Ramblings on Backbends, Yoga, and Grappling…

Two of my most interminable obsessions are grappling and yoga, and maybe while risking self-motivated reasoning, I’ve been exploring whether these distinct disciplines are cognate with one another. Spoiler alert–I believe they are…😉

An immediate connection…versions of wrestling have existed for thousands of years (catch, folkstyle, judo, BJJ, etc.), as has yoga (hatha, kundalini, astanga, etc.), and practitioners of each are connected to a living ancestry of techniques, philosophy, and growth. Pretty cool!

Many physical skills yoga promotes are also practical tools for the grappler. Perhaps the foremost is the backbend, sometimes called the ‘wheel pose’ in yoga.

Obviously, being able to bridge is a must for pin escapes, but the mobility created by the yogic ‘wheel’ pose also underlies foundational movements like the hip heist, and even more dynamic, the suplex!!!

I can posit from experience that both the physical and mental characters of bridging are often underdeveloped in jiu-jitsu practice, though, because jiu-jiteiros over-emphasize the counter movement, i.e., ‘shrimping’ during warm-ups and the art’s single-mindedness about the guard. Seriously, if you practice BJJ and are reading this, how many shrimps have you performed in the last week versus the number of bridges???!!!

To wit, below is a quick video of me training wall walks with my son, who has practiced BJJ for the last three years and has lost a lot of the suppleness and strength of his hip bridging. Adults, please try to practice this, too, even if you’re not a grappler–this may help your posture and release your neck, thoracic spine, and hips if you’ve been sitting behind a desk all day!

Beyond the physical plane, I’m also enthralled with additional intersections of yoga and grappling. Dig a little deeper into the philosophical side of the former, and you’ll find this quote from Patanjali, ‘Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind’. Indeed, a premise of hatha yoga (literally translated as ‘violent yoga’), is to activate the body, so that the mind will become still. But can grappling replicate, or even complement, yoga’s movement to the larger Self and sense of peace?

Well, check this out from Joseph Alter’s treatise The Wrestler’s Body, which states that grappling ‘…is a form of yoga because it requires that one transcend one’s natural physical aptitude and apply principles of sensory and nervous control to one’s own body.’ Or that the grappler ‘…trains his body to be immune to worldly things but remain in the world…and move through the world cloaking himself in the mantle of ascetic values.’

As paradoxical as it sounds, my goal as a grappling coach is to teach people functional yet esoteric techniques like the Achilles lock from positions like 50-50 (pictured below with the immortal Karl Gotch, known in Japan as the ‘God of Wrestling’) while assisting students toward a sense of peace and joy in the world.

Whenever I think this is unrealistic, or totally left field, I recall some of the most respected martial artists–like Rickson Gracie and Miyamoto Mushashi–who have seemingly embodied the confluence of yogic and grappling ideologies.

Sounds like a complete paradox, doesn’t it? All I can offer is the encouragement to try grappling for yourself, with an open mind, and feel the results. Hope to see you on the mat soon!

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