Exploring the benefits of Jiu Jitsu for the recovering addict
It is a commons statement in the Jiu Jitsu community that Jiu Jitsu helps us become a better person. Another frequent idea is that we battle our demons on the mats. For some of us the demons are larger than others. Perhaps one of the largest demons out there is substance abuse addiction. Some addicts are using Jiu Jitsu as a tool to combat their addiction.
Jiu Jitsu legend Kurt Osiander is one example of an addict that used Jiu Jitsu to help fuel his recovery. The website BJJ Heroes describes Kurt as, “Kurt Osiander is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt, a grade he achieved training under Ralph Gracie‘s tutelage. Osiander is one of the cult heroes in BJJ’s community, having been an active competitor since the mid 1990’s. Kurt Osiander’s straight forward personality and witty comments expressed in his video blog (Kurt Osiander’s Move of the Week) have given us well recognized phrases such as “shut up and train” and “you f****d up a long time ago”, which turned the Ralph Gracie Academy head instructor into one of the most beloved personalities in the sport especially within the YouTube generation.” Yet what the website does not state is Kurt was an addict before Jiu Jitsu. When he first met Ralph Gracie he was an addict. Jiu Jitsu is one tool that helped him with fighting his addiction.
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Certainly no one is arguing that Jiu Jitsu is a silver bullet or magic pill to cure addiction. But it is one tool that can help. How is this achieved? There are several factors. The first that we will explore is physiological. The website Solid Ground states, “It is only as recently as 2011 that a clinical review by the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the U.S. showed multiple studies have ‘provided convincing evidence to support the development of exercise-based interventions to reduce compulsive patterns of drug intake in clinical and at-risk populations.’ The most important breakthrough of these studies is that a fitness program is shown to have biological benefits to not only prevent relapse, but to actually reduce the compulsion of active addiction itself. One of the studies on rats showed that a serious exercise regimen (like Brazilian jiu-jitsu for example) decreases the ‘positive-reinforcing effects’ of cocaine. In other words, the positive biological effects of the exercise make the cocaine stimulation less pleasurable and reinforcing. There is similar research for opioid addiction, with studies repeatedly showing that exercise such as treadmill running ‘significantly decreases the tendency of using morphine.’ The science shows that disciplined exercise can be biologically more beneficial and compulsive, in terms of the reward systems at play, than the most addictive substances commonly abused.”
Beyond the physiological factors, there are other elements to a healthy recovery that Jiu Jitsu may assist. The Maryland Addiction Recovery website outlines 10 components of addiction recovery. Two seem particularly applicable to Jiu Jitsu. The first element is healthy hobbies or creative outlets. There are many reasons why Jiu Jitsu is a “healthy hobby”. It makes you physically stronger. It is a highly addictive form of exercise. With Jiu Jitsu you start to pay more attention to what you eat and how much sleep you get. You began to realize that your body is a machine if properly cared for is capable of so much more than you ever realized. Next, it is certainly a creative outlet. Jiu Jitsu is first and foremost a martial art. Every roll you are creating something beautiful. You may draw connections where others don’t see them. You express yourself through your Jiu Jitsu and your Jiu Jitsu expresses itself through you.
The second element t from Maryland Addiction Recovery website that is applicable to Jiu Jitsu is cultivating a healthy body and mind. Jiu Jitsu helps you create a healthy mind because you continually have to exercise it. Jiu Jitsu is described as physical chess. There are few greater joys in life than knowing you beat a bigger and stronger opponent with your mind. Even beyond the roll, simply learning moves is a mental exercise. In school I was more or less a C student. Now, I could spend hours detailing the endless steps of a Jiu Jitsu system. We have to learn and organize a large amount of information in Jiu Jitsu. We have to scrutinize details to the smallest degree. We are basically nerd assassins. Another way that Jiu Jitsu helps cultivate a healthy mind is it helps you deal with stress. We argued previously that in Jiu Jitsu, one of the earliest skills learned is the ability to be clear headed in intense situations. If your opponent is attempting to strangle, arm lock, knee on throat or whatever, if you panic that ends all technique. You must analyze the position and calmly execute the steps necessary to escape. That ability pays dividends in every aspect of life; relationships, jobs, and even sitting in traffic.
In my own observation, there may be two more components of Jiu Jitsu that are beneficial in recovery. First, is in who we hang out with. I know a lot of the trouble that I got into in life was because I was spending time with the wrong group of people. Jiu Jitsu gives you a sense of community or a tribe. I am not saying that you don’t meet idiots on the mats. However, by and large, there is a sense of community on the mats. The people that you meet generally want the best for you. We are united by a sense of purpose and passion. They are not afraid of hard work or adversity. They are the kind of people you want in your life. Second, Jiu Jitsu takes a lot of time. The old adage is idle hands are the devils workshop. Jiu Jitsu is a black hole for your time. At some schools you can train 3 or 4 times a day. Jiu Jitsu can take away the temptation associated with idle hands.
No one is arguing that Jiu Jitsu is a magical cure for addiction. However, there is a lot of evidence that Jiu Jitsu can be a valuable tool in helping with recovery. There are a lot of recovering addicts on the mats that advocate for Jiu Jitsu as an element of their success. There are scientific studies of the benefits of exercise for addicts. Jiu Jitsu has some of the tenets of many recovery programs plus the old common sense adages about who we hang out with and how we spend our time.
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