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Systema: Principles of the Russian Martial Art

by James Williams

Published Online

James Williams is the President of Bugei Trading Company, Inc. He has been studying martial arts since 1960 and teaching since 1975. James has trained, competed in, and taught a number of different martial disciplines: Japanese, Okinawan, Chinese, Philippino, as well as the Brazilian system of Jujitsu as taught by Rorion and Royce Gracie. His experience includes western wrestling, which he also coached, as well as boxing and kickboxing. His love of samurai martial traditions came with his study of the Yanagi ryu of the Yoshida-ha under Don Angier Sensei and the martial traditions of the Kuroda-ha as taught by Kuroda Tetsuzan Sensei. James also teaches Close Quarters Combat to police and military both foreign and domestic. The method used, “The System of Tactical Strategy,” is based on those skills developed and cultivated by ancient warriors. He is the designer of the “Hissatsu,” a close quarter battle knife that is produced by Columbia River Knife and Tool. James is certified as an instructor of Systema, a Russian Martial art taught by Mikhail Ryabko and Vladimir Vasiliev. Williams teaches Nami Ryu Aiki Heiho, (kenjutsu, iaijutsu, and aikijujutsu) and Systema in Encinitas California.

If someone had told me a few years ago that out of a western Christian tradition would come a martial art as deep, sophisticated and evolved as the best of the oriental arts I would not have believed them. Yet there is such an art coming out of the ancient Russian culture with deep roots in the Russian Orthodox monasteries. At its root in the present day is an exceptional man, Mikhail Ryabko. Trained by one of Stalin’s Falcons from the age of five and beginning his operational career in the Russian Spetsnaz (Special Forces) at the age of 15, Mikhail Ryabko was not only given the secrets of this ancient art, he was put in the position of repeatedly applying both the art and its principles in life and death combat on, what for much of his early life, was a day-to-day basis. This System, taught by Mikhail Ryabko, is not a shadow of what once was, it is a living practical art that even now is being applied by warriors in combat. When working with Mikhail and his foremost student, Vladimir Vasiliev, one is struck by the calm depth of these men. Enormous knowledge and ability taught with calm, deep conviction.

The heart of Systema is its operating system. Techniques do not define the art, in fact, techniques per se are not taught. To make the most of Systema the mind/body must be free to do whatever is necessary, and not be limited by trained techniques. Techniques create a box, limiting the individuals ability to problem solve. By operating system I mean the manner in which human physiology and psychology access physical reality according to both a classical Newtonian and quantum physics understanding of universe reality. It is this operating system that opens the door to a whole new world. When Vladimir was told at one seminar “You are very flexible, he replied, “No, I am free.” It is this very freedom, this giving up of ego, that gives back so much. This is because principle-based Systema conforms to the individual instead of requiring the individual to conform to it. Everyone’s expression of Systema is different. It is like you are taught how to paint and then you express yourself.

The Systema operating system as taught by Mikhail and Vladimir is a faith-based operating system. The process of giving up your ego-based personal power and having faith that things are the way that they should be forms the core of this art. Mikhail teaches that fear produces unnatural movement. It is only through faith—knowing that things are the way they are supposed to be—that we can be free of fear and move naturally. Faith is based on the fact that everything that we need to exist has been given to us. Most of those things that are essential to our existence we do not even think about. We tend to breath unconsciously even though oxygen transfer is the most important thing that takes place in our body. It is the seminal energy transfer from which all else becomes possible. As Mikhail says “You breath in when you are born and out when you die, in between is your life.” Gravity keeps the atmosphere which contains our oxygen and ourselves on the planet that supports our life. Electro-magnetism allows shape and form. All of these, and many other unseen forces work to our benefit, yet they are all gifts as we have nothing to do in determining them. We live by grace, whose meaning you may ponder for yourself. If you are further interested you might do some research in regards to strong anthropic principle and super-string theory. That which we view as solid and “real” does not last. Those energies that allow us life, that we cannot see, are more real than those “solid” objects that will all pass away.

One of the exercises that I use to keep present and in faith, is to catch myself judging another or lacking of forgiveness. These states of mind do not come from faith; they come from fear. You will find that you are constantly judging, and this does not just refer to negative judgments. Accepting things as they are is as freeing as it is difficult. Reality is that at any given moment things are exactly as they “should” be because they are responding to Universal law. The fact that we think that they “should” be different means we are not accepting what is, we are denying reality. How does this transfer to a martial art, you may ask? Allowing things to be as they are frees us from fighting and contesting. A key element in Systema is not to contest for space or to hold ground. Learning to blend and flow with force is taken to an exceptional level. It also keeps us in the present moment of time, freeing us from the confines of the past and future. The conscious human mind, the ego mind, is moving constantly between past memory and future anticipation. Neither of these states is real and both limit or preclude our ability to perceive the absolute moment of “now” time. We tend to spend the majority of our time in this state of unreality. Those moments when we are truly present stand out for us such as when we have done something very dangerous that took all of our ability to accomplish and when done we have the “high” that comes from being absolutely present.

“We arrive at the understanding that living the will of God is the passport to the endless possibility of infinity itself.” —Urantia

Contesting for space is a huge fear-based response for human beings. We even talk about people invading our space, as if we owned it. The fact that someone’s fist and my face intersect at the same point in the fabric of space/time is an agreement. How you might say would one make such and agreement? These agreements to fight and protect space are made by our fear, our insecurity. The so-called startle reflex, and sharp inhale and tensing of the body when surprised or frightened, is an excellent example of this response. This response is fear based and destructive to us. One of the reasons drunks emerge from traumatic situations so well is that they do not have this response, they are not aware enough to be afraid, fight the kinetic energy and damage themselves. And there is the real truth of it, we damage ourselves. We do it in so many ways, however, here is one that is easy for us to understand. Tension resisting kinetic energy means that something has got to give. Kinetic energy cannot be created nor destroyed so guess who loses.

A natural, faith-based response, is simply to not be in the force vector. In reality, there is nothing to protect. The space that we are in at any given moment does not belong to us so why not vacate if something else want to be there? In Systema this response is taken to a truly incredible degree. When facing Mikhail, who is 5’6” and quite thick, it seems almost impossible not to be able to grab him. Yet this is extremely difficult to do. He is standing within arms reach, yet you cannot touch him enough to transfer any force or control. Your eyes tell you that you have a thick strong man that you are about to make contact with, yet you cannot seem to do it. This paradox is one of the end products of Systema training. When you look at the Master of Fighting video you will see how well Mikhail “mirrors’ his attackers. His ability to perceive their movements, even before these movements actually take place is a product of a lifetime of training. When you are working with him it feels like there is nothing that you can do that he is not already in harmony with. You can go faster—not recommended to the faint at heart or those who are allergic to pain—or slower; it makes no difference except that the more energy that you put out by moving faster the more is returned. Rob Green demonstrated this for everyone when he went after Mikhail with a knife at full speed. Rob works in a hazardous profession and needed to know for sure if Systema was effective. No one else asked to duplicate Rob’s attack, and Rob was a good sport about how effectively his question was answered.

When practicing Systema, visualize yourself as a contiguous energy field. In other words, there is no separation of body from mind. Visualize your partner the same way and, as you begin to work, keep this awareness. Don’t contest, don’t try to do, just be moved. If you have truly understood the return energy drills the solutions will come of themselves. This reflects another Universe truth, all problems bring their solution with them. An attacker brings the solution to his attack when he attacks. If we relax and “listen,” the solution will become apparent and all we have to do is implement it. However, if we already have a technique that we want to use to solve this problem we have limited our ability to perceive the most efficient solution. I tell my students if you allow it, the opponent will give you more than you could ask for. If you approach the problem with a toolbox of techniques and strategies you will be limited to them regardless if they are the most efficient means to deal with the attack. In fact, depending upon the opponent, they may not be successful at all. I teach my students to always apply Occham’s razor, when faced with a choice of solutions, i.e, the simplest, most efficient, is the correct solution. We define efficiency as the least amount of time, space, and energy it takes to solve the problem.

Allowing, accepting, also gives us access to energies that we normally have only a rudimentary ability to use efficiently. One of the main energies is kinetic energy. As you get softer, relaxed, and more aware, you realize that there are energies at work within you that you can use. You do not create them, they are not yours to own, however, they are available for you to use if you can give up enough of yourself, your ego self.

Psychic energy is like fire. We cannot create fire, however, we can create a situation in which fire is manifested. We do not own the fire, however, we can use it. It is not intrinsic to us and yet it can serve our needs. There is no need to try and accumulate physic energy inside ourselves; it is everywhere, it is an intrinsic aspect of Universe Reality. Like a sail that can shape the invisible energy that we call wind, we too can blend and shape forces on the levels that we can perceive. We do not create these forces, just as we do not create the wind, however we can perceive and use them nonetheless.

Breath is the beginning of all energy in the body. It is the seminal energy transfer; without it death occurs, with it machines can be built that take us into space. And with proper use of breath our own body/mind can be trained to do that which does not seem possible. In the beginning, it is essential that we begin to harmonize with our breath. Most people breathe as effort increases because their body is telling them that they need more oxygen. However, as you become more aware, you breath so that you can do more work and thereby gain more ability and performance. As an analogy, if you want a steam engine to go faster you must first give it fuel, yet we constantly ask our body to do more and then breathe harder to try and make up for the oxygen debt that is incurred. The next step up the ladder is to breathe so that we can do more. My friend Rickson Gracie is very good at doing this. The proper use of breath is not just emphasized in Systema, it is everything.

In Systema, the kata is replaced by slow-speed sparring training. There is an excellent article written by Arthur Sennott, on slow-speed sparring on my dojo web site. Learning the physical movements is the outside or omote of the art. The ura or inner art is learned slowly over a period of proper instruction and training. This growing awareness, perception, and understanding is never ending. This path of discovery is fascinating, enjoyable, and takes you into another world of understanding and performance. Getting into the flow of slow-speed sparring can get quite addictive. Your sensitivity and awareness move to a higher level. You begin to perceive movement, distance, and possibility with more than your eyes. You begin to see not just what is but what is possible.

Another benefit of slow-speed sparring is emotional/psychological. You find out exactly where you are stiff, where fear is being held. You also find out where you are not practicing with integrity. Speeding up a movement to avoid being hit for instance is out of harmony with the practice. You know that you did it, you partner knows that you did it, you know he knows, and he knows that you know that he knows. You find where you are not in integrity both on a conscious and unconscious level. The immediate cause and effect is enormously more beneficial for the emotional/psychological growth prospect than the rationalizations for our behavior that make up so much of our defense systems. Thus practicing with integrity not only improves our martial skills, it creates an incredible feeling of being in the flow of “now.” It makes you want to spend more time there.

Our mind is reflected in our physical body. Fear-based judgment produces rigidity; faith produces fluidity. Our own resistance becomes our teacher. The universe was set up to teach us; as it corrects itself so are we corrected. If we give pain we get pain. If we give fear we get fear. If we give love we get love. What we give is what we receive.

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