Every evening, jiujitsu practitioners cluster on cushioned mats at Ohana Academy, a gym near the San Antonio International Airport. Dressed in white, black, and blue gis – the uniform of the sport, similar to the one used in judo – they pair up and practice techniques with each other. Off to the side, Cindy Gleason spars against another student, both struggling to pin the other down.

The 43-year-old anesthesiologist steps onto the mat at Ohana Academy on Jones Maltsberger Road as many times a week as her work will allow her. She’s not the average jiujitsu student; only about 20 percent of the gym’s members are female, and many of the students are younger.

“It’s the family aspect that keeps me coming back,” she said.

For Gleason, that means not only the feeling of camaraderie among her fellow jiujitsu practitioners at the gym, but the chance to spend time with her daughter, who also attends Ohana Academy.

The academy prides itself on its family mentality, said Gabe Reynaga, the facility’s general manager. Some martial-arts gyms have cliques, where the aspiring pro fighters don’t associate with people simply looking for a new fitness regimen, but everyone works well together at the Academy, he said. And everyone earns points at tournaments that they participate in together, resulting in five shiny team trophies displayed prominently in the front lobby.

“We [have everyone] from a doctor to the guy who wants to fight in the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship],” Reynaga said. “Whether you want to lose weight or compete, we want everyone to feel like they’re part of a family.”

Gleason started jiujitsu a month after her 12-year-old daughter Neona signed up for classes. Though she works anywhere between 40 to 70 hours a week at the South Texas Medical Center, she dedicates between two to 10 hours weekly to jiujitsu, a form of martial art based on grappling, rather than striking, an opponent and fighting on the ground.

With her busy schedule, Gleason values the activity as a bonding opportunity. Neona is only 20 pounds lighter than Gleason, so the two can practice with each other and often do. They even have a space dedicated to the sport at home.

“If she makes a class and I’m not around, we go upstairs where we have mats on the floor, and we’ll say, ‘Oh, let me show you this,’” Gleason said. “As far as a tool in my relationship with my daughter, it’s been incredible. It’s given us something we do together.”

Gleason said she’s always been active, scuba diving and sailing with her husband. He doesn’t practice jiujitsu, but will sometimes watch from the sidelines.

“I’ve always been in shape, but I’ve never done any competitive sports,” Gleason said. “I figured I’d try [jiujitsu] out.”

Gleason and Neona will be competing in the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation’s Austin Summer International Open Championship later in July. With fewer female participants in the sport, each was the only individual in her age, weight, and gender group. Gleason will face an opponent one weight class up and one age class down, while Neona will compete against someone one weight class and one age group up.

Still, Gleason feels practicing a male-dominated martial art is beneficial for both her and her daughter.

“It’s not just the physical confidence, it also teaches you psychological confidence,” she said. “It makes you comfortable with confrontation, protecting yourself. That’s a psychology not all girls have but should.”

Jiujitsu requires a different kind of strategy from other martial arts – it’s more cerebral, Gleason said. She practices arm bars and sweeps with her classmates, starting out lying on the ground and twisting herself free by gripping her opponent’s jacket and using her legs to flip right-side-up.

“You’re waiting for people to make mistakes,” she said.

A jujitsu exercise is demonstrated in front of the class as students observe. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Gleason’s white belt marks her as a beginner, though she’s been practicing jiujitsu for nearly a year. There are five belts total in jiujitsu for adults: white, blue, purple, brown, and black. It takes anywhere from eight to 12 years of training to receive a black belt. Gleason has not given herself a firm timeline but plans on continuing her training for the foreseeable future.

“It’s OK that my body doesn’t do the same stuff other people’s do,” she said. “You have to keep it in perspective for what you’re capable of. And as a group, everyone is very respectful of that. They don’t expect me to step into the mat and learn crazy fast. They expect me to do my best.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.