David Bowie’s Jiu-Jitsu Paradox

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The martial arts are filled with paradoxes. And recently I’ve been considering how paradoxical life is, as an older, more mature person – or a person who’s working on maturing well. It seems that many of life’s “gray areas” have now become the norm. What I once was very dogmatic about, I now see that there’s another side to things.

I’m probably the one who’s late to the party, but I’ve also started seeing that there are lots and lots of paradoxes in Jiu-Jitsu – things that conflict with one another but have to be reconciled in the practitioner’s mind.


Bowie’s greatest gift was giving people permission to be different. Jiu-Jitsu does the same thing.

I recently spoke to a friend about David Bowie’s death. He said he felt that in the 70s and 80s, Bowie was the first person to make it OK to be different. And in a lot of ways, Jiu-Jitsu makes it OK to be different. It gives us the power to be secure in our in our own lives.

So the paradox for us in Jiu-Jitsu, and I believe in the martial arts, is that we can’t actually explore what it is to be different or to find different techniques unless we understand the basics very well.

We say this in the classroom all the time – it’s not your job as a martial arts student to prove your teacher wrong. A lot of us come in and oppose the teacher for whatever reason, as an intellectual exercise or something else. With this “Yeah but…” approach, we try to go from point A to point Z, jumping past the conflicting viewpoints and difficult friction-points that allow us to explore our differences, whether in technique or in our lives.

So one of the paradoxes is that we have to prove our teacher right. We have to deeply understand these basic lessons before we’ve earned the right to deeply understand the differences.

And I think that that’s the point. For you to deeply understand the toehold and the ankle lock and the heel hook, you have to deeply understand the knee-elbow escape, the bump and roll, the pump handle escape. In other words, the real basics of Jiu-Jitsu. Otherwise, at some point, you fall flat.

And as people, our challenge is to develop breadth as well as depth, because lots of life happens on the horizontal axis. That’s why Bowie is still relevant, even after his death – he’s a good reminder that if we want to shift, adapt and change, we have to understand the foundations and fundamentals about who we are. That’s what lets us move forward.

Bowie’s greatest gift was giving everyone permission to be a little different. As practitioners, when we develop ourselves in this way, we get a chance to express difference also. We can be unique, because we understand our origins. And we give others permission to do it as well.

For more about our larger project of cooperative Jiu-Jitsu and martial arts training, visit the Brooklyn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (Brooklyn BJJ) website here.

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  1. Mario Lazzaroni

    As a fan of David Bowie I LOVED this piece – thank you Shihan and Prof. Glick for the wonderful reflection. OSS from Nairobi. Mario

  2. Herman Petsche

    Thank You Shihan Dunn and Proofessor Glick. I grew up listening to David Bowie (my favorite song is Heroes). This article is truly spot on and I can identify with what Bowie was and what he was expressing at that time now later in my life to a far greater degree than when I was younger.

    Life’s experiences, the challenges and victories along with the Journey to Black Belt have had a powerful positive impact on my perspective in dealing with life on and off the mat. Oss!

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