The Shapes We Make

Last weekend, NC Systema hosted my good friend and Senior Systema Instructor Martin Wheeler, for our annual weekend seminar. As always, it was a terrific experience for all.

Martin’s skill as both a martial artist and instructor continues to grow year upon year, with no sign of peak or plateau. There were insights and enlightenments aplenty for those prepared to receive them. But for me, one point stood out in particular: the issue of involuntary stances and shapes.

Halfway into day one, Martin stopped the group of 50 assembled trainees, and talked about the difference between a fighting posture and a fighting stance.
In combat, he explained, relaxed posture is essential. Excess tension in your body prevents free movement, and telegraphs your intent to all but the most oblivious opponents. Beyond this, the shapes you make with your body reveal not only your fighting skill, but also your current psychological and emotional state…

  “…right now, you’re all gathered around me, standing in ways that suggest you are relaxed, receptive, and listening to what I have to say. You have the shape of an student or observer. I am standing in a different way - making a different shape with my tension. Perhaps something like the shape of a teacher or transmitter.
Your shape reveals everything about who you think you are, what you're feeling, and what you want. So when fighting, you should avoid any kind of obvious shape, as they allow an opponent to sense your intent to strike, grapple, or control. Keep yourself fluid and relaxed, and your opponent will fail to realize there is danger until it’s way too late.”

“On the other hand,” he added, “relaxation alone is not enough. Relaxation without structure is weak, and of little practical use. So the balance lies in keeping a fluid shape while finding stability in the structure itself. Align with gravity, stack your posture atop itself, and let your muscles hang off the bones to generate heaviness. By all means, use tension, but use it at will. Control your tension, rather than allowing it to control you.”

…or words to that effect. The training continued, and everyone incorporated the lesson, to a greater or lesser extent.

Now if you’ve studied Systema for any length of time, then little of this will be new to you. The virtues of relaxation and posture are repeatedly extolled. But knowledge and understanding are not the same thing. Hence, most of us spend years trying to undo physical tension patterns formed by fear and reactivity. Prior training, too, can be a hindrance here. If you have studied other martial arts / fighting systems prior to training Systema, chances are, you’ll use stances and fixed positions out of habit.

The idea of a relaxed fighting structure, versus a specific fighting stance, is a rare one in the martial arts. Many so-called “Internal” martial arts - such as BaGua, Hsing-I, and T’ai chi ch’uan - aspire to the same apparent ideals. Yet they train structure via fixed (and often extraordinarily uncomfortable) foot, knee and hip positions.
The legendary Bruce Lee asserted much the same fluid positioning (“be like water, my friend”) in his teachings, and in his seminal work Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Yet in practice, he generally favored the fleet-footed, buoyant stance of the boxer or TaeKwonDo player. His shape was not of formless water, but rather of the stalking predator - every movement denoting a coiled, dangerous, spring-like energy.

In traditional Karate, it is kamae. In Aikido, hanmi. Chinese boxing, western boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, Judo, Jujitsu, Ninjutsu, Kendo - all favor specific fighting shapes. These stances vary considerably between the arts - and even within them. But generally speaking, they all have one thing in common: they are shapes designed to create power and stability in a fixed position.

You may argue the relative benefits of crouching like a ninja or kung-fu master (“standing up exposes half the body to attack”); of the staggered, splay-footed Olympic wrestling stance (“lowers your center of gravity, making you harder to throw”); of the narrow, upright stance of the Muay Thai fighter (“legs can be lifted rapidly to shield the body from kicks”). Regardless, the goal is effectively the same - to make the fighter as stable as possible, allowing for whatever movements (punching, kicking, grappling) are permitted by the art.

The upside of this “fixed shape” approach is that you know (quite literally) where you stand with it. You have a strong base from which to launch attacks, and a strong base within which you may weather them.
The downside of this approach is that it sacrifices mobility, subtlety, and the capacity for truly “free” movement.

Enter Russian Systema - with its emphasis on natural posture, free movement, subtle strikes and controls. Provided that relaxation is maintained, it is quite possible to break posture and still deliver devastating strikes - as evidenced by Martin Wheeler, Maxim Franz, Vladimir Vasiliev, and other advanced exponents. In Systema, there are no fixed positions for punching, kicking, and grappling. There is no “stand-up” position, and no “ground” position. There are no predetermined shapes. There are only situations, transitions, opportunities.
The upsides of this approach are greatly increased mobility, the ability to hide your movements in plain sight, and exponentially greater freedom of expression.

There are also considerable health benefits of not bouncing and lunging your way through decades of martial practice. Many trainees - myself included - come to Systema with pain, injuries, and surgeries sustained by the practice of sports and arts less mindful of the long-term effects of training. With correct, Systemic exercise and movement, these injuries tend to heal themselves over time.
This is perhaps the single most powerful physical aspect of Systema practice - not only does it not destroy the body, it actively repairs and strengthens it. This, in my view, should be the bare minimum expected of any self defense / survival system. Regardless of how effective you deem it to be in combat, if your mode of training cripples you by age 40, you are effectively practicing self-attack.

The downside of the “no shape” approach is that it is far more difficult to learn. Moreover, without proper attention to structure and balance, you will start to exhibit unintentional, reactive shapes under pressure - ones far less useful than the traditional stances we take such pains to avoid. If you wriggle and bend like an eel to avoid a strike, but in so doing become trapped in place by your own tension, you are probably not doing Systema. You have simply surrendered one fixed shape (a specific striking stance) for a weaker, more vulnerable shape. The strike that follows will remind you of this quite abruptly.

If you step and slip out of most holds with ease, but freeze and sprawl when clinched in earnest, you are not doing Systema either. You did your best to avoid a fixed grappling stance - well done. But now your opponent has chosen your shape for you. Make a habit of this, and any skilled wrestler or judo player will teach you the error of your ways.

If you move your feet to evade knife slashes at slow speeds, but then reach out with stiff arms to block faster ones, then - you guessed it - you just took a momentary break from practicing Systema. Your static, grasping shape was born of fear, not skill, and your arms will likely be slashed to ribbons.
With correct practice, you can of course learn to differentiate the body when needed, yet also keep it stable under pressure. This is the surface goal of all those squats, pushups, rolls, crawls, and other Systema exercise variations. We don’t do these to bulk up or “do cardio”. We study them mindfully and regularly, in order to build relaxed, efficient, powerful, and unified movement.

But there is a deeper point here, I think. One related to Martin Wheeler’s original assertion - that shapes reveal who you are, how you feel, what you want.

If this is true, then if you want to avoid making specific shapes, you have to change what you want, how you feel, and quite possibly who you are.

If you’re scared of being restrained, hit, or slammed into the ground, then under pressure your shape will reveal that in an instant. A skilled opponent will read that tendency in your reactive stance, and make use of it accordingly. A good boxer will feint to create a reactive flinch, then follow up with a real strike to your exposed jaw or midsection. A good wrestler will feint high, then shoot low to catch your immobile legs. A good knife fighter…well…you get the idea.

The word attitude, I think, best encapsulates this idea best:

at·ti·tude (ˈadəˌt(y)o͞od)

1.  a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, typically one that is reflected in a person's behavior.
      synonyms:  view, viewpoint, outlook, perspective, stance, standpoint, position, inclination, temper, orientation, approach, reaction
2.  a position of the body proper to or implying an action or mental state.
        synonyms: position, posture, pose, stance, bearing

Notice that the words “stance” and “position” appear in both definitions,
There is little sense, then, in trying to hide or mitigate your fear (mental attitude) with a forced, defensive or aggressive stance (physical attitude). Why? Because your attitude is your attitude.

If you assume an aggressive stance, you’ll become aggressive, without acknowledging the fear that still motivates you. You’ll drive forward recklessly, without respect or regard for your opponent, or what he might do to you. Some martial arts actively seek this animalistic state. We do not. We seek to remain human.

Assume a defensive stance, and you’ll become defensive, again without acknowledging the fear that drives your reactions. You’ll fight like a cornered animal, lashing out at anything that comes to close. But ultimately, you will lack the capacity to control or counterattack your opponent, and repeated attacks will leave you drained, exhausted, and unable to continue.

We’ve come a long way from the 20th century view of the brain as computer, and body as mindless robot. Modern neuroscience has revealed many of the mechanisms and pathways by which state of the body affects the state of the mind. We ignore these effects at our peril.

If you really want to change the way you move - you should start by working on yourself. Examine your fears, your reactions, your limitations, the things that drive your reactive attitudes - both mental and physical.
Once these are better understood or resolved, you’ll become less reactive both mentally and physically. The mental and physical attitudes you assume will then be more natural, more honest, and more based in actual reality than your emotion-laden perception of it.

For me, this brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “get in shape”.
I’m working hard to get in shape. But it’s an honest, natural shape that’s all my own.