I’ve always enjoyed looking at bonsai trees, they truly are an amazing art form. Bonsai has been practiced for over 1000 years in Japan, and before that a similar practice called Penjing thrived in China at least as early as 600AD. The Japanese brought their own unique perspective to the practice though.

The Japanese believe that by shaping nature with human hands and ideals they can turn natural beauty into true beauty. "A tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one." The Tale of the Hollow Tree, Utsubo Monogatari, 970AD

No two bonsai are alike, although they all have things in common. Even though the trees are unique, it is sometimes possible for experts to recognize the hand of a particular bonsai master, and determine who shaped the tree. This is similar to the way an art expert might be able to tell who painted a painting he has never seen before, or the way you can sometimes tell what school a BJJ player comes from by recognizing elements of his game that are characteristic of his teacher.

Bonsai all have a tray or a pot that they are planted in. Although many different trays or pots might work, the best bonsai are in harmony with their container. The container and the tree ‘fit’ one another and each compliments the other. The choice of a pot shouldn’t be taken lightly. Although mature bonsai can be moved to a different container, it creates a large amount of stress on the plant, and shouldn’t be done frivolously or carelessly. A bonsai pot is like our BJJ school associations or teams. They are a place for use to grow, and we will develop best when we are in harmony with them.

Bonsai trees have a root system hidden below the soil in the pot. In order for the tree to grow and flourish, it’s roots should be strong and deep. The tree gets all of its nourishment from through it’s root system. Weak roots will make the tree will wither and die. Strong roots can also help the tree recover in case of trauma or injury. The roots of our Jiu-Jitsu game are our teachers, instructors and training partners.

The trunk of a bonsai should be stable and strong, but still slightly flexible. It might snap if it is too rigid and can’t bend in the breeze. The trunk supports all of the branches, but it also transports nutrients from the roots, and energy from the leaves. The trunk is the first part of the bonsai that most people will see and really notice, it’s where the artistic part of the tree starts. But the form, or appearance, of the trunk is not as important as it’s function. The trunk is like your fundamental game. Without solid fundamentals it will be impossible to support many branches.

The branches and leaves of the bonsai are the most expressive parts of the tree. They can be wide and low, sparse and tall, straight or crooked. Their overall shape should honor the basic nature of the tree, but they also reflect the personality of the artist who shapes and prunes them. And if the branches aren’t pruned and maintained the tree will become a mess with no structure or shape. The leaves and branches are like your techniques, transitions, and series. Take care of and develop what you use, and prune what you don’t. Don’t try to grow in new branches to fill out every possible space, give yourself some room. Focus on developing the main branches first.

If you decide to take up the hobby, remember that you can’t speed up the process of growing a bonsai. Even though some people might go out and purchase a mature plant, or even a plastic tree, that’s missing the whole point. The pleasure of the bonsai comes from going through the process of growing it.

- Bill Thomas