How To Be In The Flow

Bjj Flow
The word has come to mean many things with so many disciplines of movement and martial arts gaining in popularity. It is not without reason. Without venturing into the intricacies of this concept, we all subconsciously connect with it. When things are going smooth and we are rolling with the changes and at the same time able to hold our own ground, it is closest to the state of flow that we can achieve. The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi was the first to coin the term ‘flow’ to describe a mental state where the person performing a task is fully immersed in it and enjoying every moment of it. Achieving a flow in BJJ is nothing but a special subset of this state.

A few things that characterize flow rolling in BJJ:

  • You don’t cling to a position for dear life if it’s not working out for you. You transition regardless of your preferences.
  • Submission free flow rolling can be used as a tool to detect the positions where you freeze while you try very hard to get a submission. Normally being stuck means you give away positional advantage to your opponent as you battle for submission attempts. Instead you keep moving. If it means opening your guard to try something new, go for it.
  • The struggle is kept to a bare minimum. Again, continuous movement is the key.
  • The exploratory mindset will open up new transition and submission pathways that you wouldn’t have imagined otherwise. Flow rolling will help you develop your unique style of game.

Essentials of flow in BJJ

Rickson Gracie talks about Flow from the famous 1994 documentary film, Choke:

Timing – Know that you can not do anything of your desire unless the timing is right. No one wants to give you an arm for you to comfortably perform an armbar. You have to wait for the opponent to give you something in terms of a push, countertechnique – anything that gets him to respond.

Don’t prefer certain positions over others – The whole drama of struggle and panic begins here. You fear losing a position as you don’t have the knowledge of what happens next. Definitely a disadvantage if you are a competitive BJJ guy as you will definitely face someone who is stronger or better than you who can force you to lose position. So use flow rolling sessions to get over the fear of uncertain positions and instead continue moving. You’ll surprise yourself when you find new ways of submissions and transitions.

Speed – Once you sense you have an opportunity, seize it immediately. This is the paradox of martial arts. You appear detached and calm but by the end you have managed to completely immobilize the opponent. Vice versa and perhaps more importantly, also have the agility to change your movement if the previous strategy didn’t work out. Crap happens, move on immediately.

Quality of touch – This is one of the most subtle of all skills and differentiates a master from thousand of other black belts. It is something that Rickson Gracie has termed the “invisible Jiu Jitsu”. Your contact with your partner or opponent should not be one that communicates nervous, jerky, shaky and anxious qualities. Otherwise psychologically you have already given the upper hand to your opponent and it’s a matter of time before the fear gets better of you and you lose one of the three above – timing, position or speed and be defeated. In a real life violent situation, this can be your biggest asset as a criminal or thug is used to such reactions from their prey and any break from this pattern can turn the odds in your favor of getting away unharmed.

Unfailing energy reserves – Going further up the subtlety scale, you gain the ability to monitor and use your energy reserves wisely through a long rolling session. For someone whose priority is conserving energy and vitality, the concept of flow becomes easy to understand as he cuts out all forms of unnecessary movement that don’t lead anywhere.

Now watch Bruno Malfacine amaze you with his wizardry over flowing and you will notice each of the above aspects perfectly demonstrated. Definitely an example to emulate:

BJJ Flow Drills

To begin with, you must be smooth and fluid in your solo movements than anything else. There is no special training needed for this except the ability to let go and move as your body and mind wish to. Feel free to do any movement you might have learned from any possible source, be it shrimping, hip escapes, rolls from BJJ or tumbling and falling from a gymnastic background – it is your own story. Take a look at Rickson’s way of working out. Observe the movements come from a place of relaxed aggression are not forced. He is just giving in to the flow of his body and the momentum and gravity and everything else that comes along with it!

If you are still finding your feet in BJJ, Jason Scully has a great resource in this video where you will find an exhaustive collection of solo movements in BJJ. Rinse and repeat, till that moment where everything clicks together and you get into the special zone of flow Rickson talks about.

You can replace a live partner with a heavy bag to work on your sprawls, mount, side mount, scarf hold and guard game. Treat drills on a bag as a boxer would treat his shadowboxing. Imagine the bag is a live opponent who is heavier and stronger than you. Then you can work on speed, agility and endurance with the right mindset.

A stability ball introduces even more challenges to your flow drills. It doesn’t offer a single point of resistance against your weight so it simulates a live resisting partner quite well in absence of one.

When working with a partner, choose any normal drill that you would do like mount => back take => armbar from rear mount. But now you have to add in the quality of flow.

  • If you or your partner or both lack experience and mutual understanding when it comes to flowing, begin by keeping grips and submission attempts to zero. This is specially important for Gi practitioners as the Gi offers too many opportunities to tie up and strangle that increases the potential for struggles and deadlocked positions, completely defeating the purpose of flow drilling.
  • Only after you have overcome the primitive tendency to struggle and hold on to just about anything for dear life, now add in the grips and submissions but with the intention to keep moving and not get stuck. This means you won’t be wasting a minute to set up elaborate collar and pistol grips for a submission and instead work with whatever you have at that moment. No-Gi BJJ naturally lends itself to such a flow practice.

Watch this video for a demonstration of these two strategies for flow drilling”

What is the point of drilling ‘flow’ separately? I better work on my techniques.

To put it in brief, the point of all flow drills is to give you the experience in overcoming your ego and pride and continue moving despite crippling emotions that tend to put you into an unfocused state. The irony of martial arts is that when you put 100% of your concentration in your mind, the senses and the body, you become more relaxed and fluid. Unless you have already reprogrammed your neurology through drills to not flinch and relax instead of stressing out, they will be the default behaviors you fall back upon in times of distress.

Be water, my friend!

“Here is the natural instinct and here is control. You are to combine the two in harmony.”

“Running water never goes stale, you gotta just keep on flowing.”

“A good martial artist is like water. You can not grasp water, you can not punch it and hurt it. Water is shapeless and formless. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

Excerpts from Bruce Lee’s lost interview:

When it comes to martial arts, the philosophy of flow can be pretty much summed up in what Bruce Lee says. Generations and lineages of East Asian and Indian martial arts have gone into massive depths of “going with the flow” and reduction of effort and struggle to achieve something. Like Taoism from China has a concept called “wu wei”, action that is so effortless and in harmony with everything that it appears as if no action was taken. In Yoga this is called ‘Kaivalya”, suspension of all effort and struggle even though we continue to exist and fight.

A beautiful example of this is the martial art of Aikido. It is not a traditional martial art as in it doesn’t hail back to the battlefield or martial dynasties. Morihei Ueshiba founded this martial art after a lifetime of experience with fighting arts that were aggressive as well as soft and apparently harmless. While many of the joint locks and throws are derived from Daito Ryu Aiki Jujutsu, the circular and flowing aspects of footwork and using the force of the opponent against themselves are said to be a result of his journey to China where he came across Baguazhang and other Chinese internal martial arts.

Aikido can be literally translated as the way or the art to connect with the life force or energy that flows through the universe. Without going into too much metaphysics, let us take a look at it how this is applied directly to combat.

Formally in Aikido practice, the attacker is termed Uke. Along with attacking, he is also expected to receive the technique back from his partner with the right spirit and attitude. The person responding to an attack and applying the technique is termed Tori. The tori never directly aggravates and instead lets the uke initiate and gain momentum with his attack. This is where things get interesting as the tori blends in with the movement of uke instead of opposing it. Now it becomes easier to apply any kind of nage(throw) or joint lock as both uke and tori have become one physical system but with two different intents. Even BJJ uses this philosophy without explicit mention, for example, when you go for a cross-body armbar from the full mount. The arm can be secured only if the bottom person starts pushing the other trying to get him off. This upwards push is translated to a quick change in direction by the top person where he instead wraps his legs around the secured arm and uses gravity and his weight to fall to the side and hyperextend the elbow joint.

Just like water doesn’t resist any incoming force right away, you also gain that confidence as you start practicing your flow in BJJ. The principles noted above will hold you in good stead in any martial art and even life and help you to develop your own rhythm and dictate the direction of any situation. The right practice will put you into a state of mind above the ordinary population where satisfaction and bliss is the only way of life. Anything less won’t appeal to you any more.

Morihei Ueshiba does not move till the time is right and when he moves it is as if he was not there:

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