When you’re born and raised in Chile, Pablo Neruda is kind of a big deal.
Wikipedia describes Neruda as a “poet-diplomat,” but for kids in Chile he was a staple of early childhood reading. If you live and Chile and can read, your nose gets buried in Neruda’s writing. My earliest memory of Neruda—and I’m sure I was exposed to him much earlier—is reading silly poems about soups and poems about socks in second grade. This is probably along the lines of Where the Sidewalk Ends for Americans, but Neruda is much more of a cultural icon than Shel Silverstein, and he did a lot more than poetry.
One Neruda quote has stuck with me over the years:
“A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who doesn't play has lost forever the child who lived in him and who he will miss terribly.”
Now when I was young, I thought, “Of course kids should play!” but the closer I get to 30, the more I realize how much I need to play. Jiu-jitsu is my outlet. Whatever stress I carry during the day can be left behind as soon as I step on the mats. I get to focus on learning something new or on perfecting an old technique. I get to be in the moment because if you are distracted on the mat you’ll soon be inside a triangle or mounted.
When my mother was going through chemo and radiation, jiu-jitsu was my sanctuary. For 90 minutes a day, I got to think about armlocks and chokes and nothing else. This kept me sane through the most stressful year of my life. I am not sure what I would do without jiu-jitsu.
But the power of jiu-jitsu goes much deeper. While the mental benefits are huge, I think the physical ones are just as powerful. All of my BJJ friends who are in their 40s and 50s look much younger than their counterparts that don’t train, are in much better health, and move better! Sure, we have our fair share of injuries on the mat, but in BJJ we get to work on our flexibility and mobility, all while playing and having fun.
And learning sweet ninja moves (that goes without saying).
Having daily movement practice is huge. Many people in their 20s can’t touch their toes or hold a squat position, and it gets worse as the age climbs. Through BJJ, we regain whatever mobility we have lost through years of sitting at desks and skipping out on exercise.
Finally, we get to play. Something we lose sight of at times is that BJJ is a game you play with friends. Judokas refer to themselves as judo players, while we many of us choose the fighter moniker instead. While I understand we may be more attracted to the sport competition aspect of BJJ, the reason we keep going back to practice is to play. We win some, we lose some, but we have fun, and have something we look forward to—something that many people lack.
Jiu-jitsu keeps us young by keeping the child inside us happy. As Neruda once said, if we let that child within us fade, our lives will change for the worse. We’ll miss out on some of the purest joys that life has to offer.
So the next time you hit the mat, bring a little bit of Neruda’s spirit with you. Don’t worry if you’re not Chilean. I’ll vouch for you.