Mychal Cohen remembers fearing for his safety back when he worked as a bartender in Seattle. The mandatory alcohol server training doesn’t cover self-defense from belligerent customers, so workers in the industry know an unappreciated cocktail can be all it takes to go home with a black eye — or worse.
“I had no idea how to defend myself,” Mychal recalled a decade later.
But it was that very feeling of helplessness that set in motion the cogwheels of the universe that led to the creation of Bold Spirit, the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu academy that Mychal and his wife Jorgi Cohen opened in November 2023 in Oak Harbor.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a martial art that consists of forcing an opponent to the ground and controlling their movements by using strangles and joint-locks. Because it involves no punching or kicking, the sport has been nicknamed “the gentle art.”
“It really does teach you (what to do) if someone was to grab you or if someone was to try and pin you to the ground,” Jorgi said. “Like, how you could either hurt them or control them in a way where you could get away.”
When they moved to Whidbey Island from San Francisco five years ago, the Cohens dreamed of opening their own Jiu-Jitsu gym. When they finally began planning a year and a half ago, 50 students sounded like a huge accomplishment. Almost two months after they opened the academy to the public, Bold Spirit counts about 101 gentle artists in the making.
The Cohens said this sport isn’t something that is learned overnight. In Jiu-Jitsu, one’s level of skill is represented by the color of their belt.
Adults ages 16 and older begin as white belts, then progress to blue, purple, brown and black, while children go through white, gray, yellow, orange and green. It is only when they turn 16 that they can become blue belts, but by then their green belt is the equivalent of an adult black belt, as Jorgi said.
While it’s one of the world’s fastest-growing martial arts with millions of people training, black belts are only in the thousands. The couple is in fact still learning: Jorgi, who has been training for two years, is a blue belt while Mychal, who’s been training for ten, is brown. On top of her Jiu-Jitsu training, Jorgi also has experience in Judo.
This, however, should not discourage people from trying Jiu-Jitsu, the Cohens said. Not only is it the most practical martial art and a great workout, Mychal said, but it also helps improve self-confidence, self-control and body awareness. Ever since they opened this past fall, they’ve seen athletes who were initially nervous and self-conscious become more confident and relaxed.
Students come in all shapes, level of skills and ages. The youngest students are 5 years old, while some of the oldest include Jorgi’s 72-year-old father.
“Big, small, skinny, heavier, disabled,” Jorgi said, explaining that instructors adapt their teaching to the students’ bodies. “Anyone can do it.”
The academy hosts classes for youth ages 5-14, adults ages 12 and older, and women ages 10 and older. The women-only class includes a female instructor and has more emphasis on practical self-defense.
The Cohens also plan to host free self-defense classes for the public sometime in 2024.
The sport is particularly good for children, Mychal and Jorgi said, as they learn respect, self-discipline, how to endure challenging situations and how to win and lose gracefully.
“It’s not you versus me,” Jorgi said. “It’s us together. Even if we’re fighting each other, at the end of the day we’re still teammates. We’re still going to treat each other with respect.”
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has done more than teach the Cohens how to defend themselves. They in fact believe it gave them a community and helped them grow as people.
Mychal said Jiu-Jitsu changed him from selfish to selfless, and gave him the confidence to face challenges and to strive for self-improvement.
“It finds everything you’re bad at and exposes it, so you need to fix it,” he said.
With teary eyes, Jorgi said the sport made her become the person she needed when she was younger — kinder, confident and caring.
“It’s usually the hardest thing you’ll do in your day,” said Jorgi. Even after a terrible day of work, training will make her feel like her day was good after all. “It completely wipes out anything negative that’s going on in your life.”
A normal practice in Jiu-Jitsu is bowing before stepping on and off the mat. Not only is it a sign of respect, but a way to clear one’s mind.
Mychal explained that when he bows on the mat, he’s leaving all the emotions associated with his personal life and work outside of the mat. When he bows off the mat, he’s leaving the frustration of a difficult combat behind.
Jorgi and Mychal Cohen hope to share their passion and joy for the gentle art with the community, and advise people not to be intimidated as everyone in the academy knows what being a newbie is like.
“Everyone has had a first day and everyone knows how hard and scary it can be,” Mychal said.