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Monday, 20 June 2011

Fractal Systema

I mentioned in a previous blog the idea of concious / subconcious learning. It's an important aspect of the way we train and perhaps needs a little explanation, especially for anyone new to the System
At his recent London workshop Martin Wheeler was recounting a recent sparring session with Vladimir. They were groundfighting and Martin, despite being no slouch when it comes to groundwork, said he found himself being effortlessly outclassed by Vladimir. When he asked how this could be - after all, Martin has considerable experience in BJJ and other grappling styles, Vladimir replied "you have good knowledge, but my body has more knowledge".
What does this mean? To my mind it means this - through his training Vladimir has arrived at a state where his body "knows" how to react to any stimulus applied to it. At this level technique becomes irrelevant, the work is pure instinct - not only that but the instinct itself is highly tuned to a state of survival. How to arrive at this state? I think by making your work geared to training your instinct to react in the appropriate way - and the main way to do that is through sub-concious training to aquire "body knowledge".

But can't we just rely on our natural instinct? After all, you touch something hot, you move faster than you will ever move in your life. Well yes...and no... the problem is that "natural instinct" can lead us to different reactions. In essence there are only three possible reactions to a stimulus - and this applies on a cellular level upward. Test carried out on cells have shown that they will move towards a source of nutrients and away from a source of poison. Something indeterminate - there is no movement.

So those are our three options when faced with a stimulus - we move towards it, away from it, or stay still. This happens on a subconcious level. We know from studying body language that a person talking to someone they don't really like will manifest that feeling in some way - their feet may point away, they may lean back or frequently glance away. We can be "repulsed" by something - think of something horrible, picture a big pile of dog crap on your desk - how does your body react? You moved back I'm guessing!

The other option is to move forwards. The stronger the bond the more demonstrative the movement. We hug family, shake hands with colleagues, nod and smile at acquaintances. But it is all "positive" forward movement. If we are not sure - we falter. We teeter, back and forward or side to side - indecision (which incidentally is the state in which we are most susceptible to suggestion)

To put this into a conflict / self defence terms we have the option of flight, fight or freeze. The first two are obvious - we try and escape the danger or we tackle it. The freeze option can come about through fear or indecision leading to tension. It might also come about through "if I don't move he won't see me"

These options work at a sub-concious level within us, but can be modified and tuned. For example someone experience in handling firearms is not likely to flinch when one is shot, whereas someone who has never fired a gun will. But how do we access this sub-concious level in order to work with it?

Breathing is the first step and the major link between what goes on outside and what goes on inside. As we know, regulating our breath plays a major role in controlling the psyche. This in itself is a concious act at first - or at least it is in adults, most of us lose the natural abilities of the child in this respect. Over time it becomes the natural reaction to adjust the psyche through the breath - something makes you jump and you are in burst breathing before you know it.

This also has to be translated into physical movement and the first level of this is simply moving away from the source of pain. It may be a stick, knife, chain or fist, but just the "simple" act of avoiding it is informing the body on a sub-concsious level when and were to move. What I mean by sub-concious level is this - when running the swinging the stick drill, for example, we don't sit down beforehand and discuss in detail the bio-mechanics involved in taking a step. Nor do we have people do the movements without a stick present, just pretending it is there. In both cases the body is not learning - in the first because the information is intellectual, in the second because the threat to the body is imaginary.

Now I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with intellectual learning in martial arts. There are many areas of training where studying the how's, why's or mechanics can be interesting and useful. But it should be should be used to back up the physical training, not replace it.

As for the types of practice that rely on imagination such as forms / kata - in my view they are far less useful. You can imagine all you like, at some level the body knows that there is no opponent in front of you. In fact I think they can be counter-productive, in that how you imagine something is rarely how it actually is - and your body will react to what actually is rather than what you imagine.

So we extend this idea out through all of our training. Whatever the drill is, just do it. Don't worry too much about getting it right or looking a certain way,. Iif the drill is to avoid the stick and you avoid it - job done. If you can avoid one stick well, great - then let's try two. Once you have this basic movement idea down and your body can move comfortably, we can add in other factors to the training.

Tactical factors for example - how do you avoid the stick, but move in and take the person down? Or technical factors - what is the best way to apply a lock to the arm? Even here though, the work can be largely "sub-concious" - you learn to do it by doing it, not by reading about it. In this respect the class should be seen as a laboratory where you are free to experiment and find what works best for you. Funnily enough - or not, given we are all basically the same - you will soon find that natural efficiency which characterises the best kind of Systema work. Through training and testing you begin to tune your instinct to the situation. This is where the faith is developed that your body can take care of itself when under threat.

I will admit that to people used to a more apparently "structured" approach this method can seem messy and "unscientific". Some people prefer the comfort of syllabus and grades, and that's fine. But once you look under the surface you find there is a whole lot of structure to Systema, not only that but it is very deep. Some talk about "steps" in training, you go up one level at a time. Some talk about "spirals", you go round in a circle but each time you go up a bit. I think of Systema as fractal - each aspect contains the whole. You can zoom in and see individual shapes, or zoom out and see the bigger picture. You can also zoom in and keep going and going and going......

And that is exactly what this approach allows you to do. I've trained in styles where you do basics, then at a certain level you don't do those things anymore. I find with Systema the basics are advanced and vice versa. This is because you are always working on yourself, not on replicating someone else's movement. Your work is always dynamic and in and of the moment - once it's happened, it's gone. It's a truly creative experience (even in a destructive situation) and this, I think is a one of the factors in the "cleansing" aspect of Systema - as one of our guys mentioned last class "I feel so much better after training"

So when training try and let your body learn - don't over-analyse during (post-drill reviewing is good), just breathe, move, enjoy the experience. Learn to take whatever is thrown at you with a breath and a smile, do whatever is neccesary in the situation then move on to the next challenge!

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