The Yes Woman: Jiu-jitsu’s not about muscle

The beauty of jiu-jitsu is that it is not always the strongest person who wins but the most inventive and clever. Women needn’t be put off

Until now, I’ve always considered my body’s primary purpose to be keeping my brain off the floor. I’m like a lot of people – fundamentally disconnected from my physical self. I tend not to think of it as a brilliant tool that I should appreciate, explore the limits of and have adventures with the way I did as a child.

I grew up, and, like lots of other people, forgot the euphoria of rolling too fast down a grassy hill. I forgot the satisfaction of running around until my legs ached, just because I could.

Something happens to small girls as they grow up – not all, certainly, but many. Our male counterparts shoot past us in height and strength (again, not all), and at some point we accept our own weakness.

We go about our daily lives in the hope that, out of a combination of conscience, good breeding and manners, no one whose strength is greater than our own will take it upon themselves to hurt us. Generally, this approach works. But we can do more.


The recent UFC Dublin event got me curious. Mixed martial arts is becoming increasingly popular in Ireland as both a hobby and a spectator sport. By the time Conor Mc Gregor won in Dublin's O2 last July, I had been watching a lot of MMA, had read about it and talked to those who knew about and practised it.

When I saw that the UFC has a very respected women’s division, my curiosity was piqued further. One of my main qualms with sport in my youth was gender segregation; the idea that the men’s version of a sport was the “real” version, and that the women were just arsing about a field with their inferior stamina, playing a diluted version of the real thing.

During PE classes at school, the slender, tall, athletic girls would race past the likes of me, and I would feel bad about myself. I did what many women do; I disconnected from my body. I stopped trying. It saved me from the shame of looking silly, but it cut me off from the joy that comes from really connecting with your physical self.


A friend in the know told me that the best in MMA, including Aisling Daly, Conor Mc Gregor and Paddy Holohan, work out of SBG Dublin. John Kavanagh, the man behind it, coaches all of these fighters. When I contacted SBG to ask if they'd let me join in their beginners' Brazilian jiu -jitsu classes, I was shocked to find that they don't have women's classes. Men and women train together.

My first trip to SBG was nerve-racking. I’d been told to expect few women, and, although I’m used to a male working environment, these were another sort of men.

Philosophers can only be seen physically grappling on the floor at important conferences; not daily. When I walked in the door, there were men everywhere. All kinds of men. There were the heavily muscled kind you would expect. But there were also many of the kind you wouldn’t expect at all. On the wall as you enter the gym floor is a sign that reads: “No shoes or egos beyond this point.” I liked the place already.

Jiu-jitsu is like a wordless conversation between bodies and a test of intellect over strength. Obviously, the most experienced person will generally win in an amateur encounter, but, when you’re evenly matched, strength, conditioning and physical prowess are not enough. The most inventive and cleverest person will triumph by manipulating her body into a dominant position.

My brief time at SBG came about because I’m trying something new each week during my sabbatical from full-time philosophy. But jiu-jitsu is philosophical, which is perhaps why I feel such enthusiasm for it. By thinking, training and committing yourself, you can triumph. They respect commitment over everything, and a novice is treated the same as a black belt.

I am soft and small and weak, and yet in my time at SBG I’ve lifted a person who weighs 50kg more than I do without difficulty. I’ve been pinned to the ground by a bigger, stronger person, yet managed to use my lesser weight and strength to end up pinning them after a series of four movements. They teach that if you’re using strength to try to win, you’re not doing it right. I’ve managed things I didn’t think my body could do.

For five weeks, I was the only woman in the class. The night we had arranged to have the photographs taken, there was another woman there. The general lack of women taking part discourages others from giving it a go, along with the misguided belief that you need to be strong to do it.

The reputation of fighters is probably off-putting also: angry men who misuse the tools they’ve been given. This is a very noisy minority rather than a representation of the sport, but I think that part of the reason Kavanagh has done so well is because of the philosophy behind his gym.

He produces people – from amateur to professional – who are stable, disciplined thinkers. The education he bestows on them is based on respect; for others, for the medium, and for oneself. Misusing it would be a disrespect to all three.

More confidence

I’ve come out of this experience with a taste of that. I respect my body more. I’m impressed by the feats it can achieve and I have more confidence in my potential to protect myself. I intend to continue with the class and to increase that confidence further.

Several men in class have approached me to say that they are glad to see a woman taking part.

My classmates have helped and encouraged me. No one cares what I look like. No one is threatened that I’m there.

These guys are far more enlightened than we sometimes give them credit for. Send your daughters to classes. Send your sons. Send yourself. If I can do it, anyone can.

The Yes Woman says yes to . . . getting in touch with your body again, and no to . . . holding yourself back because you’re self-conscious