When the Gracies’ 1st cultivated Brazilian Jiu Jitsu did they ever think it would reach as far as it has? The art can now be found in almost every country around the globe including far off places like Kazikstan. Although Jiu jitsu wasn’t introduced in Kazakhstan until 2008, it is growing fast. It should come as no surprise that in a country known for having conservative and traditional gender roles it is much less common to find women training. However a few brave women have stood up against the adversary and are leading the way for generations to come.
Meet Aigerim Toleukhanova- she is a 24-year-old blue belt training in London at Roger Gracie’s Academy. What makes her story interesting is that she is part of the jiu jitsu movement in her country, which is Kazakhstan. Aigerim originally started training jiu jitsu in her hometown of Almaty, Kazakhstan, at Checkmat Academy, just 4 years ago in 2014. When Aigerim began training, the highest ranking student in her country was a purple belt.
It was Aigerim’s coach, Mr. Bek Ali Yerzha, who first introduced jiu jitsu to her.
“He was a professor in my university and during his classes he would occasionally tell us about wrestling and jiu jitsu,” Aigerim explained. “At first, I was not interested at all, but then I decided that I want to just see how it looks like.”
When Aigerim’s female friend from the university invited her to jiu jitsu class, she was excited that another female trained, and she took her first no gi class.
“I think what made me interested in jiu jitsu is that I did not understand anything. I did not understand how I could defend myself from a choke, why I got swept, etc., so it was a pure curiosity,” she said.
The classes for women were free at that time, in hopes of promoting the sport among women. The next thing Aigerim remembers is that she found herself training every day.
And it wasn’t always easy. Some people in Kazakhstan believe jiu jitsu is not a sport for women.
“People would see that there can be injuries, bruises, and they’d say, ‘Oh but you are a girl. Who would look at you, all injured and bruised?’” Aigerim said. “I remember one time when I went to a doctor to ask about a minor wrist injury he’d get so angry that I got it during training, that he refused to treat me. He said something like, ‘You are a woman, and you will have your family soon. What would you say to them? There is no place for this kind of wrestling for women.’”
But Aigerim loved jiu jitsu, her father was proud of her training, and she wasn’t going to let other’s perceptions stop her. What drew her to jiu jitsu is the saying, “jiu jitsu para mulheres” or jiu jitsu for everyone!
“I have seen people training without arms and legs, blind people, people with severe injuries – they all still keep training and it is very inspiring,” said Aigerim. “Jiu jitsu is such a flexible martial art that allows you to keep training even if some parts of your body are not working,”
Aigerim said she recently became a fan of the Bruce Lee podcast where they talk about body awareness.
“I think I am in the constant process of learning about that,” she said. “I learn to be aware of my own body, where it flows, which positions can get you injured, how to use the body pressure, how to control the opponent’s body. This is what makes your game unique and effective.”
In 2015, Aigerim’s coach, Bek Ali, affiliated his school with Leo Vieira and Checkmat. There was a wave of promotions in Kazakhstan and a few people received their brown belts, including Ali. A year later, Aigerim received her blue belt.
“I got it and I felt the new responsibility on me and that my passion for jiu jitsu is getting more serious and focused,” Aigerim said. “At that time there were no purple belts in the female division. Even now, Kazakhstan does not have any brown/black belt women and there are only a few purple belts, and around 5-6 male black belts in my whole country. However, I can confidently say that the level (of jiu jitsu) in Kazakhstan is quite high. I know many people from my country who won World titles and prestigious international tournaments.”
Currently, Aigerim lives in London, while getting her master’s degree in media and communications at London School of Economics, where she won a UK government (Chevening) scholarship.
“Here in London I joined Roger Gracie Academy (headquarters) and feel blessed to be able to learn from knowledgeable and nice people from all over the world,” Aigerim said. “I also like that in RGA there is a strong and supportive women’s team, which was actually the defining factor in my decision to stay in this gym.”
And this year has been challenging while trying to balance her studies at the world’s top university, while also volunteering, training and having a social life. Yet Aigerim has competed more this year than she has at any other time in her life.
“In London I competed in several local tournaments. I competed in Scotland, Ireland, and Italy (thanks to Girls in Gis scholarship),” she said. “The year before coming to UK, I competed in Abu Dhabi World Pro 2016. In some of the tournaments I get medals, in some not, but what I always get from it is new experience and knowledge.”
She said she always feels nervous to compete, but the more she does it, the better she gets at it.
“Despite feeling super nervous, I love the feeling of accomplishment after it,” said Aigerim. “It feels like you’ve done something worthy and you stepped out of your comfort zone once again and can continue to challenge yourself.”
While jiu jitsu is something Aigerim fits in to her schedule around her free time, her main focus is on her studies. London School of Economics and Political Science is ranked 2nd in the world after Harvard in social sciences. Before attending LSE, Aigerim completed her first master’s degree in International Journalism back home in Kazakhstan, in KIMEP University in 2017. As an undergraduate student, she also studied journalism and won the US Department of State’s fellowship Global UGRAD that allowed her to study one semester in an American university. She studied journalism in Troy University, in Alabama in 2013.
Not only has Aigerim received scholarships for her studies, but she also won a scholarship through Girls in Gis in 2018. She chose to use her scholarship money to compete at the European No Gi championship in Rome, Italy.
“Jiu jitsu is one of the best things that happened to me! Honestly, I can’t imagine my life without it now,” Aigerim said. “In jiu jitsu there is no pressure, you just enjoy training and learning, and this is what I love about it. I would say that jiu jitsu made me feel more confident when it comes to defending myself. I know that if I walk at night alone, I know how to defend myself and I would not freeze like most would do when someone is attacking them.”
Aigerim said she would like Girls in Gis to know that she is grateful and determined to continue this beautiful journey of exploring herself and this gentle art. She is especially happy that we have this community of women where we can share our thoughts, experiences and other things in this male-dominated sport.
As for opening people’s eyes about jiu jitsu in Kazakhstan, Aigerim said many people cannot believe she does jiu jitsu, yet still looks “womanly.”
“I believe I have converted about a dozen people into jiu jitsu and I hope that more women will join this amazing sport,” she said.
There are plenty of stories about women training jiu jitsu in Kazakhstan and people not liking it, but Aigerim said she prefers to focus on a positive side.
“I do hope that soon we will come to the stage when women can openly do what they love, pursue their goals and dreams without sacrificing some things for the other because of societal pressure and stereotypes”.
As for Aigerim, she will continue to train and compete in jiu jitsu and be a strong, independent woman that others can look up to. And she summed up the world of jiu jitsu pretty well:
“Did jiu jitsu change me? No, it simply made me a better and much happier version of myself,” she stated. “I can’t say it has done one thing, probably there are many things and they are evolving over time. It taught me to train consistently, learn every day and fight with your own ego, laziness, insecurity and fear. I wouldn’t say that before that I was super lazy or scared or insecure, but it is just sometimes jiu jitsu exposes these things quite openly and you need to have courage and heart to keep going no matter what. I think that jiu jitsu makes your heart braver, bigger and fearless.”
Girls in Gis writer
Mindy Yager and her husband, Lance Yager, own Select Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Waco, Texas. Mindy is a purple belt who teaches several days a week, mainly focusing on the Youth and Junior Jiu Jitsu classes. She has a 2-yr-old son who has been training jiu jitsu since he was in the womb. Mindy has a degree in journalism from Baylor University and a blog called Jits My Life (link is jitsmylife.wordpress.com)