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Systema: Advanced Healing and Bodywork… and Lethal Martial Art


On Monday August 20, 2012, my son Anthony and I attended an all-day Systema workshop in Toronto.  In case you’ve never heard of it, Systema (pronounced see-STYEM-ah and meaning “the System”) is the martial art taught to the Russian special forces.  It is also a paradoxical system that refuses to teach you a series of combat techniques, the way most martial arts do, and whose stated goal is to lead you into a deep state of psycho-physical relaxation.  In other words, it’s also a world-class healing and resilience-building method.

This is Anthony’s blog post about the experience, as posted on his Strategy Blog:


Systema Toronto Seminar: Relaxing through Pain

While all martial arts are physical encapsulations of survival strategy, there is considerable variation in both the depth of the strategy and the time required to teach it to a useful level.  Systema, a martial art of the Russian Special Forces, is remarkable both for the depth of its teachings and the effectiveness and rapidity of its teaching method.  While many systems of martial arts promote physical, energetic and psychological well-being as well as teaching self-defense, this usually requires lengthy training cycles.

Systema tends to teach much more quickly, and the recent seminar in Toronto given by visiting masters Valantin Talanov and Major Konstantin Komarov was no exception.

Systema has no forms, no stances and few techniques. Its approach to life and to combat rests on two main teachings: natural movement and proper breathing, taught through a repertoire of exercises and drills.

How it Works

Well, it turns out that most people don’t know how to do either of these things properly, and Systema addresses that directly and immediately.  Students are taught methodically how to avoid and move around incoming force, how to absorb it and cushion even the most powerful punches, and how to move naturally even in the most unpleasant situations, such as while on the ground being kicked. Through natural movement and breath work, the practitioner maintains physical and psychological relaxation throughout the encounter, which, paradoxically, makes him or her a very difficult target.

Of course, cultivating natural movement requires deep relaxation and relaxation in turn requires that you be free from fears, doubts and anxieties.  Never fear, though – Systema has this covered too.  Since the two primary physical fears are falling and getting hit, Systema takes you through a series of exercises that let you experience these in a controlled way.  And it works – you really do lose any fear of falling or getting hit.

Furthering these principles, a great deal of Talanov’s morning session was spent on giving and absorbing energy from punches, as well as on detecting points of tension within your attacker and pushing or striking them.  This serves two purposes.  First, in striking a point of tension, the tension, along with the emotional energy behind it, dissipates, thus reducing the opponent’s will to attack.  Given this approach, it isn’t surprising that another of the exercises focused on the difference between defending yourself in a way that calms the aggressor down rather than further infuriating him. Second, the point of tension is the point at which you can cause your opponent to collapse with a shocking degree of ease, as you’ll see in the video below.

All of this, of course, helps you in several ways, by dispersing your own tensions and allowing you to learn to deal with a wide variety of different energies from different people.  You learn to take punches while relaxing through the pain enough to be sensitive to your partner’s points of tension.  One of the more interesting iterations of these exercises involved punching inside an incoming punch and then immediately punching to the torso; in other words, hitting two points of tension in rapid succession.  With the punches coming at you, there’s no time to think.  You just have to relax and be sensitive to your partner.

In combat, this gets really interesting: your opponent is on the offensive, tense and primed for combat, and convinced until the very last second that he’s going to win.  Then suddenly he’s in a heap on the floor, bewildered and wondering what happened.  Because Systema exercises train natural body movement, all movements in combat are ideally made without any thought and using very little energy – they happen naturally, and are thus very difficult to see or anticipate.  Humans are set up to react against hostile energy, which Systema movements exclude.  Systema’s punches and strikes rely on only momentary muscular tension- yet tend to feel like being hit with bricks when done right.

The amazing thing from our point of view was that so many of Systema’s basic principles resemble those of the “soft” or “internal” martial arts of China, despite external disparity in teaching styles.  The emphasis on relaxation during combat, the central use of breathing to remove tensions from the body, the use of posture and the role of attention all seemed familiar from Tai Chi.

The latter was particularly interesting.  A number of students asked Major Komarov about dealing with fear and accumulated stress, and his advice was to make a practice of regularly scanning your body from top to bottom for areas of tension caused by stress or fear.  Then you focus on and physically press on each tense area in turn while breathing into it to release the tension.  This develops your internal attention so that you’re always subconsciously correcting fear and stress through their physiological manifestations.  In other words, you train yourself to defuse fear and anxiety, tension and stress at their early stages, rather than letting them build up and run your life.

Systema is a tremendous tool for psychological and energetic healing, a means of dealing with incoming stress from any source, and a deadly martial art that can become combat-effective very quickly.  Above all, it is a tremendous tool of personal development.  The principles you learn will help your relationships with everyone, even (especially) people attempting to do you harm.

 ~ Anthony S. Rodger, M.A.