Children pair off inside the newly opened Guardian Baltimore jiu-jitsu studio and try to cross one of their legs behind their partner to take their rival down.
As they fall, the students slam their hands against the mat–a trick that studio owner Carlos Raba says will stop their heads from hitting the ground–and the sound reverberates through the room.
Safety comes first for Raba as he teaches the kids to let themselves fall, rolling backwards, rather than trying to catch themselves with their arms or elbows, which could dislocate a shoulder or cause other injuries, he said.
“When we fall, we want to fall across the mat like we’re spilling across the mat,” he said, first describing the motion, then rolling backwards from a squatting position.
Raba opened the Brazilian jiu-jitsu and yoga studio in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood just over two weeks ago with his wife, Claudia Carias, with the aim of being a safe and fun space for kids to come for physical and mental exercise several times a week.
When he isn’t practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Raba is the executive chef at the Clavel mezcaleria and taqueria restaurant, right around the corner from the new studio on Huntingdon Avenue.
The lessons learned on the mat can be translated to life outside the studio, Raba said, drawing a connection between cooking and jiu-jitsu.
“You have to be methodical: step one, step two, step three to get to step four,” he said. “It’s the same thing in the kitchen. When you’re cooking, you have to have the same methods all the time to have a good result and you have to be consistent. If you want to do an arm bar, you have to do it the same way with the same technique with the same motion. If you do it right all the time, you’re going to have the perfect outcome.”
During a Tuesday evening class for students ages 6 to 9 years old, Raba and instructor Monroe Hall demonstrated movements and gave the children pointers as they practiced the techniques themselves.
“The goal isn’t to get it right the first time. The goal is just to try,” Hall told the students as they attempted to either down their opponent or push them out of the rectangular boundaries outlined by yellow, orange, green and white jiu-jitsu belts.
Raba started learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu about 14 years ago at the Yamasaki Academy in Rockville. He was looking for an activity to burn off some extra energy and help him deal with his emotions, but lifting weights simply wasn’t cutting it.
“I had some issues not only with energy but also with a little bit of anger and not knowing how to filtrate my energy,” he said.
Raba found the cure with jiu-jitsu, but he also found something more: a community.
“The people that I train with are my family. I love them,” he said. “They have an issue, I try to help them. I have an issue, they try to help me too.”
At the Conquest Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Academy in Millersville, Raba trained under instructor Vicente Júnior, who had learned from famed teacher Ricardo De La Riva, inventor of the De La Riva guard technique.
“It’s really an honor having learned from [Júnior],” Raba said. “I learned that technique from the second generation of that technique.”
Júnior, a fourth-degree black belt, led a Brazilian jiu-jitsu seminar at Guardian Baltimore on Feb. 15, ahead of the studio’s official opening on Feb. 18.
Now a black belt himself, Raba wants to pass down his knowledge and love for jiu-jitsu to community members in Baltimore.
The idea for Guardian Baltimore was inspired by Raba’s friend and fellow jiu-jitsu enthusiast Ben Kovacs, whom Raba met at the Yamasaki Academy.
After moving to California to work for Twitter, Kovacs realized the cost of jiu-jitsu classes wasn’t accessible to a lot of people, so he quit his job to create a less expensive alternative. His Guardian Gym, in Oakland, California, teaches boxing and kickboxing in addition to Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Raba and his wife visited Kovacs a few years ago and saw the impact their friend was having on the Oakland community. That inspired Raba to start his own studio here in Baltimore.
Guardian Baltimore offers free Brazilian jiu-jitsu and yoga classes to children 6-17 years old, which it funds through memberships from adult students as well as donations.
Adults who want to test the waters or who don’t want to commit to a full plan can pay $20 per class in jiu-jitsu or yoga. Memberships do have the added benefit of being tax deductible because Guardian Baltimore is a 501c3 nonprofit.
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Raba said.
Like Kovacs, Raba realized that other Brazilian jiu-jitsu and yoga classes are too expensive for some families. And sometimes children are left home alone while their parents are working or running errands, and those kids might get into trouble without supervision, he added.
“It’s not that [the parents] don’t care,” Raba said. “It’s that our system has kind of failed in telling them they cannot afford not to have three jobs and you cannot afford daycare.”
So, Raba sought to provide a free option for parents to bring their children to, where those kids can also get physical and mental exercise through jiu-jitsu or yoga.
Raba added that jiu-jitsu is a martial art and that while practicing it can be fun, it is not for play.
“The only time we use jiu-jitsu outside of class is in competitions or for self-defense,” he told his students.
Luz Rosado, the mother of three sons enrolled in jiu-jitsu classes at Guardian Baltimore, said the program benefits the community by giving children a positive and productive outlet.
“It helps kids stay out of the streets and gives them something to do” she said. “I see plenty of kids running around in the streets and this gets them out of the streets.”
Rosado said her sons–Christian Sarabia, 13; Emilio Sarabia, 12; and Ethan Sarabia, 8–struggle to burn off their pent-up energy, just like Raba did before he began jiu-jitsu.
But now they can do that.
“They have too much energy, but we’re here learning to control that hyperactive part,” she said.
Christian said he enjoys learning jiu-jitsu in case he ever needs to use it as a means of self-defense.
“I like how we practice and in the future we may be able to use it if we have to do it,” he said.
His brother Emilio liked learning the “shrimp technique” to wriggle out of an opponent’s grasp on the ground.
Raba said jiu-jitsu can offer many lessons: independence as opponents face off one-on-one; respect for their partner when either participant has had enough and taps out; socialization by practicing with partners from a variety of backgrounds and skill levels; and teamwork by lifting up fellow jiu-jitsu participants, whether in the classroom or at competitions.
“The whole thing is that jiu-jitsu is not only for self-defense,” he said. “It’s also for support.”
As a chef, Raba said he also wanted to teach kids another lesson from the kitchen: the importance of a well-rounded meal.
Once the studio has gathered enough students, Raba said it will begin serving snacks from Halethorpe-based boxed meal provider The Lunchbox Lady. It was important to him because some children may not be able to get enough healthy foods at home.
“You have to have fuel in your system,” he said. “You have to re-energize your body… If you don’t eat, the growth process stops.”
Guardian Studio has bathrooms and showers, and Raba is planning to build a study space where children can do homework before and after lessons to make sure they are not only knowledgeable jiu-jitsu students, but excel in school as well.
The studio also provides jiu-jitsu uniforms for the kids, which Raba said the business will wash–kids just have to remember to bring their belts to class.
Some day, Raba hopes to have a life-changing impact on his jiu-jitsu students.
“One of my biggest things that I would like would be a kid, in 20 years, come to my kids and say: ‘You’re the son of Carlos Raba and Claudia Carias. They were the owners of Guardian and thanks to them I went to college.'”
He added that, as the owner of a family-run business, it is important for him to demonstrate to his kids that he is working jobs that he loves, both at Guardian Baltimore and Clavel.
“It’s not just a 9-5 that I go sit down and let the people dictate what I do,” he said. “This is something that I try to be creative and try to show people my passion and make a living and show them how I did it.”
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