Staying on track

A couple of months ago, I had the great pleasure of attending the Systema Unbound seminar in Charlotte, North Carolina - a three-day event led by Vladimir and Konstantin, and generously hosted by Mark Jakabcsin of Palmetto State Systema.

Out of nine of us from the two NC Systema groups I had some idea of what to expect. Over the last five years, I have been lucky enough to train extensively with Vladimir and with Konstantin - at seminars across the USA, during extnded visits to RMA HQ in Toronto, and at several week-long summits and immersion camps. But for most of my students, this was their first time working with the masters.

They had heard the stories. They had watched the YouTube clips. They had spent months or years generously putting up with my interpretations of their teachings. Now they were keen to see the “real deal”, to train hard, and to bring back a solid chunk of Systema for themselves.

The event was, naturally, fantastic. The instruction was phenomenal, the training mindful and honest, and the atmosphere serious, yet joyful. This particular seminar had such an effect on me - and on my students - that I felt it warranted something more than a simple review.

I recognize that my understanding of Systema is still extremely limited, and others have written more eloquently on the subject of learning and teaching Systema. Regardless, I wanted to share my recent experience in the hope that it would help others find their way - or rather, stay on track - on what can sometimes be a confusing and difficult path.

I have been training martial arts, now, for about 25 years. Longer than some, but far less than others. In any case, I learned a long time ago that training a martial art - at least one with any depth and complexity - is much like crossing a vast mountain range. After a long, uphill struggle, we’re often rewarded with a feeling of achievement and pride, having crested some small peak of skill or understanding.

But then - sooner or later - we pause, look up, and see the real mountains that lie beyond, and realize that we’re really only in the foothills. To some, this is very discouraging. They stare ahead, see how far they still have to go, or how much work is left to do, and they decide that it’s simply not worth it.

Others, though, are more determined. They refuse to feel sorry for themselves. They take a breath, gather themselves, and press onward. Unfortunately, moving on to the next peak often involves crossing a valley first. For a time, you must go downhill before you can begin to ascend, so it takes a while to return to your previous level, let alone climb higher. Then finally, you arrive at some higher peak of skill or understanding...and see yet another peak in the distance beyond.

Training any martial art, then, is a rewarding yet difficult path. This, I believe, is doubly so in the case of Systema, for two main reasons:

1) There are very few signs and markers on the peaks to show how far you have come, or how far you have left to go. Many other martial arts offer the hope of mastery (and perhaps an end to the struggle) in the form of a black belt or an instructor’s certification. Along the way, there are often colored or numbered signposts to tell the student how many peaks have been passed, and how many remain ahead. So if the student becomes discouraged, there are crutches to help him or her along. “Just two more peaks”, they can say, “and I’ll be there.” Not so in Systema, in which the path to self-mastery never really ends, and the signs of progress are less explicit.

2) In Systema, the path through the mountains seems to shift and evolve over time. You start climbing one peak, only to realize that a better (perhaps more direct) path lies on another. In other styles, you are encouraged to follow the precise path that a master took before you. In Systema, that same path may no longer be the most direct or useful, and you are encouraged, to an extent, to find your own way through.

And therein lies the problem for many students, and instructors, of Systema.

How do we stay motivated to keep moving forward in the absence of crutches, signposts, or even a final destination? And how do we find our own paths without following someone up the wrong peak, straying too far “off track”, or getting lost in the wilderness of possibilities?

Students and instructors may try to resolve these problems in various ways. Some students may try to map as many peaks as possible, following numerous paths to understanding in the hope that they will eventually add up to a useful, coherent whole. Others may simply pick a master to follow, and follow his trail through the mountains as far as it will go.

Indeed, some instructors may insist that there is one, solid path through the mountains - perhaps mapping it out for their students and providing signposts in the form of a training syllabus. Presumably, the reasoning behind this is that “even if this is not the path, it’s a path. It got me there, and it’ll get you there.” Wherever “there” happens to be...

For my part, I have tried various approaches over the years. As a student, I have tried to follow in the footsteps of those who have shown genuine skill and understanding, while remaining open to the possibility that my own, true path may lie elsewhere.  As an instructor, I have encouraged my students to do the same. I have never professed to know the way through the mountains, trying only to suggest useful peaks I have found, and perhaps steer my students away from valleys and pitfalls I blundered into ahead of them.

This, of course, is where my story returns to Charlotte, and to the direction and advice provided by Vladimir and Konstantin over those three short days.

From day one, it was clear that the aim of the seminar was not to demonstrate movements and techniques, nor even to bestow any great chunk of Systema “knowledge” in relation to wrestling, striking, working with weapons, or whatever. The aim was to give us a compass for our own training - a basis for moving forward with purpose, no matter what the physical or psychological terrain.

In no uncertain terms, Konstantin pointed out that without the proper purpose and direction, it was quite possible to train for many years and get nowhere - akin to wandering the low peaks forever. He constantly challenged us to think about why we were doing each drill, and what we were actually working on in the process.

All too often, he pointed out, the work can devolve into competitions of physical skill or strength, even when you know you should be aiming at something more. Why? The answer will almost always be fear, along with the various forms of anger or excitement that it can bring. It’s not enough just to turn up and do the drills. If you don’t know what you are working on and why, he counseled, you are destined to remain on the same plateau indefinitely.

Many times over the last couple of years, I have heard Vladimir say (to me and others) - “it’s good, but it is not good”, or “it’s good, but it is not our style”. In Charlotte, it was great to hear Vladimir and Konstantin explain and justify these assertions more fully, with a view to keeping everyone on the right path.

It is impossible, they explained, to build effective work upon a weak foundation, so fundamental practices like crawling, rolling, bodywork and breathwork are essential if you want to avoid being trapped by your own fear and tension.

Larger, wavy motions that were once common in Systema have evolved over time, to be replaced by movements that are more concise, subtle and direct.

To constantly yield with the body is to be constantly on the defensive - an inefficient (and impractical) approach to working with an aggressive attacker.

All this and more, we learned over the course of one weekend.

My students returned from Charlotte stronger, calmer and with renewed motivation in their training. They are different in their work, now - both structurally and psychologically - and this is helping to bring the level up in both of the groups I teach here in North Carolina. 

With every visit to Toronto, and every seminar with Vladimir and Konstantin, I have received an invaluable course-correction in my own training. It was truly wonderful to see my students getting the same thing from this three-day seminar. Better yet, through the training, they were all given a compass of their own, so that they could start to find their own paths through the wilderness.

For now, we’re enjoying the path - exploring all the classic drills with a new viewpoint on the work. But we’re already making plans to attend Vladimir’s next east-coast seminar.

After all, while the path is ours to take, we could all use a little help staying on track