I laid down on the cold table in my hospital gown that never quite covered the rear end (who designed those silly things anyway?). I felt a wave of panic when the MRI technician said “you need to stay still for twenty minutes”. Ha! How could I move? They strapped my legs and midsection onto the table and told me to draw my arms in tight to my body. As the sliding table moved me into the tight-fitting tube, I knew how the Viet Cong felt when they entered the tunnels of South Vietnam back in the Sixties. My arms felt the cool sides of the tube as it seemed to close in around me, and I knew this was going to be a long twenty minutes.
Claustrophobia in Rio!
But wait a second, I thought…. I have been here before. That first trip to Rio I rolled with black and brown belts. They were very good at holding me in the mounted position. I struggled in the muggy tropical heat not only to escape, but also to breathe. I looked up at the timer and thought to myself, “how am I going to last five more minutes pinned under this 210-pounder with my mouth covered by his sweat-soaked gi? Why did I take up this silly sport? People come to Rio for the sun, surf, pretty women, and relaxation, not this!
Taking myself into the breath
I slowly learned not to panic, and that sooner or later I would either get out (in many cases, I think they felt sorry for me, and let me escape) or tap to their submission. Either way, I learned, I would survive. Life goes on. I learned to breathe slowly, especially the exhales, and turn more onto my side to create space. I built a frame over my chest with my arms to make even more space. The process soon became a mental game as I moved from one escape attempt to another, depending on my opponent’s reaction. Focusing my energy and thoughts on the process of escape reduced the feelings of panic whenever I was trapped under someone.
Back to the MRI
They gave me headphones so I could listen to music during the procedure and a panic button to push, but as the loud thumping of the machine started, I realised the headphones did not work and I was alone in my thoughts…my thoughts! How did prisoners of war handle the feelings of aloneness, panic, and claustrophobia? How did they calm their minds in times of stress? They played mental chess against imaginary opponents, they performed mathematical equations, they wrote music, they recited poetry, all in their minds. It kept them sane.
I started to breathe deeply, just as I was taught in yoga and BJJ. Long exhales, shorter inhales, I took myself into my breath. I began to play human chess. I was caught in a vice-like closed guard and I had to fight my way out of it. I replayed four ways of passing the guard, that Leonardo Xavier showed me. I broke them down into the finest details I knew. I pretended to demonstrate the process to my students, narrating as I went along. Once I passed the guard, I imagined myself in side control, but quickly was swept and ended up in mounted position. I then had to escape. In my mind I went through the step-by-step process of the elbow-knee escape, upa, combination of the two, foot drag, bench press, and two other really cool escapes, one that Eliot Kelly showed me which ended in half guard to sweep, and another that Rodrigo Antunes demonstrated, ending up with me taking a footlock! I managed to free myself from bottom side control in four different ways, including a stiff-arm escape from Henry Cho. As I escaped from bottom half guard using a nifty move from Owen Kee Gee, a state of calm took over. Suddenly the headphones, which surprise, surprise, now worked, blared out “Okay Matt, you’re finished”.
Three years after that first trip to Brazil, I still get a mild sense of panic when pinned, but I know how to deal with it, both mentally and physically. Thank you yoga and BJJ, and thanks to all the great instructors who showed me a most valuable skill–how to relax in an uncomfortable position. You never know when you might need it!