Conan Riojas on Martial Arts, Yoga and Most Desirable Superpower
Interview by Holly Bussmus (HB)
HB: How long have you been practicing martial arts?
Conan: That is a good question…When I was still in diapers, my father use to sit me on his lap at the edge of the mat and we would watch judoka’s battle it out in the dojo. I don’t really know when I started since it was part of my upbringing from before I can remember. Since I have mainly focused on grappling arts, I would say my formal training started when I began wrestling in 6th grade. I didn’t get serious about judo until my freshman year in college and I started jiu jitsu around 2004. Now, I practice a form of meta grappling, where I try and integrate all the individual disciplines I have practiced over the years into one fluid form.
HB: At what point did you decide to incorporate Yoga into your lifestyle?
Conan: Although I was introduced to yoga when I first met my wife 18 years ago, I was always focusing on getting as much mat time as possible, so grappling took precedence over anything else. It wasn’t until this summer, when I hurt my knee and neck that I realized I needed to do something different if I wanted to continue to compete at my age (40). After I won judo nationals in the beginning of July, my brother took me to a yoga studio for a class before I was going to fly back to Oregon. The yoga session was amazing and I felt instant relief from my injuries. It was at that point that I made up my mind to spend a month and do nothing but yoga and see what effect it would have on my body. I signed up for a month of yoga at Firelight Yoga and the transformation was incredible. Within two and a half weeks of just doing yoga, my neck and knee injuries dissolved and I felt like I had a new body to work with. Firelight Yoga helped prime my body and mind for my next competition and I placed 3rd at the IBJJF World Masters Jiu Jitsu Championships in August. If it was not for my newfound yoga practice, I would have never made it to the podium.
HB: What benefits did you expect to get from yoga, and what benefits have you received that surprised you?
Conan: Walking into Firelight Yoga, I was expecting to get relief from my neck and knee injuries. I knew that my body was tight and was contributing to my recurring injuries over the years. I was tired of getting injured over and over, so I was ready to make a change. Over the last several months, yoga has helped heal my physical body and allow me to train and stay on the mat.
I have been doing to morning yoga classes mostly, and I have come to appreciate the cleansing and calm feeling I get after my morning yoga routine. I am not a morning person, and yet I feel alive and very grounded in my body after a yoga session. Also, when I walk out of the studio, I am overcome with a strong sense of gratitude and I feel blessed to be alive.
The most surprising benefit has been my approach to grappling. When I get on the mat now, I immediately start to focus on my breath and allow my breath to carry me through the practice. The breath work has allowed me to stay present in my body. When you compete in grappling sports, before you are challenged by the opponent across the mat, you have to compete with yourself. Your mind gets in the way with a constant bombardment of negative thoughts and floods you with stimuli that often gets in the way with your game. I have trained all my life, and my body knows what to do. By focusing on the breath, I can bypass all the noise inside my mind and outside my body.
HB: Which Yoga posture is your favorite?
Conan: I would have to say that tree pose is my favorite. I think what I enjoy the most is the interplay between the beginning structure of the posture, grounding yourself into the floor, and the freedom of expression as everyone gets to finish the posture the way they like. It is the one point in the class where we are consciously celebrating our uniqueness as individual ‘trees’, and our collective intention of being connected through our yoga practice under one ‘canopy’. When I look into the mirror and see myself with all of these other adults pretending they are trees, I can’t help but smile and be reminded of a time when we were all children and spent our time playing and loosing ourselves in our imaginations.
“When I look into the mirror and see myself with all of these other adults pretending they are trees, I can’t help but smile and be reminded of a time when we were all children and spent our time playing and loosing ourselves in our imaginations.”
HB: Which is your least favorite?
Conan: I think eagle pose is my most frustrating pose. My arms don’t wrap around enough to get the proper tension. The yoga teachers always say ‘the benefit comes in the release’, but I feel I am not getting the full benefit if I can’t truly get into the position. I will continue to try my best and maybe this pose will grow on me. Who knows, maybe next year the eagle pose will be my favorite!
HB: What important life lessons have you learned from both, martial arts, and yoga?
Conan: I was taking a yin class with Jessica other week and she read a quote from Osho that draws an important lesson for grappling, yoga, and life. The quote was about softness and read: “The soft always overcomes the hard. The soft is alive; the hard is dead. The soft is flowerlike, the hard is rocklike. The hard looks powerful but is impotent. The soft looks fragile but is alive.”
You can always tell who is a beginner in judo or jiu jitsu by how they feel on the mat. The beginner is almost always stiff and difficult to move. What they don’t realize is that you can not attack or counter attack when you are stiff. Your art is dead. To be alive on the mat, you have to open yourself up to all that is around you. If you are subtle and soft, you are able to read the tiniest sensations from your opponent and anticipate their movements in a fight. When you watch a master grappler on the mat, they are soft and seem to move effortlessly with the ebb and flow of battle. This ‘aliveness’ is beautiful witness and amazing to experience first hand.
In yoga, your opponent is your own mind. Using your breath, you are able to draw your awareness deep into your physical body, bypassing your thoughts and connecting with your whole physical being. As you merge the form (pose) with your deep awareness, you dissolve the hardness with the softness of being truly alive and interconnected with every particle of your body.
Life is based on the interconnections of all that is within and with all that is outside us. The more aware we are of these interconnections, the more harmony and beauty we can create in this world.
HB: If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Conan: Since I am doing yoga now, I think if I had the powers of Plastic Man (malleable body chemistry and could contort himself to any position imaginable) I could get into any pose I wanted in class. Eagle pose would be no problem since I would be able to wrap my arms around several times. Just imagine the benefits I could get with that release!
HB: What is your next big quest?
Conan: I am currently at the end of a grappling quest I challenged myself to a few months back. My quest was simple: Compete in 3 world championships, in 3 different sports (jiu jitsu, sambo, judo), over a 3 month period.
In August, I flew to Las Vegas and competed at the IBJJF World Masters Jiu Jitsu Championships. I was fortunate enough to get to the podium and place 3rd. At the end of October, I flew to Pula, Croatia to represent USA Sambo and fight in the World Masters Sambo Championships. Unfortunately, I was unable to get to the podium this time and lost a close match to the Russian fighter who got third. The final leg of my grappling quest would be this week competing in the IJF World Veterans Judo Championships.
After a some tough decision making, I have decided to pull out of the tournament to rest and heal my body. Before yoga, I would have just blasted through the competition regardless of the damage my body would endure. Now, I find myself breathing in, assessing the health of my body to determine what actions I should take, and breathing out to let go of anything that is not in line with my well being. I am letting go of the final leg of my grappling quest to focus on healing my body through yoga.
The next several months will be dedicated to reflection, healing, and beginning a new chapter in my life.