jiu jitsu lifestyle (joo-jit-soo lahyf-stahyl): the habits, attitudes, tastes, moral standards, economic level, and etc that together constitute the mode of living of those engaged in Brazilian jiu jitsu, a martial art and combat sport that teaches a smaller person how to defend herself against a larger adversary by using leverage and proper technique.

‘The habits, attitudes, tastes, moral standards & etc’. In other words, the fundamental components and expressions of one’s worldview. When jiu jitsu is your lifestyle, no matter what else comes your way, quitting is not an option. Injuries, big moves across cities, states or oceans, babies, elderly family, work pressures, money pressures, time pressures all conspire to cut our time with jiu jitsu short. Living the jiu jitsu lifestyle isn’t just about acai bowls and being mad on kimono. Those things are part of it, but just the tip of this ‘berg. At some stage, not sure when, like with a sweep, there’s a point of no return and your relationship with jiu jitsu is no longer negotiable; it takes on a life and momentum of its own – think that’s called ‘love’.

Love is easy at the start. It is all hormones and handsy and sweaty and fun. With the miles come the struggles and the pressure tests and the challenges. In love as in jiu jitsu, endurance offers great rewards. In love as in jiu jitsu, some drop out and some commit for the long haul, for better or worse.

I know now that I am in this thing, come what may. 5 years ago jiu jitsu was easy. It wasn’t really, but after 7 years my confidence in my defence let me work my offence. I was putting myself in triangles and all sorts of bad spots with good level, bigger people and escaping, reversing and submitting. After intense toil and self-scrutiny I could finally sniff the experience that seemed so common and ‘easy’ for the men in my club. Then, KABOOM!

Jiu Jitsu Lifestyle can include injury
ACL op, blissfully unaware of many more upcoming disruptions

ACL surgery; pregnancy; birth and caring for an infant (plus a sprinkle of postpartum depression for good measure); trans-Atlantic move; re-entry shock; refurbishing a new house; new jobs; and homesickness. For the record, my worst days are better than most of the worlds’ bad days – I get that – nonetheless, my life got mangled.

Jiu jitsu stayed with me, and I with jiu jitsu. My pregnancy was active and included drills and some sparring. Infancy was the toughest to balance, and while infrequent, privates with my UK coach, Dave Birkett from Dartford Academia de Jiu Jitsu, kept me in the game. Within 12 months of the baby, Friday night training was more and more regular. 2 and a half years on, we moved to the States where I scrambled to find the right club for me. Serendipty! Gracie Jiu Jitsu Victor had just opened its doors. Likewise, up the street was Wolf Brigade, a strength and conditioning gym, that has empowered me to take my body back after a rocky recovery from ACL reconstruction / pregnancy / birth / infancy-sans-self-care. In all the chaos of becoming parents and moving overseas, jiu jitsu – and what Greg Walsh at Wolf Brigade calls ‘physical culture’ – kept me steady and on course.

The Jiu Jitsu Lifestyle Doesn’t Always Move Forward

Sometimes, one has to step back to truly move forward. Readers may be aware that I chose to wear a white belt when I started at Gracie Victor. With all the disruption to my training, my body, and my fitness, this was the right place for me to start in a new town and with a new club. This decision was all about me. It was about what I needed to rebuild. It was about my need to feel worthy of my belt. It wasn’t asked or expected of me.

Gracie Academy respects the belts of students that come from outside. I needed to take a step back and methodically re-work my core jiu jitsu. The Academy offers a clear path for someone in my position: belt verification. ‘Verification’ is the process whereby the Gracie Academy verifies that one’s skillset and mindset harmonises with the priorities of Gracie Jiu Jitsu. Pre-requisites for a verification are passing the Gracie Combatives and Blue Belt Stripe 1 tests. This is a lot of material. Dozens of techniques and their ‘slices’ along the full spectrum of ‘self defence’ to ‘sportive’. The material was familiar to me, but in the way a language I was once fluent in and haven’t used for many years years is familiar.

Portrait from a more innocent time

My coach at Gracie Victor, John Ingallina, has been by my side pushing and pulling me along to my verification since the day I arrived at his door. From Spring 2016 he and I trained together for my BBS1 and his BBS2 exam. We trained intensively for our exams, drilling controls, submissions and counters from mount, sidemount, guard, half-guard, back mount, leg locks and standing. It is a comprehensive and intuitive syllabus though quite overwhelming at the start.

It was a great pleasure to work with John on this. He’s a fantastic training partner and picks things up freakishly fast. He’s a solid grappler and while a lesser person might be threatened by a higher-ranked student, John’s been nothing but encouraging and invested in my progress. This speaks volumes. He’s a deft coach and instructor, far exceeding any experience or expertise I have in those areas. We’ve become fast and true friends; I feel really lucky to train with him and his club.

In early autumn we submitted our examination materials. Proud to say we crushed our exams and sights were now locked on purple belt verification.


The verification process was rigourous and fair. Once I’d passed muster with the Combatives and BBS1 exams, John arranged for a live verification exam with a Gracie Academy black belt. Frack Cucci of Linxx Martial Arts Academy in Virginia Beach made the journey to Western NY for a seminar and a verification exam.

A word on Professor Cucci. He’s tremendous. A former Navy SEAL with over 30 years of martial arts under his belt, he came to jiu jitsu – as did so many – after Royce Gracie’s performance in the early UFC. His instruction is calm and measured and the seminar – a 2 hour session on guard sweeps and a 2 hour session on guillotine mastery – was a delight. His work with military and law enforcement gives a really interesting insight. Technical tweaks for LE in light of cuffing procedures, common circumstances and unique tactical situations, as well as subduing suspects while keeping tasers and sidearms ‘out of the party’ was eye-opening. After 4 hours of a steady drill pace with my training partner, Kyle Bagshaw from Gracie Victor – if you have the opportunity I highly recommend training with him, he just reps, it’s fabulous – it was verification time.

John Ingallina, Meg, Professor Frank Cucci
John Ingallina, Disheveled Meg, Professor Frank Cucci

While in someways a formality – afterall the process leading up to requesting a live verification is quite thorough – the verification exam was legit. I rolled with Frank – gi, no gi and gloves-on – for over an hour. It felt relentless and put my technique, mindset and energy conservation through their paces. It was a bigger challenge than I’d expected in terms of endurance. I really appreciated being taken seriously and given a proper test. I felt valued and respected and not ‘rubberstamped’. Frank’s comments for improvement were helpful as well as hard to hear. The issues that have plagued my jiu jitsu from the get-go persist. In particular, I’m far too hesitant with my offence. On the upside, the feedback was more positive than negative. I have clear areas for improvement and John and my clubmates are by my side to help me address them.

5 years ago, I was out with an ACL reconstruction. Since then, I’ve recovered from a knee op, had a baby, moved overseas and generally shaken things up. Today, I’m close to my pre-natal game. Steps forwards, backwards and forwards again. Here we are jiu jitsu, still dancing, and I am ready to work some new moves with you. Now that we’ve gotten ‘back’, let’s get ‘better’.

Take the Suck Over the Quit

Gentle reader, I know you go through things on and off the mats that make it seem that jiu jitsu just isn’t worth it. And perhaps, for you, it isn’t. But, if you’re here, reading this, then perhaps it is. If not yet, there will come a time when your jiu jitsu faith may be tested. Whether babies or jobs or injury, some wedge will seek to insert itself between you and jiu jitsu. But without jiu jitsu who are ‘you’?

In the words of Hollie McNish:

I lost my name at toddler group. From Hollie, or Hols, or Hollie McNish. I’m now known as so-and-so’s mom. However, the mom isn’t complaining about this loss of her name, as she does the same to others when she says she “got a drink with Izzy’s dad” or “ran into Molly’s gran.” Once a person becomes a parent, they are forever labeled as “mom” or “dad,” that’s just how it goes.

It’s only when the stars are out and everything’s dark that my own name creeps out from under the table and I’m able to remember the person I am, with a hot cup of tea and a book in my hand and a two hour slot to remember my own plans before I turn off the light.

Jiu jitsu is where I live. The ‘me’ apart from work, or family, or money, or my early 40s. It is my spirit, whimsy, vitality, grit, and madness. Without it, I’d be a husk.

Jiu jitsu takes but jiu jitsu gives and gives and gives. With my verification came congratulations from friends old and new and training partners on either side of the Atlantic. While there is no me without jiu jitsu, there is no jiu jitsu without you. We are in this together and as ships on a rising tide we sail together forever part of each others’ journies. In what seem to be dark, uncertain and divided times, that’s pure and that is good. Jiu jitsu is love.

Photo Credits

ACL Operation. Photo by © Meg Smitley.
2011 Portrait. Photo by © Fighters in Focus. Used with permission.
Purple Belt Verification. Photo by © Gracie Victor. Used with permission.