Source: Courtesy of Lotus BJJ Seattle
In the field of psychotherapy, a current focus is helping clients get more in touch with their bodies. The body is the seat of knowledge and thus more therapists are guiding clients to, at the very least, be more mindful of how their body reacts in certain situations that cause them stress, anger, or sadness.
But mindfulness and being aware of bodily cues may not be enough for some. Thus, others are encouraged to actively find activities to help integrate the mind-body connection. Yoga, walking, and breath work are often mentioned. Martial arts, in general, has also been recommended as a path towards healing. I recently read the book, Transforming Trauma with Jiu-Jitsu: A Guide for Survivors, Therapists, and Jiu-Jitsu Practitioners to Facilitate Embodied Recovery by Dr. Jamie Marich and Anna Pirkl, LMFT. Both authors specialize in trauma healing, and both are Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners.
The book itself is a great read for anyone interested in understanding how important it is to address the body when it comes to holistic healing. I was particularly intrigued as these two women discovered jiu-jitsu as middle aged women not just for themselves but also for certain clients. In the book, the authors introduced jiu-jitsu to numerous women who have been traumatized by sexual assaults. The results themselves were amazing as the therapists would attest to hitting a certain barrier within the confines of therapy, no matter how targeted it was to trauma.
For myself, I also took up jiu-jitsu in middle age, at first to give me an outlet for my own trauma of divorce nearly 20 years ago. Since then, I took a long time off, thinking I didn’t need it anymore since I wasn’t interested in winning or competition. But as I’ve continued to process my own childhood and relational trauma in talk therapy, I realized I wanted something physical that felt both empowering and therapeutic in a specific body-based way that would resonate with me. I had tried walking in the woods, breathing exercises, swimming, and running. While those were at times helpful, I didn’t realize how much I needed something that would give me a sense of self-mastery. Since I had some experience with jiu-jitsu, I decided to take it up again. The journey is much harder as you get older, but I also feel the experience is much richer. The desire to win medals isn’t at the forefront of my training. Instead, self-discipline and doing the art as a means of emotional and spiritual growth now provide the framework for my early morning (6 a.m.) training sessions. So, what does this mean and why was I not getting it from the other aforementioned sports or body-based methods?
First off, self-mastery is critical. Those who have endured trauma or neglect (emotional or physical) need a form of empowerment. In martial arts and specifically jiu-jitsu, there is something very transformative in learning how to manipulate another person’s body to keep yourself safe. While the chances of getting into a fight or sexually assaulted as an adult may be slim, it nevertheless provides reassurance knowing that left to your own devices (your body), you could take care of yourself. Regardless of the trauma, jiu-jitsu offers the opportunity to heal by giving clients a “corrective emotional experience” through trial by fire. What I mean by this is that in a typical jiu-jitsu martial arts studio, there will be people (instructors included) who can trigger you because their gender, background, physical size, or other characteristics may be reminiscent of the original trauma. Yet trauma-informed instructors will be aware and help you work through that by giving you a voice to engage (or disengage). This leads me to the next point: The authors caution that you need to do your research and be selective to ensure you find the right academy to fit your therapeutic needs as some schools may be clueless about trauma and the goals of trauma-informed jiu-jitsu as outlined in the book.
I don’t have the clinical data that the authors do, but I do have a perspective from someone who’s practiced this martial art enough to know that it can definitely complement therapy for those dealing with issues such as self-confidence, self-discipline, trauma, and addictions. But that is not to say that martial arts or body-based movement is a cure-all. Many people could benefit from traditional therapy if they haven’t already done so. But for those who have spent time in therapy and are looking for another avenue towards healing, then body-based movements and martial arts such as jiu-jitsu could be a path that syncs the healing of mind, body, and spirit.