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An Interview with Emily Kwok

Updated: Mar 26, 2019

Emily Kwok [left]: Master's Seniors Worlds 2018

We are very fortunate at Halifax BJJ Society to be affiliated with Marcelo Garcia. This opportunity arrived because our instructor's have put in years of hard work and dedication to the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. And they genuinely have the same values. Because of this affiliation we can fly to New York and train with the best and some of the best come visit us and present seminars so that we can be our best. 8x World Champion and 9x Pan American, Lucas Lepri (blackbelt) visited us in January and 2x IBJJF World Champion and first female in Canada to hold the rank of black belt in BJJ, Emily Kwok, joined us on March 2nd!

Blog post by Emily Kwok. I have linked many of her blogs throughout this post.

Emily Kwok has an amazing mind for the sport of Jiu Jitsu and her passion comes through in everything she does on and off the mat - especially in her thoughtful reflections that she posts often on the Princeton BJJ Blog! Affiliated with Marcelo Garcia, Kwok founded Princeton BJJ with Art Keintz in Princeton, New Jersey where she trains, teaches, and raises her two girls.

I sat down with Emily following her seminar at Halifax BJJ Society in a nearby cafe. We didn't get through all of my questions (because my list was ridiculous) but she was so sweet and had me call her last week while she was driving from New Jersey to D.C. for a conference. Emily has so much to teach all of us in the world of Jiu Jitsu and those who might want to give it a try! While I listened to her talk I realized that everything she had to say is important and it would not be enough to share only a few of her answers below..

So. I have attached the audio in two parts and the transcript for accessibility. Some people like to read and others like to listen - do what works for you! I am still going to blab and share a few of the points that really resonated with me and hopefully you, below!

Emily Kwok teaching a seminar at Halifax BJJ Society. (With Christine Fader - Purple Belt)

We talked about how she got started in Jiu Jitsu,what having a black belt means, competing, advice for all belt levels, teaching, and favourite position and submission- to having kids and what spats are good for women. The questions below dig into the lessons she has learned on and off the mats that lead to longevity and growth in the sport of Jiu Jitsu.


What was the biggest change in your life when you started practising Jiu Jitsu?

EK: You know, nobody's asked me this before. I don't think I noticed it. But the people I worked with a lot and my friends noticed it. Theres this one guy that I used to work with at the Community Center who was like in his forties at the time. And I looked at him kind of like almost like a father figure. And uh, he came up to me one day and he says, You know Emily, I don't know what you're doing but something's really different about you. And I said, What's that? And he was like, I don't know. He's like, There's just something different about you. And I said, Is it good? And he said, Yeah it's good. He's like, Its definitely good. And he goes, But whatever you're doing keep doing it.

And, I don't think I could see it at the time but I think that the Jiu Jitsu was giving me an outlet and people would probably say that- what one of my nicknames that my boss calls me is gumpy. And it's 50 percent for grumpy because when I don't get what I want I'm grumpy. And the other 50 percent is for gumption. And. I would say that earlier on maybe before Jiu Jitsu I didn't have an outlet. I had a lot more um, angst. And I think Jiu Jitsu gave me permission to let it out. And so like I said, I don't think I noticed it as much early on but I think it gave me a little bit more um, calm. It gave me a little bit more space to process my anxiety or my anger. And I often tell people now that Jiu Jitsu is quite meditative for me because it filters everything else out in your life and you can just focus on the one thing. We don't get the opportunity to do that often. And so when you're fighting for your life, you have to only focus on saving your life. And now I think that's probably what I love the most about it. So yeah that's probably what it did for me.


How do you push back against all the little injuries that collect and make it difficult to keep practising and showing up?

EK: So I do some physical training. As a woman I think it's very important that you need to be strong in certain positions. I've varied from Olympic lifting to now I'm working almost with like a rehab trainer if you will. I have a lot of incorrect movements that my body makes because I've compensated for so long. And it's created dysfunction and pain and I'm always dealing with a weird hip or my neck or whatever. And so now I'm working with a- strangely enough. A female trainer which I've never had before and she's helping me correct some of my more specific muscle group movements so that larger muscle groups aren't compensating for the smaller groups not working. That's really important. I get osteopathic work done on me once a week. I have a chiropractor. I do a lot of body maintenance that I didn't do when I was younger. Probably cause I couldn't afford it. I'm 38 now. I have a job. It's an investment in my body so that I can keep going. So I do all that stuff a lot. I go to a Korean sauna spa and there's five or six different rooms where you can heat your body up. There's a cold shower. I do a lot of that kind of stuff. Breath work. It's really important to do that.

And then when I train in my school- another big thing that I do is, I divide our class up when its live training. Not all the time, but I'd say most of the time into sort of appropriate weight groups. So I'll say everybody under 150, 150 to 185, and then 185 and over. And we do a lot of what you guys call "shark bait" or "pass, protect, sweep, submit" amongst 20 to 30 pound weight gaps. It allows everybody to have a more realistic sense of Jiu Jitsu and not feel that they have to hold back or work too hard. And then we just do general rounds with anybody you like sparing. And I think when you train with people that are closer to your size you're not having a stress yourself as much, right? When I came up, I had to train with anybody that showed up. So it was like 250 pound guy, 195 pound guy, and I was just getting smashed all the time. I'm like no wonder I have all these injuries. But if you can train smarter, then you should. [00:11:55]


There are many lessons that I learn on the mats that apply directly to my life off the mats. Can you share a few of those that you've had over the years?

EK: Yeah. I think it's an Oprah quote. "You have to teach people how to treat you." Especially teaching women and smaller people. You hear a lot of people say, Oh I don't know how to do anything after four years of training because I'm always on the bottom getting smashed. I'm like, Well you have to teach people that that's not what you want to do. And so I think it's OK as a small person when you're training with a bigger partner to say, Hey I'm really trying to work on my guard passing. Would you mind training on the bottom so I can work my guard passing? I don't think there's anything wrong with asking. Like you're still training but you're asking them to let you work a different position, right? So taking ownership over your training and then teaching people what you want to do as opposed to just being on the receiving end of everything- I think is really important.

You know, today in the seminar I talked a lot about being internally motivated to do things. Maintaining a certain quality in what you do. Being present. I would also say like, investing in what you believe in. So there's a lot of times where I've trained with people or I've been in a competition and I didn't get the sweep or I almost did the takedown but I didn't. And later on Tatiana [Garcia] or my coach or whatever would come up and say, Why didn't you finish that? Like you almost had it! And I was like, Because I felt like I didn't. And they're like, It was right there. And so. I think that happens in our lives, right? Like there's moments where everything is building and then you almost have it but you're like, Ahh I don't think I should. Right? And so I've learned that sometimes building that pressure is not really a bad thing. It's not when you should back down but it's really when you should push through. So just when I feel like giving up on myself I've told myself to just go for it. And nine times out of ten that's always been a positive.

I think also, investing in loss, has been a really big one. I used to have more of a mentality that like losing.. Of course I knew on the outside that its fine to lose but like to really believe that you need to lose. I wish I had lost more when I was coming up. Like between white belt and brown belt I think I lost like 2 or 3 matches and I competed all the time. There weren't a lot of women to fight against but I just had my game plan. And when I started losing I was a brown belt losing to other brown and black belts. And I was like, Oh shit, you know, like now I feel like I have all these lessons that I'm either late on or that I have to pick up and compensate for. And now that I'm older and wiser and I've been in it for longer, I feel like losing early on is a really healthy lesson. So I tell my students to lose all the time like in training. You know like, nobody shows up to a competition to lose but I'm like, Look the important thing is that you're learning something out of this experience. And unfortunately winning all the time doesn't really teach you much. It just teaches you that what you're doing is effective but it's not helping you grow. And people don't see that, right? They just think, Oh but I'm winning. I'm awesome. And if you start winning too early it really, it just, kind of limits and inhibits your game if your not coached the right way. So like if all you ever do is a flying arm bar. Then think about all the other aspects of your game that never get pushed because you're so good at doing this flying arm bar. It's great! But why not try something else? Why not build your your game? Right? And so investment in loss is super important. And I I really encourage all of my students to play weaker positions. And I always tell them, you're only as good as your weakest link.

And my job, as your teacher, is, by the time you get your black belt I don't want you to feel like you have deficiencies. As a blue belt I don't want you to feel like you have deficiencies. Because I've seen it. I've seen people who I call purple belt/black belts, purple belt/white belts- like as a purple belt you can do this one thing really well but everything else sucks. And I don't want that to be the case for you because it's a hard- if you're a black belt and let's say you have a black belt top game but you have like a blue belt bottom game. You want to talk about humbling like that's hard to come back from that. Yeah.


How has teaching impacted your training? EK: So one of the things that I would say has made a big difference, is that when I teach I have to be really certain of what I'm doing. There is no room for guesswork. And I think that when we're training and we're moving around and we're competing we're so present in the moment. We feel everything. We're not necessarily analyzing it. And I think when you're teaching you have to keep a little bit more of an analytical sense or a voyeuristic sense because you're trying to convey something that you're feeling, something that you're doing, to somebody who's not doing it yet.

So one of the biggest things that I think teaching gave me was this idea that I really had to practice and understand in fine detail the mechanics of my movements and what I'm trying to accomplish so that when I would have to present it in front of people, it was coming across in an efficient manner. Because. It's not that I don't like questions when I'm teaching. I think questions are great. But I find that if I communicate things very clearly and effectively then students have less need to ask questions in that moment and they can actually get right to the work and then ask me more sophisticated questions when it comes along. And it's usually a good indication for me as to how how well I know something and how effectively I'm able to disseminate that information. At the seminar. Something that really really helped was the amount of metaphors that you used and comparing things to real life situations like finances and the stock market. That was incredibly helpful. EK: Yeah. Well I think that the use of metaphors/analogy- helping people find a familiar language to sort of communicate concept or an idea that might otherwise be really difficult for them to do if they have no context to do it. If they don't understand, right? And so oftentimes even if I'm explaining a situation like a squat. Like I want you to have good posture. A lot of people don't know how to squat. So if I tell them to get down into sort of more of a horse stand or to imagine that they're sort of sitting in a chair behind them but just barely touching their butt to it. Like these are things- This is a common language that people understand. And I think the more they can connect with me on that level, the easier it is for them to actually execute something that is foreign to them, you know? And I joke around a lot. I like to keep learning loose and fun because some of the material we cover is really dense and I think that the more you can bring people along for the ride and have them laugh about it a little bit and relate to it in different aspects of their lives. I think that allows them to sort of internalize it a lot better. Definitely. And Jiu Jitsu is its own language. [Laughing] So anything you can grab on to is really helpful. I really like the uh, "be the awkward person at the party" that really resonated with me. [Both laughing]


Do you have a favourite mantra personal philosophy with your Jiu Jitsu? EK: Right. So as a student I can always do better. I'm a teacher. I can always do better. As a school owner. We can always do better. I just think that the Jiu Jitsu market in technique and in business is still so premature. I don't think we've even seen the likes of how big and expansive and sophisticated it can be. And I think that a lot of times we accept what's given to us as the standard or as status quo. And I believe, I guess, even just as a human being we should always be looking for ways to do things better, more efficiently, with more kindness, with more quality, with better results. So that's something that I really tell myself, Can I do this better?

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner! 🥇 [Above] Emily Kwok winning the 2007 Mundials as a brown belt.

As an artist, I had to ask this next question... 👩🏼‍🎨🥋


You went to art school before starting Jiu Jitsu. What parallels do you see between what you've learned in art school compared to on the mats? EK: Hmm. Thats a good question. What parallels do I see? So. I mean. I don't know if this is a parallel thing but I always knew that I loved being creative but I really struggled with the medium. And I also knew that I wanted to make art, if you would, be creative. But I wanted to have tangible outcomes. I never wanted to make art for art's sake. Like I needed to have purpose. I need to have some reason that was driving everything forward. And when I started training Jiu Jitsu I stopped making art. And on some level I kind of miss that. But on another level I feel like I just changed mediums. It's like I went from physical art to performance art. And so Jiu Jitsu has allowed me to continue to be creative in a mindful way without producing, per say, like an object. But Jiu Jitsu also solves the other equation, which is that it's become a tangible thing. I'm building my skill set. And I have a school. I have a physical place where I can devote myself and build others and do something with my creativity as opposed to just doing it.

So that's been really cool. I love that Jiu Jitsu is never static. It evolves. And I think that's really similar to having a creative process. And knowing that the paintings or the sculpture or whatever you're invested in today, that your work in five years will look very different. And it doesn't mean that its departed but it's just- it's a continuous sort of energy if you will, that kind of flows..

Thats not linear.

EK: Yeah and I love that about it. And I love that with Jiu Jitsu there is a little bit of- there's a hierarchy and order and I think that that too is similar to a creative process. Because everybody has a different one. But when an artist knows themselves well, they know what preconditions they need to start producing art. I think that's similar with Jiu Jitsu. Yeah.

Emily. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience with me. If there is one thing I can really take from our conversation, it is to be present and continue to move forward - on and off the mats. It doesn't matter when we start Jiu Jitsu, we all have a place within the sport.✋🏼👊🏼

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