Learning to Let Go: Lessons From Royler Gracie

Published on by Samantha Faulhaber

Photo: Mike Calimbas

“It’s like training with a ghost.”

That’s how I always describe what it’s like to train with Royler Gracie. I had the privilege of managing his academy for just over a year (10/10-2/12) and as such was privy to Helio Gracie’s legendary son whenever he was in town. I got to train with him on at least a few occasions.

“Every time you start to move he reads it and goes the other way. There’s just this thing floating around you that you can’t quite make a grip on and then suddenly you’re being choked.”

That was my experience as a purple belt anyway. I don’t imagine I’d do much better now, black belt or not.

I aspire to train like a ghost. Being smaller and only recently working on my strength, I can’t count on controlling a lot of people with my muscles anyway. Above all this means that I’m cultivating the skill of letting go.

All the cool kids are doing it. Yogis, zen masters, Buddhists, Royler… When you hold tight to things it not only stops them, it stops you. Progress comes from giving yourself the freedom to change positions.

Literal Holding

It’s easy to see the problem with defensive holding. When someone is lying on top of you in a martial art that doesn’t allow striking, literally clinging on to them is the opposite of creating room to escape. Stalling offensively is often less obvious, but controlling somebody with positioning and strength is still focusing all your energy on staying in one place. We can’t move until we let go, but we don’t want to let go because we feel we have something good. I feel that training like a true “ghost” (which is a thing I guess I’m officially making up and defining here) is more like a dance with a partner. The other person is moving freely, but so are you, just a hair’s breadth ahead and increasingly dominant until a submission lands in your lap. Changing position changes what the other person has to do to react which can create a possible opportunity for what the end-goal always is – submission. By holding on tightly we trade a chance at something better for a feeling of security.

I would argue that holding tight stops us from developing valuable reaction times that will help lead to these good places in the first place. If you’re afraid to move, chances are when finally you do you’ll be a half beat behind. The wider variety of movements you are familiar with and can handle, the better.

When training with Royler I’m sure he used quite a bit of pressure in all the right places, but my lasting memory is that of a whirling thing that scarcely seemed to touch me. I want to reach that level of ‘mind reader’. Strategically I’m sure there will be places to hold and be heavy. But flowing is so much fun.

Mindset Pt 1

The words “should” and “supposed to” are an educational hindrance. As soon as I start thinking either of them it means that I’m complaining and being upset that I didn’t get my way. “I’m supposed to be able to beat so-and-so” or “I should be able to sweep him/her.” Nothing is a gift, and it discounts the person on the other end of things. What is, is and what happens, happens. This time it’s clinging to an idea that’s the problem. I need to reread this paragraph about once a month. Allow yourself to fail and you open up a world of possibilities.


Mindset Pt 2

Another Royler-ism I suspect he’s shared at many seminars is the way being on the mats help you let go of your everyday stresses. Environmental change as simple as going for a walk is a commonly recommended stress reliever (and why many of us go on vacations). Royler’s version goes something like this, “Maybe you’re sick, or tired, or you had an argument with your girlfriend, but you go to the academy anyway just to watch. So you sit on the side of the mats and cross your arms and your legs and make a face. But soon you are watching the training and you start to smile a little bit, and then somebody makes a joke, and you forget about the fight with your girlfriend and start to have a little fun.” Something like that. He also reminisced about the simplicity of tying a belt around a gi and walking down to the academy. For the time that you’re there, it’s the only thing that matters. If you can’t leave your outside stresses behind when you’re training you’re going to suffer. Think of it as a haven and that attitude will carry you through the doors. When you’re done training you may have a fresh perspective. If somehow the experience of training becomes a stressor for you on a regular basis it’s time to let go and let yourself take a night off. Or a week. Or longer. The comfort you can take is that the gym will always be there for you when you can have fun again.

And if you never want to train again, let yourself move on too. Doing things you don’t want to do won’t make you happy. Hopefully the mats are something you hold on to for a long time because they are in fact good for you.