Systema – How we choose to train

Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness;
let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head;
let my head not refuse it.

Psalm 141:5 NKJV

I recently visited Toronto for 2 weeks of Systema training. As always, the experience was incredible, the demonstrations were phenomenal and the training was both deep and profound.  My journey home was an 18 hour drive back to the United States and I thought quite a bit about these 2 weeks.  I had seen and learned so very much.  The drills were powerful, my partners were great, and the demonstration portion of class was amazing.  On several occasions I was even fortunate enough to take part in the demonstrations.  As always, the work shown by my instructors was impeccable.  I still have much to learn indeed.

After each class, I spent some time writing out my thoughts. Since returning home, I have read these journal notes over several times.  Hidden beneath the descriptions of the drills that I enjoyed, the feelings that I experienced, and the weaknesses that I need to fortify, there was an underlying foundation of truth that began to come into view. Bit by bit I began to piece together the big picture of what I REALLY learned.  I began to see ever more clearly that Systema is not so much concerned with WHAT skills are being trained, but rather, HOW those skills are being trained.  Let me explain.

The truth is every martial art is concerned in one way or another about the “WHAT” aspect of training – kicks, throws, strikes, weapons work, ground work, grappling, etc.  Many arts even define themselves by the WHAT.  Tae Kwon Do for instance is associated with leg work.  In Jiu Jitsu the name of the game is ground work.  In boxing, strike work.  In many Filipino arts, weapons work.  The list goes on and on.  So many martial arts become categorized in this way because of their focus on WHAT they are learning. Systema on the other hand is notoriously difficult to define in this way – it refuses to be boxed in or pigeon holed by any one aspect of martial skill.  It has a powerful, enduring way that transcends every category of “WHAT”.

Is there a “WHAT” that can properly define Systema? Is there an overarching idea big enough to contain what this amazing system has to offer? Perhaps.  After my recent experiences in Toronto, I would say that my best answer to this question is Mastery in Life.  This is perhaps the only “WHAT” definition that, for me, is broad enough to encapsulate what Systema has to offer.  In truth though, Systema is not actually a “WHAT”, but instead a “HOW”.  It is not in itself a skill, but instead the method by which skills are attained.

In Systema we train in everything from strikes, to grabs, to kicks, to weapons work – you name it.  Each class is unique and challenging in its own way.  I would like to share with you a few truths that may be helpful.

1) Attitude: To learn, one must have humility.  It doesn’t matter how many years of training you have, the day that you think you “already know this stuff” is the day that you stop improving and start declining.  This also includes care for your training partners and not showing off.  Just as iron sharpens iron, your care for your partner will ultimately repay you with a higher level of skill in your own work.

2) Goals: Often times martial arts trainees think that the sole reason for their training is to learn how to “win”.  The real goal is to understand and master the self.  If you come to class filled with desire to “win” or to “be the best”, then you will be psychologically out of balance – any “defeat” will negatively affect your desire to train.  On the other hand, if you come to class primarily seeking to discover and expand your own physical and psychological limitations, you will never be disappointed.

I have heard it said that our mistakes can be considered failures only if we refuse to learn from them.  Your goal should simply be to find the limits of your best work and strive to make your best work better.  This mindset will propel you ever more quickly toward mastery in every area of your work.

3) Training Methods: One of the most beautiful features of Systema is its undeniable ability to interweave relaxation, simplicity and power into movement.  When you watch masters like Vladimir or Mikhail work you instantly realize just how effective simple movements can be. Your approach to training should always be to foster QUALITY of movement rather than QUANTITY of movement.

A pearl of wisdom from an experienced Systema instructor Emmanuel Manolakakis was for me to study how to do MORE with LESS.  A good way of doing this is limit myself to training at 50% or less of my power capacity i.e. learn to control the movements of my training partners using less than half of my strength and energy at any given moment.  At first I was a bit skeptical, but as the training sessions wore on I began to experience definite benefits.  By keeping a tight rein on the amount of energy I was expending, I was able to identify weaknesses in my work much more readily.

I once had to pull several large nails out of a timber using nothing but a small pair of pliers.  I struggled, twisted, yanked, forced and pulled my way to several hand injuries during the process. It was so frustrating.  I remember remarking to myself that this job would be so much easier if only I had a hammer.  I did eventually pull all of the nails out of the timber with the pliers, but only at the cost of an immense amount of time, energy and frustration (not to mention the cuts and scrapes on my knuckles).

Similarly, in my own Systema training, I often find myself working too hard to achieve a given result.  The movements will often work, but they require a large amount of physical effort on my part. I am in essence using a pair of pliers when all I really need is a hammer.  By limiting the amount of power and energy that I use when training, it forces me to, in a sense, reach deeper into the toolbox of available movements to discover a more effective way of working.

While participating in a demonstration with Vladimir in Toronto, I was amazed at how his movements were the perfect solution to my attacks against him.  His work was like that of a wise carpenter in a workshop full of tools.  He never once used the wrong tool for the job at hand, and as such, his work was simple, efficient and extremely effective.

This should become the approach that each of us takes to our work in Systema – to eliminate excess tension from the body and progress ever forward from complex, powerless movements toward simpler, more powerful and efficient movements.

As we all help one another in training and understanding Systema, I have no doubts that each of us will grow quickly and powerfully. May the joy of Systema continue sweeping the globe as each of us continues on our journey toward mastery in life.


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