Steve Nichols would like to tell you about all the benefits he’s gained from practicing the century-old art of Brazilian jiu jitsu.
He’d like to tell you about the incredible rush you’ll get when you first step on the mat, and the many benefits you’ll feel physically, mentally and emotionally from practicing a sport he’s been doing for a few decades now.
He’d like to tell you all about it. But he knows you probably won’t believe him. There’s no telling someone about this martial art; they have to experience it.
“There’s really nothing I can say that would convince you, because I can’t explain the incredible feeling of what it’s like to leverage someone off of you when they’re trying to stay on top of you,” Nichols said. “I can’t explain what it’s like when someone is trying to control you, and they cannot. It opens up a realm of life that you previously did not understand.
“It’s an incredibly addictive experience, and after you try it once, you come out saying ‘I want to do this, more.’”
Nichols knows of what he speaks, since over the past 17 years Gracie Barra Jiu Jitsu of Long Island has given thousands of Nassau County residents that rush.
Nichols, a former MMA fighter, runs Gracie Barra (pronounced “Ba-Ha”) for owner Joe Scarola, himself a famous MMA competitor who once appeared on the TV show “The Ultimate Fighter.”
With more than 350 active members, Gracie Barra teaches kids as young as 3 years old, and adults as old as 80, how to use jiu jitsu self-defense through grappling, ground fighting and submission holds.
It’s a remarkably intimate sport, similar to wrestling in that the competitors are constantly grabbing hold of each other, but its popularity has grown on Long Island, and across the country.
Located at 24 Jericho Turnpike in New Hyde Park, Gracie Barra offers a mission of “Jiu jitsu for everyone.”
“We have a really good variety of people, increasingly more and more young women are coming in to train,” Nichols said, as a pair of grapplers sweated through a workout just a few feet away. “We’re finding that a lot of parents want their daughters to be able to defend themselves, and really the idea of giving kids confidence is something we hear about a lot.
“For a while women’s jiu jitsu wasn’t really encouraged, but it seems to be becoming more and more acceptable.”
With the rise of famous MMA female fighters like Ronda Rousey and Cris Cyborg, it’s understandable young girls see them as role models and want to be like them.
For Nichols, his gym is still bouncing back from being closed for nearly a year because of Covid. A close-contact sport like jiu jitsu wasn’t exactly conducive to social distancing and keeping six feet away from your neighbor.
“We tried it with masks but that really doesn’t help when you’re breathing and on top of people so closely,” Nichols said. “But we’re finally getting our numbers back up to where they used to be.”
Offering first-time free trial classes to all, Nichols said jiu jitsu is being used more and more as a tool by psychologists, who counsel their patients that “the environment we provide, the nurturing, can be helpful in gaining confidence and getting over fears.”
“It’s an encouraging social environment, and jiu jitsu also reveals you, because you can’t ‘lie’ on the mat,” Nichols added. “You may put on a persona in social engagements, but when you’re on the ground trying to defend yourself, you’re in fight or flight mode, and you have a chance to face your fears over and over again.”
Nichols used the example of someone who’s claustrophobic, starting jiu jitsu training by starting in a top position, so there’s no fear of having pressure put on you. Eventually, the student is eased into slightly more and more uncomfortable positions, until they feel better.
Class sizes are around 20 people, but can grow to as many as 35. All the professors, as teachers are called, are trained black belts, and students can advance to more technical training while staying in their current class.
As the only school on Long Island opened under the Gracie Barra name (the Gracie family is considered royalty in the sport, while Barra is the neighborhood in Brazil where jiu jitsu began), the gym continues to attract new people all the time, and gain the love and respect of parents.
“We had a parent come in the other day whose 4-year-old started here, and they were so appreciative,” Nichols said. “He said to me that when his kid wouldn’t eat his vegetables, he said ‘do I need to tell Professor Carlos that you’re not eating our vegetables?’
“And the kid then ate all his vegetables really fast!” he said.