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Monday, 24 December 2012

Natural Movement

Wouldn't it be great if we were all 6' 5",  220lbs, absolutely lean, super-fit,  in full physical and mental good health, in our absolute prime all the time, 24-7, 365 days a year ready to operate at 100% efficiency.

This is the fantasy of the  martial arts, the allure of the hero who has spent hours, months, years honing his skills and physique in order to step in and save the day for the helpless sheeple around him. Ironically they rarely become a professional warrior / defender,  that calls for a little too much reality

Of course all societies have had hero-figures. In the past they stood as role-model, guide, mentor, teacher, warrior. In today's aspirational consumer-driven culture the hero figure has been denigrated to selling after-shave, underwear or a "new" training product

The reality of course is that we are all in different physical and mental states at different times during our lives. Added to that we are all in different physical and mental states under different conditions. What is aesthetically pleasing to the eyes of a generation raised on "health" magazines is not always the most practical under certain circumstances, nor the most healthy way to live.  The most unlikely people reveal hidden strengths under duress and carry out feats deemed almost impossible under normal circumstances. I'm not talking about the apocryphal "woman lifts car to save baby" but actual events such as an elderly lady seeing off armed robbers, "out of shape" people completing gruelling athletic events and various others that fly in the face of consumerist convention

This to me is the root of the concept of "natural movement". If you cling to the previously mentioned model of "martial arts" it is a difficult concept to grasp. Probably it seems a very vague idea, in  fact almost an affront to suggest that a  non-expert out of shape looking guy can function at least as effectively as the finely tuned "martial artist".

But the concept is actually quite simple to grasp if you have an understanding of people and how they work. It means you have to start from where you are. You have to work with what you have and who you are at that precise moment in time.  This is Systema as problem solving - and the common denominator in every single problem or situation that you are involved in is you.

Let's take a very simple example - the problem is you have to get from A to B while another person is trying to stop you. Your solution will depend on many different factors - relative skills of each person, amount of determination, physical conditions, environmental considerations, communication/social skills  and so on. In other words unless they are in some form of denial or delusion the person has to work with what is available. How they do so is "natural" to them.

Of course we can argue that nothing is truly "natural", everything we do is learned. So by natural I mean "everyday", our normal and usual movement pattern, response, SOP. This is what we have to build on because this is where we start from.

The role of a teacher in this approach is threefold:

One is to provide a framework of drills and exercises that help a person achieve good health, strength and fitness, giving them the optimal tools in order to carry out the work

The second is to help the person "smooth out" their natural reactions, strip them back to the basic levels (which operate very well when allowed to), minimise the negative impact of  fear, tension and stress and teach the person to "trust" their own body

The third is to create an environment where each component involved, each of the "systems" within a person,  can be trained, tested, refined in interactions with other people

Where this runs counter to "conventional" martial arts is that there is no set of movements. The aim is not to overlay choreographed patterns of response onto a person but to allow them to discover (re-discover) and refine their own movement pattern, which is as unique to each of us as our own handwriting. This can be as simple as having a person rotate the waist while moving the shoulders up and down, a natural pattern that provides the basis for so many types of movement. I have found that people quickly grasp the concept and discover for themselves that this is "movement for life", it is a liberating experience.

I can fully understand why some instructors are unable to get on with this concept, it calls for a creative and adaptive approach. Usually as an instructor you are "in charge"of the class, you have a syllabus to run through, information to explain, you are the most important person in the room, especially in a formal or institutional setting. I find when teaching Systema almost the complete reverse is true. I never know which direction a class is going to take because it is comprised of 15 or so individuals each with different strengths and weaknesses, each of whom has questions - and also answers.

So learning becomes a group endeavour. I find it a more adult way of teaching  as opposed to feeling  like you are back at school sat listening to a teacher drone on for half an hour and being treated like a child. The "natural" approach is dynamic learning -  if a question is raised we can look at different answers and test them there and then to see which works best for whom.

None of this is to say that relevant technical or medical information cannot be added in - of course it can. But we have to remember the principle of map and territory, the real understanding is in the doing. I can read up on how to fly a plane and "understand" it fairly quickly. But without real air-miles it is not functional knowledge. Another thing to consider is that this type of information can be just applying names to what you are already doing - after all you can't do anything without "doing" bio-mechanics. Revelations such as "your arm bends in the middle and can pivot around the elbow" are hardly news to anyone. Understanding  the role of tendons or the mechanism by which  muscle tension can be overcome when "stretching" are of more use. Even more interesting to me is information on such things as Fixed Action Patterns, OODA loop and the more psychological aspects. Of course physical condition is important, but survival /success  is often determined in the psyche, especially if you are physically impaired in some way

Nor does it mean that it's ok to be lazy about our training. It isn't, but people need to find their own motivations and strengths, not rely on me shouting at them to do another press up. A big part of the training is to take responsibility for yourself and to understand your own strengths and weaknesses. This understanding will feed back into everything you do and empower you to help those around you too

If we return to our fantasy model at the start, we begin to see the limitations of such an approach. A lot of the training I experienced previously was based on everything being perfect. I was well trained, in good shape, on mats, in a nice room with a good idea of what was about to happen.  Real life is cold, dark, hot, drunk, bad leg, sun in eyes, pissed off, half asleep, weaker than the other guy, outnumbered, shit scared......we are going to get hit, we may get damaged and even if we prevail there may be longer term consequences to deal with

This is why our work needs to be behavioural, what we are not what we do. In training get hit, get cold, get wet, get to a point where you think "FFS....."  Put aside any notions of toughness or persona, understand acceptance of what is happening now and how you deal with it....... that is where the learning starts

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

I just wanted to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Healthy and Happy 2013!

Thanks to everyone who has attended classes and workshops this year as well as bought the DVDs / digital downloads. Your support and hard work is much appreciated!

It's been a great year for training, personally I've got to train with Martin once and Vladimir twice this year, in Hamburg (thanks Jorg!)  and at the great weekend in London organised by Systema GB - thanks guys!

There's been some great progress in training this year, reflected in the fact that a number of the lads are now Instructors  / Instructors-in-training - well done chaps!

It's also been great to see the new level of Instructors coming through, guys such as Jamie, Garreth and Mark, the Celtic Contingent as well as hook up again with "old faces" such as Sam and Dima :-)

If there has been one over-riding theme in the training this year it has been "natural movement". So it is only fitting that the last blog of 2012 should be on my views / understanding of what that phrase means

Next year looks equally exciting - Valentin Talanov in London, Martin Wheeler in Dublin and all the usual fun and games in-between. We also have a very interesting and different Summer Camp in the pipeline, so watch this space.

Thank you all once again and thanks as always to Vladimir and Mikhail for their continued guidance, inspiration and support


Natural Movement Workshop

Here's a clip from the recent workshop on Natural Movement, now available on DVD as Natural Movement Vol 2


Thursday, 6 December 2012

Systema and Tough Mudder

Today's blog is written by one of our Tempsford guys Nick Stafford. Nick recently completed the Tough Mudder 12 mile obstacle race and after hearign him talk about it at the last session I asked him to write up his experiences. Over to Nick.....

I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Systema 2 years ago. The drills, the exercise, the relaxation and the camaraderie had me hooked. It took me a little while for me to realise that Ssystema was more than a martial art and the penny continues to drop on a daily basis why Systema practitioners train how they do.

As some of you guys already know i have recently completed "Tough Mudder" a 12 mile assault course designed by British Special Forces and at the ripe old age of 38 and having one too many bacon sandwiches I never dreamt that this was something I could achieve.It tested me to my limits and I know without Systema I would not have done it.

There were many times throughout the course that my Systema drills came into play, sometime instinctively at other times consciously. I am no  Systema expert and have no other martial art experience but in a relatively short time it has given me the tools I needed in order to accomplish my challenge. It surprised me that when I thought I could give up or go no further the things I have learnt from Systema got me through on such a noticeable scale.

The biggest help was the breathing. I focused on this for pretty much the whole course, especially the burst breathing to aid recovery -  but also the some of the other drills helped me regulate my composure in time of panic and relaxed parts of my body when tension was creeping in.

A lot of my movement was aided also instinctive as I moved over and under obstacles through the swamps and due to the nature of the course I fell over quite a few times, rolled nicely, unaffected and able to continue without breaking my flow. I even used Systema massage techniques on my team-mates when they went down with cramp!

So I am pleased to be studying Systema under the instruction of Rob Poyton at the Cutting Edge group in Tempsford. I know i have only scratched the surface of an endless learning curve but can feel the benefit and the effect it has on my day to day living and on any challenges i come up against in life whether physical or mental.

For those wanting to know more about Tough Mudder follow this link:

Nick (first time blogger)