Bruises are a big part of my life as a climber, thus having a colleague at the clinic I previously worked at share her own black and blue marks wasn’t a big deal. I would walk into work, bruised up from taking some lead falls climbing, she would walk into work banged up from her own passion – Brazilian Jiujitsu or BJJ.
We would both compare “war wounds” from our given sports, nod at one another in appreciation, and check our patient schedules.
From time to time she would say, “You should try BJJ.” I would laugh, “I’m a climber. That’s why I moved here. It’s what I do.”
“Okay,” she would reply. “I think you would like it, though.”
I would just smile, grab patient charts, and walk out of the staff room.
One day my colleague came to the clinic and announced she was moving to Texas to pursue doctoral work, adding that was also selling her house. Fast forward several months down the road to me purchasing her house…complete with a closet full of gis.
“You left all your gis here,” I called to tell her. “I know they’re expensive. Would you like me to ship them to you?”
She got quiet and then added, “When you purchased my house, you also bought BJJ. The gis are yours now.”
“Have I mentioned I’m a climber? That’s what I do. I don’t have time to add another sport to my life. You know I also do CrossFit, trail-run, swim…I simply don’t have the time.”
She responded, “Its time, Almine.”
That’s how I got into BJJ. I put a gi on from my new house, and made my way to my first BJJ class. In it I became acutely aware, very quickly, I was outnumbered by men, and really had no idea what I was getting into.
The following questions, which I also posed to another male colleague (& grappler), Traver Boehm, are questions that could’ve helped guide me in making choices about which gym I began my journey at, and will be helpful for everyone to consider as a new student to the sport.
1) Should BJJ classes be segregated?
Almine: “Frankly, I like the idea of options. I like the idea of co-ed classes, and men’s and women’s only classes. I do feel women’s only classes are more inviting, and less intimidating to most women.
9/10 times I’m the only female in the noon class I go to. This is fine with me, but I do enjoy the camaraderie of women’s only classes, events, and camps.
The reality is, you are physically all over one another when training. This will be a bigger hurdle for some than others and that goes for both men and women.
There’s also an unspoken dynamic between married people rolling with single people. No one wants to talk about it, because it’s “taboo” as if the inadvertent touching is somehow different when the relationship statuses are mixed.
When you’re a single woman rolling with married men, you are automatically put on “high alert.” Often times the wives of these men view us as a threat to the marriage rather than a woman working on her choke defense. If the men are sexually attracted to you, they either avoid rolling with you, because it conjures up feelings for them.
I’ve lost female friends over rolling with their married husbands. Why? Because of the “Jiu-Jitsu Widow Syndrome” – when one half of a couple is obsessed with BJJ, & the other isn’t. Often time this means the female partner is left at home on “date night,” while the man is at the gym with “the boys.”
Everyone knows about it. Few talk about it as an issue.
Jiu-Jitsu is a fitness cult, not unlike CrossFit. Tough sweat breeds community. For some people t often takes the place of community such as a church congregation, or a support group.
It’s also where people go to drown out the noise of their problems and the world. They become obsessed with it – rightfully so. Like religion, or anything else, people can also use it as an escape from their problems.
Many men, over the years who I’ve done BJJ with have used the gym time to escape from their “nagging wives,” and “screaming kids.” Really, it’s a sweatier alternative to “bowing out with the guys” at a bar or strip club. Except, you can justify it because it’s healthy.
Often times, the hours spent at the gym increase, while the hours at home decrease. Escapism is escapism. When you become the girl who shares a passion that the husband does (that the wife may not) you are seen as trouble from the wife.
Also, if the couple’s relationship is strained, and you’re experiencing more physical contact with the husband (even in a strictly training sense), than the wife does, the wife becomes either suspicious of you, or jealous. Having women’s only classes can ease some of this tension.
There currently aren’t enough women at my gym for a women’s only class, or I’d love to participate in one. It always makes me happy to visit other gyms and go to their women’s only open mat, or classes they offer.”
2) Addressing the point that the mat isn’t necessarily the place that men choose to share their deepest fears, hopes, dreams, etc….what if it is that place, & then a woman joins?
Traver: “Great question. I just don’t see it as such in the “this is class time or even open mat time” format. I see the men we roll with become the brothers we share that stuff, in private, either over a beer or sometimes on the side of the mat but it’s more about the relationship with that man that’s been developed rather than something that’s happening with anyone in ear shot – man, woman or otherwise.”
3) How do you think that changes the dynamic for both the men there & the woman?
Traver: “Personally that hasn’t been my experience. If they’re talking about fucking someone off Tinder the night before (heard that a lot) I can see how the presence of a woman interrupts the locker room aspect of the training experience, but as for deep, meaningful sharing, I just don’t see it. I think anyone else coming onto the mat that day that didn’t share that same level of connection from years of friendship would interrupt that sanctuary feeling.
4) What if it was their “sanctuary” & then a woman joins? How do you think that makes her feel too?
Traver: When I was going through my divorce I’d talk to guys about it, but it was a hushed, one on one conversation off the mat, in the corner of the training room. If anyone else came in, I would smile, let them walk past and then either continue or say, “let’s pick this up another time” or “fuck it, let’s roll.”
Almine: “It’s interesting how it affects all parties in different ways. The woman feels uncomfortable, because she feels like she’s “crashing the party.” The dudes see her as doing so. It’s awkward for both genders.”
I do believe the mat is where men share, not just sweat, but problems with their marriage, vulnerability about injuries they’re experiencing (or recovering from), and family matters. I’ve seen this. I’ve heard it. I see men allow themselves to be at the most vulnerable on the mat with their training partners, because they feel more safe/comfortable there vs. a therapist’s office (not that I necessarily agree that’s the best option). They would tell their “mat brothers” they’ve been training with for years more than a therapist. It’s interesting to observe. I’ve witnessed this many times. The guy’s are griping about their marriages, kids, bills, jobs, whatever…I walk in…they all snap their jaws shut, & the conversation comes to a halt. I feel awkward. They feel awkward. The silence in the room is awkward. I ‘break the ice’ by saying, ‘Anyone wanna roll’?”
Traver: “Yea, I get this. It’s less skillful, and feels like more general griping than real conversation and while I think it has a place, it’s also just that – griping! I’d be glad you interrupted it because it’s not productive. That’s not to sound harsh.
Almine: “You mentioned you think there are benefits to women’s only classes? What do you think those benefits are?
Traver: “I’m clearly not a woman or a minority in the US unless I’m in a room full of people with hair, so I’ll project a bit here…but I think it’s important for people who are having a unique and different experience from everyone else in a given activity, to share that experience with similar folks.
Growing up in Japan I wanted to hang out with other Americans because they inherently “got it.” They knew what it was like to be stared at, yelled at, have people touch our hair etc.
Thus, I think a class of all women would allow for an environment where each woman would not only get to roll with someone who weighed about what she did, had similar physical attributes, and can relate to her training partner’s experience.
I remember being stoked when another 155’er would show up at Paulson’s after I trained with heavier guys all the time. It was just refreshing to see if shit worked without someone weighing 255# clearly letting me work my sweeps.
The class would also definitely smell better…
Lastly, I believe it would allow for a more complete relaxation for each woman (I’m not putting that well). The idea that every training partner was another woman, therefor the chances of someone just smashing you, “accidentally” grabbing a boob, or secretly thinking “I want to fuck this chick” is gone (hopefully). Thus the trust would be a lot higher. Again, I’m projecting here.”
5) Is there an advantage to men’s only classes?
Almine: “I’m not a man, so this is tricky to speak to. I can’t see a disadvantage to it, as long as a co-ed class is also offered so they have options.
I think the mat is a great place for men to “bow out,” escapism or not. There are a lot of women’s only classes at a variety of fitness gyms. I do think men process more than they believe they do, with their fellow team mates, and that the mats seem to be a “safe space” for them to seem to do that.
Many times, I’ve seen men play arm-chair psychologists to one another. They don’t do it as often, or as frequently as women do, but they do it. I do believe they feel more safe to vent about something important going on in their life to a teammate, before they’d be drug into a counselor’s office by a wife, girlfriend, etc.
Why not give them their own mat time? I think it’s healthy and a great idea. There used to be cigar rooms for just this. It doesn’t offend me any more than a women’s only class would.
I think men should hang out with men. I think they’re healthier for it. They’re a lot easier to cohabitate with when they get their segregated ‘dude time.’ I think voicing this as a real need is also healthy, as is creating a space for it.”
6) Is there an advantage to women’s only classes?
Almine: “For the same reason I think men’s only classes are a great idea, I feel the same about women’s only classes. I actually find it hilarious when some women say how lucky I am to roll with a bunch of men, often as the only woman.
As much I esteem my mat brothers, I couldn’t see this more differently. Skidmarks on my face, getting farted on, going home smelling like ‘Old Spice’ & ‘Irish Spring,’ ummm…not.
I also want to mention something that nobody wants to talk about. Menstruation. Yeah, that word. Our culture is so scared of it. It’s strange to me, since it’s a normal bodily process.
Have I heard women complain about feeling self-conscious (for multiple reasons), rolling with men on their periods? Absolutely. It’s a contact sport folks – think about it.
Do I? Absolutely. Do I still do it? Absolutely.
Does it take me about an extra 20 mins. of “prep time” before class to pull off managing the physical realities of a menstrual cycle in a very contact oriented sport? Absolutely.
To have the option of a women’s only class, would make me feel substantially less awkward to train during that time of the month. Women are generally more comfortable with saying to other women, “Ummm…I’m not going to train “X” move, because it aggravates my cramps,” or the oh-so-aggravating scenario of forgetting to swap out a darker colored gi in your bag for your white one.
You get to the gym. Yup, your flow is on point, and…(drum roll)…you’ve only got a white gi in your bag. Ugh. If you’re heading into a women’s only class, you can ask a lady if she has a darker colored gi you could borrow, without feeling embarrassed. If you’re the only girl in a class, or a girl with few female training partners, this may be a challenge.
I always wanted to go to a women’s only college. My undergraduate school, ‘Marylhurst University’ was an all-women’s college once. Even once it went co-ed it still had that reputation, so the women were approx. 85% of the student body. It’s why I went.
Do I think dudes suck, so that’s why I didn’t want to go to college with them? Not in the slightest. I like men too much. That’s why I knew they’d be a distraction to me focusing on the goals I had at that time. I wanted to focus on learning, not on dorm parties, and getting drunk. So, that’s what I did.
I’m grateful I had the insight into myself at 18 to know that. I had a fabulous education at that school. I also had my first female math teacher, who made math come alive for me. I never knew I loved math so much, until Professor Anne.
When I lived in India, most things were segregated. And, I got substantially more stuff done. There is a reason for segregated classes. I also get the reason for co-ed classes. They’re both valuable for completely different reasons. If you have enough women at your gym for a women’s only class, it’s nice to offer.
If the guys are stoked on the idea of a men’s only class, I think it’s a great idea. A co-ed class is always a good call. Being a good training partner is mandatory.”