The text below is a review of the Systema seminar conducted by Vladimir Vasiliev in New York City from June 28-29, 2003 by an advanced aikido practitioner.
I have heard a lot about Vladimir Vasiliev over the last year, being introduced to the Russian Martial Art last year by George Ledyard Sensei of Aikido Eastside in Bellevue, Washington. This introduction also happened to coincide with last year’s Aiki Expo, where James Williams and Ken Good did some Systema-related demonstrations that intrigued me. At Ledyard Sensei’s recommendation, I ordered some tapes, and saw immediate overlap with Aikido, but also interesting differences. Later in the year, my friend Stanley Pranin, editor of Aikido Journal and organizer and mastermind of the Aiki Expo in Las Vegas, visited Vasiliev’s school in Toronto, Canada for a seminar taught by both Vasiliev and his teacher in the Russian system, Mikhail Ryabko. As both Stan and I live in Las Vegas, I got immediate feedback from him that both Vasiliev and Ryabko were the real thing. Stanley has more than enough experience for me to trust his judgment, but I definitely wanted to experience things for myself first hand. For those who do not already know, Vasiliev will be one of the featured instructors at Aiki Expo 2003 this year, which will be particularly exciting, since Shizuo Imaizumi Sensei of Shin Budo Kai with whom I have trained for many years, will also be one of the featured instructors. Now, after logging a very positive seminar experience with Vasiliev, I look forward to training with him as well.
This review is directed primarily to an aikido audience. My thinking is that if you train in Systema already, none of this is really new to you. For the benefit of the aikidoka out there, I will use the Japanese terms as much as possible to avoid confusion and to make useful comparisons. For those of you with no aikido background, the “jo” is the short staff 48-52” long. “Ukemi” generally refers to receiving an attack, but in most cases specifically refers to safely taking a fall. As for some of the other Japanese terms I use, don’t worry, they won’t clarify much for you anyway unless you have the background and have seen certain types of movements and techniques.
The Systema seminar was packed full of good stuff. Two days, four hours per day, no breaks. I came off a very sweaty and vigorous Friday night advanced class at the Shin Budo Kai hombu dojo with Imaizumi Sensei, so I was all primed and broken in for the weekend. I came in very open-minded, with my only experience in Systema having through watching some of Vasiliev’s tapes, and also me submitting some of my Las Vegas students to my experimentation with what I gleaned from these tapes. The atmosphere at the seminar was very positive. In Systema, in keeping with their practical approach of natural movement and living the martial art in the day to day world, there are no ranks and everyone wears comfy, tough, street clothes. Everyone there came to train, and there was no problem coming in as an outsider and jumping right in. I met many very talented martial artists, and felt welcomed. I also noticed immediately that Vasiliev had a very open and generous character, and a great sense of humor.
The Saturday session began with “warm up” exercises. These were hard core flexibility, ukemi and strength exercises that incorporated integrated body movement. I was very happy to see this, since one of my pet peeves with many aikido students I have trained with is a lack of good solid overall physical conditioning. This is understandable, since traditional aikido training is technique centered, and valuable class time which would otherwise be spent on exercise generally goes to learning and training specific technique. Nevertheless, few students today have the opportunity to train as many of the original students of the founder did, with 6-8 hours of class time per day, so unfortunately, many of today’s aikido students don’t exercise outside of class, and I personally think this is a bit of a mistake.
So I was happy to see that there was plenty of conditioning in Systema. I was even happier to see that the exercises I saw in the seminar were well thought out, involved strength training integrated with balance, and related directly to the movements and work done in Systema. I’ll give a descriptive run down of the exercises we were put through. Also, much to my surprise, most of the warm-ups done at this seminar involved the jo, a weapon readily available in almost every aikido dojo. For this reason, I will give a specific run down of these exercises in case anyone out there wants to get experimental. I would also like to add that most of the students there who I was able to identify as having trained in Systema for any appreciable length of time were very strong, but also very loose, relaxed, and flexible.
THE WARM-UP EXERCISES
1. We started with an exercise on the floor. #1 lays face up on the floor, arms at his sides. #2 lays his upper body perpendicularly across #1’s, forming bridge across #1’s body and arms. #1 has to wiggle out from under #2 by moving his body. #2 can vary how much of his weight he puts on #1. This was not easy, took a lot of work, but also required maintaining complete relaxation.
2. Sitting down on the floor with your legs open out in front of you in a “v”, place the jo vertically with one end on the floor, parallel with your torso and between your legs near your torso. Grab the jo and pull yourself up off the floor without using your legs at all. If you have tough abs already, use them to try to do this exercise by keeping your legs completely parallel to the floor as you launch yourself up.
3. Same position as #1, but with the jo on the side of your body next to the outside of your thigh. Same deal; pull yourself up off the floor without using your legs at all. Done on both sides.
4. Stand with the jo across your shoulders and drape you arms over the jo, with forearms and hands hanging in front. If this description is confusing, think of the old method of carrying the stick with two water buckets on each end. Anyway, from this position, lay down on your back as quickly and gently as you can. The gently part happens quite naturally, since if you clunk down mindlessly or with tension, the awkward position of the jo gives you a gentle pain to correct the error of your ways. The exercise really forced me to use my abs to support my movement and gently let myself down. An observation. In Systema, I notice that most of the experienced students there took their ushiro ukemi by letting themselves straight down on one leg, with the other leg straight out in front of them until their rear end was just near the floor. This in contrast to the standard aikido ukemi (except in Yoshinkan) where you tuck the back leg. This alternative method took a bit more leg strength and control, but I notice that the ukemi used in Systema did allow you to roll to either side if you had to once you reached the floor, while the typical aikido ukemi limited you to rolling off only to one side if you had to.
Anyway, so you are on the floor with the jo across your shoulders. Now, get up as fast as you can without using your hands and without hitting the jo on the floor. Again, great control and overall center strengthening exercise. The exercise also forced me to really relax and control my upper body and move softly. If you really want to build up your leg strength and balance, get up by sticking one leg out in front while tucking the other foot, sole on the floor, as near to your body as you can and press up on one leg to standing.
In general, I found that training ukemi with the jo really forced me to be much softer and controlled in my movements.
5. Now, same position with jo across the shoulders, sit on the floor with your legs out in front of you. Roll over onto your stomach as quickly and gently as possible. No hands, and don’t let the stick hit the floor. This requires flexibility, and forced me to train to really relax my body so I could use it to absorb the force of the fall very gently. It also forced me to use a nice strong supple full body bridge full of energy to absorb and disperse the impact of my chest hitting the floor. Once your laying face down, roll back over and get back to sitting position, again as quickly and gently as possible, again, no hands and no stick contact with the floor. Getting up, a good strong curve needed, as well as a lot of ab control to get my upper body up high enough to flip over without using hands or hitting the jo on the floor.
6. If your feeling really brave, go from standing with the jo across your shoulders, to flat on your chest as quickly and gently as possible, no hands, and no hitting the stick on the floor. Then get up to your feet as fast as you can.
7. In this exercise, stand with the jo horizontally across the thoracic vertebrae of your back, and holding the jo up there by wrapping your arms around it from behind, with your hands sticking out in front of your body. You are basically holding the jo up behind you in the inside of your elbows. Sit on the floor. Go from sitting to face down flat on your stomach as quickly and gently as possible. Then get back up to sitting position. Basically, you are repeating the movements in number 5 above, again staying relaxed, and without using your hands or hitting the stick on the floor. The movement from being face down to sitting and vice versa was harder than in number 3, since the jo was a lot closer to the center of your body, and this required a lot more strength, flexibility, and bridging to move without using hands or hitting the jo on the floor.
Throughout all the exercises, and also during the rest of the training, Vasiliev stressed breathing, leading us in inhaling, and then exhaling for the execution of the movements.
8. Push-ups with the jo. So, get in the position with the jo across your shoulders (as in No. 5 above), and lay flat face-down on your stomach. You hands are near the sides of your head. Make fists, and, as your forearms and hands are on the sides of your head, place the fists on the floor for push-ups. Now, the jo across your shoulders completely prevents you from getting a push up, since it locks up in your elbows and across your neck. It ends up with you just bridging and struggling to get your body off the floor and hold it there as long as you can.
9. Push-ups with jo, another version. Get in the position with the jo behind your back ( as in No. 7 above), and held on the inside of your elbows, with your hands out in front of you. Lay face down again, make fists, and do a push-up. Again, the jo prevents a real push up, so now you are bridging with the jo across your back. A whole different set of muscles is used, since your hands are near your waist and are supporting you at a much lower point on your body.
Now for the exercises we did on the first day without the jo.
10. Standard push ups. Well almost. We got with a partner and set up parallel to each other in a standard push-up position. We put a tennis ball between our triceps which were right next to each other, and then did very slow push-ups, making sure not to let the tennis ball fall. Trade sides. This is much harder than is sounds. First of all, it forced you to do push ups with perfect standard form, which has the insides of your elbows facing forward, and with you arms and elbows staying at your sides and parallel to your body as do the exercise. Most people abandon this form, or never learn it properly, doing push up while allowing the elbows to flare out to the sides. This exercise of doing push-ups with the tennis ball required a lot of sensitivity to the other person’s movement, and careful arm adjustments. It also forced the push-ups to be done very slowly, and in very good form. We then repeated the exercise with three people next to each other, with two tennis balls, one either side of the middle man. Rotate through each position. The guy in the middle had to respond to the man on either side, requiring even more squirming and adjusting, all while doing good slow push-ups. Needless to say, we very sweaty and there was lot of grunting going on. If you have any experience with this, you know that doing these sort of slow and controlled movements is a lot harder that running through them fast.
11. Two man squats with the tennis ball. You and a partner stand back to back, feet a bit more than shoulder width apart. Put the tennis ball between you in the lower back area. Then, both of you slowly squat to the floor, all the way down to sitting on your rear-ends and with legs out in front, all without letting the ball drop. Then, and this was really hard, get your feet back up under you and slowly stand up again, without losing the ball. Sound easy? Try it.
12. Sensitivity exercise with the tennis ball. Stand facing your partner. #1 gently cups the tennis ball in his hands. #2 places his hands just immediately under #1’s hands holding the ball, but without touching #1’s hands. #1 drops the ball at will, and #2 tries to catch it. This is really hard if you try to react visually to #1 dropping the ball, which we all did with very little success for a few tries. Vasiliev then indicated that the real point of the exercise was not to react to seeing the ball drop, but to anticipate #1 dropping the ball. He demonstrated being able to catch the ball every time in this manner. So the attention was not focused on the ball, but on to sensing when #1 would drop the ball. This made a huge difference. I got to the point where me and my partner were doing this looking over each others heads (not looking as the hands at all), and even had some success relaxing and trying this with eyes closed. This was a great exercise, as it forced me away from reacting visually, but instead using a different kind of sensing.
13. #1 stands facing away from his partner (#2), hand naturally at his sides. #2 tosses the tennis ball up under #1’s arms, up under his legs, and drops the ball from over #1’s head. #1 has to try to catch the ball. The problem is that he doesn’t get a lot of time to react, and has to pay close attention to sensing where the ball is or will be coming from. Catching the ball dropped from above was the hardest. The tennis ball would reappear on Day 2 of the seminar during the bodyguard training.
ESCAPES FROM HOLDS
Before I begin these descriptions, let me say in advance that they will pretty hard to unravel unless you sit there and try to do it with a partner and do through the description. Even, they are still hard to follow. Photos would be a lot better, but I have none. I know these descriptions will be a bit tedious, but I promised several people that I would do my best to give a full description, so that is what I did. I am painfully aware that you cannot learn techniques from these descriptions, but a few brave souls may want to experiment, so here they are, take them or leave them.
Vasiliev started by showing several techniques to use against side headlocks, both static, and coming to hold. The first technique involved responding to a person standing next to you, reaching up to grab your head into a side headlock. The responsive movement was done before the hold was firmly made, in other words, a come-to-hold technique. It involved moving and turning in the same general direction of the grab around the front of the attacker. With the attacker unbalanced, you continue turning and leading the arm around your neck (optionally grabbing it) into a turn that unbalances him and he falls. The transfer of energy to the attacker to make him fall was through the upper body and neck. We then did an offensive neck hold, where you grab the victim in a side headlock, drop to the floor in front of him while turning away from him, throwing him over your body into a roll as you rolled towards an on-all-fours position on the floor. The variation of this that Vasiliev showed was for the attacker to grab the victim and then drop more on his back, but keeping his outside knee up, and bringing the victims face to the knee as he is dropped to the floor.
Most of the holds, however, were from a facing headlock with the victims head under the attackers armpit, otherwise known as the guillotine. For the purposes of these descriptions that follow, the attacker (#1) has the head of the victim, (#2) in a guillotine, holding the victim to his left under his left armpit, with the headlock being done by the left arm. Vasiliev demonstrated the first escape on me. I came up in front to get the grab, and he just sort of disappeared behind me. I turned around a little confused, not sure what went wrong. Vasiliev was standing behind me giving me his best dead pan expression, and I must have looked confused, because he just cracked a little smile; the spectators all got a good laugh. I missed the technique completely. In fact, I didn’t even feel anything. He slipped the grab completely somehow. After a couple of more tries, I saw what was going on. As I came to grab, the technique was to drop a little and turn around the attacker, while keeping facing him as you moved behind him. I thought I saw it done with both clockwise and counterclockwise turns, but the clockwise turn seemed to work best. Just a simple step in around and turn. The slip was so soft and easy, it was hard to tell what happened. Just like grabbing air. In execution, I found it to work very well once I got the hang of it.
The next technique was also so simple I got confused. #1 grabs #2 in a guillotine. #2 grabs the elbow of the off hand of #1 (the right elbow), and pulls it towards towards his head. I laughed when I had this done to me, because the simple pulling of the off arm totally took all the energy out of the headlock.
In another variation, #1 grabs #2 in the guillotine. #2 adjusts his position slightly so he is moving towards a standing up position. While he does this, #2 takes his left hand and uses it to push #1’s head towards his own head and a little upwards. This ended up taking all the energy out of the headlock, and put a huge amount of pressure on the attacker’s shoulder and collarbone, which clearly could be easily broken. On the receiving end of this, I felt intense pain.
#1 grabs #2 in a guillotine. #2 grabs the elbow of the off hand of #1 (the right elbow), and pulls it towards towards his head. This takes all the strength out of the hold. #2 then slips his right arm between #1’s left elbow and body, while turning counterclockwise, and ends up standing side by side with #1, to #1’s left. While this is happening, #2 grabs #1’s left wrist with his left hand, and wraps his right forearm under #1’s left forearm near #1’s left elbow area, and finally grabbing his own left wrist/forearm. Complicated in description, but basically a simple arm bar. Vasiliev then used the arm bar with a scooping motion to dump the victim backwards.
We then did a simple two hand grab techniques (ryote-tori). #1 grabs both of #2’s wrists. #2 grabs #1’s left wrist from below with his left hand and rotates his right hand on top of his own left wrist, using it as a lever to break his right hand free. Once free, the index and middle finger of #2’s right hand us used to poke #1 in the trachea, and then #2’s right hand drops to the inside of #1’s left elbow, applying pressure down and towards the left rear of #2 with a slight turning movement of #2’s body in that same direction. This brought #1 to the floor. The throw/take down was executed in exactly the same spiral manner of a variety of kokyu-nage techniques.
We also did an offensive maneuver. #1 stands facing #2 and grabs #2’s right wrist with his left hand, and grabs under #2’s elbow from below with his right hand. This pressure on the elbow locks up the arm. Then, with a shoveling motion past his right shoulder, #1 unbalances #2 up and forward, throwing him into a forward roll, or if you want to be naughty, dumping #1’s face into the floor.
We also did a cross hand grab (kosa tori) technique, which was done either defensively or offensively. #1 grabs #2’s right wrist with his right hand. Then, while moving off to his right rear, #1 pulls #2’s wrist downward and to the right at the same time, unbalancing #2 to #2’s forward left, and twisting #2’s wrist away from #1’s body. Then, #1 places his left hand on #2’s left shoulder/neck, and pulls #1 down to the floor. In aikido terms, it is much the way one would start a come-to-hold version of shiho-nage, with more emphasis on the downward pressure. In Shin Budo Kai parlance, this was kokyu nage ude mawashi, but simply moving backwards instead of forwards. Vasiliev executed the initial downward movement with a shock that easily sent #2 to the floor. You see this type of shock movement in many aikido and daito-ryu styles.
After going through these techniques, we moved to a simple movement exercises. The first consisted of your partner trying to grab you, either same side or cross hand, and you evading and moving naturally into an advantageous position, and without very much hand involvement or technique. Vasiliev emphasized that we were to move slowly, to not rush, and focus on the movement and the relationship with the other person’s movement. Then we did the same basic exercise with more hand involvement, evading the grabs and moving into simple technique. The point was that the technique was to evolve naturally out of the movement. Vasiliev demonstrated the basic idea, demonstrating with an attacker, and running through a wide variety of techniques flowing naturally out of the movement with the student he was demonstrating on. We followed suit. I found the exercise very useful. The idea stressed was to keep it slow, not use force, relax, and move naturally. Specific technique was not stressed, and we were encouraged to let technique develop naturally out of the movement. My wide repertoire of aikido technique came in very useful, but it was nice to work in a very free-style fashion. I was also happy to see that many unusual variations of standard aikido technique came up, and some very new movements, trips, traps, and takedowns. It became clear that in Systema, they use their feet and legs to execute technique as much as they use their arms and hands.
After dealing with the holds, we got into some movement exercise based on using the body and legs. Vasiliev demonstrated evasive movements against several attackers using just body movement. His demonstrations in general were beautiful. I particularly enjoyed how relaxed he remained, and his economy of movement, as well how he used feet, legs and hands as easily and efficiently as hand and arm movement. Also, I was really impressed by how he was able to freely demonstrate with 2-4 attackers at a time in a space that was usually only 12-15 feet in diameter.
So we then did the same type of exercise, simply moving to evade kicks, without using our hands. This really made me focus on relaxed body movement. The small space and the multiple attackers also made me very aware of moving economically. Once we did this movement exercise, Vasiliev demonstrated the same exercise, except now, he used his body and legs to trip, trap, and unbalance the attackers. His demonstration was amazing and very inspiring. He moved through several attackers gently and deftly with no problem, dropping all of them over and over again, and on top of each other, without any problem. Many of the take downs involved pressure on the knee joint from the sides or back to collapse the leg, “riding” the attackers foot and/or leg before it hit the floor only to reposition just away from where he wanted to place it to unbalance him, attacking and unbalancing the off leg, redirecting kicks with the feet and legs to spin the attacker around, stepping on the feet and applying pressure to the knee with his knee, and a lot of close body contact to help gently unbalance the attacker. Higher kicks were dealt with simple slips, with the hands and arms following the movement of the kicks and attacks to the standing leg or enter and attack the body or standing leg, or continuing the momentum of the kicking leg to spin the attack around and get his back. Middle level kicks were slipped with a body turn, or the force absorbed with an outstretched leg making a slope. Low kicks were spun around using the feet to continue the kicks original direction, or blended with using the leg and repositioned before reaching the floor, thereby unbalancing the opponent by opening his stance up into an unnatural or too wide of a stance where he could easily be pushed over with a light body check or light push.
So we then tried the same exercise with 2-3 attackers, and using no hands, and only trying to trap, trip, and redirect the attackers kicks with our bodies and legs. Vasiliev stressed that we had to relax, and move slowly. This was very revealing for me. It opened me up to many possibilities of use of body movement and position I haven’t experienced before. This slow speed training required that the attackers make their strikes behave as if the strike had speed and momentum, and respond to the techniques in the same way. Accordingly, the person getting attacked had to watch to not anticipate the strikes coming at him, and not speed up. This slow speed “sparring” was really eye-opening for me, and I think it is going to sneak its way into my aikido classes.
With another demo from Vasiliev, he only now added hand movement, demonstrating dozens of techniques against kicks, none of which he explained in any depth or detail, he just did strings of techniques against a kicking attacker. Many of these techniques were based upon following the movement of the strike, and redirecting it in a very soft and relaxed manner, often simply following the kick with a hand or leg and moving the attackers leg to unbalance him. At this time, he added strikes with fist, forearm, elbow, shoulder, knee, and hip movement during the slow movement against the kicks. The strikes I saw were not linear, nor were they stiff. Many are open handed. Even the fists appeared relaxed. The strikes with the hands were very much the hands following whatever position the body was moving in and naturally following the movement. Because of this incorporation of natural movement and relaxation, Vasiliev combined many strikes together in chains of continuous attacks. Wherever one strike ended, the next one began. A strike across the face, then pulling and turning the head with the hand on the way back. A forward moving elbow across to the face, a rip down the chest unbalancing the attacker, a strike to the groin, all without stopping. An upper cut, an elbow down upper cut, an elbow to the shoulder on the way down, a fist to the spine on the back. A note about the strikes I saw Vasiliev doing. The impacts were heavy, and when they were directed to the hip area, back, or leg, they went deep and unbalanced the attacker, rather than just attacking the target area. Also, there was a lot of intent in the strikes, so that the attacker seeing the strike clearly affected his body. As we practiced, the attackers were practicing to be responsive and respond to the counters in a relaxed manner, and respond to the counters while moving naturally and slipping or minimizing the impacts and making sure that the impact on the floor was soft. I noticed that Vasiliev would slip off to the side with some advanced students occasionally while we were practicing what he demonstrated. They were practicing much closer to full speed on a hardwood floor, and their ukemi was soft and graceful. Some folks training in aikido could definitely take a lesson in trying to do the same to see if their own falls allow them to survive repeated ukemi on hard floors.
We now broke into groups of 3-4, moving slowly, with the attackers kicking, and the guy in the middle evading, slipping, using his legs and arms, and incorporating strikes of all kinds, but again, moving slowly, and making sure the strikes came naturally out of the movement. Practicing in the groups with small spaced and multiple attackers forced me to not linger on one attacker, because 2 more were coming all the time. Also, basic randori principles applied. The slow movement really allowed me to see how I could use and manipulate the position of the attackers to my advantage. The pressure of the multiple attackers also forces the strikes to come out of the body movement, since there was not time to waste in setting up a strike, or reaching for some strike that would take an extra half-second to execute.
Vasiliev stressed over and over again that technique was not as important as proper and natural relaxed body movement. He said he could use the time to show specific techniques, but this was not the really important thing. Over and over again, he started with sensitivity and movement exercises, and only later moved to adding hands and feet and showing technique. He stressed that moving naturally and responding with natural movement was the primary concern. Indeed, I found that after we went through these exercises and got to the free form multiple attackers, techniques were indeed coming naturally. I should also say at this time that Vasiliev stressed breathing a lot. As he demonstrated, his clear deep and relaxed breathing was evident, and he often made it audible, probably to make sure we would understand that we should endeavor to breath in that manner as well.
WORK WITH THE SHORT STAFF (JO)
We then moved on to working with the jo, or short staff. Vasiliev began by explaining that the jo can be used to massage the bodies soft tissue. We did this a bit, rolling and rubbing the jo all over on the larger muscles. He then demonstrated an exercise that I only really understood a little later. Vasiliev took a student and had him stand with feet a little more than shoulder width apart, and with the arms up in the air on either side of the body. He began to gently hit the person with the jo, telling him to exhale forcefully when the impact came. He placed his hits on larger muscle groups, starting off pretty soft, but slowly escalated to the force of the strikes till they got pretty hard. He explained that it was an exercise to maintain relaxation and take the impact. He then focused his strikes on the solar plexus, and the strikes got pretty hard. The student he had up took harder and harder hits, and near the end, Vasiliev was applying them with a lot of whipping force. The exhalations of air on impact were very hard, and the student shook his upper body between hits as they got harder, apparently trying to relax more. So after this demo, he had everyone get with a partner and experiment. Everyone broke into pairs, and he asked if anyone wanted to try with him. I volunteered …
The first hits to my solar plexus were light, then got much harder. By the sixth or seventh one, they really stung, and I had to use my exhalation a lot to take the impact and relax my upper body, abs and diaphragm, which were slowly accumulating tension as the hits got harder. I noticed that the strong exhalation did put a little tension in the abdominal muscles if you timed it exactly to the impact, but the point was not to tense the muscles to resist the strike. I felt tension accumulate more and more in the area getting hit and my upper body in general, and tried hard to relax, exhale hard, and shake it off in between strikes. The next hit was even harder, it stung, but I was still OK. Vasiliev paused. I let my arms down, and I said “It’s not too bad.” There may have been a hint of self-satisfaction in my voice and demeanor … which may have encouraged what happened next. I forget the exact words, but Vasiliev said something like. “No, not too bad, the point is to keep going.” I understood this as encouragement to continue, and was a bit reluctant based upon the pain of the last hit, but, I figured I better experience whatever I can while it is available. I took the position again, and Vasiliev hit me right in the solar plexus, and my diaphragm started to spasm just a tad. You know, that wonderful effect when you get punched in the stomach and get the wind knocked out of you. I felt it start, but the exhaling and the trying to relax stopped it before it got to take a hold. But I had a lot of residual tension I could not shake off. The next strike did it. The pain was intense, and I felt the nerve impulses go right to my head, and my diaphragm completely locked up. I nearly passed out and started to doubled over. Fortunately, Vasiliev appears to have known exactly what he was doing. He caught my attention before I lost my focus (and consciousness), and told me to stand up straight, breath in through my nose and out through my mouth. I followed this direction, except that for about 25 seconds, I could not actually inhale or exhale, but the effort to do so eventually got my diaphragm out of its rock solid spasm. Vasiliev told me that when you get hit like that, don’t bend over, since the muscles will lock up even worse. Basically, stand up straight or lay down straight, but don’t bend at the waist. Good advice I will surely remember. It was only after getting hit so hard and noticing the building up of tension in the upper body and solar plexus that I think I actually understood the exercise. It sounds a bit brutal, but really wasn’t. For some reason, something in Vasiliev’s demeanor and character made me trust him, despite the fact that I watched him hit the guy before me really hard with a jo, and had him doing the same to me. It was done very matter of factly, and I really appreciated it. The bruise that came up later was extraordinary, and made the next day’s work on the floor, and other sensitivity exercises, pretty dicey. But on the whole, a good experience. Aside from a lesson in relaxation, also a good lesson in humility.
We worked for the next part of the seminar with the jo. We did a warm-up where #1 held the jo up vertically and parallel to the floor at various levels starting at chest height. #2 had to drop laterally under the jo and come up on the other side. #1 would then lower the jo to abdomen, waist, thigh, and knee level, and finally, the floor level. #2 had to stay relaxed and find different ways to slip under the jo without moving it or hitting it.
Vasiliev demonstrated very basic evasive movement against two attackers with jos, and then had us work in groups of three, with two attackers with jos slowly and constantly try to poke the third guy. The third guy’s job was to relax, evade the attacks, and not use hands. Just use movement. We did this for a good while. It is an excellent exercise both for movement and timing, especially once I got the hang of all the possible movement options, and tried to keep the size of my movement to a minimum. Vasiliev then demonstrated against a single attacker with a jo, this time using his hands and demonstrating a string of techniques to throw the attacker and take away the weapon. He did not focus on any particular technique, but made it very clear that the techniques came out of the movement. So there was no specific focus on a particular technique, but to just let the technique flow naturally. Before he had us train this idea, he pulled up a three student with jos, and had then attack him, and then fooled around a bit against them after picking up a jo himself. His movement was really beautiful, relaxed and effective. His use of the jo was also very creative. I have some limited background in Muso Ryu, but Vasiliev’s use of the jo was really fun to watch because it was so unstructured, responsive, and moment to moment.
We then broke into pairs, and worked on evading poking attacks (tsuki), moving slowly, not using strength, and finding efficient ways to disarm the attacker or his stick. I was lucky to work with a student with a firm foundation in Systema, and was happy to see him stop me when he felt I was using any force or pulling or pushing against his strength. Basic aikido principles were evident. This was a very good exercise. Many of my own repertoire of aikido jo tori techniques came out, but also, after doing this free form exercise for a while, many techniques came out spontaneously. I enjoyed this very much, and see it particularly useful for aikidoka who train almost exclusively in completely structured and controlled waza.
Then Vasiliev demonstrated against an overhead, shomen-uchi type strike. He first demonstrated how to slip the strike with no hands, just a small movement of the shoulder and the leg; he bowed his leg out very slightly on the side the jo was moving past in order to protect the foot. Then he incorporated arm movement. The movement was not far different from the irimi movement done in aikido to head towards a kote kaeshi tenkan. It was just bit closer, with not too much extension of the arms and less degree of turn. He went on to show a number of techniques where you could use the jo to make the attacker hit himself. He finally demonstrated free-style work with multiple jo-wielding attackers doing whatever strike they wanted, with many techniques involving use of trips, leg traps and jams naturally incorporated into the movement. This was especially nice, since this is not done too much in aikido, but is part of some of the other martial arts I studied. But these techniques were very soft and relaxed, a relied a lot on redirecting the victims leg at the moment of the weight shifting or the strike hitting. Again, none of it used any brute force. All very aiki. At the end of this set, he himself picked up a jo and worked against several attackers with sticks. It had a lot of one-handed work in it, with body and weapons movement that was very relaxed and loose. It was very easy for him to control these attachers with weapons and get them to hit each other and get tied up in each other.
We proceeded to work in groups of 3 or 4, with one guy in the middle evading the slow strikes of the others jo-wielding attackers, and incorporating leg traps, trips, and unbalancing movements, as well as strikes. It was an excellent exercise. With attackers with jos in such small spaces, big techniques were impossible, and it really forced and economy of movement and tactical use of getting the attackers to hit each other or get in each others way.
Vasiliev’s last demo for the day was a short discussion of multiple attackers. He pulled up a group of 5-6 guys and said that when you face a possibly aggressive group, it is best to keep a distance initially. Otherwise, the attackers get used to you, your presence, and your energy, and they begin to feel comfortable, and may more easily dominate you or be more prone to attack. By staying outside of their range, you still maintain the psychological advantage of surprise and uncertainty. He also noted that in mass attacks, not everyone will come at once, and you must take advantage of positions and the psychology of the situation. He said that with some practice with sensitivity and understanding of body language, you can tell who will initially attack, who wants to attack, and who does not want to attack, and use this to your advantage. He then demonstrated an interesting trick. He moved the guys into a shoulder to shoulder bunch and said one method is to sucker the group into attacking by giving them a target, in this case it was his chin. He ever so slightly hedged is face towards the group, moving in and back slightly and seeing what response it got from the attackers, he then inched in really close and the entire group came at him at once, and he drew back and down on to the floor, and the group followed him, moving forward with their punches, tripping over each other, and falling into a heap.
Vasiliev then asked for questions. Someone asked a question about how his strikes seem to unbalance the attackers. He then demonstrated a variety of strikes on a student. He showed how some were superficial, while others, although they looked soft, penetrated deeply and unbalanced the student. His strikes did not have a lot of “body” behind them and did always rely on hip movement, but they hit very hard and really affected the victim.
He compared strikes to the surface, versus ones that were the energy was directed to the spine or deeper into body tissue. Although the strikes looked similar, the effect on the student was very different. The “deep” strikes went right to the students center and brought him off balance and down. He also said that certain kinds of hits create tension, and one can use the tension created by a strike and follow up with another to create movement in, or unbalance, the attacker. He did a series of one-two combinations to show this principle. I could see that the first strike would create a certain tension in the upper body of the student, and they he would use another immediate follow up strike to take advantage of this tension. The second strike then really moved the opponent, and in almost any direction Vasiliev wanted. He also gave a curious demonstration, saying that shifting or traumatizing certain organs can produce and affect in the body. He took his hands and placed the edges of his hands right around where the student’s liver was. He then made a small shaking movement with his hands, and the student collapsed. Vasiliev explained that the body reacts automatically and in an extreme way to feeling the internal organ displaced.
Another question came up from a student asking what if someone doesn’t move in so deeply against you, but uses short jabs. He simply called the student up to show him what he meant. The student came up and took a few jabs, and Vasiliev softly redirected the jab with his near hand and gently redirected the guys lead knee and he dropped. Vasiliev said that you have to fight and respond to the person, and cannot focus on specific technique.
I left the first day sweaty and very excited. Vasiliev was really an excellent teacher in the sense that what he demonstrated and had us practice made sense in a practical way, and it built up from basic to more challenging progressively. I also keyed in very well to how in every area he was teaching, whether it was holds, stick work, or kicks, we started with body movement and only later ended up doing technique. Coming from a traditional aikido background, I really liked the lack of focus on technique, and the in-depth focus on natural movement, relaxation, and building technique out of movement.
Vasiliev was very engaging in class, very responsive to questions, and would throw or get down and dirty with anyone who would ask. He also had a great sense of humor and I was glad that he was very personable and warm, and clearly enjoys what he is doing. There were no injuries, (other than those volunteered for, like me), and all the students there were very focused on training, and respectful of each other. Much like in aikido, falling safely clearly seemed very important. I heard him admonish some local students for not having perfected their falling and rolling enough. My aikido training did prepare me well for the falling, but I also noted some interesting falling methods some of the advanced students were using, and was again impressed at how soft the advanced students were when they hi the floor. Not a lot of slapping out here. Try it on concrete a few times.
MORE WARM-UP EXERCISES WITH THE JO
The second day of the seminar began with more warm-up exercises with the jo.
1.#1 holds the jo vertically straight up off the floor. #2 stands as far back from the jo as he can and leans in with his arms outstretched over his head and grabs the jo. #2 then walks his hands down the jo hand under hand until he gets to the bottom, and them comes back up hand over hand.
The exercise is then repeated with #1 moving the jo around, making it harder for #2 to grab it.
Once you are able to do this individually, try to climb up and down the jo at the same time with your partner.
2.#1 hold the jo palms up, chest-width apart, with the jo close to his body at chest level. #2 grabs the jo. #1 then walks backwards until #2’s arms are outstretched over his head. #2 is basically in a flat bridge, his body flat, with his feet on the floor and his hands stretched straight over his head. #2 holds this position as long as he can.
3.#1 and #2 sit across from each other, with legs spread open, pushing each others’ feet. The jo is placed between them, and they grab it. #1 and #2 then have a tug of war with jo, seeing who can pull the other towards them.
4.#1 and #2 sit next to each other with legs out in front of them. The jo is placed across their laps, and they both grab the jo in front of them. Then #1 and #2 wrestle, trying to pull the jo away from each other. These “wrestling” exercises with the jo were grueling. Try them even for a couple of minutes. It’s great for the grip and uses really useful combinations of muscle groups. We were soaked in just a few minutes.
5.Same as #4, except the jo is placed across behind #1 and #2’s head and shoulders. They grab the jo there and try to wrestle it away from each other.
6.Same as #4, except the jo is placed across behind #1 and #2’s lower back. They grab it behind them and try to wrestle it away from each other.
7.#1 and #2 lay on their backs. The jo is placed parallel to their bodies between them. They grab the jo and try to wrestle it away from each other.
8.Same as No. 7, except the jo is placed perpendicular to #1 and #2 across their bodies.
You can also try Nos. 7 and 8 laying face down if you’re really brave and don’t mind scuffing up some of the skin on your joints. In all of these wrestling exercised with the jo, you just need to make sure you don’t poke, push, or pull and end of the jo into your partner’s face.
SENSITIVITY DRILLS WITH THE JO
#1 lays on his back. #2 takes the jo and and applies strong pressure to points all over the front of #1’s body. #1 has to try to relax and slip the pressing jo off his body with as little movement as possible, focusing on relaxing and manipulating his musculature. Repeat the same exercise with #1 on laying face-down, getting pressed on points all over the back of his body. Repeat the same exercise with #1 in an upward-facing wrestling bridge, pushing up with his hands near his head and with his feet flat on the floor.
We then did an exercise where #1 lays face down, and #2 stands up near #1’s head and starts with the jo pressing on the small of #1’s back. #1 has to swing up his legs one at a time and kick the stick off his back. The jo is then places in the mid back, upper back, shoulder level, and finally neck. #1 has to relax enough that he can maneuver his body to swing his leg to catch and hook the jo with his foot. This also requires back and leg muscles involvement coordinated with relaxation.
SENSITIVITY DRILLS WITH KNIVES
#1 stands in front of #2, and starts pressing the knife in various places on the front and sides of #2’s body, including legs, but focusing on the chest, abdomen, etc. #2 is to relax and slip the knife by letting his body loosely move naturally in response to the pressure, but without moving around; i.e., no footwork, just staying in place. The point was to go slowly, not anticipate the pressure, and respond to the pressure of the knife in a very relaxed manner. The next stage of this exercise was for the guy getting poked to close his eyes and slip the pressure from the knife. Then, both #1 and #2 had to close their eyes. These exercises were really interesting and did help me get an idea of relaxing and responding to the feeling. Also, it was very hard to be the one doing the stabbing with the eyes closed.
The next stage was to have #1 slowly stab at #2, but to have #2 slip the knife, but to catch the blade from the side of the blade and redirect the knife hand back to #1’s body, or otherwise trap the blade or lever it out of #1’s hand, using only the body. This required a lot of relaxation and responsiveness, and letting the body be articulate in areas like the abdomen and chest that I was not used to. It was excellent training, and I got the hang of it quickly. Vasiliev’s demonstration of this was amazing. I got the impression that in Systema, they are very comfortable with blades. They appear to like to train with real dulled knives and very realistic training knives. They also are very accustomed to touching the blade where it is safe (i.e., the side of the blade), and train in letting the attacking blade touch you as long as it is unable to apply cutting pressure. This opened up a huge variety of knife defenses I saw during the course of the seminar, that go far beyond the standard tanto-dori techniques of aikido.
We then moved on to the person getting stabbed (#2) moving around more, and having #1 slash, stab, and strike with the knife in any way he wants. #2 had to slip the knife attacks, and try to trap, lever out, or redirect the blade back to #1.
After doing this for a while, we added the element of the legs and feet. #1 attacks #2 in any way he wants with the knife, and #2, without using his hands, moves around, slips the strikes, and tries to trap, leverage out, or redirect the blade back at #1 using only his body, but now we added the element of trying to trip or trap #1’s legs, or to unbalance him with leg movements. Vasiliev demonstrated a wide variety of movements along these lines, using several attackers and not repeating or focusing on any one movement. He stressed that technique was secondary, and that the most important point was to move correctly and have technique happen naturally.
Only during the last stage did we add using the hands. Vasiliev showed a lot of knife disarming techniques in rapid succession with several attackers in a very small space. We then has to do this exercise, moving very slowly, trying to stay relaxed, move naturally, and let techniques happen. The techniques fell into three basic categories a) using various movements to leverage the blade, redirect back at the attacker, and get him to stab himself; b) leading and redirecting the strikes to unbalance the attacker and get him to fall while controlling or disarming the knife; c) using various strikes with hands, legs, knees, shoulder, etc. to dislodge the knife from the opponents hand; d) any combination of the above.
After trying this for a while, we simply did freeform knife work, with #1 attacking in any manner he wanted, and #2 responding any way he wants. Using, strikes, leg trips and traps, throws, getting #1 to stab himself, and always controlling or disarming the knife. The point was to move slowly and focus on relaxed, natural movement.
This progression from slow sensitivity exercises to free form slow sparring with the blade was excellent. It really gave me a whole different perspective on movement, and on the possibility of different kinds of movement and techniques. By the time we got going in the slow free style attacking with the knife, I felt much more comfortable than I imagined I would, and the I found my aikido technique coming out naturally in all variety of unusual ways, along with new movements and techniques that spontaneously appeared.
The next exercise was interesting. Vasiliev explained that the problem in real-life situations with knives is that there is a tendency for the victim to move back and away, and this is dangerous, because the open space favors the attacker. He gave an exercise to practice constant forward movement against a knife attacker. #1 and #2 start about 3 meters apart. #1 takes a step and makes a strike, and in response, #2 makes a corresponding evasive movement, but only moving in the forward direction, not back. There is still distance between them. #1 then takes another step in and makes another attack of his choice, and #1 again has to make a responsive movement, although they are still safely apart. Finally, #1 makes a final forward step and strike. Now, #1 and #2 are close enough that #1’s strike is an actual threat, and #2 responds with an actual disarming technique. This was a very good exercise, and did clearly show the idea of maintaining forward movement in the face of a knife attacker, and had clear application for empty-handed training as well.
Now we moved to the floor. #1 and #2 are on the floor in any position they want. #1 attacks #2 and #2 has to move and respond to evade or slip the attack, or apply any technique to throw, redirect, or disarm #1. It was all free-style floor work. It started with just evasion, and they went on to striking the attacker and disarming his knife. Vasiliev demonstrated this exercise, and I have to say it was beautiful to watch. He moved as deftly on the floor as he did standing up. His movements were so relaxed and he moved around on the floor without any problem or restriction. He was able to use his feet and legs as easily as his hands, managed to tie up and disarm the knife attacks as easily as he did standing up. I saw Vasiliev do a lot of ikkyo, kote kaeshi, and even kokyu nage done with legs and feet instead of arms and hands. He also showed every possible strike using the feet you could imagine.
We tried this exercise as well, moving slowly. I really enjoyed it, and after all the previous sensitivity exercises, got very comfortable very quickly on the floor against my knife-wielding partner. It was a really great experience. I was able after a time to move pretty freely, and found that I could use my feet to do versions of ikkyo, kote kaeshi, and kokyu nage techniques myself as I had see Vasiliev doing. It was a lot of fun, and opened my eyes to many possibilities. It was also a great confidence builder. I surprised myself at how effectively I could move on the ground and deal with a knife attack. After training in this way, hand work was added. It was easy to incorporate a lot of suwari waza from aikido, but I most enjoyed the use of feet and legs, and the types of movements we don’t usually do in aikido, since Vasiliev was comfortable, moving, striking, and throwing in any position you could imagine on the floor.
PERSONAL PROTECTION/BODYGUARD WORK
The final session on Sunday was the personal protection/bodyguard work.
We began with a very simple exercise of pairing up and practicing walking around a stationary person. Vasiliev explained that it was very important to be able to move smoothy and quickly around the client, without interfering with him. We then continued this exercise, except with the “client” walking, with the other person trying to walk around the client smoothy and without getting in his way. The next exercise had us in groups of two, with one person as the client. The bodyguard was to face in the same direction as the client, and practice moving around the client from front to back and back to front as smoothly and quickly as possible. To explain, if the bodyguard is standing directly behind the client, and both are facing in the same direction, the bodyguard sidesteps with his right foot to step to the right of the client to pop out as his side, and then sidesteps around the client with his left foot to end up directly in front of the client. The same type of movement is then used to step off to the clients left and then back behind him. At first, these movements were done on a one-two count, but then with a little practice, I was able to shift from front to back on a one count.
We then broke up into groups of four, with two “bodyguards” and one client. The two bodyguards would stand next to each other behind the client, the threat would approach, and the two bodyguards would slip out from behind the client to out in front of him and in-between the client and the threat. Again, with practice, this exercise became very smooth.
Next we set up to lines of people about two meters apart, with the two lines facing each other. The bodyguard would walk the client between these lines from one end to the other, while the people in the two lines would try to grab the client. The bodyguard’s job was to keep the people from touching the client by moving their hands away, or moving the client. This was not so easy. The problem I noticed was the bodyguard’s tendency to get focused on the person he was dealing with at the moment, and while he attended to that interaction, others were coming in and touching the client. The exercise required practicing keeping your gaze relaxed and using full peripheral vision, and not getting preoccupied with any one person reaching for the client.
An exercise was introduced with tennis balls. I stood with my partner a couple of meters apart, and we started simply by tossing the ball to each other and catching it with one hand. After this, we were instructed to not look at the ball as it was thrown to us, but only use our peripheral vision. Once I got comfortable with this, me and my partner also tried doing this throwing balls at each other at the same time without looking directly at each other. This was a very good exercise, but also not so easy. It really forced me to work on my peripheral vision.
Next we practiced moving the client around us while standing still. We stood still, and we moved the client around us in a circle using only their arm, as gently and as smoothly as possible. This entailed passing the client to my left, grabbing his left arm with my right hand, and passing his left arm from my right to my left hand, then getting his right arm with my right hand as he passed by in front, then grabbing his right arm with my left hand and passing him behind me, grabbing his right arm with my right hand behind me, pulling him around to my front and grabbing his left arm with my left hand, and pulling across the front again. We practiced moving the client around in both clockwise and counterclockwise directions. After we logged some time doing this, we got into groups of threes. The bodyguard stood behind the client, and the threat approached from the front. The bodyguard had to practice moving the client quickly to the side and behind him before the threat could reach the client.
The next exercise had to do with redirecting oncoming threats. We got into groups of two. One person approached the “bodyguard” straight on. Vasiliev demonstrated how to redirect the oncoming person by pushing their shoulder area near the collarbone with the hand. Basically, the movement began by moving the threat into a turn, and then the bodyguard would continue spinning the approaching threat around 180 degrees, and escort him away back in the direction he came from, or in any other direction, and we practiced doing this for quite a while. Vasiliev also showed the same kind of redirection achieved by pressing the hip of the approaching person. Vasiliev showed a variation of this exercise where the threat approached not head on, but passing by the bodyguard on one side or the other, toward the area the client was in. The movement he showed consisted of grabbing the threat’s near arm and using it to spin him 180 degrees and escort him away. These were very useful simply from a movement and sensitivity standpoint, and I found them particularly interesting, since many of these basic principles apply in a variety of aikido movements.
We then began a series of sensitivity and awareness exercises. The first set involved #1 having a knife. #2 would turn away from #1, and #1 would place the knife anywhere on his person that was visible from the front. On a clap or a verbal “go” from #1, #2 had to spin around, visually locate the weapon, and grab it off #1. The next stage of this exercise escalated. #1 now would grab the knife and start to attack #2 but stop. So, on #1’s cue, #1 would start to attack #2 while he was still facing away. #1 would then give the signal to turn, and #1 would stop the attack short of hitting #2, and #2’s job was to both sense the attack, and on #1’s cue, turn around, locate the attacking knife, and begin an evasive movement or a technique. We began this exercise very slowly. Vasiliev stressed that speed was not the point, but to develop sensitivity and respond naturally. The next stage of the exercise had #1 simply attacking #2 fully, and giving his signal to #2 at the start of the attack. On the signal, #2 had to turn and respond to the attack by evading and/or disarming with any technique. The knife attack could come from either hand, and the strike could be made in any manner. Again, we were told to start very slowly, which we did. I found this set of exercises really useful. It really forced me not to think about what I was going to do, but to simply respond spontaneously, an all the while keeping my mind alert and trying to sense the attack and not loose my attention. Once I got going and felt a little more comfortable with this, the techniques came naturally and spontaneously, and I in turn was able to relax more and be much more responsive and sensitive as I stopped trying to anticipate or think. It was also nice to see many variations of the many knife disarming techniques form aikido come out naturally, as well as many other possible evasion and disarming moves that came up on their own in the moment to moment interaction of movement between me and my partners.
FIREARMS AND TENNIS BALLS
Next, we moved to some basic exercises with firearms and tennis balls. #2 stood with his back to a wall, with the practice weapon in his waist in whatever position he was comfortable carrying it. #1 stood facing #2 a few meters away, holding the tennis ball. #1 would throw the tennis ball, gently at first, at #2, who had to evade the tennis ball, draw the weapon, and fire on #1. Vasiliev demonstrated a bunch of evasive moves to get out of the way of the tennis ball; to the side, dropping down, slipping, etc. It seemed in practice, however, that dropping had many natural advantages, whether it was on the back, or just on to one knee, or even just squatting a bit. We got into groups and practiced many variations of this, with different evasive movements, practicing moving to both sides, dropping, turning, trying different carry positions, etc. And of course, once we felt more comfortable, the tennis ball was thrown a little faster and harder. The second stage of this exercise involved a third man as the client. Now, the client stood with his back to the wall, #2 stood next to him, and #1 was standing facing them, and trying to throw the ball at and hit the client. #2’s job was to move the client out of the way of the oncoming tennis ball, not get hit with it himself, get himself as much as possible between him and the client, and draw and fire the weapon. This was not so easy. Pushing the client out of the way and dropping seemed to work best, but we experimented with variations, such as the client only being allowed to be pulled towards #2 instead of being pushed away. It also became more complicated because #1 could throw the ball at any part of the client’s body, and it was tricky making sure that the part of the body that was actually in the path of the tennis ball actually got out of the way. For example, if the ball is coming at the legs, pushing or pulling the clients arm, or even his shoulder, produces a bit of a lag time before the legs move out of the way. This is fine if the ball is coming at the torso, but not the legs. In some circumstances, I found I had to directly move the client from the hip and center. Other situations presented similar problems, such as the ball coming at the head. There is a lot of slack in pulling on the arm before the head actually gets out of the way. Sometimes, the head had to be moved. Even apart from the obvious efficacy for this type of training for any real security professional, I found these exercises to be very instructive, since they trained reaction time, responsiveness, spacial awareness, and keeping your head straight under stress. I had a really good time with them. And, using my imagination, I began to think of even further complicated and difficult exercises in a similar vein.
Next, we moved to a set of takedowns off of handshakes. Vasiliev explained that in many circumstances, people will mechanically shake your hand if you offer, and, from a personal protection standpoint, offering a handshake, and the response you get, will tell you a lot about the intent of the person in front of you.
The first technique had you shaking hands with the threat. You release your grip slightly, rotate your wrist, around, over, and to the left, hook his thumb, and apply a twisting and downward pressure to bring the person down. In a variation, the thumb was hooked around the back of #2’s thumb more, while in the other variation, the index and middle fingers were moved around behind #2’s thumb to apply a slightly different kind of pressure.
The second technique started from the handshake. #1 would simply turn counterclockwise while rotating his wrist counterclockwise, moving slightly towards and to the left of #2. #1 would let his hand get behind him and apply downward pressure, and #2 would drop. A number of pins and restraints were shown to finish it off.
The third technique involved #1 shaking #2’s hand, but with #1 grasping the back of #2’s hand with his left hand. You know, a very friendly and vigorous handshake. #1 uses the pinky and ring finger of his left hand to peel #2’s pinky up and straighten it out, bend it back a little the wrong way against the middle joint, and then apply pressure straight into the pinky towards #2’s hand using the heel of his palm. This hurt like hell by the way. I assume by how it felt that it would be very easy to break this little finger.
The next one was my favorite. #1 shakes #2’s hand. #1 then uses the bones in his forearm or near the heel or back of his hand to rub down the bone of #2’s forearm from elbow to wrist. Those trained in aikido are familiar with the attacks to the nerves in the forearm in different types of yonkyo applications. Well, this is very much the same. This movement surprises #2 and for some reason easily unbalances him, and then #1 moves back and to his right and applies pressure near #2’s elbow and takes him down with a little spiral motion. It is interesting to note, however, that it is not necessarily a matter of pain. We experimented doing this rub along the forearm bone with less and less force, and realized it almost works better if you don’t press too hard. Part of its effectiveness has to do with the movement from the elbow to the wrist, and how it affects #2’s body and balance. It almost collapses him a bit.
The last handshake technique was basically dealing with encountering resistance to the second handshake technique I described above. #1 shakes #2’s hand and starts to rotate and turn, but #2 lifts his hand and applies pressure upward to #1’s hand as it it moving behind #1’s back. This unbalances #1 upwards and is not a good position to be in. So, #1 turns clockwise towards #2 (now they are almost shoulder to shoulder), drops his elbow while pushing #2’s elbow forward and up while encouraging a bend in #2’s arm at the elbow, and scoops up under #2’s right elbow as #1’s right hand is dropping, bringing #2’s elbow towards his shoulder. This movement twists #2’s arm and elbow up in the air, bends his entire upper body backwards, and ties up his arm completely. This technique is not unlike several of the ude katame techniques in aikido.
We were having lots of fun, and consequently, the time flew by. At the end, Vasiliev took questions. A student asked about what to do with an experienced knife fighter who attacked with short jabs and went after your arms. Vasiliev said its best to shoot him, or ever better, talk to him and distract him while your buddy sneaks up on him and kills him from behind the Spestnaz way. But in the serious part of the answer to this question, Vasiliev spoke again about not worrying over technique, and that you must fight the person in front of you. He also pulled up a student with a knife and spoke about manipulating the timing and rhythm of the other person. He said that people can attack with different attitudes, and you need to know what to look for and how to feel them out. He explained that in tense real-life situations, you can test the other person, such as by making sudden movements and seeing how he reacts. He said that some people will come at you non-stop no matter what you do. Others may respond in a jerky fashion, and may flinch at a feigned strike. He said the mindset of these two examples are very different and you can take advantage of their psychological state in different ways. But he stressed that it was essential to key into the other person’s timing and rhythm and disrupt it.
Another question came up about putting people to sleep. For those of you who don’t know, Vasiliev’s teacher from Russia, Mikhail Ryabko, produced an amazing video called Beyond the Physical. Ryabko was trained in the Russian fighting arts by one of Stalin’s personal bodyguards. The tape is phenomenal, since it covers very simple movement issues, and gives a deep insight into the underlying concepts behind the Russian fighting system. Ryabko’s randori is beautiful, because it there is incredible economy of movement, and the intent he carries in his movement and strikes is incredible. It is not fast, but full of power. In fact, his randori on this tape looks a lot like the large group randori’s you will find in the films capturing O’Sensei’s randori in his last years.
Anyway, I digress. On this tape, Ryabko very matter of factly demonstrates how he is able to put a couple of student to sleep in about a minute. So the question at this seminar came from someone who had likely seen this tape. Vasiliev explained that it was not a big deal and anyone could do it. He pulled a student at random from the crowd, and had him lay on his back. Vasiliev sat next to him, and explained that all you need to do is know how to relax the person. Vasiliev began to gently touch and stroke the student on his chest, upper arms, abdomen, thighs, very slowly and lightly. As he did this, he explained that he was just helping the student relax, and he was going to do it in such a way as to make it very hard for the student to get up. Vasiliev continue to lightly stroke the student, and touch him, and watched him very intently all the time. The student never actually closed his eyes. But I say his breathing change to very deep and slow within about 15 seconds. Then, his eyes became visibly heavy, and half-closed. Then, the student tried to move a little, and giggle and cooed a bit, but couldn’t formulate words. It was much like the effect you get when talk to a person who is half asleep. Vasiliev then stopped making contact with the student’s body, and simply kept moving his hands a little over the student’s body, and about 35 seconds in, he stopped doing anything and simply sat back. The student tried to move a little. He shifted his weight from side to side, obviously trying to lift a leg or an arm. He was totally groggy, and was obviously conscious enough to feel amused, since he let out a bit of a slurred giggle as he tried to lift a limb or sit up, but he just couldn’t. His eyes were half open. After about 20 seconds of the student trying to get up, Vasiliev came back next to him, and waved his hands over the student for second or two. He then placed his hand on his solar plexus and rubbed him a little there, and then gave him a little thump. The student woke up, and was very groggy. He sat up, and kept having to shake his head. He couldn’t formulate words for a few seconds. He then laughed a little and said, “I couldn’t do anything.”
I noticed that during this demonstration, Vasiliev was very keyed into the student and psychologically connected to him, never taking his attention off of him. Afterwards, Vasiliev explained that if you know how to really relax yourself, you can relax another easily, and if you are tense, you can make others tense as well. It was a very impressive demonstration, not the first time I have seen or done this, by the way. It is not unique to Systema by any means. But very impressive, and, I was awed by the fact that it was done in merely seconds, and done very matter-of-factly and with no fanfare.
Finally, I squeezed in my question. I told Vasiliev that I noticed that he kept his fists very relaxed while punching, and he did not make the typical tight fist you see in other martial arts. Vasiliev answered that the fist he makes is tense for him, but loose for me. He make his fist and shook his arm, to show that the muscles in his forearm and upper arm were still loose. He said that in Systema, they also don’t do a lot of the typical hard stiff strikes you often see in other martial arts. He said that when you hit someone like that, the force gets transferred back to you; that it is like getting hit yourself, and so, in addition, they also use a lot of strikes that hook or hit off line of the body, so the reaction force does not come back at you. As a final note, I will say that Vasiliev was also able to generate punches with a lot of force just off the shoulder, without hip involvement. It was very unusual.
In the end, the Systema seminar with Vasiliev was excellent, and I recommend it to anyone, regardless of their level of martial arts’ experience. I am a total novice when it comes to Systema, so I cannot say how or if a Systema practitioner might gain from aikido practice. But I do have a strong background in aikido, and feel I can authoritatively say that those with an aikido background, particularly advanced aikido students, can gain a lot from Systema, as the underlying principles are very similar, and in many ways, the training is very complementary. Advanced students in particular will gain a lot from the free-style format, and the principle of natural movement being primary, and technique being allowed to grow and flow out of the relaxed natural movement.
If you are going to be at the Expo, you really should check out Systema for yourself, and actually get on the mat and experience it yourself. This seminar experience was very rewarding for me and gave me a huge number of ideas and creative possibilities. It also left me wanting more training in Systema. I don’t see a conflict with aikido training at all. As far as “taking what is useful” goes, there is a lot to be taken here.