Among the many things I thought I’d pursue in life (there weren’t many, to begin with), martial arts is something that I never thought I’d practice. I was never good at sports and never passionately followed any professional sports. Sure, I have a competitive spirit, and I did try competing in athletics and games like basketball, cricket, and football. Still, I never did end up doing well in any of those. I was pretty aloof as a child, always lost in my own thoughts and imagination – which means I didn’t know what it was to be a team player. That affected everything, from my relationships with my family and friends to my interactions with my school peers in class and on the playground.
Misunderstandings defined my interactions, and I always ended up on the wrong side of conversations or being judged. To make things worse, I grew up an angry kid because I was constantly exposed to it. That didn’t help my case, especially when people realized that it was easy to trigger me. I was an easy target for bullies, but I often stood up for myself whenever I could. However, I lost my fighting ability when my dad kicked my ass for almost hitting an Arab kid with a cricket bat once, because that kid and his group of friends picked a fight with us as they wanted to play football on the turf we were playing cricket on. The memory of that ass-whooping by my dad always made me shy away from fights and take the ‘high road’.
I was a bag of heavy emotions without the ability to healthily process anything, and I just went about thinking that life is such and that there’s no way out. Winners will always win, and the rest of us will sit and wonder what’s so wrong with or about us. This doesn’t mean I didn’t have friends or that I was utterly devoid of peer interaction. My ‘friends’ were initially ‘losers’ themselves who were either bullied or oblivious to the fact that they were outliers. Later in my teenage years, my ‘friends’ were delinquent, social rejects, always causing trouble and getting into fights.
Even though I grew up with a lot of angst – lonely and sorrowful, I had a pretty privileged upbringing, but I had my fair share of incidents that would later encourage me to learn how to fight. Overall, I never had to struggle to put a roof over my head, food on the table, or have savings for the future. However, the land I grew up in was strange and had all these strict laws for immigrants, making it hard to have any kind of real freedom, at home or otherwise. It was a peculiar utopian society, come to think about it (I’m probably exaggerating, it’s pretty normal for most people living there or otherwise), filled with people of all kinds from different cultures and backgrounds. However, people like me, the general middle class from South Asia, had to watch ourselves as any kind of trouble would spell immediate deportation. In that country, if you get into trouble, your sponsor gets into trouble. My father sponsored my mother, brother, and me. This meant that I could not express myself freely or fight back when the situation required me to, even if I was cornered by 7 kids all at once, even when my ‘friend’ sucker punched me and KO’d me stiff because he was drunk (I had to lie to my father that I fell on my face because my face was bruised for 2 straight weeks).
I had all kinds of issues growing up; fixations, angst, confusion, sorrow, and self-pity. Most people go through life without realising that they can gain a bit of self-awareness to fix the plethora of problems plaguing their short lives. Many people let themselves get swept away by the waves thrown at them by life without really taking control of the rudder and steering themselves through shaky waters. The main reason, I think, for this is fear. It could be the fear of anything; fear of pain, fear of trauma, fear of being singled out, fear of bullies, fear of confrontation, fear of stigma, fear of sorrow, fear of life, and fear of change itself… It takes a degree of exploration and courage to overcome fear. Even then, not everyone ends up on the course that they had initially intended for themselves.
To my advantage, I didn’t know what course I was on, to begin with. Being aloof has its perks, as it allows you to make mistakes and gain a lot of hindsight knowledge. Many of the people I knew growing up, who followed formulaic patterns in their lives, have ended up becoming pretty one-note and unoriginal. School and college heroes have drifted into oblivion and obscurity. The occasional social media post of them (and their new families) reminds me of how lucky I am to have found these pursuits in life that will keep me busy for the next 20 to 30 years, at least.
I picked up the bass guitar in my teenage years and immediately started playing for a band without even knowing how to play correctly. I wanted to be like Cliff Burton at the time, I remember. Nirvana appealed to my aloof, ‘generally angry at the world’ world-view, and Opeth gave me a foundation of the kind of music I eventually wanted to play someday. All through my teens to early adulthood, from 15 to 21, I wanted to become a ‘musician in life’. I wanted to live, breathe and sleep music. As you grow up, however, you realize how fickle these ‘dreams’ can be. It doesn’t matter how meaningful or original your music is – if you don’t blow your own trumpet and ‘market yourself the right way’, you’re already ‘losing’. You realize that the ‘scene’ is filled with a lot of noise, colors, and characters that can distract you from the ‘real thing’, the real thing being the purity of the music itself. My experiences with musicians taught me that it’s essential to separate the art from the artists and that it is okay to worship the art and not the artist. At the end of the day, artists are people, and people f**k up all the time.
I experienced a real crash at age 21 (The age where you’re supposed to glow up and ‘live life to the fullest’). A quarter-life crisis was dawning on me in the form of a disease which was festering within me for a long time. I was in the most toxic mind-space I had ever been in, and all the trauma that was locked away in my vault of repression started trickling out – like a dam that was ready to burst open. I was knee-deep in all kinds of abuse; substance abuse, emotional and mental abuse. I developed severe trust issues and borderline paranoia. It was weird because I was in this mind space where I was trading my sanity for the ability to play any tune that popped up in my head. I was getting good at my instrument, but at the cost of becoming an a**hole.
By this time, I had moved countries to India and was living here for 4 years. I hadn’t addressed the culture shock I had experienced 4 years prior or the heartbreak I had carried back with me when I moved countries. I got a college degree (that I don’t use). I did everything by the book to pursue my dreams of being a musician, only to end up hating musicians and not playing a single tune for a very long time. I thought I had lost myself entirely and that I wasn’t cut out to do great things in life. My parents were afraid they’d lose me, so they had me consult a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with mild to moderate bipolarity and put me on pills.
The pills didn’t help; they only helped me be less depressed about being utterly useless. I had to do something. The end was dawning upon me; all hope was out of the window. On one of my last trips visiting my father in my previous home abroad, while I was on one of my evening runs (which would last 2 minutes at a time because I was unfit and a bit pudgy. I would walk the rest of the way), I asked myself, “Rahil, why are you such a p*ssy in life? Why are you such a coward who runs away from everything? Why are you such a loser who can’t do anything right?”. I took one look around at the place that I had grown up in, and all the memories started flooding in. Memories of all the ass-whoopings, the beat-downs, the confrontations, the betrayal, the losing out on social situations, the awkward moments, and other such painful memories that I had experienced growing up, started rushing back. At that moment, I had to decide; continue living in denial of myself and live a lie – or do something about my situation as soon as I was back home from my retreat.
Coincidentally, around the same time, an old friend of mine told me that he had been taking Jiu Jitsu lessons at this place, far off from where I used to live at the time. I vividly remember him telling me how he wasn’t afraid of the average dude no matter how big that person was, and I was absolutely intrigued.
When I got back to Bangalore, I signed up for MMA classes at this local gym, which fancied themselves Bruce Lee aficionados. The training was pretty basic; the head instructor (Sifu is what he called himself) was a state Karate champion. The techniques were shoddy, and sparring was at 100%. At the time, I thought I was getting tough, but really, I had no business even being there. I got beat up quite a bit in the beginning, but I stuck with basic technique. I’d practice 50 jabs, 50 jab-crosses, and 50 roundhouse kicks on both sides as part of my warm-up. Incidentally, when I got introduced to grappling (or ‘beejayjay’ as they called it), I got very fascinated with the idea of taking a bigger person down and beating them up. I started doing American Football style tackles, or WWE Goldberg’s finishing move – ‘the Spear’, where I would duck, grab their legs, and launch myself into the air, slamming them onto the mats. I even learned a shitty armbar from the mount position in my time there.
Like all shitty people, this local gym also turned out to be a tad bit shady for me. The head instructor got me into a conversation with him about me starting my MMA journey 4 months into my training, which was actually a garb for his true intentions. He wanted to convince me into lending him a sum of INR 50,000 in return for all access training at his ‘beautiful’ facility (which had pictures of GSP and Brock Lesner, and marble flooring). He said that he needed the money to convert his facility into a ‘crossfit space with state-of-the-art equipment’. Now, at the time, I was vulnerable and naive, but I wasn’t stupid. I had been conned by enough people over a lifetime to fall prey to a proposition such as this. I still couldn’t say no to his face, so I said that I’d think about it.
This was the push I needed to explore the other institute that my friend was training at. I went for a trial class, traveling over 20 kilometers from where I used to stay. My first class got me hooked. I hadn’t come across such elite-level training before. Most of the members at this academy were fine physical specimens who spoke well and seemed self-aware enough. In my first trial session, I realized that this was the place I needed to be in. I wasn’t going to go back to the previous academy. I wasn’t even going to inform them that I was leaving. I know it’s a dick move, but I wasn’t going to let myself be emotionally blackmailed into paying some random person a large sum of money in exchange for shitty training and shittier training partners.
The new Jiu Jitsu academy where I took the trial class was my home and I knew it even before I paid the membership fees. This institute was around 20 kilometers away from where I was staying at the time. The distance didn’t matter; the training did. My addictive personality found something that could elevate me. At that point, I was holding onto it for dear life. At that point, I knew that this was everything I ever needed to fix myself and start my journey towards self-healing and self-realization. I spent the next 5 years traveling 40 kilometers (two ways), training about 2 to 3 times a week, and ‘becoming a badass’.
The positive changes in my life were gradual, and I would never let myself fall back into a degenerative state ever again. I was going to use this martial art to help myself and my friends. Since then, I’ve helped recruit many members into the academy, one of whom has become a full-time competitor who regularly beats my ass and humbles me. Perhaps the most defining moments about martial arts training, apart from the character-building for me, were two things; my Karate Kid moment and competition.
My Karate Kid moment happened about a year and a half into my training. Long story short, I called some dude a ‘motherf**cker’ for cutting me off in traffic and almost getting me into an accident while I was on my way to my 3rd day of graduate school. This fellow can be described as a typical vagabond who probably beats his wife in a drunken stupor (This last statement is part of my imagination so take it with a grain of salt).
He flagged me down, got off his bike, and immediately grabbed my bike keys from the keyhole as soon as I deboarded my bike. At this point, two things happened. First, I felt my senses heighten ever so slightly (for the first time in 7 years or so – my fight responses kicking) where I told myself that I was going to get my keys back by any means necessary. Second, I remembered my first ever lesson in Jiu Jitsu class, where we were taught to keep our hands stretched out in a confrontational situation, to give an impression to the aggressor that you’re trying to diffuse the situation. In reality, however, I was getting ready to close the gap, grab this fool and take his ass to the ground.
He swung his helmet at me, and I immediately ducked, closed the gap, got a tight body-lock, lifted one leg, tripped the other, and slammed him onto the ground. I proceeded to mount him, prevented him from getting up by using my forearm as a frame on his neck, and clocked him in the jaw twice. At this point, adrenaline was pumping through me and I was going to continue hitting him before someone pulled me off using my backpack.
At that moment, we were surrounded by 15 or 20 onlookers. Somebody asked me what had happened and when I mentioned that this guy had taken my keys, I saw them drop to the ground. I looked up and saw the guy who had swung at me, back away in the crowd. I looked to the left, and a cop was standing there watching the drama. I told him, “I don’t have time for this, I have to get to college.”, picked up my keys, jammed them into my bike, started the ignition and rode away. That incident shook me a bit but I couldn’t help but think to myself, “This shit, legit, works”. Whatever little training I had until that point had been vindicated by this incident. I was never going to stop training in life, I decided. I was never going to be a victim again.
Competition was the other aspect of training that really helped build my character. I’m no competitor by any means; there are people out there training full time (6 to 8 hours a day) to compete professionally. However, I will compete and get into that mindset whenever I get the opportunity. It’s a great way of disciplining yourself in preparation for high-pressure problem-solving, on the mats and in life. My mentality in a competition scenario is this, ‘Win, lose or draw; I’m going to f**king fight.
I’m not in this to seek guts, fame, or glory, or to be a badass and pump my chest about being a tough guy. I’m in this because Jiu Jitsu provides the essential therapy and character building I need in life. Fitness gyms and bodybuilding never appealed to me. I believe in lifting weights to supplement my training and not obsess over six-pack abs.
I’m doing much better than I ever did in life, and I’m not even close to achieving my goals, but I’m on the right path and have some direction in life. I can’t say this enough, and will probably never stop saying it but; Jiu Jitsu (and martial arts) saved my life, saved me from myself, and helped me grow into myself. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but this is a good start.
If you’re in a bad place or are facing some sort of crisis that is crushing you from the inside, give martial arts a try. If you want to transform yourself from an absolute loser to someone who’s confident and competitive enough, take up Jiu Jitsu. I promise you, you won’t regret it.
Rahil Ahmed is a writer by profession and musician by passion. He’s a student of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under Rohit Vasudevan, head Coach and Founder at the Institute of Jiu Jitsu.