x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Fighting fit with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a great workout for body and mind.

When you're heading to a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) class taught by a two-time world champion jiu-jitsu instructor from Brazil, it's fair to assume you're in capable hands. 

That didn't make the prospect of being thrown to the ground or rolling around with more experienced students any less daunting as I drove to Emirates Jiu-Jitsu Center in Al Barsha last Wednesday evening. But within seconds of arriving my mind was put at ease by the warmth of the students who greeted me.

"It's not just about BJJ, it's like a family outside of my family here," Zachary Millican, a 29-year-old dolphin trainer from North Carolina, in the US, reassures me. "I bring my son sometimes, he's three, and he rolls on the mats and does some of the warm-up with us." Millican, who took up the sport two years ago on a friend's recommendation, points to the pictures hanging on the wall of his fellow students with the centre's "Master", Rafael Haubert, and world-famous BJJ specialists such as Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighters, the Nogueira brothers.

"We are all friends," he says, referring to the students at the class. "If you know someone in BJJ it's a life-long thing." Haubert arrives shortly afterwards, hand outstretched to greet us and sporting a wide smile. This place is incredibly friendly. "You work on changing your mind and then your power will come. First you need to be happy. The focus is not on fighting - there are programmes for those who want to compete, but that is not what this is about," explains the 33-year-old Brazilian. "BJJ requires self-discipline. You learn about winning, about losing, and about yourself."

Suitably won over, I take to the changing rooms to get into the white gi I've borrowed for the class (Haubert keeps a couple of spares for beginners wanting to try it out). The other girl in the class, Hanan Mahmoud Saleh, is sporting a nifty-looking pink number. She has been training for two years and despite her small frame is able to hold her own against some of the bigger male students in the class during practice.

At 7pm the class begins with a warm-up that involves, alongside push-ups and sit-ups, a series of moves aimed at stretching out the limbs we will be working later. I'm terribly inflexible so some of the movements are a bit of a challenge to begin with but, once again, fellow students are on hand to guide me in the right direction when I get confused about which leg should be where. Warm-up done, we all pair up for the first move of the evening - a take-down that involves hooking your leg around your opponent's and then using your body to push them backwards to the ground. As the only two girls in this particular class, poor blue-belt sporting Saleh is tasked with guiding me through.

Haubert demonstrates before we take it in turns to practise. At first I feel nervous, very self-aware and can't find the footing to complete the take-down successfully. I am also nervous about hurting my partner - ironic, given how strong she is and how relatively weak I feel. But after being on the receiving end of a couple of take-downs I realise that it doesn't hurt and that while she may be small, she certainly isn't lacking in strength. I relax.

We then move on to a leg guard and neck choke which takes me a while to get the hang of - like anything, I think it just comes down to practice, concentration and relaxing. "You have to become a blank canvas when you come here," Saleh reassures me, as I apologise for the 20th time about not being able to choke her. "And you don't need to keep apologising." BJJ's great appeal is its ability to teach a smaller person to defend him or herself against a stronger, bigger opponent.

I've been keen to learn more about it since becoming a fan of Mixed Martial Arts and the UFC. As much as I love strike-training, should I ever find myself under attack, particularly by a man, BJJ has always seemed like a more sensible way of helping me. It's also great for both cardiovascular fitness and strength - by the end of the class I've worked up a sweat and the next day my muscles felt like they'd been through a work-out.

Gabor Szalay, 29, who was awarded his blue belt at the end of the lesson, lost 14kg in the first five months of training with Haubert. "That's without any particular diet, just training every day," he tells me. "It's really addictive. We are all friends here and that helps. There is no confrontation, everyone tries to help each other."