Systema and Stress

Is there anything in systema that deals with shellshock?

Systema has split into many different schools of thought, each with its own methods and purposes. However, go back to the roots, and most schools flow to a greater or lesser extent from the scientific studies of A.A. Kadachnikov and, before him, the Dinamo research facility.

Systema is ‘soft’ because the Soviets needed a fighting system that could be used effectively by soldiers who were exhausted, or wounded, but who needed to keep on fighting. The low groundwork we associate so closely with systema owes a lot to the need move unseen in the rubble of Stalingrad, just as much as it does to the needs of the Spetznaz or other special forces.

To practice systema effectively requires physical relaxation. Many of the drills that came into system via Systema Kadochnikova, and ROSS, were derived from cossack dancing, because that provided an excellent means for moving in a relaxed manner.

Ever since I trained with Andrey Karimov in Saint Petersburg, I’ve argued that Cossack Systema (capitalized here to indicate the school of thought that Andrey’s done so much to promote) is my preferred style of systema. This is because, I’ve argued, it addresses personal security in a much broader context. An individual, I believe is stronger and safer not just when they learn to fight alone, but when they are part of a community where everyone knows how to fight, and which forges enduring social bonds beyond the class. The ‘singing’ and ‘dancing’ aspects of Cossack Systema don’t just train aerobic endurance and flexibility: they build community, and that’s important.

However, there’s something else which I’m now wondering about, and that’s mental health. What can systema do to build and strenghten mental resilience and endurance? If systema is intended to be a complete system combining self defence and health, then we need methods to keep the mind and spirit healthy, not just the body.

On one level, there are the breathing exercises, which really became known via Vladimir Vasiliev’s work. I certainly need to re-acquaint myself with them, but I think they are intended to work with short-term stress: a fight, running to a destination, that kind of thing. I’m not sure that they are really suited to deal with long-term, constant stress.

I say this because stress is becoming a major problem for our societies in general. It was a huge problem before covid-19 appeared on the scene. The pandemic has made it much worse, and the return of lockdowns, plus economic recession, are going to make it much, much worse again. We in the systema community should perhaps be thinking about how we can help people deal with it – and because it also affects us.

I’m grateful to Mark Winkler, here, because he’s a rare example of a martial arts instructor who has spoken openly about his problems with depression: in this interview, and in this  Systema for Life podcast. Over the years, I’ve also had encounters with stress-related anxiety and depression – and I’ve known many, many other people who also were fighting that battle.

At one end of the spectrum, as I say, there are breathing techniques that deal with short-term stress.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are principles such as Viktor Frank’s insight that those who survived the Nazi concentration camps were those who had belief: belief in a better future, and belief in something larger than themselves. In one way. I can see this as being a powerful element in some of the systema schools operating in Russia, including those of (for example) Mikhail Ryabko and Andrey Karimov. The Russians tend to have a strong religious belief via membership of the Russian Orthodox Church. Additionally, Russians have a far stronger sense of collective identity than Westerners. Both of these are extraordinarily powerful reinforcements for mental health and endurance over extended periods of suffering.

However, precisely because of their deep roots in a specifically Russian culture, it’s difficult to reproduce them outside Russia. Systema in the west is very, very unlikely to have any element of religion in its classes. The Cossack Systema school, via its communal activities (singing and dancing) does a lot to foster the sense of belonging, I would argue, but it’s likely to be difficult to attract the number of participants that one gets in Russia.

What else is there? Chinese martial arts sometimes incorporate meditation and qigong, and those practices can help. To be honest, I’m not sure that I would have got through some of my own periods of depression if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve learned some of these practices and, even then, my practice wasn’t deep enough to protect me for more than a while. However: these aren’t an integral part of systema, and I think it might be very difficult to try to bolt them on.

As systema practioners, we’re not priests; we’re not therapists; we’re not counsellors. I can see how methods could be borrowed from the field of performance coaching and integrated, but I’m not sufficiently informed about that.

So given that mental illness is one of the biggest threats that people are facing these days, how can systema help?

After all, systema as we know it is in large part derived from the research conducted by Soviet professionals into the real-world combat experience of their soldiers. Those men and women must have suffered mentally: the repeated terror of combat; the scenes of devastation across their country; the knowledge that their enemy didn’t just want to defeat them – their enemy hated them and despised them, wanted to utterly destroy them, their culture, and their entire nation so that no trace remained. What did those researchers discover about how those soldiers endured, and came out sane at the end?

Is anyone working on this? Systema Ryabko has always had the motto of “Know Thyself”; I’m not sure how it relates to mental health, though. I’ve had some of Scott Sonnon’s work suggested, but the reviews I’ve read don’t convince me that it’s what I’m looking for. Matt Hill seems to be doing something. Matt Powell might be working on something, but I’m not sure if it’s connected. I’ve heard that there’s material in some of Kevn Secours’ books. There’s probably good material in Vasiliev’s Strike, and Konstantin Komarov’s Systema Manual, but my copies of those are on a boat somewhere between here and China, so I can’t check.

So… any suggestions? First for Russian/Soviet research on this. Second, for any systema instructors who have have developed material and techniques? And third, for anything from other fields that could be adapted and integrated with existing systema training methods?

Image credits: Here it comes. by Neil Moralee on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

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