I was talking to a fellow teammate and his wife at a party and was part of this conversation (its paraphrased because this happened a couple of weeks ago).
Teammate: I’ve been doing yoga recently to increase my flexibility for jiu jitsu!
Teammate’s wife: You haven’t been doing yoga, you’ve been stretching. They’re different.
Teammate: What? How are they different? I’m using a yoga mat.
Teammate’s wife: Just because you’re using a yoga mat does not make it yoga. Yoga involves more, like specific poses and breathing exercises.
Teammate: I breathe while stretching.
I don’t think my teammate left the conversation with any greater understanding of the difference between stretching and yoga. But what is the difference? And does the difference matter?
I believe the difference between yoga and stretching can be summed up in one word: mindfulness.
But that word alone does not really explain the differences. I think mindfulness shows up in yoga as intention, awareness, and acceptance. You can get the same flexibility benefits from stretching as from yoga, but I believe because of mindfulness, yoga has more benefits to your jiu jitsu game to offer.
What is your goal when you stretch? Usually its to increase flexibility so you can have a better guard or not get tapped from the banana split or something similar. Maybe its because you held onto that triangle a little too long and your hamstring is cramping or you burned out your grip during a competition and your forearms feel like fire. Or maybe you just see people stretching before class and thinks its something you should do too.
Yoga isn’t about becoming more flexible. The goal of yoga is to take care of your body, be present in the moment, and personal growth. This helps your jiu jitsu by helping you recover from and accept injuries. Being present in the moment allows you to pay attention while drilling, rolling, or listening to your coach explain the Americana for the thousandth time.
Paying attention while drilling makes you a better partner because you’re actually responding to your training partner in a realistic way rather than thinking about something else entirely. Being mindful during rolling allows you to relax, think about your body, and remember your rolls to analyze them later. Paying attention to your coach teaching a move you know well will allow you to pick up details you didn’t see before – whether your coach explicitly mentions them or if he just does something automatically. Which all lead to your goal of using yoga to be better at jiu jitsu.
Stretching requires no specific focus. Sure, you’re probably trying to get deeper into the stretch without hurting yourself but you could be talking or reading or watching Roy Harris dissect the stack pass.
Yoga emphasizes awareness of your breath, where your body is tense, and your thoughts. By focusing on your breath you can use your patterns of breathing to move deeper into stretches or relax a tense muscle that is preventing you from getting into a pose. When you think about what your body is doing you can realize what part of you is holding you back from or is telling you to back off a stretch.
By noticing your thoughts you can evaluate what’s going on in your head. Is your goal really to touch your toes or is it to be better at jiu jitsu? Forcing the stretch will not help your jiu jitsu so you can be more content with a less impressive looking stretch that will actually help your game.
How does awareness help your jiu jitsu? Practicing awareness in yoga can help you be more aware of your own body. If you are used to paying attention to where your body is in space, you can use this in your rolls. Where is your partner putting pressure on you? Where are you tense on bottom of sidebody? Is that actually helping you? Would it be more effective to relax something?
Noticing your breath can be surprisingly helpful for jiu jitsu. I see many people hold their breath during a tough roll. Or there’s a guy at my gym who precedes all of his explosive movements with three quick deep breaths – which tips off his partner that something is about to happen. Slow controlled breath can also help with anger management. Jiu jitsu can sometimes get people hot blooded. Just slowing down and taking a few deep breaths can help you calm down, remember that jiu jitsu is just a game we play, and be a good partner.
Everyone has bad days in jiu jitsu. And some days its hard to remember that we’re in jiu jitsu for the long haul, not to win against our teammates. Sitting with yourself quietly during yoga forces you to really look at yourself and accept yourself – whether its accepting that you’re not quite ready to do some fancy pose or accepting that a lower ranked person tapped you.
There’s immense value to both yoga and stretching. If you aren’t interested in yoga and just want to improve your flexibility, I hope you pursue stretching. And the benefits of yoga can be gained without doing yoga – meditation or just practicing mindfulness will give you similar benefits. Yoga can sometimes feel inaccessible, particularly if you don’t fit the stereotype. But yoga does not require mysticism, chanting, or sanskrit. Yoga is for everyone and can benefit even jiu jitsu players. Oss and namaste 🙂