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

Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Battle of Borodino (A Painting to Remember)

During my first trip to Moscow in May of 2009 , David Quaile (Australian Systema Instructor) and I visited the Napoleonic war museum. We were fortunate enough to be in the company of Victor Petrov, a student of Mikhail Ryabko and one of the Instructors at the Moscow school. There were many interesting things to be seen in that museum. But the thing that stuck out in my mind was a large mural, painting on the wall, depicting the battle of Borodino during the French Invasion of Russia.

The Battle of Borodino was fought on 7 September 1812 and was the largest and bloodiest single-day action of the French invasion of Russia and all Napoleonic Wars, involving more than 250,000 troops and resulting in at least 70,000 casualties. The French Grande Armée under Emperor Napoleon I attacked the Imperial Russian Army of General Mikhail Kutuzov near the village of Borodino, west of the town of Mozhaysk, and eventually captured the main positions on the battlefield, but failed to destroy the Russian army. About a third of Napoleon's soldiers were killed or wounded; Russian losses, while heavier, could be replaced, since large forces of militia were already with the Russian Army and replacement depots which were close by had already been gathering and training troops.  Although the battle itself ended with the Russian Army out of position, by withdrawing the Russian army preserved its combat strength, eventually allowing it to force Napoleon out of the country.

                                                     (Only part of the mural)

It was an amazing painting, with details of the battle painstakingly captured with the precision of the artist. You could see everything. Hundreds of men on horseback charging each other with sabres drawn, while their comrades on both sides loaded their muskets and fired at each other. Cannons aimed at the opposing armies with smoke covering the battlefield. In addition to the mural which was very large, small huts had been constructed on dirt surrounding the artwork in order to replicate the scene of the battle. There was even a recording which would play in the background; the sound of the trumpet signalling a cavalry charge, followed by the sound of galloping horses, cannon and gunfire. The effect was incredibly impressive.

Then at one point Victor said "Look over there," pointing at a smaller barely noticeable part of the enormous painting. "Look at that small cottage there." We then noticed amongst all the carnage, the artist had taken the time to paint a small domicile near the edge of the battlefield. It was a simple building, made from chopped down tree's with a straw thatch for a roof. Just outside of the cottage was a little vegetable garden with a few cabbages growing in the dirt. "Back then someone would have had to work hard in order to build that little house," said Victor. "They would have had to chop down the wood by hand. They would have had to find the straw for the roof. And then they would have had to put a lot of effort into putting it all together to make their home." We took another look at whoever's home the little cottage amongst the carnage was. "Now look at that, the roof is now on fire, and there are soldiers jumping over that fence and running through that vegetable garden stepping on the cabbages. That was somebody's home." We continued to look at that small part of the painting, surrounded by the images of war and death. "Isn't it interesting how people are always interested in violence and learning how to destroy, yet rarely ever take any interest in learning how to build and create?", asked Victor rhetorically.

When studying Systema remember that learning about fighting is only a part of the training. Remember to learn how to heal yourself and your training partners, and not just how to rip people apart. 

Justin Ho
Principal Instructor
Systema Sydney Russian Martial Art

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Technical Awareness

There is a technical side to Systema. Some examples could include; understanding the specifics of a good walk, what good structure of the body entails, how to fall and roll in a safe manner, as well as certain anatomical and neurological facts which can help you to train in a safe and productive manner.

It is good to have an awareness of such things, however not at the expense of being able to learn somatically. To be able to learn by feeling and listening to your body is incredibly important. It is good to be aware of technical components, however not to the point where they become dogma which are adhered to zealously and without thought or flexibility (keep in mind the principle of paradox). As Emmanuel Manolakakis eloquently put it; "Training is not about accomplishing technical proficiencies, but rather cleansing your assumptions in life".
It is good to pay attention to technical aspects, they can help you improve your work greatly. However remember they are only part of the larger picture. It is probably not the best to get lost in the details in your head and lose the ability to be in the moment. You don't want to get stuck with a Technical obsession. However you don't want to completely shun technical information either.

A good Technical awareness is a very useful attribute when used as part of the larger picture.

Justin Ho
Principal Instructor
Systema Sydney Russian Martial Art

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Systema, Neurological Reaction Time and Learning

By Dr Andrea Bisaz

                                         Clip provided by Systema Instructor Trevor Robinson
                                                       of Russian Martial Art UK
A major factor in fighting arts is the speed of response to a given attack. As we know this is dependant on many different factors. Timely action is crucial for a positive outcome with an adversary. Different fighting disciplines have implemented various strategies in order to gain a time advantage over their opponent.

A common approach by many professionals such as SWAT Teams, Special Forces etc. is to use just a hand
full of very generic applicable techniques based on gross motor skills. The idea behind this approach is:
  • One, to decrease decision time of the mind, thus to shorten your reaction time (response time) to a given attack.
  • Two, the gross motor skills allow people to still perform under duress.
Whilst the response in our brain to physical attack is very complex and varied, there is an intriguing aspect, which I would like to discuss. It is important in understanding the response time of the subconscious approach (Systema) as opposed to the conscious choice approach mentioned above. It is relatively unknown that when our brain prepares for a movement, for example in response to an attack on our person, it will always do a dry-run first, without activating our muscle and without our conscious awareness. This means the brain has like an emulator. Before we become aware of our intended movement, our brain will dry-run the movement through its brain maps. This will include hormonal activation, blood pressure changes and all the usual psycho-physiological adaptations. The only thing, which is missing, is the activation of our muscles (and our awareness). Only following this dry-run will our intended movement become conscious and we will perform this action with our muscles activated. To our conscious minds this movement appears spontaneous and original, as we are not aware that in actual fact we have already done it in our brains.

Now here is the difference: if movement is directed by our subconscious mind or as we call it, if movement happens spontaneously, then our conscious response will be the second run through by the brain. However in the example of conscious mind control (SWAT team, Special Forces…), if a technique selection is required, then the brain will repeat the dry-run with the chosen technique, before activating the muscles in a third run through. Whilst a small selection number (of technique choices) decreases selection time, it still remains the third fully performed run through by the brain when applying a conscious mind approach. Systema however relies on a subconscious response, meaning that we can act on the second performed run through.  Whilst this advantage represents only a fraction of a second, it is nevertheless very significant.

This however is not the whole story. Where do the brain’s initial ideas for the subconscious response originate? Neurologists refer to these sudden reaction movements as Fixed Action Patterns (FAPs). A FAP is a chosen system by natural selection for a reduction of choice and decision time. In other words, through past experiences the body has learned to react in a certain way under certain circumstances (Trigger Event), and in order to reduce reaction time a quick “movement package” is applied in a coordinated fashion whenever needed, without the brain having to repeatedly invent the wheel again. These patterns are very deeply rooted in our response system. They can range from very simple withdrawal actions to complex movement patterns. That doesn’t however make them the best or most efficient choice under any given circumstance.

Let me give you an example: if you touch a hot object you will withdraw your hand immediately in a FAP, nothing wrong with that. On the other hand, if someone grabs your finger in a finger lock this same FAP will be activated putting you in a much worse situation as you have just increased pressure on your finger lock. How then can we change this situation and how can we change FAPs or any other rapid reaction movement? The answer is training.

Training has the ability to override current FAPs.

Lets look at this a bit closer. The brain has many body maps spread throughout its different areas. The most basic (and famous) are the primary motor and sensory maps also referred to as homunculi. These body maps interact in hierarchical fashion from lower- to higher-grade maps. Information from the body enters the primary sensory map and then rises through complex processing and constant reassessing procedures up to layers of higher maps. The higher up they travel the more information gets incorporated in the processing of an action such as emotions, memories, body images, beliefs, pain patterns etc etc. On the way up information gets constantly fed down the chain again for reassessment and confirmation with new sensory information just entered. Eventually appropriate action is decided on and emulated, then fed down through the hierarchy and all the way to the primary motor maps, from which muscles are activated and conscious movement arises. Lets bare in mind that these complex procedures and interactions take but split seconds to occur. We also can see that no matter how much we try, every action has an emotional association attached. We might not be consciously aware of it but it is unavoidable!

Through regular training we can teach our body to behave with chosen patterned responses to particular situations. The interesting point here is that we can learn specific patterns (techniques) or we can teach our body principled responses such as relaxed generalised movement patterns. The difference being that we allow our bodies to come up with its own solutions to problems as long as it adheres to chosen principles such as relaxed, efficient, natural movements as in the case of Systema. In order to allow for this wide range of body applications we have to understand that the nervous system works via what we call facilitation. In simple terms this means; the more we use an action the more likely the same action will be chosen the next time. Now if we use a mirror action over and over again we will eventually reinforce this action in a specific way as a FAP to be used by what’s deemed as relevant situations (Trigger Event). However if we continually vary the specific movements, whilst keeping the modus operandi more constant, this being a calm, relaxed way of movement, then the quality of this habit will start to instill itself as a FAP response without a specific hyper-facilitated movement pattern attached. The brain will then pair up it’s own choice of movement pattern, which it regards as most appropriate. It will draw from familiar movement patterns that have been trained, however more ‘freedom’ exists, which will be advantageous in adapting precisely to individual situations.

Once the initial subconscious response has taken place we can include a consciously directed action if necessary, as we can perform it concurrently with the already happening responses, thus we don’t suffer an apparent time delay. In simple terms the brain is multitasking (although strictly speaking due to the on/off nature of the nervous system it is actually an alternating action).

A subconscious approach requires a certain level of faith, as we teach ourselves principles, hoping that the best response will be chosen subconsciously at a time of need. It is a very different approach to training specific names and techniques for specific situations. An advantage of the ‘principle approach’ versus the ‘technique approach’ is that the brain does not get bored through endless repetitions of the same movements, as every movement is slightly different and somehow novel. Once the principles have established themselves though a marvelous thing occurs: Instead of a limited set of technique responses, we now have an unlimited array of ‘principle responses’ available. We have trained our bodies to come up with its own creative solutions to a given situation. Of course the body will always develop its favorite idiosyncrasies, largely due to neurological facilitation, individual body parameters and individual abilities.
It is also very important to mention that RELAXATION is absolutely imperative in order to work subconsciously. When afflicted by tension (fear, aggression etc) our brains will lose their ability to be creative, to multitask and eventually to function efficiently altogether. Much has been written about the debilitating effects of tension on our performance, especially in the flight-fight situation. It is not the purpose of this article to discuss this, but I simply would like to stress that it is crucial to instill a relaxed manner of working, if we want work efficiently subconsciously.

It is also important when training for conflict situations to incorporated regular human-to-human interaction with significant contact such as strikes, aggressive behavior and the like. This will assist in providing proper trigger events and help in reconditioning specific ‘approach and avoidance behaviours’ already present in FAPs. If done properly, it will also assist in reducing fear and pain based tension.

An additional interesting point is that research has shown slow training of complex movements to significantly shorten the learning time required for those movements…sounds familiar?

Now the more we train the lower down on the brain-map-hierarchy we move the processing. This means that after many years of training our principled responses can be processed mostly in our primary motor maps. At this point we have made the system our own and we will instinctively and spontaneously respond with FAPs according to our training. In other words our subconscious mind will now start to respond spontaneously to attacks in a smooth, creative and intelligent way just like in training, instead of in a rushed, abrupt and tense fashion. With appropriate training we will also be able to work with much less emotional involvement and less disruptive fear based tension.

Obviously technique based training can override the spontaneous FAP response too, however if we continue to involve our conscious mind for technique choices we will still react with the third brain run through only. Alternatively if Systema practitioners miss this point of subconscious action either through faulty training or lack of faith/trust, then they too will respond to the third run through only. This is particularly apparent in new students and will only change after considerable training.

As mentioned, it is very acceptable, even advisable to use conscious decisions during a physical conflict but the trick is not to initiate with a conscious action if spontaneously challenged. Rather intermingle it sparingly amongst plenty of subconscious work. This will minimise interference and allow your work to be fast fluid and natural, whilst still maintaining some conscious strategic control.

As simple as this all may sounds and as easy and natural as a competent Systema practitioner can look in motion, this is actually very difficult to achieve. Difficult inasmuch, as it takes dedication and years of mindful training in order to acquire this natural and efficient subconscious/conscious response process when under attack or duress. A good dose of playfulness, dedication and faith can make this journey however spectacularly joyful and satisfying. Not to mention the insight into our persona and our emotions, which we can gain through introspection and through feeling during training.


Dr Andrea Bisaz was amongst the first fully qualified Systema Instructors in Australia. He received his certification from Vladimir Vasiliev and Mikhail Ryabko with whom he studied in Canada and Russia respectively.

For over twenty years Dr Bisaz traveled the world with professional tennis players such as Lendl, Rafter and Hewitt and for nine years until recently has worked as the Chiropractor and Medical Officer of the Australian Davis Cup Team. In that capacity he has also worked at Olympic Games, World Championships and All African Games on Boxing, Karate, Tai Kwon Do and Wrestling competitions as well as Aikido seminars. For many years he has studied various martial arts and apart from active army duty has experienced conflict-combat assignments all over the world.

For more information go to:

Justin Ho
Principal Instructor
Systema Sydney Russian Martial Art