not recommend training on your own using books or videos, unless you already have high levels of body awareness and are very experienced with physical disciplines. Yoga can be dangerous if practised incorrectly and you’re better off utilising an instructor, especially as a beginner.
There are countless different types of yoga class available but the main ones you’ll encounter are:
This style focuses on the physical alignment of the body in the various asanas. It often uses various supports or ‘props’ to fascilitate the poses for beginners and the less flexible. It has very little vinyasa between postures.
Best for: correcting muscular/postural imalances, less athletic individuals.
Vinyasa yoga, in which movement is coordinated to the breath, is a term that covers a broad range of yoga classes. This style is sometimes also called flow yoga, because of the smooth way that the poses run together and become like a dance.
I personally find vinyassa classes some of the most challenging. . I like the fact that each class is usually quite different, and that the pace and intensity closely approximate jiu jitsu.
Best for: muscular endurance, dynamic flexibility.
This is a form of Vinyasa which is characterised by a much more regimented sequence of asanas and vinyasas, so much so that every class you do will be almost exactly the same. It’s very effective but some people become bored by the lack of variety.
It uses a very specific form of yogic breathing called ‘ujjayi’ which has good application for bjj.
Best for: breath control, cooridination, memory
Bikram / ‘Hot’ Yoga
The main differentiating factor of bikram is that it is done in a heated room. this (and other styles of ‘hot yoga’ have become very popular as of late. due to the heat and humidity, bikram can be a little extreme, and i wouldn’t recommend it for anyone in poor shape.
Although i feel that most other hatha styles are superior, i think that the discomfort caused by the humidity might be good for developing mental strength that could transfer well to bjj.
Best for: focus, fat-loss
What to be aware of
Just as there are poor jiu-jitsu instructors, so too are there third-rate yoga teachers. Overly commercial yoga schools should also be avoided. Try several different types of classes and instructors. You will instinctively know which is most beneficial to you.
Be aware of the tendency to push yourself too hard during classes. This is common for jiu jitsu guys, who usually adopt the ‘harder, strong, faster’ approach to training. Yoga doesn’t work that way. Intensity is good, but pain is not. Remember, the path of the yogi is the same as that of the jiu-jitsoka; it’s a life-long journey and there is no rush.
You can find an excellent, jiu-jitsu specific yoga resource online at the Yoga for BJJ site.
I’m certain that diligent and consistent practise of yoga will make you a better grappler, and a happier, healthier human being. Give it a try and I’m sure you’ll be surprised at how well it integrates with your study of jiu jitsu.
If you enjoyed this article you’ll love my new book, ‘The Black Belt Blueprint‘ – a compilation of all the best articles on the site plus all-new material, packaged to form a comprehensive guide to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.