Good day, all!

So I’ve been living in Vaughan, Ontario for the last three months on a co-op term. That means I’ve been working full-time, approximately 90 km away from the dojo I train at. Since I’m also car-less in the interim, I haven’t been to a single week-night class. I have, however, been back on weekends to teach classes on Saturday mornings.

The second thing that my co-op in Vaughan means, is that I’m in a completely new martial environment, one which just happens to include Vladimir Vasiliev’s Systema school.


I’ve been cheating on Karate.

But with videos like this, who could possible resist that sexy little nymph of a martial art:

Systema (also known as Russian Martial Art) was founded by Mikhail Ryabko and Vladimir Vasiliev (Mikhail’s top student). A quick google (lol, verbing nouns) reveals that Mikhail and Vladimir are both accomplished in the russian military and secret service (read: Spetsnaz). Supposedly both were involved to varying degrees with Russian counter terrorism and black ops, and Mikhail is even cited as having literally written the book on hostage negotiations. Vladimir’s school in Thornhill (which is either part of Vaughan, or right next to Vaughan; I still don’t really know. Supposedly I actually live in a place called Concord right now…) is the Systema headquarters for the western world. So, naturally, living a mere twenty minute bike ride away, I made an effort to try out a few classes.

Okay, so I “tried out” classes the way a bear “tries out” your processed cheese slices; with no intention of ever going back to roots and berries again.  When I stopped in one day, before trying a class, I saw Vladimir hitting some of the students with a big leather whip. It looked painful (it also is painful). Coming from my pressure point work with Sensei Paul Simoes, any class with that level of masochism was immediately attractive.

(Side Note: The purpose of the whip was not punishment. It was an exercise to teach you where the tension is in your body. If you’re completely relaxed, then you’ll allow the energy from the whip to pass through your body effectively. If you’re not, then it will get blocked, which will be interpreted as pain. Big pain.)

The classes involve a multitude of drills unlike anything I’d ever done before. There’s a big emphasis on partner work, ranging from walking over your partners body using your fists, to rolling with your partner on the ground, to walking towards and punching each other, and all sorts of things in between. Some of the conditioning exercises are pretty brutal too. One involves using your fists against a concrete wall, walking down the wall as you walk your feet further and further out until you’re in a superman position, supported by the friction between your fists and the wall, and then going back up. Others involve holding your breath (on exhale, which is much much harder, I’ve learned) while doing push ups or sit ups (or squats or leg raises or running or that wall walking drill or just lying down or…).

I’ve been trying to understand the idea behind Systema (I think all arts are grounded in ideas), and here are the two I’ve learned so far:

  1. Be tensionless

    This is perhaps the most base concept of Systema: all pain comes from tension. No tension, no pain. There are stories of drunks falling over bridges and walking away with just a few scratches because they were relaxed when they hit the ground. Its the same concept here. When you get hit, breathe out and relax. When you hit, stay relaxed. When you move, stay relaxed. If you let tension develop in yourself, then it gives your opponent a method of recourse- a counter. A good way to test and train yourself in this regard is to do push ups while being aware of the tension in your body. If you can do a push up while staying completely relaxed, then you’ve got a good shot at being tensionless in your training. I’m just starting to be able to feel the tension in myself, and it is disconcerting. When I strike, I’m noticing that there are different parts of my body where the energy doesn’t move smoothly, and these areas would be especially susceptible to counters. The other place I’ve noticed tension is psychologically. In Karate, it’s become such a routine that its easy to focus on what I’m doing and clear outside worries, but with Systema, there is much less ritual and routine, so I don’t have the same ease. I often find my mind wandering to other things in my life, and it takes conscious effort to regain my focus.

  2. Do your own work

    In Karate, I’d learned (often from personal experience) that in sparring matches, the person who’s able to play his own game and make his opponent also play his game would usually be the winner. For example if one person had a very aggressive, quick style and was able to make his opponent (who supposedly doesn’t have the same style) spar in the same way, he’d probably win. But Systema takes it further. In everything you do, don’t allow yourself to get bogged down by what other people are doing. If you’re moving, move for yourself, not for your opponent. Similarly, when you take a stance, either to strike or for some other purpose, its important that you’ve taken the stance you want. You should be stable and centred. It’s the only way to deliver power effectively and, more importantly, consistently. I think I’ve improved the most in this regard. I’ve stopped worrying so much about what my partner’s doing, and focused on what I’m doing and what my goals are for the exercise. If I want to focus on taking a proper stance before striking, then I’ll make sure I’ve got that stance before I perform my strike, even if that means my strike misses, or is too late. It’s also good for the ego, being a beginner again.

Systema: it is not a magic system for destroying any attacker, but it is a legitimate martial art in its own right, and its instructors are highly skilled, leading people to alternately claim it as superior to other martial arts, or completely fraudulent. One thing I can say with regard to the sceptics out there: every demonstration Vladimir does looks just like the videos on YouTube, and nobody in that room is trying to make him look good; they’re just trying to learn from him.

I see this training, not as a betrayal of my beloved Karate; oh no! But instead as a complement, so that I can better understand the weaknesses in myself, and properly direct my training. It’s also given me some great drills to torture teach my students with!

P.S. I just learned that in the Japanese penal system, seiza position is an integral part of “correcting” prisoners’ faulty attitudes: