What do we work on during Systema training? Whether you’re new to Systema or have been doing Systema for 10 years, we all work on the same thing – Fundamentals.
I thank Martin Wheeler for that lesson.
Last month I attended a Martin Wheeler seminar in D.C. I’ve attended many of his seminars over the years, and they are always an insightful experience. However, this seminar was a little different than the others. The theme of the weekend was how we train and teach Systema, a topic that isn’t usually part of a seminar curriculum. However, I am thankful for it because it has greatly helped me in my own training and teaching.
At this DC seminar, we were able to hear how one of the top systema practioners trains and teaches this Russian Martial Art. This seminar provided a clear and concise understanding of not only how we train in Systema but how we approach Systema as well. I absorbed all that was discussed during this weekend seminar, and with several weeks to digest what was taught, I find myself incorporating much of what was discussed during that seminar into my own training and teaching.
I don’t want to write about the whole experience. I feel that would be a never ending process, and quite frankly, I’m still trying to piece together what was discussed. Systema is a big topic. However, I would like to touch on something that really stuck with me. Martin posed the question “What are we doing when we train in Systema?” It relates to the difficult question “What is Systema?” Ask 100 people that question and you will get 100 different answers. Martin put it simply to us. No matter what we’re doing in class, no matter who we’re working with, no matter who’s teaching, and no matter how skilled someone is in Systema, we are all working on the same thing – fundamentals.
Martin emphasized that there is no such thing as basic or advanced work in Systema. There is not a high level to reach as a goal in your training. To put it simply, if you’re training in Systema, you’re working on fundamentals. You’re working on fundamentals in every class. What are fundamentals in Systema? Well, they can be categorized as four principles of Systema training: breathing, movement, relaxation, and form. Each principle is a big topic upon itself, and I’m not going to break each one down for you because I wouldn’t be able to do them each justice in this space. However, a person can observe them whenever watching someone work in Systema.
I’m reminded of something Martin said in a seminar last year that can be applied to what was discussed at the seminar in DC, “Systema is easy to train, but hard to understand.” For some reason that really stuck with me. It was like a light was finally turned on in my mind, waking up my own self-assessment. It was shocking to me, but also a great moment in my Systema journey, but I still didn’t quite know what that realization meant for me. I tried to figure it out and work on some things in class, but that only led to frustration. That is until last month at Martin’s DC seminar. Not to say that I finally understand Systema, I don’t know if that will ever happen, but I feel as though I finally understand how to approach training in Systema after Martin’s seminar.
I realized at that moment, even though I’ve been training and studying Systema for nine years, I don’t really know anything about Systema. I’m still trying to figure this out nine years into my training. I’m sure I’ll still be trying to figure out Systema 20 years from now. That’s very exciting to me.
The importance of consistently working on fundamentals came early in the seminar. Martin had us roll back and forth during the first day of the seminar, from point A to point B. Someone looking on this lesson would have seen 15 people rolling back and forth, a rather strange sight. What was really happening during that rolling session? We were working on fundamentals. It’s that simple. Much happens during that roll; movement, breathing, form, and relaxation all played a part. This drill can illustrate that no matter what we do in Systema or life in general, breathing, movement, form, and relaxation should always be a part of it.
One of the things I run into with new Systema students is the question of having “advanced” students in the same class with new students. Usually the new students expect to work on “basics” before moving up to “advanced” work. I explain to them that we all train together, all skill levels in one class. However, I need to remember this myself. When I see a new student in class, I often change my game plan for the day. I guide the students through drills that I would describe as basic. Over the years, I became uncomfortable calling it basic work. I knew this work was very important to our development in Systema, but the new and old students may look at this training as basic.
When you observe someone who has been doing Systema for a while, and you see how they move and work well against all kinds of attacks, you only see the wow factor of their work. But they are the doing the same thing we do in all classes, working on the fundamentals. They aren’t thinking of Systema in terms of basic or advanced work, but just working on fundamentals in their Systema training. That’s all we can hope to do when we train, and Martin’s seminar really taught me that view of Systema.
This DC seminar discussion with Martin reminded me of something Vladimir Vasiliev said in this interview. His answer to one question really surprised me. In the interview, the question “What is your current challenge?” was put to Vladimir. Vladimir said he has too much tension. He explained that the more he understands Systema, the more he realizes that he has too much tension when he works. He also mentioned that he moves around too much in his work. It was surprising to me that a man as skilled and knowledgeable as Vladimir is still thinking about improving on being more relaxed in Systema. His work is focused on how to improve on the fundamentals. I was not expecting that answer from him, or the insight that answer has brought into Systema training. If you’ve ever trained with Vladimir, talked to him, or viewed his videos, you know he’s constantly talking about movement, breathing, relaxation, and form. One would think that Vladimir would have perfected those principles. However, he doesn’t see it that way. Vladimir continues to work at making his understanding of Systema grow each day by thinking about improving his fundamentals.
Many people don’t describe Systema as a self-defense or a martial art. I hear this often from more experienced individuals in Systema. They look at Systema as a way of life; a way to become a better person in society. The self-defense is just a bonus!
When discussing the topic of this post with a friend, he referenced a quote from the late Randy Pausch who died from pancreatic cancer. Less than a year before he died, Pausch gave a lecture at Carnegie Mellon University as part of the university’s “The Last Lecture” series. I highly recommend you watch this speech at some time. The quote is pulled from this lecture.
“Fundamentals, Fundamentals, Fundamentals. You’ve got to get the fundamentals down because otherwise the fancy stuff isn’t going to work.”
That pretty much sums up the way we should approach Systema training. No matter what we do in class, fundamentals should always be on our minds and in our work.