Three aspects of systema

The number three should be familiar to everyone who studies systema: the concept of three planes of movement is, after all, fundamental to the art.

I’ve come to view systema as having three distinct, but interconnected, aspects. Seeing systema in this way helps to clarify the differences between different schools of systema, and how systema relates to other martial arts. It’s also helping me to frame how I want to approach my training, now that I’m returning after a too-long absence.

The first aspect is, of course, the physical: the individual body. This covers most of systema training: learning to command and control our own body; learning techniques of movement, and fighting methods; becoming stronger and fitter. For many people, this is systema. It’s also the focus of most other martial arts. Training with only this aspect in mind is what the Chinese refer to as ‘external’ training.

The second aspect is, in Chinese terms, ‘internal’. This is also key to systema training, but I’m not sure how many schools actually train to develop this aspect deeply.

The core is breathing: systema’s breath work is something very profound. It’s designed as a technique to still the mind under pressure; to overcome fear, fatigue, and tension. However, as I’ve learned through Buddhist meditation, awareness of the breath, and stilling the mind, is a gateway to understanding the body from the inside – becoming aware of physical sensations that are normally drowned out by busy thoughts.

Since physical sensations are often inseparable from emotional activity, this in turn becomes a path to understanding our own emotional state and emotional habits. This has always been a core feature of systema as taught by Mikhail Ryabko and Vladimir Vasiliev: “poznai sebia” or “Know Yourself”. I’ve noted that many systema practitioners seem to shy away from this; for some martial artists, introspection is uncomfortable.

There is more to this, however. Physical sensations can be our body’s response to environmental signals that have been picked up by our subconscious mind, but which have been blocked by the conscious mind: our bodies are literally trying to tell us something. This is discussed at some length by Konstantin Komarov in his Systema Manual. Again, I’m not sure how many other systema schools really work on this to any real extent; Rob Poynton has a book coming out which looks like it will cover it. A lot of people dismiss this as “woo”: it’s not. This is not an aspect I have done much with myself, though it’s something I intend to work on, using experience from other parts of my life.

The third aspect of systema is the individual in community. Again, many schools don’t work on this. One that does is Andrey Karimov’s Siberian Cossack school; longtime readers of this blog will know that I think this is really important, and is one reason why I’ve primarily chosen to work with this tradition. This aspect focuses on both the physical security and psychological strength that is built through active participation in a strong, supportive and resilient group of like-minded people – not just once or twice a week in class, but in our ‘real’ lives, every day.


Image credits: Three levels – now in Explore Thank you by Paolo Fefe’ on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license allowing commercial reuse.

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