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Systema again

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks. Lots of food for thought.

As I write, the muscles between and around my shoulder blades are only hurting a bit, having been very painful for the last couple of days. That’s the result of Thursday night’s systema class! As I wrote in my last post, I’d decided to get back into gear and start attending systema classes again, the classes this time being led by Jeff Faris.

When I went the week before last, Jeff was away, attending a seminar in Europe. Not many people were there: two of his students, myself, and a newcomer who’s never studied any martial arts before, but had got interested from seeing clips onYouTube. I gathered that the two students hadn’t been studying systema for long either, but we started off with some of the exercises that were familiar to me from Mark Winkler’s classes, and then moved on to striking exercises. This was very interesting: Nick, the student who’d taken charge, introduced this in terms of theory – looking at the position of your opponent’s feet, and directing your strike towards ‘the third point of the tripod’ to break your opponent’s balance. He also mentioned the helix and the wedge, which I’ve previously only heard mentioned by Matt Powell’s Pramek, though I know it comes from the Kadochnikov system. This kind of simple but effective theory is something that I haven’t encountered before, and is one of the things that has really attracted me to systema Kadochnikova.

Later on, another student arrived, and the session went up a few gears. This was a guy from Latvia (I’m guessing from accent etc that he’s one of the Russian minority population there), and has clearly trained extensively in systema. He got us working with exercises in soft power, unbalancing our training partner simply through redirecting their force. With my background in taiji and yiquan, I’m fairly good at this sort of work, but I have to say: this guy stood in front of me, put his hand very gently on my chest and, with very little pressure indeed, had me flying backwards. It was very similar to what you see taiji masters doing…

The same guy was there last Thursday when Jeff came back from his travels. Jeff had us doing a lot of hard striking work, using punchbags and pads. That’s why my shoulderblade and back muscles are hurting! We did quite a lot of work striking double pads; I did my best to use the big muscles of back and leg to generate power, and it worked fairly well. The muscles that are aching are those that are loaded when I’m standing in zhan zhuang properly, though I plainly haven’t been doing enough of that lately. We also did a lot of work on ‘crowd scenes’ with five-on-one work, either simultaneously or in procession. When we were all attacking simultaneously, it was interesting to note that the target rarely had to deal with more than one or two at a time, with the rest standing off to look for an opportunity and/or getting in each others’ way.

We finished with work on some of the more esoteric aspects of systema. Jeff introduced us to ‘social distance’ – for example, the space between an individual and a hostile group at which the individual’s actions aren’t yet definitely an interaction with the group (eg a change of direction, going through a shop door – is it an attempt to escape, or something that has nothing to do with the group?) He also demonstrated how to introduce a new social distance – eg, as members of the group approach, seeming to respond to someone in the distance behind them.

Very briefly, Jeff then mentioned distractions (eg clapping hands) and changing the rhythm of your movement to confuse an opponent; I was rather reminded of Piper by the way he showed this! I asked him after class, though, and he’d never heard of Piper, so there we are.

We then moved on to no-contact force, using psychological cues to get an opponent to stop, or even fall, through gesture, eye contact, and projection of will. This was right at the end of the session, so I didn’t get deep into it – but of course, the no-contact aspect of systema (not to mention taiji’s lin kong jing) is pretty controversial. I don’t think it needs to be, since it works according to fairly clear principles – but, I suspect it needs a great deal of self-knowledge and self-awareness before it can be used. My impression so far is that it depends on identifying where the opponent has mental and/or physical blockages. It’s easier to do this if you are aware of your own, and of how they were expressed in your movements and facial expressions, for example; have that knowledge, and you can spot it in someone else. The trouble is, it also works better when you are familiar with the opponent; in my case, if my opponent expresses the intention to punch, I’m much more likely to freeze up and respond (by stopping or, indeed, recoiling and even falling over) if I’ve trained regularly with him and know how much that punch would hurt! This is why we see ‘lin kong jin experts’ getting into trouble on YouTube when they face up to a stranger; they’ve become used to training with the same people.

So: my first two weeks getting into systema have been fascinating. I’m really enthused, and have learned a heck of a lot. Can’t wait for the next class….