Systema; Principles of the Russian System
If someone had told me a few years ago that out of a western Christian tradition would come a martial art as deep, sophisticated and evolved as the best of the oriental arts I would not have believed them. Yet there is such an art coming out of the ancient Russian culture with deep roots in the Russian Orthodox monasteries. At its root in the present day is an exceptional man, Mikhail Ryabko. Trained by one of Stalin’s Falcons from the age of five and beginning his operational career in the Russian Spetsnaz (Special Forces) at the age of 15, Mikhail Ryabko was not only given the secrets of this ancient art, he was put in the position of repeatedly applying both the art and its principles in life and death combat on, what for much of his early life, was a day-to-day basis. This System, taught by Mikhail Ryabko, is not a shadow of what once was, it is a living practical art that even now is being applied by warriors in combat. When working with Mikhail and his foremost student, Vladimir Vasiliev, one is struck by the calm depth of these men. Enormous knowledge and ability taught with calm, deep conviction.
The heart of Systema is its operating system. Techniques do not define the art, in fact, techniques per se are not taught. To make the most of Systema the mind/body must be free to do whatever is necessary, and not be limited by trained techniques. Techniques create a box, limiting the individuals ability to problem solve. By operating system I mean the manner in which human physiology and psychology access physical reality according to both a classical Newtonian and quantum physics understanding of universe reality. It is this operating system that opens the door to a whole new world. When Vladimir was told at one seminar “You are very flexible, he replied, “No, I am free.” It is this very freedom, this giving up of ego, that gives back so much. This is because technique-based Systema conforms to the individual instead of requiring the individual to conform to it. Everyone’s expression of Systema is different. It is like you are taught how to paint and then you express yourself.
The Systema operating system as taught by Mikhail and Vladimir is a faith-based operating system. The process of giving up your ego-based personal power and having faith that things are the way that they should be forms the core of this art. Mikhail teaches that fear produces unnatural movement. It is only through faith–knowing that things are the way they are supposed to be–that we can be free of fear and move naturally. Faith is based on the fact that everything that we need to exist has been given to us. Most of those things that are essential to our existence we do not even think about. We tend to breath unconsciously even though oxygen transfer is the most important thing that takes place in our body. It is the seminal energy transfer from which all else becomes possible. As Mikhail says “You breath in when you are born and out when you die, in between is your life.” Gravity keeps the atmosphere which contains our oxygen and ourselves on the planet that supports our life. Electro-magnetism allows shape and form. All of these, and many other unseen forces work to our benefit, yet they are all gifts as we have nothing to do in determining them. We live by grace, whose meaning you may ponder for yourself. If you are further interested you might do some research in regards to strong anthropic principle and super-string theory. That which we view as solid and “real” does not last. Those energies that allow us life, that we cannot see, are more real than those “solid” objects that will all pass away.
One of the exercises that I use to keep present and in faith, is to catch myself judging another or lacking of forgiveness. These states of mind do not come from faith; they come from fear. You will find that you are constantly judging, and this does not just refer to negative judgments. Accepting things as they are is as freeing as it is difficult. Reality is that at any given moment things are exactly as they “should” be because they are responding to Universal law. The fact that we think that they “should” be different means we are not accepting what is, we are denying reality. How does this transfer to a martial art, you may ask? Allowing things to be as they are frees us from fighting and contesting. A key element in Systema is not to contest for space or to hold ground. Learning to blend and flow with force is taken to an exceptional level. It also keeps us in the present moment of time, freeing us from the confines of the past and future. The conscious human mind, the ego mind, is moving constantly between past memory and future anticipation. Neither of these states is real and both limit or preclude our ability to perceive the absolute moment of “now” time. We tend to spend the majority of our time in this state of unreality. Those moments when we are truly present stand out for us such as when we have done something very dangerous that took all of our ability to accomplish and when done we have the “high” that comes from being absolutely present.
“We arrive at the understanding that living the will of God is the passport to the endless possibility of infinity itself.” –Urantia
Contesting for space is a huge fear-based response for human beings. We even talk about people invading our space, as if we owned it. The fact that someone’s fist and my face intersect at the same point in the fabric of space/time is an agreement. How you might say would one make such and agreement? These agreements to fight and protect space are made by our fear, our insecurity. The so-called startle reflex, and sharp inhale and tensing of the body when surprised or frightened, is an excellent example of this response. This response is fear based and destructive to us. One of the reasons drunks emerge from traumatic situations so well is that they do not have this response, they are not aware enough to be afraid, fight the kinetic energy and damage themselves. And there is the real truth of it, we damage ourselves. We do it in so many ways, however, here is one that is easy for us to understand. Tension resisting kinetic energy means that something has got to give. Kinetic energy cannot be created nor destroyed so guess who loses.
A natural, faith-based response, is simply to not be in the force vector. In reality, there is nothing to protect. The space that we are in at any given moment does not belong to us so why not vacate if something else want to be there? In Systema this response is taken to a truly incredible degree. When facing Mikhail, who is 5’6″ and quite thick, it seems almost impossible not to be able to grab him. Yet this is extremely difficult to do. He is standing within arms reach, yet you cannot touch him enough to transfer any force or control. Your eyes tell you that you have a thick strong man that you are about to make contact with, yet you cannot seem to do it. This paradox is one of the end products of Systema training. When you look at the Master of Fighting video you will see how well Mikhail “mirrors’ his attackers. His ability to perceive their movements, even before these movements actually take place is a product of a lifetime of training. When you are working with him it feels like there is nothing that you can do that he is not already in harmony with. You can go faster–not recommended to the faint at heart or those who are allergic to pain–or slower; it makes no difference except that the more energy that you put out by moving faster the more is returned. Rob Green demonstrated this for everyone when he went after Mikhail with a knife at full speed. Rob works in a hazardous profession and needed to know for sure if Systema was effective. No one else asked to duplicate Rob’s attack, and Rob was a good sport about how effectively his question was answered.
When practicing Systema, visualize yourself as a contiguous energy field. In other words, there is no separation of body from mind. Visualize your partner the same way and, as you begin to work, keep this awareness. Don’t contest, don’t try to do, just be moved. If you have truly understood the return energy drills the solutions will come of themselves. This reflects another Universe truth, all problems bring their solution with them. An attacker brings the solution to his attack when he attacks. If we relax and “listen,” the solution will become apparent and all we have to do is implement it. However, if we already have a technique that we want to use to solve this problem we have limited our ability to perceive the most efficient solution. I tell my students if you allow it, the opponent will give you more than you could ask for. If you approach the problem with a toolbox of techniques and strategies you will be limited to them regardless if they are the most efficient means to deal with the attack. In fact, depending upon the opponent, they may not be successful at all. I teach my students to always apply Occham’s razor, when faced with a choice of solutions, i.e, the simplest, most efficient, is the correct solution. We define efficiency as the least amount of time, space, and energy it takes to solve the problem.
Allowing, accepting, also gives us access to energies that we normally have only a rudimentary ability to use efficiently. One of the main energies is kinetic energy. As you get softer, relaxed, and more aware, you realize that there are energies at work within you that you can use. You do not create them, they are not yours to own, however, they are available for you to use if you can give up enough of yourself, your ego self.
Psychic energy is like fire. We cannot create fire, however, we can create a situation in which fire is manifested. We do not own the fire, however, we can use it. It is not intrinsic to us and yet it can serve our needs. There is no need to try and accumulate physic energy inside ourselves; it is everywhere, it is an intrinsic aspect of Universe Reality. Like a sail that can shape the invisible energy that we call wind, we too can blend and shape forces on the levels that we can perceive. We do not create these forces, just as we do not create the wind, however we can perceive and use them nonetheless.
Breath is the beginning of all energy in the body. It is the seminal energy transfer; without it death occurs, with it machines can be built that take us into space. And with proper use of breath our own body/mind can be trained to do that which does not seem possible. In the beginning, it is essential that we begin to harmonize with our breath. Most people breathe as effort increases because their body is telling them that they need more oxygen. However, as you become more aware, you breath so that you can do more work and thereby gain more ability and performance. As an analogy, if you want a steam engine to go faster you must first give it fuel, yet we constantly ask our body to do more and then breathe harder to try and make up for the oxygen debt that is incurred. The next step up the ladder is to breathe so that we can do more. My friend Rickson Gracie is very good at doing this. The proper use of breath is not just emphasized in Systema, it is everything.
In Systema, the kata is replaced by slow-speed sparring training. There is an excellent article written by Arthur Sennott, on slow-speed sparring on my dojo web site. Learning the physical movements is the outside or omote of the art. The ura or inner art is learned slowly over a period of proper instruction and training. This growing awareness, perception, and understanding is never ending. This path of discovery is fascinating, enjoyable, and takes you into another world of understanding and performance. Getting into the flow of slow-speed sparring can get quite addictive. Your sensitivity and awareness move to a higher level. You begin to perceive movement, distance, and possibility with more than your eyes. You begin to see not just what is but what is possible.
Another benefit of slow-speed sparring is emotional/psychological. You find out exactly where you are stiff, where fear is being held. You also find out where you are not practicing with integrity. Speeding up a movement to avoid being hit for instance is out of harmony with the practice. You know that you did it, you partner knows that you did it, you know he knows, and he knows that you know that he knows. You find where you are not in integrity both on a conscious and unconscious level. The immediate cause and effect is enormously more beneficial for the emotional/psychological growth prospect than the rationalizations for our behavior that make up so much of our defense systems. Thus practicing with integrity not only improves our martial skills, it creates an incredible feeling of being in the flow of “now.” It makes you want to spend more time there.
Our mind is reflected in our physical body. Fear-based judgment produces rigidity; faith produces fluidity. Our own resistance becomes our teacher. The universe was set up to teach us; as it corrects itself so are we corrected. If we give pain we get pain. If we give fear we get fear. If we give love we get love. What we give is what we receive.
Mikhail Ryabko and Vladimir Vasiliev have a strong, positive impact on people, both in regards to their skill and personal integrity. In them we are, in my observation, seeing the best of Russia and its ancient culture. If you have an interest in what they teach, by all means make arrangements to attend a seminar. The atmosphere is one of sharing, loose and relaxed. You can present any problem or question and expect a functional, courteous answer. One of the main differences between Systema and a Japanese dojo is that you can question the teacher. Neither Mikhail nor Vladimir will be offended if you think that what he is doing will not work and ask him to show you. Just be aware that the amount of energy that you put into a problem that you would have them solve will be returned, it might be a good idea to ask the question softly at first.
When you can give up and allow instinctively and intuitively, you can return any energy sent your way like a conduit. This returning of energy to its source means that the attacker gets back what he gave. At higher levels, this returning of energy needs to be felt as how it can be achieved does not seem possible. Hearing about it or observing it leads to incredulity. The difficulty comes in trying to explain something that words are not adequate for. Explain to me how you ride a bicycle. It is an extraordinarily complex relationship where the experience of doing it far exceeds any ability or attempt to explain it. It is best to feel it for yourself and “know that there is no spoon.” My favorite analogy to my students is the dojo scene in “The Matrix” where Nemo is asked why he was beaten. This is what we are dealing with at higher levels of ability. Again this is not to add mystery to the art however when you are dealing on the edge there are many phenomena that words are not adequate to explain. Your conscious mind does not, indeed cannot, ride the bicycle. That is why you can think, day dream, etc. while you are riding the bicycle, it is your subconscious mind that is making it possible to ride.
The returning-energy phenomenon does not allow an attacker to escape receiving the energy that he generates. It is like standing a few feet from a solid wall and throwing a rubber ball at it as hard as you can. The ball immediately rebounds back at you before you can avoid its path. The human body can return energy in the same way if we do not fight the energy and just let it go back. The vectors can become very complex and almost impossible for the attacker to avoid.
Energy flows in waves. The blood that pulses through your body does so in a wave. Surfers are able to do the maneuvers that they do by riding kinetic energy waves. When watching Vladimir move it is easy to see the kinetic energy waves passing through his body. You can learn to use these waves to keep your balance when avoiding a strike and you can use these waves to return the energy to its source, your attacker. And these are the beginning levels, relatively speaking. To be able to access kinetic energy efficiently it is essential to truly relax your body. This relaxation is far beyond what we normally feel is relaxed. To achieve higher levels it needs to be deep in your psyche, hence the necessity of faith.
We do not realize how much resistance that we have to being pushed by other human beings. Our fear makes us contest for space to a degree that is unconscious and reflexive. The use of an object like a knife to apply the pressure engenders a very different reaction. Our fear-based ego response to another person’s push or punch all of a sudden gives way to a get-out-of-the-way response. This is because of the pain and damage the knife would cause and, in my opinion, because the knife is an inanimate object our ego also has an easier time letting go of resistance. I use the knife, real, sharp blades, ever more in my teaching because of their ability to help reprogram the resistance response in our brain.
There are good reasons why Systema does not teach “techniques.” Technique-based systems have a strong tendency to produce technique-based solutions. This “box” that is built, however large and powerful, limits possibilities. It also limits, to a great degree, how the individual can adapt to each different situation. There are an infinite variety of potential problems that are never the same of the sort, best explained by chaos theory. If you have a body of techniques, however large, you try to fit the problem into the existing structure regardless of whether it is the most efficient solution for treating that particular problem. The mind attempts to define things by what it knows already using existing understanding and concepts. This technique-based process does not allow for those possibilities that may exist. In a manner akin to a governor on an engine, the mind itself becomes limited. As my friend Scott Meredith says, “a bigger box is still a box, and a longer chain is still a chain.” The System, quite literally, is the teacher. Since the System is made up of the laws of the Universe, there is only truth in the teaching. It is not about opinion it is about discovery and awareness. Systema is a state of consciousness, not a series of techniques.
The fist, the stick, and the whip present the double-edged sword of training giving pain, exposing fear, and teaching us how to relax, use breath, and deal with painful energy transfers on many levels, with the mind being positively involved. One enormous benefit is that of inculcating a relaxed exhale-startle response. This contrasts sharply with the “normal” fear based contraction inhale response that is a great detriment to us. We injure ourselves with this rigid, fear, based response. A pliable body can take much greater stress than one that has been made rigid with fear. Instead of ribs flexing and absorbing the impact of hitting the steering wheel with force, tensed muscles give the ribs no choice but to break under the impact with a potential penetration of the lung from the sharp broken end. Without the fear-based mind to injure it, the body will protect itself. Integrity is essential in any higher human endeavor, and faith is essential to integrity. In Systema, integrity is essential to proper training. This integrity is required of both practitioners, as this journey cannot be walked alone. It demands that we share ourselves, and in the giving we get more than we give.
In Systema, soft means sensitive and aware. Systema makes us aware of force vectors so that we do not contest with them. It has nothing to do with an emotional “feel good” state. As I often remind my students, in the real world that warm, gooey feeling is usually blood. The conscious mind is not accessed when engaged, it is too slow, too emotional, and cannot handle a sufficient number of variables to deal with the time-space-chaos of combat, it is also not possible for the conscious mind to be “present.” Systema does not seek to control the chaos of combat; you ride the wave of it like a surfer, knowing that you cannot control the forces but that if you don’t fight them you can use them. My personal definition of soft is conformity with cosmic law; that which is in conformity is soft, that which conflicts is hard.
The ancient roots of Systema are derive from edged-weapon, lethal force conflict. Contesting for force vectors with long sharp pieces of steel and flying steel projectiles is not a viable option if one is to survive in this environment. Here is a basic overview. Plate armor was not common in Russia. Chain mail armor will not stop a hard sword cut on a rigid target. My friend Hank Rienhardt demonstrated this for me and allowed me to test it myself. We took a pork loin with bone, covered it with a gambeson and put chain mail over it. When struck hard with the sword the chain mail was cut, the gambeson was not, however the damage to the flesh underneath was catastrophic. Plate mail was not common in ancient Russia, however chain mail was. Mikhail had told me that the reason Systema evidences the kind of blending movement was because the chain mail would not protect a rigid target. Hank proved it too me and allowed me to test it for myself. Thus the necessity for the warrior to be constantly moving, absorbing, and redirecting the cuts from the sword. The energy that ensues from this motion is directed back into your sword, which cuts the enemy as he is attempting to cut you.
In my personal experiences the empty-hand arts that are the most sophisticated are all a part of sword-based systems. With edged weapons the space that is being attacked is vacated by you, the opponent’s target. As he enters that space to attack your weapon meets him in the very space that you vacated. This is the returning of energy that is practiced at many levels and in many different ways in Systema. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, however it can be shaped. I will demonstrate this at the Aiki Expo 2003 so that it is easier to understand.
Knowing is being and doing. It is an understanding in the body mind that is apparent and perceptible in function. An intellectually grasped concept is not knowing, it is thinking. It exists in the fear-created mind, which is not in touch with reality. The gifts of Systema are free. Free in the sense that the more you are in harmony with Universe law the more of that Universe becomes available to you. You don’t work for individual abilities as you do in other martial arts. This is the result of faith-based process. One analogy would be that of a leaf blowing in the wind. It blows as far and as fast as the wind blows it. No faster than the wind; no slower, it just is. In training look above the opponent’s eyes with defocused vision. Pick up the totality of the rhythm of movement. Like listening to a symphony with your whole being, become the flow. Separation leaves gaps, nature abhors a vacuum, these gaps are filled, what/who fills them is the question, and you have the answer. One you can manifest this level you can begin to play with and change it.
“Virtue is righteousness, conformity with the cosmos.”
We are looking for a state of being, a state of consciousness. Conscious, not-thinking as opposed to unconscious non-thinking. This is another world, a transcendent state. Conformity with cosmic law is living the will of God. Systema is a path to that conformity. Living with faith, not fear, allows us to be aware of and access those energies that have been freely given for us to use. This is true on the physical, emotional, and spiritual levels: “Know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
© 2003 James Williams