Nova Scotia

Free jiu-jitsu classes offer women more than self-defence

A gym in Halifax's north end offers free Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes to women. Those who train there say it's equipped them with more than skills on the mat.

Courtney Pratt teaches the martial art to women for free every Sunday at the Bushido-Kai gym in Halifax

The free Sunday classes attract a range of ages. Newcomers can also borrow uniforms. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

Lori Brown isn't afraid to tackle a stranger. 

She's part of a group of women who practise Brazilian jiu-jitsu at a gym in Halifax's north end. Over the past seven years, she said she's learned to push her own boundaries.

"Some of the big guys when they're laying on top of you, you want to tap before they do anything. But no … you learn to be comfortable in the uncomfortable position you're in," she said.

The combat sport teaches techniques that allow smaller people to defend themselves against someone larger. People grapple — the term for sparring — and fight on the ground using chokeholds and joint locks.

Lori Brown says jiu-jitsu has taught her how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

Brown was drawn to the martial art seven years ago after earning her black belt in judo and boxing competitively. The challenge of it hooked her.

Now she trains — with men and women — up to five times a week. She said the people she rolls with have become like family.

"The support system, if anything ever happens, they're all right there to help you. I don't think my life would be the same if it wasn't for having jiu-jitsu," she said. 

Courtney Pratt and one of the women she trains demonstrate proper technique. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Courtney Pratt, one of the few female jiu-jitsu instructors in Nova Scotia, offers free drop-in classes for women at Bushido-Kai Martial Arts Academy every Sunday afternoon.

Newcomers can borrow uniforms, and a variety of skill levels meet on the mat.

"We wanted to make jiu-jitsu as accessible as possible to women," she said. "It was a cause that was really, really important to me."

When Pratt started training a decade ago and when she wanted to compete there were no other women to practise with. Naturally introverted, she said the sport has drawn her out. 

"I would not be able ... to teach a class, I would not have a lot of the confidence I discovered with doing jiu-jitsu, and being able to teach jiu-jitsu," she said. 

Courtney Pratt has been offering free classes for women on Sundays for seven years. (CBC)

Pratt doesn't focus on teaching the sport as self-defence or a way for people to guard themselves. But she said it's important for people to know their own strength. 

"Just having that confidence if I walked down the street and someone ended up with me on the ground that I'm going to be OK," she said. 

Some of her students were motivated to learn jiu-jitsu after being assaulted, she said. 

"It's given them a confidence, not just that they can defend themselves, but just being much more able to be able to just be OK with themselves," she said. 

Karlie Zschogner (in white) rolls during her first jiu-jitsu class. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

Karli Zschogner, a journalism student who wants to focus on issues related to gender-based violence, decided to try the sport after hearing about the free classes. 

"It's just really important for women to know, if something happens, they know their body and what their body is capable of doing," she said. 

After her first class, she said she'd be heading back. 

"When you're kinda intimidating by getting up close and personal with people you don't really know, it's a bit nerve-racking but everyone is super helping getting you on the spot and what you can do."

About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Over the past 11 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to


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