This is the tenth guest post in our series examining the ways that the current health crisis has impacted those of us who sit at the intersection of martial arts practice, communities of martial artists, and Martial Arts Studies. In this important essay, Anna Kavoura delves into many topics including the place of travel in our lives, struggles with depression and even the healing power of our relationships with animals. If you would like to share some of your experiences or thoughts about the theoretical implications of the current moment, please feel free to send me an email.
“Reflections on COVID-19, transnational (im)mobility, and collective ways of organizing”
By Anna Kavoura
Pre-COVID transnational (im)possibilities
As part of the growing army of transnational “mobile” researchers, I have been living between countries for the past decade. My life has been spread mostly between Finland (the country where I studied and currently work) and Greece (my home country), with several stops in other parts of the globe for periods of exchange and other aspects of research mobility. Owing to this transient lifestyle, and the temporary short-term employment contracts that go with it, I have been changing apartments frequently, often unable to plan my life for more than three months at a time.
This month-to-month existence has also shaped my identity as a martial artist. I have been changing clubs and instructors on a frequent basis, and I have been competing under the names of different teams. Due to my mobile lifestyle, I have had the privilege of being part of many Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and judo cultures around the world, learning from various instructors and training partners. However, I have also struggled with feelings of guilt for not being “committed” enough to a club or instructor, and I have sometimes been accused of being a “creonte” (i.e., someone who “betrays” her team and frequently changes affiliations).
When Europe became the active center of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was not in very good shape. I had just returned to Finland (after spending a two-months in the UK, Christmas in Greece, and a few days in Sweden to attend a close friend’s graduation from medical school), and I was in a very bad mood. I was feeling physically and mentally exhausted, and I was having trouble both sleeping and concentrating. On some days getting out of the house, or even speaking, felt extremely difficult. “It sounds like you are depressed,” said the occupational doctor that I visited. “No, I am just tired,” I wanted to shout, but instead I burst into tears in front of her, confirming her case. While walking back home with the depression diagnosis paper in my pocket, I was feeling even more frustrated, guilty, and ashamed of my situation. I spent a few days digesting these emotions, and then I committed myself to a plan for getting out of this. I would start counseling, I would force myself out of the house every day, I would train more, and I would try to see friends or do something fun at least a couple of times a week. This is when the lockdown started.
Life in lockdown
The University of Jyväskylä announced that we should all work from home, my BJJ club in Finland locked its doors, and all my conference and competition trips for the spring were canceled. Keeping up with my self-care plan would be a challenge, but I didn’t panic just yet, as I was privileged enough to live in a comfortable apartment in Finland where I have enough space to work and exercise and a good internet connection for staying in touch with friends, colleagues, and my counselor.
In terms of exercise, I was lucky to have a few pieces of sports equipment in my house and a forest just outside my door where I could walk or run. As I was supposed to be one of the main instructors for the women-only submission wrestling classes that we were offering this spring, I created a “stay fit challenge” for the women in my BJJ academy, hoping that it would keep them (and me) motivated to stick to some sort of exercise routine, while also staying connected during the lockdown.
In terms of work, nothing would really change. I am on a one hundred percent research contract, which means that I do not have to worry about transferring lectures online like most of my colleagues. The project that I am currently working on is in its final stages, which means that I have mostly writing left. Moreover, I have just received a positive decision about a personal postdoc grant that will allow me to move forward with my new research project at the University of Brighton. I might have to make a few adjustments to my research plan, but my livelihood is pretty much secure for the next couple of years.
Yet panic came when the prime minister of Finland announced that the borders would be closing. I belong to this privileged group of people for whom moving between countries has always been allowed, and it had never occurred to me that one day I might not be permitted to cross borders. In this time of panic and uncertainty, I felt a strong urge to be close to my loved ones, so at eleven o’clock in the evening, I panic-bought a ticket for the last plane to Greece, and at six in the morning on the next day I was in an empty train traveling to the airport.
When I arrived in Greece, I had to fill out a form stating where I was planning to spend my two weeks quarantine. I decided to self-isolate in my partner’s house in Athens. Going to Ikaria (my home island) would be too risky since a large proportion of the population there is over the age of seventy, and the small under-equipped hospital on the island wouldn’t be able to protect them.
During the first days in my partner’s house, I could not concentrate on anything, as I was constantly feeling worried and guilty. What if I had caught the virus during the trip and brought it here, putting both of us in danger? I was spending the day watching the news, checking my temperature every couple of hours, preparing tea for my partner and myself (as I had heard somewhere that it might protect you from getting sick), and swallowing vitamins and other pills that were promising to strengthen your immunity system.
After the first week passed without signs of infection, I started to relax. The weather was getting warmer, and I was feeling anxious to go out and see friends. However, the Greek government had just implemented very strict measures to avoid the spread of COVID-19 and protect the under-staffed, under-funded public healthcare system. Almost everything was in lockdown, and any kind of non-essential movement had been banned.
I had to readjust my working, exercising, and self-care plan to the situation and resources that were available in my partner’s house. I found a corner where I could set up my home office and continue with my academic work responsibilities. In terms of exercise, I didn’t have any equipment with me, and I could not motivate myself to take part in the virtual BJJ classes that started appearing on the net. Without training mats and without a training partner (as my partner does not share my passion for BJJ), watching jiu jitsu drills without knowing when I would be able to practice them did not make much sense to me. Instead, I turned to yoga and meditation (things that I have been avoiding for many years but whose values I am finally learning to appreciate).
Despite all the downward dogs and meditation, I was steadily growing uneasy. I would frequently stop what I was doing to go back to my computer and scroll at the news. How many deaths today in Finland? How many recorded cases in Greece? When do the experts predict we will get out of this crisis? When am I going to be able to fly back to Finland to empty my apartment there and arrange my relocation to the UK?
The media discourse was dominated with strategies for returning to the “old normal” or for adapting to the “new normal,” along with predictions of how our lives might be post-COVID-19. I always disliked the word “normal” and the ways it privileges certain ways of being while marginalizing others. Many times I wished that the word simply did not exist. Yet, today, the whole planet seems to mourn the loss of “normal” as we knew it.
I tried to distract myself from my worries by taking up random online courses on guitar, calisthenics, and even economics. I didn’t stick to any of these. Finally, I answered the call of an animal rescue organization to host a rescue dog. I grew up with dogs and have always loved their company, but due to my mobile way of living, I wasn’t able to have one. So it sounded like a win-win situation when the volunteers of this organization told me that I could spend some time with a dog, helping him learn the language and habits of humans, while they searched for a permanent home for him. My partner was not extremely fond of this idea but kindly accepted having a dog in the house as long as I would do all the dog-related labor.
So, a two-year-old middle-sized dog named Choco came into our house one month ago. Having lived all his life in a shelter, he was very scared in his first encounter with a human house. However, he was kind and well-behaved, and it didn’t take long for him to get used to our company and our daily walks in the neighborhood parks. Suddenly, I didn’t have time to watch the news, as I had other things to worry about. Did Choco eat enough today? Did he go to the toilet? Does he have a comfortable place to sleep? Besides enhancing my mood, going for a walk with Choco after every three hours of work also ended up being very good for my concentration. I found myself having more energy and being more productive. In a way, Choco and I saved each other, and I figured that this is a relationship worth investing in. So, when this crisis is over, Choco might be moving with me to the UK.
BJJ academies in Finland and Greece: Towards collective forms of organizing
After thirty-seven days of full lockdown in Greece, the government unveiled a plan for gradually lifting the restrictive measures. At the moment of writing, small shops are open again, and we are allowed to venture outside our homes, as long as we stay within our residential prefecture. Indoor sports facilities remain closed, but sports clubs are allowed to organize outdoor training sessions for their members as long as they are in small groups and keep enough distance from each other. Nobody knows when we will be able to practice BJJ again the way we used to before COVID-19.
The impact of this lockdown for martial arts academies around the world has been tremendous. I am the co-founder of a small BJJ academy that operates only during the summer on the island of Ikaria, and we are afraid that we may have to cancel all our activities for this year. Luckily, this small academy is more of a hobby project for us and not a source of income. However, many other people in Greece, for whom teaching martial arts was their main occupation, have lost their livelihoods. Many of the people that I have been talking to are extremely worried, as they are not even eligible for state support. Finnish martial arts academies, on the other hand, are a little better off, as most of them operate on a different, more collective system. For example, the BJJ and judo academies that I have been involved in take the form of local sports organizations run by volunteers. In these academies, elected board committees make decisions jointly with other members. Membership fees are kept low and are used to cover the costs of the gym and to sponsor the competition registration fees of their athletes. Moreover, since membership fees are usually paid on a yearly and not a monthly basis, these gyms have managed to survive the crisis so far without a big loss of income.
While I do believe that martial arts instructors need to get paid for their job (the Finnish volunteer-based system is not ideal for those who want to make a living through teaching martial arts), I am a strong believer in the power of collective organizing. This pandemic exposes the inability of the current capitalistic economic system to protect us from crises such as this. It is critical to understand this and seek alternative, collective structures that will help us survive future crises, including the environmental crisis. We can perhaps learn from martial arts communities that have been—and continue to be—spaces of resistance and human solidarity.
About the Author
Anna Kavoura is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Jyväskylä. Her research is positioned in the field of cultural sport psychology, focusing on issues related to gender, sexuality, culture, and identity in sport, and primarily in martial arts and combat sports. She holds a black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu and a brown belt in judo.