Systema workshop

I mentioned that last Thursday I went to my first systema class in eight months… There was a poster on the wall advertising a full-day systema workshop – “Systema at Full Range” – the following Saturday and, as I was all fired up and enthusiastic, I decided to go along.

This turned out to be painful…

The idea was that three systema teachers, one from each of the Celtic nations of the British Isles, would share the teaching.

From Wales, there was Mark Winkler. I’ve trained with Mark in the past; now that he’s started a new Tuesday evening class in Swansea I’ll be training with him again once I’m back at work.

From Scotland came Jamie Robson with a large contingent of students, while Garreth Hodgins crossed the Irish Sea with his.

Altogether there were about forty of us, some of whom are in this end-of-day photo:

systema workshop

The day was structured (roughly, from memory) with Jamie running a warmup session, then Garreth with structure-breaking, Mark with groundwork and grappling, and finally Jamie with health and psychological aspects followed by a warm-down. Each main session was approximately two hours long, with a twenty-minute break in-between.

Things went wrong for me about twenty minutes in, while we were still in the warm-up. Jamie had us doing toning and preparation work in pairs. In essence we were striking each other from low-power, low-frequency to higher-frequency and greater power, ending with a solid (but not full-power) strike after which the recipient was to drop to the ground and work out both the physical and psychological tensions of being struck.

Unfortunately, my partner – one of the Scots – didn’t get the idea. I should have realised I had a problem when we faced each other and he led with a straight, hi-power, punch to the chest – no attempt to build up my preparation. Well, I dropped, did the working out, and then did it properly to him – trusting that he would understand what we were trying to do.

Sadly… he didn’t. Worse, the next exercise had one partner lying on the ground, being struck from above. As it was my turn to be struck first, down I lay… and the idiot dropped knee-first onto my ribs! OUCH! Something crunched, and I could feel it hurting, though it didn’t seem to be too bad. “Is that your cartilage?”, he asked. “That happens to me all the time”.

As it didn’t seem too bad, I carried on through Garreth’s session. Most of this involved punching to break the structure of someone trying to grab you. We circulated between partners, and I have to say I enjoyed it and got a lot out of it. This is one of the main elements of systema that I’ve seen but not done much of, and these exercises helped a lot in understanding how it works. We also did a bit of work on using the feet and knees to take away your opponent’s connection with the ground; I’ve only seen this on YouTube and DVDs, so it took a bit of working out but, with help from the instructors, I got to see how it works. Really good stuff. Everyone was really cool, with no bad or macho  attitudes (with the exception of another guy who’d done aikido but little or no systema – he gave me a soild kick to the knee and a hard chop to the base of the skill, both which are still sore!). For me, these exercises alone were worth the price of admission.

Which was just as well, because during the break I cooled down and realised that my ribs were now really painful. More, because I’d been trying to avoid moving them too much, I’d over-compensated with my back muscles, which were now also hurting a lot.

When Mark’s session began I tried to take part, but the moment we began grappling on the ground, I knew there was no way I could manage it. In the end, I had to sit out most of the rest of the day. With Mark’s slot, I’d done most of it before, in his regular classes, so although it was a pity, I didn’t miss the opportunity to try anything new. Mark entertained everyone with tales of his work as a bouncer, and pointed out that we fight to survive, not to win: the difference being that if you’ve ensured that your opponent isn’t a threat any more, then that’s enough – along with the importance of preserving your own health.

Jamie’s slot began with a discussion about systema as a healing art, beginning with the need for warriors to understand how to heal injuries as well as inflict them, and moving on to the need for complete honesty with oneself regarding emotions, attitudes, and so on – with the aim of being able to act in a pure, innocent manner, rather than reacting unconsciously to fear and/or anger. I should add that during his warm-up, he’d talked a lot about the way memories and emotions are physically and emotionally stored in the muscles, fascia etc, which was fascinating; I’d come to understand this years ago through meditation and neijia/neigong exercises, but I’ve rarely heard anyone else discussing it. Anyway, he moved the group on to exercises exploring this, including some of the trademark systema crowd scenes, where everyone moves continuously and throws slaps and punches at everyone they pass. In particular, he got everyone to aim slaps at the face, encouraging us to note our emotional response when our own face was slapped.

Again, I sat out most of Jamie’s session. I tried to take part in some of the pair exercises, but I found that I was having difficulty breathing deeply enough, and actually started hyperventilating. This kicked off a panic attack, which is very interesting in itself: the connection between hyperventilation and panic attacks is something that’s been formed during the issues I’ve been having at work, and it was disconcerting to find it kicking off in a totally different environment. I did also try to take part in the crowd scenes when the group moved on to those, but a few stray blows landed on my ribs, and so I went back to the sidelines. This was a pity: I really do have to overcome my fear of being struck, which I confess is very strong! As I’ve mentioned before in Jianghu, this was one of the things that originally attracte me to systema, the Chinese martial arts I’ve trained in not really doing much on this aspect of psychological training.

So: overall, it was a great day. I did get to work on some of the areas of systema that are currently of greatest interest to me, and I learned a lot from observing the rest.  It’s of course disappointing to have been injured, but it happens. I can’t really find it in me to be angry with the guy who did it; he was pleasant enough, and I think he just didn’t get a handle on what we were meant to be trying to achieve.

As a systema workshop, it’s left me even more interested in, and enthused by, systema’s approach and potential. It was really interesting to meet the guys from Scotland and Ireland – and to get a lot of Welsh students from different schools together; it turned out there were at least a half-dozen of us there who speak Welsh, so the language of Heaven was heard a lot amongst the training! There were a number of familiar faces, including Jeff, whose classes I go to on Thursdays.

A good day out.


  1. Glad to hear you got some training in and had fun overall. Might you be coming to any of the Foxy Boxing seminars later on this year (Sonny Puzikas / Martin Wheeler)?


    1. Very possibly. I’m determined that over the next twelve months I’ll improve my systema dramatically. My limitation is family requirements: Foxy Boxing have a seminar in a couple of weeks with Alex Kostic that I’d love to attend but can’t because of family ‘duties’. As for other workshops, I’ll do what I can. Zhenya of Foxy Boxing was at last weekend’s seminar; I spoke to her briefly, and she seems very nice.


  2. Sonny Puzikas’s is the one I’m most interested in, cos I’ve never trained with him before. Martin’s will be good training but I’ve got family duties too now! Zhenya is nice and loony. Come to Sonny’s and we can play together!


    1. You live a lot closer to these London-based seminars than I do 😉 Phew: I didn’t know anything about Sonny Puzika, so I had to Google him. His seminars sound absolutely intense! I’ll have to do a lot of training before even thinking about going to one of those….


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