Christmas reflections

Well, here we are: Christmas 2015. The end of the year is approaching, and it’s traditionally been a time for looking back to reflect on what’s happened – and to reflect on what the new year may bring. Hopefully not another airpocalypse! (That’s just wishful thinking).

It’s been a year almost entirely free of systema, despite my best intentions. Nevertheless, here are some festive thoughts…

I came to China after working in Russia, where – to my great disappointment – the life of an English teacher allowed almost no time for training. In April, the month I arrived in Beijing, I managed to get to a seminar run by Janik Litalien of Systema Hong Kong, which was great fun. After that… things petered out. I had hoped to reboot, but… well, it didn’t happen.

One reason is that I’ve been doing a lot of training in Chinese, rather than Russian, martial arts – which, for me, means yiquan. I’ve made a lot of progress, which I’ll try to write about over at my other blog. I’m finding a lot of overlap with systema, particularly of the Kadochnikov branch, which I’m finding very interesting. Like systema Kadochnikova, yiquan has a very clear use of levers, momentum, and the like; I think it’s going to be helpful to revisit Paul Genge’s book on the Biomechanics of Structure Breaking for insights…

I’ve also started taking Russian language classes at the Russian Cultural Centre here in Beijing; I’m pleased with how those are going, but it’ll be a while before I can have more than the simplest of conversations! I can read quite a lot, but writing in Russian cursive will take a lot of practice!


This give the chance to reflect on one of the big arguments that I’ve been involved in this year, in terms of systema at least, which is the role of dance.

On a couple of occasions in the past, I’ve trained in capoeira, and I really, really enjoyed it. It was a great workout, and I lost loads of weight while improving fitness; I learned how to do a cartwheel for the first time in my life; I got the confidence to perform in public; and I got to hang out with cool people.


On each occasion, I gave it up because…. well… it got a bit too stressful. Capoeira practice needs people to play the instruments, and to sing the capoeira songs. I enjoyed the training but I’m not particularly gifted musically, and I didn’t have any desire to commit scarce spare time to learning Brazilian Portuguese… but I found myself under pressure from the really committed students to study both these things. Brazil is cool and all, but I wasn’t interested in going on several study-trips a year, as they did. So, I quit.

So, I can understand how many people can say that they want to train systema to fight, but they don’t need the dancing, the weapons work, or the language. Myself, and others, (I guess Olivia won’t mind me counting her)  have been to Russia and something about the people, and the culture speak to us; we’ve found something there that was lacking in our lives before. (What is that? Mmmmm, not really going to talk about that just yet; I need to think about it some more).

Even so, I’ll still maintain that the dance and other aspects are important. It’s just that some people only train for personal defence; I (and I think Olivia) have become more interested in embedding martial training in a broader cultural context. Different approaches for different purposes. No point arguing about it any more.

That leads me on to consider training, and the difficulties involved.

As I said, at the moment, my free time – such as it is – goes to training in yiquan. Even with that, and the progress I’m making, I need to find more time to train.

Training in systema… well, it’s not easy. I’ve met a few other Westerners who want to train, but none of us have much experience. We all have lots of material and videos on our computers, DVDs, and so on, but in a way that’s a hindrance: we have so much to choose from, we don’t know where to start! And that’s before we get to the issue of trying to find a time when we’re all free, or even -given that we all travel a lot – when we’re even in the same city at the same time…

For what it’s worth, I’m in a different city, or maybe more than one, every week. My life at the moment is mostly on planes, trains, and shuttle buses. I sleep (or rather, can’t sleep) in hotel rooms which are ludicrously overheated and the windows don’t open, or where the windows don’t fit and the winter air flows in freely. The rooms don’t usually have space to do anything (except for some xingyiquan linear forms); hotel gyms are stuffed with soul-destroying treadmills and rowing machines; and we never know the locale well enough to find somewhere outside to train (even if we wanted to, given the air pollution).

However, in the course of the working day, I often have short periods, maybe up to ten minutes) when I’m free. I’m in a working environment, so doing anything too obviously aggressive or martial is a bit of a no-no. (I’ve tried doing some of the xingyi forms, and boy, did people’s eyes goggle – even here in China, where that’s more well-known than systema!). Even doing a taiji form, or standing in zhan zhuang, causes comment.

So, what to do?

Can you guess….?

Of course: I dance!

I’ve been practising some of the dance steps from Olivia’s videos from her extended seminar in St. Petersburg, in May 2015, in which Andrey Karimov, Yuri Sheshukov, and others demonstrate dance steps, and how they conceal martial applications. I’ve also been using other steps taken from lezginka tutorials on Youtube. I’ll be reviewing Olivia’s videos in another post.

It’s been fascinating to see what happens. Everyone smiles, and laughs.  Fellow expatriate staff, local Chinese staff… people like it. Some of my colleagues have even started joining me in a few shuffling dance steps. It seems to bring a really positive energy,  People ask me about it; sometimes I explain the Cossack background; sometimes people want to know more. In fact, I feel completely vindicated in my approach to learning – and hopefully one day teaching – systema…

So, for the time being, my training in systema will mostly have to be solo… and will definitely be based in the dance-fight tradition.

And on that note… Merry Christmas, everyone 🙂


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