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Friday, 11 May 2012



I've noticed an interesting trend over the past couple of years from two quite different sectors of the martial art / self defence world. Each is looking outside to bring in additional aspects to their syllabus. For some martial art schools this involves incorporating kettlebells, sports science and combat sports into their curriculum. In the case of some self defence schools it involves looking into things like Yoga, Alexander Technique and meditation practices.

I think there are two reasons for this. In the case of martial art schools it is difficult to ignore the huge rise in popularity of MMA, particularly amongst the young. Combat sports have always been around - in my day it was boxing - but nothing like to the extent which MMA now permeates popular culture. This has several effects, some good some bad. One of the main ones is that to many young people an art is deemed ineffective if it has not proven itself in the MMA arena. So from a commercial perspective it might be that schools add  an MMA component  in order to attract new students. Of course it might also be that MMA training is added in to fill  gaps -  groundwork for example if a style doesn't address it. The MMA method  also makes for a good means of pressure testing in certain situations.

When it comes to self defence schools there perhaps comes a realisation that while short-term / gross motor training is useful and yields quick results it is also exactly that - short term. How much depth of training can be put into basic technique - does it become a case of diminshing returns?
If you train beyond a certain point you begin to understand that while technique is a useful, quick easy thing to learn, there is much more to be gained by understanding the underlying principles. There is also a lot to be said for your training being healthy rather than damaging - aside from any general considerations of overall health, an unfit or unhealthy person will have a much tougher time in any self defence situation,

 So we have martial art schools looking to combat sports and sports science and self defence schools looking to bodywork and breathing methods. This can only be a healthy thing, at least when people are upfront about where their knowledge is coming from. But there is a down side - how many hours a day do you have for training? How many evenings a week to go to classes?

Is there an approach that integrates all these elements of training into one? Yes - it’s exactly the approach used in Systema. Of course there are aspects of Systema that can be broken off from the whole and studied indepedently - in fact you could make a new school or style out of these individual components. This approach makes sense if you have specific task-based training to undertake, or if perhaps you prefer only to focus on certain aspects of training. However I think this dilutes the training experience and doesn’t deliver the full range of benefits on offer.

 If we look at the development of Systema we see it is a synthesis of methods derived from a wide range of sources. Some are traditional (old sword, fist-fighting, wrestling methods), some are modern (Soviet sports science research) , some relate to health and well being (massage, bodywork, breathing). Regardless, all have been filtered and refined through extensive research, testing and, most important of all, direct application under extreme conditions. This makes Systema a “work in progress”constantly shaped by the experiences of its users.

 The other important point to make is that unlike a syllabus shaped around the requirements of a style or the requirements of a task-based environment, the emphasis in Systema rests firmly on the individual practitioner. The person is the System. The person is comprised of several systems - cardio-vascular, nervous, skeletal, psychological, etc. The sum total of all these parts is the person and it is through the person that the System comes into being - in much the same way that music only comes into being through being played, not as a collection of dots on a sheet of paper.

In that sense Systema training is already integrated - for convenience we separate out breathing, posture, movement, form, tension/relaxation. The truth is they co-exist in a constant dynamic interplay. You can’t breath without moving. You don’t exist without form. Posture and movement require tension / relaxation. If you are aware of this interplay then even a simple walking drill becomes an exercise in integration. This personal integration is very important. Whatever variables are present in any situation, there is always one constant - you. An understanding of your own “systems” already gives you a big advantage. Understanding interaction with other “systems” is the other half of the coin.

This work is fundamentalas it impacts all other areas of training. We often talk about natural movement, or finding our natural state - what does that mean? You can say that any movement a human can do is “natural” - because if it is impossible to do it is “un-natural”. To me, though , natural movement means that carried out by a balanced, fully functional body. If you look at toddlers you see perfect posture when squatting, a lack of fear when moving and a level of fluidity beyond most of us. Over the years we become polluted, physically and emotionally, with tension, injuries, illness, bad habits, irrational fears, stress. We need to cleanse ourself of all this in order to find our natural balance again.

This can be challenging work and a lengthy process. In one sense it should be done before any other work is even approached, but not many of us have the patience or fortitude for that! So we integrate this cleansing work in with the other training. People may watch a simple stick drill and think it is a self defence exercise in working against the stick - it may be, but it is also a lesson in maintaning posture and free movement under pressure. Not everything is always what it seems on the surface and it often pays to look a little deeper at what is going on.

This can be a little confusing for new people coming into training, at least until the concept is grasped. It’s not “sexy” work, it’s not crowd pleasing and it doesn’t play to the Youtube generation, but it is vital and brings rich rewards in so many areas of life.

I'll be putting up a video post shortly covering these ideas and  looking  at some drills and exercises to assist with  integration - but to get you into the swing  of things, just check your posture right now! Is your back straight or are you slumped? Straighten up, take a deep breath, smile and enjoy life!

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