Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Poem by Guro Dan Inosanto

We are all climbing different paths through the mountain of life,
and we have all experienced much hardship and strife.
There are many paths through the mountain of life,
and some climbs can be felt like the point of a knife.
Some paths are short and others are long,
who can say which path is right or wrong?
The beauty of truth is that each path has its own song,
and if you listen closely you will find where you belong.
So climb your own path true and strong,
but respect all other truths for your way for them could be wrong.

- Dan Inosanto

Justin Ho
Principal Instructor
Systema Sydney Russian Martial Art

Monday, 21 November 2011

Experiencing and Explaining Systema

Let me start by making it clear what this post is NOT about:

  • I am not saying that there is never a time and place to analyse and try to articulate your experience using your words and intellect.
  • I am also not saying that technical and scientific information should totally be dispensed with.
  • I am also not saying that explanations to students on how to do things are the devil. I am quite a fan of methodical and explanatory training (if they're the right type of explanations).

With the above in mind, let's proceed.

It has occurred to me that any description in words of Systema, at least the type of Systema which I study, is wrong. Not so much wrong but an imperfect representation (i.e. verbal or intellectual) of a phenomena which must be experienced to be truly understood. Much in the same way that a sign that you see on the road that points to a particular town is not the actual town itself, explanantions and
analogies about Systema... are not themselves Systema. Just as a sign is just a guide to get you to the town it points to, explanations and analogies in Systema are just a guide to get you to the point where you can learn Systema my experiencing it. They are important stepping stones and foot holds, but they are only there to take you somewhere. To be able to learn and work by just being.

Another example that I like to use is that of Chicken. I'll be hard pressed to find somebody who doesn't like chicken (although I am certain these sick weirdos are out there), however I don't really know anyone who thinks that they can verbally describe what chicken tastes like.

Try it, really. How do you describe what chicken tastes like?

Continuing on this train of thought, a word that one person may use to describe the phenomena of what chicken tastes like, although making sense to them, may mean something completely different to another person. For example the word that comes to my mind when I think of chicken is "meaty"... And I don't even think that's a real word. What is that supposed to mean to someone else? Some people may know what that means, however it is also likely that misunderstandings and arguments will ensue;

"No beef is meaty, chicken is more dry"
"What? Dry's not a taste, it's a texture, chicken is more spicy"
"Maybe if you go to KFC and get hot and spicy, what if it's cold
chicken on a salad?"

Sounds pretty stupid right? Yeah it is stupid. Will any of these above arguments bring anyone closer to understanding what chicken tastes like? Probably not. The funny thing is that although none of the above statements are really right, they're also not really wrong. It may be a better idea rather than arguing about the description or representation of the thing they are trying to describe to just experience it. Or perhaps even; "Hey try eating this, it's chicken"

Learning Systema is a very similar experience. An interesting experience I have had is training with people who could not speak English. There obviously were some disadvantages, however there were also many advantages as well. We couldn't get confused about each other definitions of things that were better experienced, all we could do to communicate was to do the work, and pass the information onto each other by feeling, experiencing and simply being with each other in that time and place.

Once again I am not saying there isn't a time and place to analyse and try to articulate your experience using your words and intellect. I am also not saying that technical and scientific information should
totally be dispensed with, or that explanations to students on how to do things are the devil. However at least for me I have found it is best to have an experience to analyse before I try to analyse it. Otherwise what I am then analysing and trying to break down and make sense of isn't the thing itself, just the idea of it in my head. And as close as I may be able get to the experience using all cognitive faculties at my disposal: It ain't the actual thing.

Systema is one of the most effective fighting and survival Systems in the world today. However it is also one of the greatest tools that are out there to study the phenomena of being human. This is something much more amazing and complex than simply describing what chicken tastes like. All the words, explanations and analogies that are out there could not truly do this phenomena justice. When learning Systema, one of the major attributes and qualities to acquire is the ability to learn simply by Being, Feeling and Experiencing. And then being able to take this attribute even further by being able to draw your skills, abilities and knowledge from here. Once again I'm not saying dispense with technical and scientific information or even methodical and explanatory training and teaching. However remember that to be able to learn and work by simply being is incredibly important aspect of Systema.

A good Systema teacher doesn't simply try to teach you what they know. A Good Systema teacher will try to teach you how to become capable of learning how to learn what they know on your own.


Even this entire post I have written, as a description or explanation... Is Wrong ;)

Seriously, try to describe what chicken tastes like.

Justin Ho
Principal Instructor
Systema Sydney Russian Martial Art

Thursday, 20 October 2011

"Using What Destroys You to Restore You" - More Exploration of this Theme in Class

Study how to use what destroys you, to restore you instead. In this way learn to keep your energy, and to use it wisely. Study to the very best of your ability to make what is your extreme begin to feel like your normal. Don't just become good at suffering.
  - From the previous post "Use what destroys you to restore 
you" on 8 August 2011

It was a fun class in North Sydney this evening. The above theme or concept is ever present in Systema training. Whatever drill or exercise that is performed keeping this idea in mind is always an interesting way to learn about yourself. Tonight I decided to play with this, with emphasis on restoring yourself whilst you are still under duress.

The Work

1. We walked with our hands in the air and our breaths held (30% remaining in the lungs or diaphram) until we could not take it any more. When we started breathing again we ran with burst breathing until we had returned to our normal state. Breathing and walking was not permitted for the purpose of this exercise. Breathing while running only. After restoring ourselves, we would then exhale all the air in our lungs until only 30% remained, put our arms up in the air and started walking again with our breaths held. This process was repeated several times.

2. We did exactly the same work as above but instead of running to recover, we used a combination of push ups, squats and sit ups. We would alternate between these core exercises when one of them got too tiring, but once again, when we had restored ourselves we would stop and begin to walk with our arms in the air and our breaths held, repeating this process several times.

3. The next drill this evening was a real treat. We would hold our breaths with 30% breath left in our lungs then do 10 push ups slowly and smoothly with no breathing. Upon commencement of breathing again, we would burst breathe to restore ourselves, whilst we went to ground and played some grab escape drill with a partner (who also did the push ups with the breath held). This essentially turned into wrestling for movement, however with the main aim being to restore ourselves to a normal state again whilst we kept wrestling without a rest. Once both partners were restored and still wrestling, we would then stop. This process was repeated again but instead of push ups with no breathing; with squats, then sit ups and then leg raisers. 

Note: Grab Escape Drill - When you and a partner try to grab each other without being grabbed yourself or locking yourselves up in the process.

One of the main aims of this particular work on this particular night was to develop the ability to restore ourselves whilst we continued to operate under duress. 

To illustrate this point, on occasion stop the work and rest. Breathe and restore yourself using burst breathing to match the heart beat, then slow the breath down to slow the heart beat down. With this particular work aim to be able to perform this same type of restoration while engaging in a task of duress, when under pressure, or when working with another person (in this case wrestling). 

Until next time,

Justin Ho
Principal Instructor
Systema Sydney Russian Martial Art

Saturday, 1 October 2011

First North Sydney Systema Class: Some Realisation and an Awesome Highlight

Yesterday I taught my first systema Class at the North Sydney PCYC. This isn't the first Systema class I have taught ever in my entire life. Actually prior to taking off to Canada for 6 months I had been teaching friends in the park opposite my house for approximately the last 2 years previously. However this is the first class I have taught where I actually told anyone where to find me. During that time I did just want to work with a close circle of friends and hone my skills to a certain level before I began to openly teach... However I now realise I was just shy.

Over the last 2 years I have come to realise that being a teacher of Systema isn't about being the best there is out there. It's definitely not about being a Master. If anything a better word is Steward. To be a Systema teacher is to be someone who has acquired knowledge and understanding of the System to the best of their own ability as an individual, and then to be someone willing to pass on that knowledge to the people who need it, placing their best interests first. That is all. There is no self exaltation, and if there is, then you're not doing it right.  If anything you're there to serve.

It was good first class, with just a small group of us. We played with the ideas of finding and being aware of a normal and neutral state, then keeping this while you increase the intensity of your work, however doing this through proper relaxation and use of the breath. It was wonderful watching everyone in the class work together so well, and work within the scope of the drills to find their own way of doing things. There was a lot of walking, running and breathing, movement on the ground, and some "grab escape" from standing and on the ground which organically evolved into some awesome ground work in pairs and then in a group. But through whatever physical modality,drills, that we used, the important thing was the introspection that we all went through together in that time and place.

As we discussed that day, it's easy enough to stay relaxed and comfortable when there is no stressor, but to be able to keep that feeling, and deal with the stressors of combat or any other form of pressure, even upping your level of intensity,while remaining relaxed....Well that is a truly interesting study.

However I must say that a highlight for me personally was when towards the end of the class I was approached by one of the new students. It was his first day, and he had been doing incredibly well given the chaos (controlled to a degree, I promise) that he had been exposed to. We had begun to engage into some freeplay ground work. He asked me if it would be ok if he could take it a little bit easier and focus on his breathing in order to be able to stay calm during the work. I can not tell you how overjoyed this made me that someone who had just walked in off the street into his first Systema class had made this simple yet amazing realisation!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Without the breath, there is no Systema. The breath is a simple thing that is easy to ignore, however is from where everything stems. I was just very happy that this guy pretty much immediately realised the link between the breath and the ability to maintain one's state (and I'm sure many other things you can do with the breath too). As I said, that was a real highlight for me for my first class.

But watching everyone roll around breathe, move, laugh and experience Systema together that day...Needless to say I was pretty stoked :)

My thanks to my first group of students. 

Justin Ho
Principal Instructor
Systema Sydney Russian Martial Art

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Classes to Commence in North Sydney as of 1 October 2011

I am proud to announce that Systema Sydney Russian Martial Art, has found a place to begin classes at the North Sydney PCYC. As of 1 October 2011, Classes will be held Saturdays from 11:00am to 12:30pm, and on Thursdays from 7pm to 8:30pm.
The club is located opposite St Leonards Park and the North Sydney No. 2 Oval on Falcon Street. The club is about a 10 minute walk from the North Sydney CBD and also a short walk from Crows Nest, Neutral Bay and Cammeray Shopping Centres (for more information Please refer to the location section in Class Information).
For anyone interested in coming to learn an amazing System of Martial Art, and an amazing System of life, feel free to come on down, have some fun and meet some good people. Also check out the website at www.systemasydney.com 

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

New Systema Sydney Website

I am proud to announce that the new website that myself and the good people at systema Club Nagaika in Montreal, have been bulding is now up and running. Thanks a million to Marie-Lynn Richards (http://marie-lynn.org/) a wonderful lady who is very good at what she does.

Click below to visit the website Systema Sydney.


After 6 months of training in Toronto with Vladimir Vasiliev and his Senior Instructors I am incredibly happy to be coming back to my home town of .Sydney to be sharing what I have learned. It was a long time away and I am very pleased at the prospect of coming back to commence teaching Systema in Sydney. I am currently enjoying a wonderful week in Fiji but will touch down back in Sydney on 10 September 2011.

Stay tuned for more information regarding commencement of classes, and when I can find the words a description of my time in Canada training with some of the best teachers, training partners and friends anyone could wish for.

Talk to you soon :)

......Oh what the hell:

Justin Ho
Principal Instructor
Systema Sydney Russian Martial Art

Monday, 22 August 2011

Mastering fear in oneself: A weekend with Vladimir Vasiliev, by Lindsay Loytchenko

The following article was written by Lindsay Loytchenko on Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 12:20am. Lindsay is a friend of mine whom I met in Montreal, at Vladimir Vasiliev's weekend seminar at club Nagaika. She is one of the bravest human beings I have ever met. AND I MEAN EVER.

Coming home last night, soaked from the rain and covered in bruises, I was overcome with a sense of both accomplishement and sadness. This past weekend had been spent at Club Nagaika, where I practice a Russian martial called called Systema. I was there along with many others to receive instruction from a keystone figure in this unique community, Vladimir Vasiliev. Friday everning I helped clean the school in preparation for his arrival, it was there I met a new friend and fellow practitoner named Justin. He hails from Australia and has been on his own Systema journey which has taken him from his home down under, to both Moscow and Toronto. He showed me an invaluable foothold that helped me conquer a serious milestone when it came to my sensitivty and flinch response to strikes.

Systema involves three key components. Combat skill, a strong spirit, and a healthy body. Combat in Systema is precise. There are no roundhouse kicks, there are no combo punches, or elaborate stances. This is an art with a strong military application. So combat has a strong focus on energy conservation and the maintenance of one’s structure. My teacher has often told me while putting me in a number of confusing and painful holds “Just get back to a position of comfort and you’ll be fine.”  The spiritual aspect of Systema involves the development of discipline of one’s psychological state. Our worst enemies are our self-pity, our ego, and our fear. It is only when we have mastery over these aspects of our psyche that our spirit can become strong. When faced with adversity, sitting on the ground lamenting solves nothing. Sure someone else may solve the problem, however that only shows that their spirit is stronger than yours.

Courage, strength and humility are words that often float around our heads as we train, because it is important that we do not let doubt and fear restrict out progress, we must learn to grow and find the seeds of strength within ourselves while at the same time not letting our ego get the better of us. As our strength and skill increases, so too should our humility. And that is something I noticed very strongly when I met Vladimir. 

Okay so my teacher Stephane had to drag me over to introduce myself. I was overcome with apprehension at this point. I found myself afraid of being judged. Of being deemed unworthy of my presence there. Why should he take any time to acknowledge me? I did not know this man who was I to take his time for myself? He was sitting on a desk, his posture was relaxed.He looked up at our approach and I swear I wished I wanted to dissapear. Then he took my hand and said hello. I felt trapped, pinned like a butterfly on a card when he addressed me. I managed to stammer back an introduction, then he gently took my left arm and asked me where I got my scars. The tightness in my throat increased but I managed to choke out that I was a self-mutilator, and while I had mostly stopped, I had yet to beat this addiction entirely. I expected to see judgement or contempt in his eyes. I didn't. 

Instead I saw warmth and understanding on a profound level. He said simply that we would  speak further on the subject. I managed to nod and thank him, then found a place on the floor near my classmates, and the seminar began.

I started off on shaky footing, my impatience got the better of me during the first exercise and as a result I did not achieve my goal. However this at least taught me something of myself. And so I went through to the second exercise with a different attitude. I shifted my focus not to the success of the task, but to the tension buildup inside myself. As a result, my lack of tension was enough that the work progressed much further than the results I had expected. This proceeded to set my tone for the remainder of the weekend. My focused remained more on my internal state than projecting it towards the task at hand, and as a result I gained much more ground. Lunch came with it a decent surprise, as fellow practitioners devoured the cookies I had baked and brought as a contribution to the class. Over the course of the day, practitioners from near and far tendered me advice. Andrew, a leader of another Montreal gym showed me a more biomechanical approach to the work (before cracking my head on the floor), while a practitioner from New Jersey urged me not to stop at what he called the halfway mark. Telling me not to stop simply when he was on the ground, but to send him headfirst into the wall where he belonged since he was trying to send a knife through me. I even got to work with Stephane's former partner at Nagaika's old location. Training with Jordan is always a treat, as he is a top notch fighter in Brazilian Jiujitsu, his insight is always well worth listening to.
By days end we were all slick with sweat and grappling became very difficult. After a shower and a change of clothes, it was time for dinner with my Nagaika mates,Salim, and Gabriel, a few other practitioners including Andrew and Justin, as well as Vladimir himself. Being seated next to him turned out to be an interesting experience, as he enjoyed teasing me extensively at certain points throughout the evening. In fact he had a few choice comments throughout the weekend that left me turning a number of interesting colours. Regardless, I headed home that night with a happy heart, Stephane had told me he was proud of my progress and hearing that meant a lot to me. As I got home I wished that it was already the next morning, and that I could already be on my way back to the school for day 2 of training.
A wish that changed drastically when morning rolled around. I awoke to find my muscles stiff and very sore. A conversation with an online friend gave me the tip for a cold water immersion and added intake of vitamin C, which helped quite a bit.
Upon arrival at the school I was relieved to see others seemed to be along the same lines, misery loves company I suppose. Either way day two seemed to flow a little easier, probably because I spent a good chunk of it with Justin taking me under his wing and getting my pesky flinch reponse under further control.Our day started with an interesting exercise, where after breathwork we were told to lie motionless for five minutes, not even our breathing should be noticable. I found focusing on my heartbeat helped. After that is was group work, then partner work.
At one point Vladimir came and struck at the emotional tension in my shoulders while explaining to Justin "Now, because the emotion is released, she will cry. The important thing is not to let the emotion take over or the work is no good." He spoke true, my eyes did tear a bit. Then is was close quarter work with knives, where I got slammed into walls and stabbed in the face.  I spent most of the afternoon working on my flinch response and again progress came relatively well. At the end of the day, photos were taken, books were signed, and I finally screwed up my courage to talk to Vladimir about my scars. 
Vladimir took a few precious moments, and gave me advice, advice I heard and will most certainly heed. He told me about the darkness I would spiral into, and how devastating it would be for me. He compared that darkness inside me to a snake that was coiled throughout me, and gave me insight on the toold behind it. He said I was a better person than I realized, and that the sensitivity I possesed was a good tool that would serve me well even as my fear diminished. As he spoke I felt my shoulders liquify and the tears started coming freely, he told me that was a very good sign and hugged me.
And then it was done. My experience with Vladimir the former Spetsnaz operative had come to an end. And with it the realization that Systema is more than just an art. The people who are truly passionate about it are a compassionate bunch. People took the time to hear my story and they were warm. I've been told the are no jerks in Systema, and to a very serious extent that is true. This weekend left me feeling more open towards my fellow practitioners. And I hope to forge deeper bonds with them as time goes by. Whether it was David from Ontario, or Ray from Boston. Andrew the fellow Montrealer, or Stephano from Italy. Everyone I interacted with was kind. There was no ego, no one scoffed or judged another as weak. Which leads me to think that systema has much more to teach the world if it has such an emphasis that it's students are always good and decent folk. And the lessons I am coming to learn I will pass on in my daily life, even if just to teach a colleague a nifty breathing trick that helps with their daily stress.
Sunday night ended with another dinner, sand Vladimir, and then a bit of striking in the rain. A trek home that left me soggy, and exhausted and filled with a sense that I had grown in these two very short days. If the bruises will help the lessons stick, then I hope they last a while so I'll be sure not to forget this whole experience. And with that I wish to thank everyone who worked with me. Vladimir for taking time for me, Justin for his wonderful footholds, the people I worked with for all their varied insights. My fellow classmates for putting up with me, and Stephane for believing in me.
And so my fellow Systemaniacs, I wish you all well, and I hope to see you all when the zombies come.

Vladimir has zero clue how to spell my first name ;)

Justin Ho
Principal Instructor
Systema Sydney Russian Martial Art