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Sunday, 24 March 2013


Gareth Ashby
Stevenage Systema

I would like to start by saying that whilst I have found everything that I am looking for in my training in Systema as taught by Mikhail Ryabko and Vladimir Vasiliev, I have the utmost respect for martial arts in general and wholly appreciate that people enjoy training in different styles,  gaining various things from their training. What follows is not meant to be a criticism of other martial arts or approaches to training, just some of my own views and will hopefully provide you with some food for thought.

Most martial arts involve learning a series of fixed movements or techniques often in set arrangements known as forms or katas.  Systema breaks the mould in this sense as it takes a totally different and original approach to the established dogmas. Instead of relying on a series of techniques a practitioner of Systema learns to rely on themselves. They seek to cultivate free natural movement, an understanding of principles, an understanding of correct breathing ,  how the body can (and cannot) move, what works and what doesn’t and the ability to act spontaneously and appropriately to the situation.

For a technique to work effectively it must be drilled thousands and thousands of times and then the right set of circumstances needs to occur for that technique to be applied correctly. It is not uncommon to see someone who relies on a technical approach trying to shoehorn a technique in to a situation that it is not ideal for. Sometimes because this is their favourite technique, it has worked for them before and they gain a sense of security from it – sometimes because they don’t have a response to that situation and this is the closest thing that they know. People may  watch a demonstration from Systema  instructor and then try to replicate the movements as techniques, but this is a fundamental misunderstanding of our training method.

Now I do  acknowledge that sometimes specific movements  are explored - usually to facilitate the understanding of a concept or principle or just because they are a useful aside - and technical work can be incorporated. And while copying can be a starting point,   at the end of the day the work and movement MUST be your own, it  MUST come from you......

So how do you achieve this? By starting slowly, feeling what your partner is doing, how it affects you and how you can work back against them. Take a grab or hold for example, you start by feeling and understanding how your capacity for movement is altered by the grab..... you make the effort to notice any other physical and psychological/emotional effects the grab is having on you and you use your breathing to help you deal with this...... you become a little more comfortable in this position. Then you can look at the possibilities available to you for movement, how can you move or escape effectively without fighting or using excessive effort. You can then go on to explore the opportunities available to work back against your partner, where  their tension is, how can you break/relax that tension or use it directly against them, what is their structure and balance like, how are they standing, how can you work against this? You place your hands on and you feel how you must work in that situation against that person; essentially it is the other person who dictates how you need to work against them, not you that decides which of your techniques to use - unless you enjoy trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

 It is important that you build up your own understanding of how to work from any position against people of different sizes and shapes, which is why we often place ourselves in positions of disadvantage in training – nothing can be taken for granted during physical conflict. Incidentally this is exactly the same process that we use to learn most things from when we are born, trial and error (with some guidance) – some people would have you believe that a different approach entirely should be used when learning to defend yourself! I do appreciate that people learn in different ways  but this should be a personal choice, not something prescribed in a one size fits all fashion.

Theoretical knowledge can be a good thing, but if you use it in the wrong way and it takes over it can become a hindrance. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of becoming fixated with what you are trying to do rather than aware of what you are actually doing. A number of times I have seen someone over-explain something to a less experienced training partner only to be shown a confused expression and over-tense, ungainly movement as their partner tries to act out what the other person is asking of them – here in effect the other person is attempting to project their own truth on to their training partner. It is so important that we are each allowed to find our own truth, cultivating our own individual understanding and not simply trying to reflect someone else’s construct.

We all need to receive effective feedback and guidance in our training, but why do some people become over-prescriptive in trying to “help” their training partners? Telling someone the “right way” to do things can make people feel important, intelligent or superior in some way, sometimes it is done just because this is how they have always been taught and it’s all that they know, they genuinely think they are helping; but the result is the same, they are cheating their partner out of the learning experience - if you train someone in this way their work will never be more than a hollow copy of your own, it will never truly be theirs. Sometimes people can be very capable and work effectively themselves, but find it difficult to pass this on to others as they try to get people to do what they do, rather than helping them to find their own solutions.

There has been a trend in recent years for Martial Artists to use science to justify what they are doing, which isn’t a bad thing if it’s done honestly and intelligently and as a supplement to learning. It can fall down however when the science becomes more important than the actual physical training experience. There are many intelligently put together articles by people with a good grasp of science and the concepts they are writing about…. but there are those who use science in a somewhat more dubiousl way to market themselves, citing scientific proof that their approach is the correct one, if physics says it works then it must work, it is absolute proof! Which of course in theory is correct, but unfortunately actual combat has relatively little to do with scientific theory, an attacker with a knife cares little for your understanding of Einstein’s theory of relativity. 

The Martial arts are full of what you would do/should do/could do but of course in reality the only thing that’s important is what you do do (and essentially that all starts with your breathing). Science is often manipulated by corporations for marketing purposes (just look at any company that manufactures and markets sports supplements – that’s an obvious one but there are many far more subtle examples of this), use your head and don’t fall in to that trap. Unfortunately it seems that in some circles science is fast becoming the new chi! And after all I know who I would rather fight out of Newton and a gypsy bareknuckle champion!

In Systema we seek to use our own free, natural movement, your work against an opponent should be as much a technique as the “technique” you use to open a cupboard door in your kitchen, the “technique” you use to insert a DVD into your DVD player or the series of “techniques” you use to open door and gain entry to your motor vehicle, assume correct seated position, deploy safety belt, insert and turn ignition facilitator probe (key) through 180 degrees in ignition – if you like to think of things in that way then I guess it is fine to look at what we do as just a series of techniques.  I however am not a robot and prefer a more natural, down to earth way of doing things. Just be yourself, use common sense and beware of anyone using unnecessarily flashy terminology to jazz up (and market to you) ideas and concepts that are actually quite straight forward.

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