This article was written by Mike Bidwell, author of the excellent site, BJJ After 40.
What is 'Flow' in a Jiu Jitsu Context?
Flow: To move continuously in a current or stream. The phrase ‘flow rolling’ often gets a bad rap in the grappling world. You know the feeling you go to slap and bump hands and your partner says, “You mind if we just flow?” You’re probably thinking, “Flow? What the hell! I want to fight!” People in the Jiu-Jitsu community often think of flow rolling as something less than live rolling. Some might even think that you only “flow roll” when you’re injured, broken, old, or weak. For me flow means something very different. I think of grappling as having several different levels. It’s similar to a dimmer switch versus a light switch. With a light switch, you flip the switch and you have light. With a dimmer switch you can make small gradual movements in either direction. For me good Jiu-Jitsu is like that dimmer switch. Rolling isn’t all or nothing.
The kill or be killed mentality mostly leads to broken bodies and a short Jiu-Jitsu journey. The goal is to stay on the mats and you’re going to still want to do this when you’re in your 40’s and 50’s and older! But what I’m talking about isn’t really even about going lighter or not trying to tap each other. It goes much deeper. It’s also not about making flow separate from live rolling. In fact, it’s the opposite. For me it’s about finding the flow within the “live” roll. If you’ve been training for some time you may have had this experience: You’re rolling with good partner and you have an exchange of techniques that happen almost perfectly in synch… and it’s as if your bodies are moving own their own accord…the timing, the rhythm, everything is perfect and you feel like you are watching it happen as it’s happening. For me that’s the flow. In the west we don’t really have a word to describe this experience. In Japanese martial arts this state of mind is called ‘mushin’, or ‘no mind’. This is a state of mind where the actor and the act become one. A simple example of this in everyday life is riding a bike. Navigating a bike requires a complex set of movements: balance, timing and mental alertness to name a few. Most people begin riding a bike very early in life. It’s becomes a rite of passage for most kids. As an adult the idea of riding a bike requires very little mental or physical effort. Yes, it may be tiring, but the task alone isn’t difficult. You’ve mastered this skill to a certain degree. How did you attain “mastery”? Mostly through repetitive action. You’ve done it so many times that your body and mind have reached a sense of unity and the act requires little or no mental effort.
The master has failed more time than the beginner has even tried. - Albert Einstein
The ‘Mu’ in ‘mushin' means, “empty mind” as in a state of oneness, unity, free of fear, distractions and ego. I’ve heard high level martial artists reaching a state which they would describe as “getting lost in the movements”. Not lost in the sense of failing, but a sense of unity around the movements. I believe the “lost” feeling is a feeling of losing one’s old self, habits, and restricted thought patterns. When we let go of the “I”, the ego state, there is no separation just oneness. So how do we reach the “flow” where the ripples have become still and the reflection in the water seeks only clarity? I believe that by practicing precise, accurate movements you begin to “shave off the imperfections” that slow rhythm and timing. I like to use cyclical flow drills as a tool for practicing and perfecting movements and transitions. Think of a cyclical flow drill as a series of reoccurring movements that repeat themselves. They can be done with little or no resistance. The idea isn’t for this to be a “live roll” but to develop accuracy and precision around your movements. These can be done alone or with a partner. They aren’t intended to replace live rolls but to enhance them by developing more accurate, perfectly timed movements that become second nature.
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once. But I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times. - Bruce lee
When your movements become more accurate they require less mental strain. This allows for room for more freedom and clarity when you’re rolling. Instead of thinking about what you’re doing, you are just ‘doing’. Remember, cyclical flow drills are a supplement to your normal randori training (never replacing it) but with the intent to strengthen your live rolls. I’ve also found that it takes the right kind of partner to find a good flow. Beginners for example are great reminder of what that choppy, physical, unpredictable energy feels like. Whereas more seasoned students can relax and be more precise and technical with their movements which allows for more of an opportunity to flow. I’ve also found that adding the element of music to your rolls will help get you into a better state of mind. According to a 2013 study, “People listen to music to regulate arousal and mood, to achieve self-awareness, and as an expression of social relatedness.”* Adding music to your rolls will help you stay relaxed and allow you to find a rhythm to your movements while creating a sense of cohesion and connectedness with your partners. One theory suggests that, “Music contributes to social cohesion and thereby increases the effectiveness of group action…music may provide means to reduce social stress and temper aggression in others. The idea that music may function as a social cement has many proponents.”
Tips for developing ‘Flow’
Practice cyclical flow drills - Use these drills to help you develop more precise, accurate movements and transitions.
'Dark' rolling (eyes closed)
When you grapple with your eyes closed you narrow your focus to your immediate needs. So instead of being distracted by all of the external stimuli when you grapple with your eyes open, you develop laser point focus on your partner. In addition, you are forced to move slower and with better precision which improves your technique.
'Catch and Release' flow rolling
This is a great way to move your body in and out of submissions. You want to use as little strength as possible and rely almost exclusively on technique. The goal is to exchange techniques with your partner using continuous movement with no breaks in the rhythm.
Playing music in the background will help you feel a sense of rhythm and timing. I like music that has a good beat but doesn’t move too fast or too aggressively. The goal is to stay relaxed, not become overly stimulated. Find music that speaks to you!
The “right” partner
It’s important to find a partner who moves well. Also, find someone you roll with all the time who is familiar with the way you move. If they are choppy, resistant or in a deep egoic state it will be difficult to flow.
"People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive." - Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”