my systema experience
Recently, I started training with a systema group, and I thought the bullies might like a little writeup about what I thought and what goes on there, but first I want to explain why I even got into it, since we’ve all seen at least one goofy looking systema video and though “why the hell do people do this wacky stuff?”. Especially in San Diego, a land of many good martial arts schools. I'll explain.
About a year ago, I stopped teaching kung fu, because I was disappointed at how much I really knew about fighting after my years of study, and the school moving more and more towards a Mcdojo as time went on. The structure of learning forms, followed by learning more forms was really frustrating to me, especially when it wasn’t the way people sparred (which I thought was a good thing). I was going through something like what Boyd or 1.2 went through with Isshin Ryu, only unlike them I didn’t jump right into solid, competition proven arts (this is still a plan though since there’s a BJJ class on the weekends at the systema place). The kung fu school managed to keep me for so long because I saw a lot of small changes in the right direction, starting with my sifu sitting down the instructor crew to show us Matt Thornton's aliveness video and why we should incorporate it into everything. Well, ultimately I think he didn't understand that you can't do that with a lot of what we were doing, and we'd have to start scrapping stuff. They didn't do this, and a bunch of new marketing materials (read: MMA stuff) were making me sick. We also lost our grappling instructor to tragic circumstances and he was replaced by kung fu guys who can kinda sorta grapple. They had nothing I wanted and paid me minimum wage for the four years I taught.
I got out with the hopes of learning something better, but at that time teaching kung fu was my job and I quit at a time with a horrible economy for finding a job, which put my new training plans on hold, and I went through a few crappy jobs as a telemarketer and a graveyard shift security guard, and at this same time I was finishing up school (anthropology degree from SDSU). I trained on my own with my heavy bag and double end bag, and I started training with an Okinawan karate guy in a nearby park. For a bit I trained at a very good judo dojo (Gerald Lafon’s dojo) but he trains people for competition; he’s sent people to the Olympics, and I felt like he was only interested in new people that would improve his competition team, which was a commitment I wasn’t confident I could make. Also while I’m recently out of college and trying to save up some money at a real job, I’m trying to avoid medical expenses, and I understand that serious competitors in combat sports accumulate lots of small injuries here and there, and at this time I just don’t think I can afford that. Alternatively, there's a whole bunch of MMA gyms that don't fight at all and just use the buzz-acronym to teach tae kwon do with the hands up or something, and I'm not interested in those either
Since graduation and finding a decent job with a regular schedule (this is the first time I’ve had an office job with 8 hour shifts) I decided that I need to start training again. In what? Something that wasn’t form focused, with lots of body contact and live drilling. I’m sick of doing patterned techniques in the air. I also wanted to get into fighting shape again- a year off and horrible work hours for little money has not been good to the body. The usual solutions came to mind: jiu jitsu, judo, boxing, etc, but I ended out trying systema, and I really liked it, but my reasons for studying have little to do with fighting.
The place where it is taught is an aikido dojo, but really it’s just shared mat space. I watched the end of the aikido class before the systema one started, and it was disappointing- even though I’m not interested in doing aikido, I was hoping I would at least see some cool looking drills or randori or something that screamed “this dojo is awesome” but there was mostly just kneeling and talking or standing and talking, with short bursts of very slow action. Whatever; shared mat space doesn’t mean much anyway. The dojo itself is in a warehouse district and the dojo is one huge matted room with good mats, so I approve of that. I prefer a warehouse-district one room dojo with loading docks for ventilation over a strip mall storefront dojo that's dressed up like a Chinese restaurant.
Before I go on, I should mention something random that made me pick such an eye rolling martial art choice: I am a fanatical longboarder. For those unaware, it’s a longer than normal skateboard with bigger axels and wheels, designed for cruising and hills. I started as a teenager with few friends, and over time I grew to love skating miles at a time. I’d say I probably skate between 15 and 25 miles a week, which may not sound like much if you’re a cyclist but believe me it is much different going long distances on a board. I also have a big wooden paddle that I use to push it around, like a gondolier pole (this is the main physical activity I’ve been doing instead of kung fu), and I’ve gotten much stronger and efficient at paddling. I’ve become a local character of note as “that guy who paddles his skateboard all over”. I was hoping that I could study an art that would improve my skateboarding/paddling, since that is one of my passions in life and I’m more likely to get injured doing that than fighting someone. What skills would help me do this? The first one is staying relaxed in any situation, since freezing up with tension is a sure precursor to getting hurt. Another element I wanted to work on is being excellent at falling and avoiding injury (my rudimentary knowledge of falling from chin na, judo and hapkido has saved me many times over the years). Another one is being able to rapidly adapt to changes, as you often have to do when you’re going down hills and such. Another is keeping good dynamic balance on an unstable surface particularly while crouching or kneeling, since when I do high speed hill runs on my board I transition from standing to crouching to one knee down to really get my weight into turns at high speed (also being really close to the concrete gives you a better sense of your environment). Systema works a lot of these things that are good for what I do.
So am I saying that it’s the greatest fighting art ever? Hell no, we haven’t really done anything that closely resembles violence, and I’m not too optimistic about how some of the students would respond to a real attacker. I was expecting there to be lots of that slow motion strike-the-throat-kick-the-balls type stuff, but it was 100% athletic style drills. The class is more like a Russian style crossfit class, mixed with Russian recess games. As a grown man with a background in fighting arts I’m not too concerned about someone beating me up anyway. They’ve been teaching me to move in ways I’ve never done before, and after class I’m thoroughly worked out and satisfied. Here’s some examples of the kinds of drills we’ve done:
-crawling “commando style” in a huge circle around the mat while focusing on good breathing. The instructor was way faster than everyone, and he’d grab your ankle and drag himself over you and pretty much everyone else. Lots of fun.
-same as above, but on the back moving towards the head, kinda like a shrimping motion. Horseplay encouraged, lots of fun.
-lay on your back, with your head facing a wall, and slowly inch your way up the wall to an upright position without using your hands, then do the same in reverse. If you try to do this too fast it doesn’t work, and this is true of a lot of the drills. Challenging.
-same as above, but on your chest (there was much giggling, as this was difficult for everyone but the teacher). Very challenging.
-handstand push ups next to a wall on the fists
-push ups, with your partner applying pressure to different parts of your body as they stick up, and you have to kind of yield around their pushes without collapsing. (this one was interesting)
-similarly, we did sit ups in the same manner, applying pushes and punches to get them back down (your partner is sitting in front of you with their legs over your legs). Great core exercise.
-learning to yield/shed impact from punches and pushes from any random angle without losing your posture, and then from two angles (as when someone is attacking your posture).
-some fun schoolyard-style grappling drills on the ground. The basic one was that you tried to corral your opponent to the opposite wall, and they tried to do the same.
-same as above, but with two people against one (this was a lot of fun, but there was obviously some compliance, because if two people want you locked down, they're gonna)
-breathing/relaxation exercises with your partner sitting on your stomach (I really didn’t like this one since I’m big and feel bad about crushing people, and the breathing was short and into the chest, whereas I’ve always done deep breathing into the stomach)
-some races done shoulder to shoulder on the stomach, where everyone tried to get across the mat with the “commando crawl” (this is my term, not theirs) and were encouraged to drag your partners backwards.
After class, he did some downward striking onto the trapezius area of some of his students, as well as some other painful looking and sounding percussive Russian massage to a few of them. I tried it out, and it didn’t feel good immediately but it did later.
Overall, the class felt kind of like an adult recess class, or a generalized vaguely combative motion experiment. The instructor didn’t really elaborate why any of these drills were done, and that was actually kinda refreshing to me since my old sifu would go on and on about a point we already understood and then there was little time left to train and we'd lost our mental momentum. It felt more like training than learning, and that’s what I was looking for. I felt thoroughly challenged, and it covered things I never learned in kung fu (and would never learn).
So, how is it for self defense or fighting? Honestly, I don’t know, but probably not too good unless you were quite experienced. It’s not a “no nonsense self defense system” and would not recommend it as such. It’s more like a system for moving around under any conditions (including ones with people) that often involves weird partner drills. Omega has a mega-thread about his take on systema as a fighting art, and it is a well written article with input from many very good martial artists, and the review was generally negative, and I understand why. If you want to know about systema as a fighting art, you should check it out. I feel like I can already handle myself as a large man with a decade of conventional martial arts, so the self defense angle isn’t so important to me anymore. As a unique form of exercise I recommend it, and I’ll continue to do it for at least a while.
My current training/exercise setup looks like this: systema classes 2X a week, paddling a few miles on my off days, and finishing both with a session swinging the Indian clubs. Time will tell if this is a good fit or not. If the instructor starts making the class into some kind of ball kicking larpfest, I’ll stop, but if it stays a creative vaguely combative Russian yoga type class, I’ll probably stick around.
EDIT: holy crap, that's a lot of text! I commend you for reading it all if you did, and I'm sorry I'm not a gifted storyteller like Boyd or Garrison Keilor.
Actually, it's a good read. Glad you found something you enjoy.
There is suppose to be a Systema guy here in Dayton. People talk about him like he is an old bearded Chinese Master in a hill top temple ... except he is supposedly an old Systema dude in a small college.
I may go check him out once I am back on my feet.
Wow, I'm the master of the run-on sentence.
It's true, your writing sucks balls. But the following phrase does not -
"generalized vaguely combative motion experiment"
That's about the best description I can think of. I haven' practiced in over a year, but I want to get back into once grad school is done.
Who leads your study group?
Wow, sounds interesting Codos, but it did get me thinking, San Diego and southern CA in general has some pretty fucking amazing schools compared to other parts of the country or different places in the world, but probably the highest concentration of McDojos as well :/ I wonder what makes us Californians and San Diegans so prone martial arts training? Like in a realistic sense too, it seems like martial arts interest seems to spike in different geographic locations as opposed to others. Any thoughts?
I'm nothing special by anyone's estimation. I can do a few interesting things, but nothing spectacular. But, I have been playing with this stuff for nearly 25 years, so take what I offer for what it's worth (not much)...
When you get down to brass tacks, MA is about movement. Some arts explore movement more than others. Some arts explore movement in singular planes and never explore three dimensional motion. I think Systema's greatest strength is that it just asks very simple, wordless questions about man's interaction with his environment, up to and including other people. They are viewed less as "attackers" and more as "environmental obstacles" (as far as I can tell - I've only studied Systema informally) that are overcome via movement, whatever that movement may end up being.
I'd agree that, from my limited exposure, I'd think a background in "regular" martial arts would be highly beneficial, and someone without such a background might be at a disadvantage in training. Then again, I've been wrong before, so...
For what it's worth, I love it. I look forward to studying it more, if for no other reason than it's a lot of fun to do (combat effectiveness aside).
Ken Good and Jeff Sodeman
Originally Posted by SFGOON
Originally Posted by Matt Stone
I believe that Systema was originally intended as a "think and move outside the box" training/skills maintenance system for people who already had considerable experience in more orthodox fighting styles. I have seen people with no prior fighting experience come in and eventually do well, but IMO it takes longer than would, say, cross-training between kickboxing and judo. The trade-off is a greater trained ability to improvise in a "no rules" setting.
The open-ended, challenge-based "experimental combat movement" nature of Systema training makes it hella hard to explain to fighters who come in with a strictly technical mindset. The comparison to CrossFit training in useful in that regard.