Archive for the ‘Marital Arts’ Category

Systema – How we choose to train

July 11, 2012

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.


Stealth Systema and Mirror Neurons

July 4, 2012

It is interesting to see, how keen observation of human behavior can be translated into extremely efficient and deceptive fighting principles. What I am about to discuss is essentially nothing new to the experienced Systema practitioner. In fact, we have heard Mikhail Ryabko and Vladimir Vasiliev talk about these principles over and over again. What is fascinating, however, is to see these principles verified by current research in neuroscience.

Understanding in simple terms how things actually work (or might work) in the nervous system can help us to be more specific and successful in our training.

Have you ever wondered how we can sense other people’s movements, intentions and emotions? How we read facial expressions or can control expressing our emotions? Can we really trust our gut feelings? What makes our movements visible or invisible and how does conscious thought and tension interfere with intuitive subconscious action? Where does fighting originate in us? … In other words, what makes Systema such an effective combat art?

All of these questions have something in common, namely Mirror Neurons – MNs (neuron means nerve cell).

Until recently, it was always thought that we would figure out the opponents’ intentions and movements by doing the following. We first observe them, then create a mental picture and evaluate their movement and expressions through intellectual thinking based on our experience and acquired rules. The discovery of MNs has shown us that our brains have much more elegant and efficient ways.

In short, when we observe another person, our brain will mirror or immediately perform this person’s actions using MNs in our own “brain programs”. This happens without us activating our muscles and without our conscious awareness. However, everything else is as if we were doing it for real. Our brains will activate hormones and link up emotions and feelings as well as memories just as if we were moving ourselves. The only conscious experience we may have of this mirroring is a “gut feeling”. This elegant method allows us to immediately figure out an opponent’s intentions via our own intentions that we would have, if using those movements, facial expressions, etc.

We can see that when Systema practitioners execute natural and non-threatening movements, it will be confusing for an adversaries or even invisible until it is too late. Thus, their reactions to our actions will be inappropriately delayed. This is what makes our actions invisible and effective. Good Systema actions are simply invisible in the context of their meaning and since the brain sees things instead of the eyes those actions can be literally invisible to the brain!

Systema Breathing Tips for Perfect Shooting

June 6, 2012

There is a key factor in Systema shooting, which has to do with breathing. Shooting in real situations and therefore in Systema training is done mostly on the move. Thus you cannot apply breath holds as recommended by many other schools of shooting. When actively moving about, the body’s oxygen demand is high and breath holding would lead to excessive excitation of one’s psyche and muscle tone. Therefore, breathing on the move should circulate freely and continuously.

Hence the need for the correct type of breathing, which does not affect the shoulder level even at a very high work load. This means that inhalation and exhalation should be done mostly with the diaphragm and abdomen, rather than chest and shoulders. Let’s use a simple drill to check if your breathing is a good fit for shooting on the move.

Take 10 pebbles and throw them into a tree trunk from a distance of about 15 ft (4-5 m). Do not spend more than 15 seconds for the 10 throws. Complete 3 series of 10 throws each and calculate your average success rate (total number of hits divided by the number of series). Then complete 25 squats while holding your breath, then as you start recovery, immediately do 10 throws in less than 15 seconds. Remember your result.

Then do the same after 25 pushups while holding your breath, then after 25 leg raises, also with breath holding. Calculate your new average success rate and compare it with the previous result achieved with normal breathing.

Note that the number of Systema core exercises (squats, pushups and leg raises) can be less or more depending on your physical abilities.

If the new result is lower by 30% (i.e. by 3 hits per series) or more, then you most likely have adopted a counterproductive type of breathing not suitable for shooting on the move. This means that during intensive breathing you engage your shoulders, neck and many other muscles that are not needed for the task.  This in turn brings excessive tension to the body and psyche.

So, how does one develop correct breathing? It’s very simple! Practice Systema breathing exercises gradually and regularly. Once in a while ask someone experienced to observe your breathing and provide feedback.

Systema Strikes, Fists and Knowledge

May 30, 2012

Earlier this year, I attended Vladimir’s Seminars on Strikes Physical and Psychological Preparation. And once again Vlad proved why Systema is the BEST.

Many people probably thought that a seminar on strikes would consist of just being hit; well it was much more than that. I will try to explain the TRUTH and KNOWLEDGE I discovered. It has been said that you can see my eyes but you don’t know what I am seeing, you can see my tongue and not know what I am tasting. Once you attend at Systema HQ you really know that school is in. Vlad gave a detailed description on what he was about to cover, why and what you can expect. His calmness slowly easing the apprehension that I felt, I suspect many others did too after viewing the DVD on Strikes.

One has to learn to pay close attention to what Vlad says and does because Vlad teaches through three different languages: his words, his body language and the language of courage and inner strength.

We began with breathwork and walking exercise, but without looking down. That exercise proved to be great when the first round of striking came. I was able to strike my partner without looking at where my fist was being placed, therefore, not letting him to see where the strikes were going.

Pushups and fist-walking on my partner’s body made me understand how to achieve sensitivity in my fists. When I felt the soft areas, it was like my fists wanted to go right through him, and when I felt bone or hard spots, I was able to adjust the amount of tension in my fist to avoid hurting myself.

To explain the day’s events I would say it was like learning to row a boat. We started out in very calm waters (locating the origins and patterns of breath and tension). Then a few unique strikes with direction (choppy waters). Then back to calm waters (with Systema core exercises easing the apprehension of being struck). I realized that as the time went by, the apprehension really dissipated. I finally found out why my hammer fist was more potent than my straight punch. Every now and then Vlad would say “make the fist heavy” and showed what he meant. But it was not until day 2 that the lights really came on. I am now somewhat laughing at myself, thinking that on the previous seminar, I thought that I had understood Systema. Vlad proved me wrong, in a good way. Saturdays session on strikes and Sundays session were two different lessons, but on the same subject. Learning something in Systema is understanding a particular Systema subject, but not Systema on the whole, because Systema has multiple layers, it is very very deep. Systema gives you the freedom to be truthful to thy self, enabling you to be truthful to others and share the knowledge. Knowledge we can take with us throughout our lives.

The part of the lesson where Vlad was demonstrating built-in angles in our bodies, it was quite amazing. If you imagine a Tank, APC or any armored type vehicle, you would see sharp angles incorporated into their design, thus, greatly improving this type of vehicles survival abilities. So there Vlad was being punched at and on, and at that moment, it seems as though he took on a slightly different stance. A very precise 45 degree, and his posture, more erect when the strikes came (unlike traditional martial arts that use blocks with strikes). He was able to deploy these angles in his body with his breath work, by the way of subtle movements and at times allowing the strikes to hit and deflect, suppressing and at the same time giving him the capability to counter the strikes. Not only counter, but deliver a surgical strike or two in one movement, which causes a mental disruption, as though he was fighting on two fronts (the mental and physical). In a sense he was like a tank. He made and maintained contact while staying in the moment and pushing through. While his body language was saying “guys, look there are times when situations arise outside of our control, but one thing we always have control over is how we respond”, this is how we survive.

While doing facial strikes, a Systema HQ instructor Max mentioned that my fists were dry. I have never heard the term before, but he explained and showed it as having no power in the fists. That was my moment of enlightenment. When Max touched my face with his fist, it felt as though a weight was against my face. His response was light as a feather, but his fists, heavy as lead. At that moment I can recall looking right into his eyes and I saw Mikhail’s FIST and that swift movement from Vlad and Sergey from Movement and Precision DVD. Big respect to Max for transferring those images to my mind through his fist.

In closing, I would like to say, the seminar taught me that Courage is not in blindly overlooking danger, but in seeing it and conquering it.

Systema – The Short Route to Knowledge

March 14, 2012

To me, the essence of Systema is learning to deal with any unfavorable environment, which means increasing the chances of survival. One cannot account for every possible negative scenario that we may encounter in life. Therefore, we cannot prepare for each possibility separately. Instead, we need to prepare for all at once. Thus in Systema, the specific techniques and methods of work are not as important as the changes occurring in the student’s body and psyche.

My service in the army also taught me to overcome any negative impacts. The thing is, I had to learn differently, through overcoming myself. Over the course of four years of study at the military school, by running I have probably circled the Earth. We would run so much daily, morning, day or night, in freezing cold and sweltering heat, always wearing boots and uniforms, often with weapons and full gear, sometimes on skis, through obstacle courses, through the woods, across fields, on- or off-road. I hated running with my guts. I would ask myself – “at the age of cars, IVFs, APCs and all kinds of armored vehicles why, oh why do we need to run and march on foot so much?” Back then I could not answer that question.

In addition to that, physical training was also a part of other disciplines such as tactics, firearms, topography, defense from weapons of mass destruction, or military vehicles. This “PE component” included many miles of walking or running with weapons and gear, often wearing personal protection equipment; timed getting in and out of vehicles; loading / unloading ammo; mounting and taking down weapons, among other “pleasures”. In short, during the first two years I moved about exclusively by either marching or running. I kept asking that same question “Why do we need this?” even in my dreams!

Suddenly, after the graduation and getting to my first assignment, I got it. I knew why I had suffered. My commanders and teachers had helped me develop a stable psyche and stamina – the two qualities that determine one’s readiness to withstand negative impacts, and therefore survive. As the old military saying goes “what does not kill you makes you stronger”. Indeed, by overcoming yourself, you can tap into inconceivable powers! I realized that I had this internal strength, and so did my subordinates. Otherwise, they would not have followed my command.

So, the army taught me well to overcome myself, while Systema teaches self-understanding. In the army I shaped myself through a variety of drills, while in Systema I can develop myself directly. Under a good Systema instructor, this is a shorter route. Yes, there are drills, but I know exactly how each one changes me and why. I can build myself from the ground up, discover and correct my own shortcomings and strengthen the qualities I need. Systema is a marvelous, subtle instrument of self-development, which helps build a sound foundation for any movement, any activity. And not so much through overcoming but more through understanding yourself. Trust me – this process is faster and much more enjoyable.

Try a little experiment. Watch a video recording of a relatively simple dance (modern or folk) and try to copy the moves for a minute. If it is working, you are on a right Systema path. See, Systema training gives your body freedom to easily repeat any unusual and complex moves.

Systema. About Awareness

February 23, 2012

Hyper-vigilance is a survival tool employed by many who live and work in threat rich environments. As a tool it does work on a temporary basis, however, it comes with many problems.

Hyper-vigilance is not sustainable. High levels of arousal strain and fatigue our bodies, wreak havoc in our relationships and will eventually degrade …skill to a point where we are not able to work competently.

Awareness on the other hand is a sign of profoundly healthy psyche and body. Awareness lends itself to empathy, realistic evaluation of threats and contextual overall efficiency.

While hyper-vigilance creates tunnel vision, awareness expands response options.

The question is, how do we train to be deeply connected and aware of our environ and our situation?

Masters such as Vladimir Vasiliev and Konstantin Komarov perceive the world differently than we do. They are able to tune in or out of the rhythms and frequencies of their surroundings and see, experience a richer dimension than most of us.

I believe from my own experiences that we can train to move towards this greater connection physiologically, through our bodies.

Three events culminated in my coming to this position.

3 fifteen minute massages from Big Sergei :), working with the breath hold and recovery while walking, rolling and moving, and hearing that Russian agents tasked with capturing the enemy could be trained in as little as 6 weeks.

I saw for myself that our ability to perceive, to truly see, could be GREATLY enhanced by lowering our baseline level of tension. In Systema, training could be done at various intensity levels and it always brings amazing results. Awareness is healthier for us as humans than hyper-vigilance and makes threat detection laughably easy.

Systema. Training for life

November 2, 2011

I have recently realized something that is now really helping me in my training and I figured it could be of interest to other Systema practitioners out there too.

I guess, I shall start with the commentary often heard in seminars and classes (I think the first time I heard it was from Konstantin Komarov). It was “SYSTEMA BREAKS YOUR WORLD OF ILLUSION”. How?

When a newcomer enters Systema class, he has some sort of a preconceived idea regardless of his previous martial background. As a matter of fact, he might actually have many more pre-conceived ideas if he has had experience. These ideas are based on his physical abilities, his ability to move with another human being, control stress and pain and (let’s not even mention fighting). Well, soon enough all these ideas that constituted his form of reality – collapse. He quickly realizes that he cannot breathe, handle stress, wrestle those who seemed to be much weaker opponents, perform simple drills like staying on his fists in a push-up position for more than 2 minutes, put his legs behind his head and let’s not even start with breath holds!

In short, if the newcomer does not run away or resort to violence (two typical human reactions when facing fear), he will soon realize that what he knew about martial art can no longer be accepted as “real” and that there is much more to it. This is a great opportunity to learn the right way but it is also scary. It is even more frightening when one realizes that “THIS APPLIES TO EVERYTHING WE DO”. And this is something that I particularly love about Systema. Systema principles, whether they concern a certain exercise, a form of training or fighting in general, they apply to all parts of life. Anyway, let’s continue… To venture out of one’s world of illusions is not something most people would dare to do. A golden cage is a very comfortable thing and the first step is to realize that one is in a prison. This is harder than we think because most of us have been raised on fear and lies. To break out and step into the unknown means leaving a lot of what we knew behind and admitting we were wrong in many ways. Freedom is gained at that price…

Now the above may sound a bit too abstract to some of the readers. So what is the real value? In my opinion, the best application would be to look at our weaknesses honestly while training and not postpone them to a future imaginary world. Let me explain…

Let’s say you are wrestling or doing some grab/escape with a partner or doing some knife work. Imagine that, for whatever reasons, you cannot get much done and you are constantly overpowered with better skills or experience. A natural reaction that I was personally falling for (for years actually) was to tell myself “oh yes, he is stronger here in training but in real life I would do this or that and I would get him” …Unfortunately and sorry to say but this is a lie. In real life, things will only get worse. So whatever you think you’ll do in real life, why don’t you try it in training? I mean TO A REASONABLE DEGREE, don’t go stab a friend in the eye just to prove something (this would not be a learning experience and life brings enough drama anyway). Don’t try to go faster either because that would be a lie too. Enough has been said about slow work in Systema but I can always expand on that next time for the interested readers. Simply try to move with this idea of reality and see how the other person reacts.

If it is not going anywhere close to where you want it to go, do something else, bring it to the ground, keep moving ALWAYS OBSERVING WHAT GOES ON INSIDE OF YOU; check yourself!

It might be hard to face your weaknesses and fears by looking at them honestly and accepting them but it is the only chance we have to work on them. Most of us have the luxury to live in a time of relative peace so we have a great opportunity to take our time, train truthfully and not be lazy. To state that we have all the time we want is of course relative, we will all die at some point. I read something that fits well here “use your time in constant pursuit of education and self-improvement. Time is limited but to recognize this urgency is a positive thing, for a warrior turns it into an advantage to clear his mind and focus his attention towards his objectives whatever they may be, day in and day out…”

We should train like we’d fight and live like we train, otherwise what would be the point…  Honestly, we train for life here… it is as simple as that.