By Deborah Brancic
Women in the martial arts have recently come to the forefront – most notably, when Kayla Harrison, 22, of Ohio, won the U.S. the gold medal in Judo at the summer Olympics last year. For women in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood who wish to explore this world themselves, there is finally a place that is both local and easily accessible, with a focus on educating women. JP has a new Brazilian Jiu Jitsu studio, Mass Bay BJJ on Centre Street, which is working to attract women to the sport.
Mass Bay BJJ is the only jiu jitsu studio in JP, according to Al Bibeau, the studio’s head instructor. Recruiting women to learn jiu jitsu, a traditionally male sport, is one of the missions he has set out to accomplish. For those who want to learn, he offers what few other studios do: a women’s-only class to practice jiu jitsu, with a female assistant instructor for the “comfort factor.”
Jiu jitsu is a martial art which consists of submission holds, joint manipulation, and the use of leverage to create space between opponents. The art calls for participants to use their legs and arms to trap various body parts in a tight grip and roll on top of one another to pin opponents. To the untrained eye, it can resemble the American sport of wrestling, with two opponents grappling on the floor. This visual misconception may make some students uncomfortable with co-ed training, especially if their partners act immature.
“Anyone can learn the martial arts,” said Lucy Montgomery, who began training in jiu jitsu when she was 40. “The class will get you into shape while you’re learning the techniques.” All the drills the instructors run in class are sport-specific, she said, and they are techniques that will matter in the long run.
Montgomery, 52, a history teacher at Brighton High, has been training with Bibeau and Dr. David Shim, another instructor at the studio, for 12 years. As assistant instructor, she takes her position seriously. Montgomery went over two different hand grips with her students, the four-finger grip and the pistol grip, as she demonstrated how to “shrimp” their way out of a hold. Shrimping involves rolling onto one’s side while pushing off the opponent with both hands and feet. “We make them work both sides so as they progress they don’t have a hole in their game,” she said.
It’s a tough class, according to Bibeau. Female students tend to enroll for different reasons than men, he said. Most women are looking for stress relief, whereas men are more likely to train for competition. “Down the road they can take it wherever they wanna go with it,” said Bibeau. He introduces jiu jitsu as a form of self-defense, recruiting some members of the studio who attended a free self-defense class offered on the weekend. Bibeau believes the art will improve the lives of his students in many ways.
“Everyone has their own personal reasons why they wanna do it,” said Bibeau, and he hoped his students were “getting out of jiu jitsu what you want from it.” According to him, the art increases confidence, coordination, and concentration, relieves stress, and provides many other benefits for everyday life.
“I want to move to JP now,” said Jennifer Tisdell of Malden, an accountant who also volunteers at the Jamaica Plain MSPCA. She said she wanted to be closer to the studio because she was taking several courses there, including karate, jiu jitsu, and self-defense. Tisdell said she had previously practiced yoga, and the classes at BJJ have helped with the stresses of her work life.
Maria Santiago of Norwood, a bank teller, also appreciated the de-stressing factor of jiu jitsu training. She said she has three kids she needs to pick up from school, and having learned self-defense in the class, she feels more comfortable walking home on late nights. Santiago said she enjoys learning jiu jitsu and hopes the moves she learned so far are working their way into her muscle memory.
The added benefits of stress relief and self-confidence are some things women consider important, and Bibeau felt the best way to introduce them to the sport was to provide them with a comfortable learning environment, where they could practice freely with other women. “I give them the option to do it. I want them to eventually join the other class,” he said. The other class is an integrated class where both men and women can practice together.
Bibeau said there are currently about three students who attend the women’s class regularly, and a few more he expects to enroll from his self-defense class, which is offered every Saturday at noon. Presently, Bibeau said the studio has about 40 students registered, and he is hoping for more. “A lot of social workers come in,” he said. They show up mostly for the self-defense course, and “they need it for stress relief, they have to deal with a lot of people.” This class is a way to get people interested in training, said Bibeau. The curriculum cycles through 20 classes, so students can join whenever they want and attend however frequently.
Bibeau opened the studio in January with Shim, his business partner and a former karate instructor at the West Roxbury YMCA. Between the two of them, they have over 40 years’ experience teaching the martial arts. Shim has a ninth degree black belt in GoJuRu, of Okinawa, and a brown belt in jiu jitsu. Bibeau has a one stripe black belt in the Gracie jiu jitsu belt system. Montgomery has a blue belt in jiu jitsu.
Bibeau said he plans to start offering Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) classes, and he eventually wants to develop a competition team. There are about 1 or 2 competitions in Massachusetts every year for the sport. Bibeau also wants to start holding classes on Sundays, currently the only day the studio is closed.