Jiu Jitsu Therapy-Laura Heiman Martins

Many turn to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for the physical benefits, but what we don’t discuss openly is the benefits it has for helping those with mental health ailments.  Up until now the fight has been fought alone silently. But thanks to movements like Submit the Stigma, headed by Erin Herle, the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu community has started to open up a dialog and bring awareness to mental health issues. Many high profile practitioners in the community have stepped forward openly discussing their struggles which has encouraged many more to come out from the shadows and share their stories too. Why is it that we can openly discuss other diseases yet it is taboo to discuss things like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder? How can we change the stigma associated with mental health? One thing is for certain, talking about it is a step in the right direction.

Purple belt Laura Heiman Martins of Integração Jiu-Jitsu Austin is no stranger to the battle of living with mental illness. Laura began training BJJ just under five years ago. She found Jiu-Jitsu when she was looking for an activity for her oldest daughter. She was familiar with Jiu-Jitsu because she was a big fan of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). When her daughter refused to wear her new Gi Laura made a deal with her daughter that if she wore her Gi Laura would try a class. At first Laura says she was intimidated by BJJ, but much to her surprise Laura fell in love with BJJ and has never looked back.

Laura has had a lifelong battle with depression and anxiety. Through her years of training she has found lot of other people in Jiu-jitsu just like her which has offered her support and encouragement. According to Laura, BJJ is a constant learning process, and whether you compete or not there’s always a goal on your mind. Having something to focus on that isn’t static seems to take away the time she has to be anxious or feel sad. She adds that the endorphin probably help too. She is a huge supporter of Erin Herle’s Submit the Stigma campaign, the idea of having discussions about mental illness so people feel understood, and can comfortably seek help with their illness. She also says she doesn’t think BJJ can help people suffering from mental health issues, she knows it does.

“The stigma surrounding mental illness limits me because I’m forced to operate as if nothing is wrong when it gets really bad. Depression and anxiety aren’t viewed by society as an acceptable reason for missing work, or having a poor performance at work. People view you as being weak, or crazy. The eye rolls start when you talk about having anxiety. People treat you like you’re making things up for attention. The reality is, I’m battling a life long disease that requires constant medication, without which, I could end up hospitalized or worse. I would give anything to not be the way I am. It’s never for attention, and if I could make it just go away, I would have done it a long time ago. It has affected my training at times because when I get really depressed, it slows me down, my reaction time is off, and I feel less energetic. Anxiety doesn’t affect my training as much, but it definitely affects my ability to travel to tournaments. “

laura3Laura says that sometime she has to fight off panic attacks when away from her comfort zone. For her it is sometimes under control and sometimes it’s not, but having understanding people that she can talk to around her helps a lot. Laura would recommend Jiu-jitsu to people for so many different reasons: Stress relief, self defense, help with depression, anxiety, ADHD, weight loss, boosting self confidence, making friends, just to name a few. According to Laura the benefits are never ending, and unique to each person on their particular journey. She adds that she doesn’t know a single person in Jiu-Jitsu who hasn’t benefited from training somehow.

Despite the challenges, Laura has risen up through the ranks with much success in the tournament circuit. She says her favorite moment in Jiu-Jitsu was winning her first Gold medal. It was her second tournament and she’d been training about five months. There were ten girls in her division and she came out on top. Nobody expected her to win. She didn’t think she  was capable of winning, but she did. Laura intends to competing at every event possible and on every continent. She says so far she has only competed in two countries, Canada, and the US. But these are just the first of many. 



 Shama Ko

Girls in Gis staff writer

Shama Ko is a brown belt with Gracie Humaita out of Austin, TX.  She has been a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner since November of 2003.  She is a photographer, writer, community organizer and activist. She heads the Girls in Gis organization or as she calls it the “movement”. She describes herself as both a lover and a fighter. She loves to laugh and not take life too seriously.

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