Long before I started Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I used to compete in every sport I could at school. I played basketball, football, baseball, soccer, tennis and track. I loved athletics and had tons of great coaches. Of all the instructions I got over years of activity, the only one that stands out to this day came from my father. "Relax," he would say to me during my track races.
A former champion runner, he understood how important it is not to waste unnecessary energy. "Relax" is the first advice I give all my students at Zenyo Jiu Jitsu in Baltimore. Relax. Don't try so hard, don't do so much, don't always try to get it right. Relax.
Acting is easy. Learning to relax while acting, especially if someone is pressuring you in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, is hard. Relaxation is a higher order skill than action. Through it, however, is the path to rapid improvement.
This is the path mapped out by Moshe Feldenkrais, a neuroscientist who studied judo, in his book Awareness Through Movement. The book was first published in America in 1972. According to Moti Nativ, a student of Feldenkrais and also a martial arts instructor, the original name for Feldenkrais' teaching was "The Method to Improve Ability."
This is the method he laid out -- in eight steps -- with quotes from his book.
1. Effective Action Improves The Body and Its Capacity to Act
"The effectiveness of an action is judged first of all by the simple standard fo whether it achieves its purpose. But that test is not sufficient. Action must improve a living body at least to the extent that the same action will be carried out more effectively the next time. For instance, it is possible to tighten a screw with a kitchen knife, but both the knife and the screw will be damaged."
2. Reversibility Is the Mark of Voluntary Movement
A "movement is satisfactory if it is possible to interrupt and reverse it any point, to continue it again in the original direction, or to decide to make some altogether different movement instead."
3. Light and Easy Movements Are Good
"A good deliberate movement is produced when there is no conflict between voluntary control and the body's automatic reaction to gravity, when the two combine and aid each other to perform an action that appears to have been directed by a single center...It is important to learn how to turn strenuous movements into good ones -- that is , into movements that are first of all effective but also smooth and easy."
4. Avoiding Difficulties Establishes Behavioral Norms
"As a general rule, human beings cease to develop or to improve their ability to adjust to circumstances at about thirteen or fourteen years of age. Activities of the brain, emotions and body that are still difficulty or impossible at this age will remain permanently beyond the bounds of the habitual. The result is that man remains far more limited in his capacities than he need be."
5. Use Larges Muscles For The Heavy Work
"For effective movement the heavy work of moving the body must be shifted to the muscles designed for this purpose...In a well-organized body work done by the large muscles is passed on to its final destination through the bones by weaker muscles, but without losing much of its power on the way."
6. Forces Working At An Angle To The Main Path Cause Damage
"Under ideal conditions the work done by the body passes lengthwise through the spine and the bones of the limbs, that is, in something as near to a straight line as possible. If the body forms angles to the main line of action, part of the effort made by the pelvic muscles will not reach the point at which it is directed; in addition, ligaments and joints will suffer damage.
When the force of the large pelvic muscles fails to be transmitted by the skeletal structure through the bones, it becomes difficult to refrain from stiffening the chest in order to permit the directional muscles to perform at least a part of the work that should be done with ease by the pelvic muscles. Good bodily organization makes it possible to carry out most normal action without any feeling of effort or strain."
7. Develop Paths of Ideal Action
"The ideal path of action for the skeleton as it moves from one position to another -- say, from sitting to standing or from lying to sitting -- is the path through it would move if it had no muscles at all."
8. There Is No Limit to Improvement
"The more an individual advances his development the greater will be his ease of action, the ease synonymous with harmonious organization of the senses and the muscles. When activity is freed of tension and superfluous effort the resulting eases makes for greater sensitivity and better discrimination, which make for still greater ease in action. He will now be able to identify unnecessary effort even in actions that formerly seemed easy to him."
John David Emmett is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with an interest in movement and the Feldenkrais method. He teaches at Zenyo Jiu Jitsu in Baltimore.