Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Why I Choose to Train and Teach Ryabko-Vasiliev Systema

This is a very personal post for me. So I am going to take off the Instructor hat for the moment and just address whoever is reading this as simply - Justin. A guy from Sydney, Australia, who is a practitioner of Systema. The following piece of writing does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Mikhail Ryabko, Vladimir Vasiliev or any other persons referred to with in. It is simply my personal account and experiences drawn from my time training in the Ryabko-Vasiliev camp. If I refer to said persons it is simply to convey my experiences and opinions.

Let's Begin,

Systema is very rewarding but it's not always the easiest art to study due to it's seemingly structureless nature, endlessness and the level of introspection required. That raises the question: Why continue to study this art when there are so many other easier options out there? Especially where explanations, techniques, clear guidelines, a syllabus and gradings indicating levels of competence are present to put a concerned mind at ease.

For me Systema has for a long time been about fixing myself up inside and healing. I'm not saying I have had the worst life in the world. Comparatively speaking I'm doing quite well. But nobodies perfect and we all have our share of damage inside. Some of us just hide it better than others. Systema is first and foremost a healing art, but I know people don't think that sounds "cool enough"... So I am going to approach this a different way.

A while back when I was going through a bit of a rough patch with my training I had a conversation with Vlad. As I walked with him through the training hall at Systema Headquarters he explained to me "In this "style" we teach a person to be a Master...But a real Master." I pondered this for a moment and the first image that came to mind was an old guy in silk pyjamas and a long white beard who could crack skulls with  a single chop. As Vlad continued to explain I began to realise he meant "A Master Craftsman". 

"Think back to how things were in the old times," said Vlad. "You would have one person. Somebody with his two hands and an axe, who could go out into the woods, chop down a tree, select the part he needs, take it back to his cabin, using his simple set of tools shape it into the components for a piece of furniture, put those components together, sand it varnish it and would have a complete product that he created himself." Again I pondered over this analogy. I thought to myself, someone who has created something whole and complete, but because of himself and his know how. Someone who has taken something all the way from beginning to middle to end.

Vlad continued, "Now think about how many cars are made in this day and age. One person designs the frame, another person designs the seats, another person designs the engine, another person designs the fuel system, another person designs the brakes.Then in the end all these different things made by different people are jumbled into this one end product. While the end product may be impressive... It is no longer the work of a Master." I continued to Ponder... A Master...Someone who has taken something all the way from beginning to middle to end. The other option is where the end product is developed...But the Master Craftsman is not.

For a long time this sat in my mind... It took a while for the enormity of this to sink in. I imagine I am still very much coming to terms with it.

Systema does not work...You Work...Systema is just there to help you see how to do this for yourself. It is there to help you Know for Yourself.

At this point I must reference some instruction I received from Sonny Puzikas during his time with us in Sydney. Please understand I am not name dropping I just don't believe in taking credit for other people's good work and intelligence. My understanding and interpretation of his advice is as follows:

In the beginning you study Systema and Yourself.
The Study of Yourself  gives rise to the development of certain attributes
Over a period of time the combination of those attributes become skill.
Once you have acquired skill the next step is to apply them. 
And so they become Applications.
Then you work these applications increasing the intensity, pressure, speed, level of impact, situational variants...until you reach an inevitable point of failure.
Achievement breeds pride...Failure is where you learn. 
Determine for yourself what went wrong, why it went wrong and then how to fix it. 
Modify the error or hole in your base, then repeat the process again and again.
You need to go back to the beginning before you can improve further.The problem won't be solved by bashing your head against the wall. Go back and fix the simple things that form your base. That is where the weakness is. Study and fix yourself.
This breeds humility.
This is the work.

And don't forget acquisition of skill takes priority over acquisition of knowledge. Skill saves lives. Knowledge on it's own does not. And while Skill can morph into intellectual knowledge at a later point, intellectual knowledge seldom morphs into skill.

On a personal note, Sonny if you end up reading this, thank you for coming to Sydney when you did, and for helping me find the strength within myself to carry on. 

One thing I really respect about Michael and Vlad is that they do not try to make clones of themselves. However for some reason people think that doing Systema is all about copying them and mimicking some sort of "style"... It's not a style, it's a process. A process which is your responsibility to take from Beginning to Middle to End... Yourself. Don't just mimic Michael and Vlad. I'm pretty sure they wouldn't want you to. You're not them. They know this. You should too. 

Your teachers guide you and you should listen to them, but do not ever expect somebody to do for you what is your responsibility to do for yourself.

That being said, this is not a licence for incompetent instruction. There is a difference between helping people to know for themselves versus just leaving them in a rowboat with no paddles. All things are a double edged sword. How do the people choose to hold that sword?

Remember acquisition of skill before knowledge. As an aspiring Master Craftsman and as a human, what is the rawest of materials that someone can have access too in order to begin to learn to do this? What is the rawest of materials that gives rise to the principles, occurrence of technique or strategy? An experience. You start by having an experience. A raw, often but not always non-verbal, unrestricted, unjudged visceral experience. Then you teach yourself to become a Master. If the pathways are drawn too easily, a person gives in to laziness and becomes dependant... As a result they fail to become self sufficient, self reliant, and to learn to find and navigate their own path. Life is NOT always clearly mapped or logical. Thinking and acting like it is so makes somebody simply a consumer, rather than someone capable of creating and seeing something through from the beginning, the middle and to the end....But then having the maturity to accept that there is no end...Only going back to the beginning. There are reasons that Michael and Vlad do things the way they do. In my humble opinion those reasons are not nearly as selfish as some may have you believe.

At this point it is probably starting to sound like a lot of hard work. Yes. Yes it is Hard work. Not in the sense of physical demand (although there is that too) but the level of personal responsibility and self accountability involved when you study this art. As a Student or Instructor you choose to take on responsibility for yourself and your journey. The alternative is to complain that someone else isn't doing this for you, or latch onto some sort of guru figure to do all your thinking and problem solving for you... I wouldn't recommend either... And from what I have gathered from my time spent with them, either would Michael or Vlad.

Remember Systema gives us freedom, but with freedom comes personal responsibility...But when personal responsibility is accepted freedom soon follows :)

Nobody knows what it's like to be you. To have lived your life, your pain, your joys, your needs. Nobody truly knows what is best for you except you. Learn to have faith in yourself and to keep your own counsel in all matters of life. It doesn't mean ignore everyone else's input, but learn to trust yourself. The System is you. That last sentence is one of David Quaile's, a great teacher.

I admit there is a high likelihood I'll never be good as Michael or Vlad. But that is ok. I don't really care. I never got into this gig to be "the best". I don't need to be good as Michael or Vlad. I don't need to be better then anyone. I just need to be as good as me. And that is a by product of studying and healing the self. That is it's own reward. One of the greatest thing I learnt from all of this was to be kind to myself. By doing that you are kinder to other people. That is a gift to both them and you.

I'm not saying it's easy. I'm not even saying that it's even fair really. There will be stumbling points. You'll strive, you'll fail, you'll hurt. You'll be knocked down, again, and again, and again. Some times by life, by circumstance,  by your own fears and sometimes by other people. That's the worst especially when a lot of the time they're the very people who you have sincerely tried to help and have suffered for in the process. All of these things will happen sooner or later despite your best intentions. Just keep getting back up. Like I said, it's not easy and a lot of the time it's not fair. It's not always your fault, but it is your responsibility. So find a way. Find a way.

You don't need the respect or approval of other people when you are able to give those things to yourself. That is your reward. And you give that to yourself. Don't ever make your happiness dependant on the words or actions of other people. Happiness has to come from within...And so does Systema. It's not about being perfect, it just about trying to improve yourself, for yourself and the people you love.

Another important thing. Do not underestimate the importance of the Spiritual Aspect of things. I don't strictly mean Orthodox Christianity. I myself am not Orthodox, and don't see myself becoming so any time soon. But what a person chooses to believe, or not to believe is no one's business except their own. Do not jump to conclusions about people's decisions or lack there of. You don't know them. Don't presume to. To quote the film Snatch, "Assumption is the mother of all F#%K ups". I'll say it again:

Do not underestimate the importance of the Spiritual Aspect of things. Make of this what you will. 

This is my opinion and whether or not you agree with it, please respect it as I respect yours. Whether or not I agree with it.

I know this journey is hard. I choose it anyway. It may not be right for everyone. But it's right for me.

I can appreciate that this doesn't sound particularly glamorous or feel good inspirational. But please keep in mind, there is a difference between being straight up with people versus tailoring words and responses in such a way that elicits a response from them that satisfies a particular agenda. Beliefs don't make a good person. Actions do... And while I don't claim to be a good and perfect person, I can assure you I try. I don't care much for it when people presume to judge me based on here-say taken out of context, limited time with me and half baked opinions that may have formed, or an idea in their heads of the person I was years ago although we may have barely spoken two words since. Time passes and people change. Life does that. The Systema Community is not a museum of saints. It's just a bunch of imperfect people trying their best to heal and make themselves better.

In this crazy and sometimes harsh world of ours Systema is a beautiful thing, and a gift that you give to yourself through time, hard work, honesty and faith tempered with common sense. There's a feeling that you get which is different for everyone and as undefinable in words as the taste of something sweet or fragrance of something wonderful. A long time ago the group I was training with at the time was visited by a gentleman named Dimitri Trufanov from Chicago. After the session he finished with some breath work. I just remember being left with a feeling. A very calm, relaxed and peaceful feeling. I remember thinking to myself "If I could feel like this everyday even for just a little bit of that day, everything would be worth it". Personally I believe this feeling, however you wish to define it (or not to) is at the heart of the System. It is from where everything springs, and it is inside of you, connecting you to yourself and everything and everyone around you. Without it there is nothing. That is worth protecting. That is worth cultivating. That is worth sharing....All the best Systema people I know are people just trying to heal themselves. This is what keeps me going.

When you love something, you fight for it.    




  1. Beautiful Justin. Thanks for this!

  2. Justin, outstanding post; thanks for sharing. Another thing I think Systema does is allows you to share yourself genuinely, with less of a mask - what you really feel. It's been said that the more personal it is, the more universal. So glad you were willing to write this.

  3. It is an enjoyable reading Justin. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    Self healing is truly what Systema does. Psychiatrist's would definitely have less patients if patients chose Systema as a self healing method. Inner peace is what Systema greatly complements to, which brings us closer to happiness.

  4. Great post. I train under steph in Perth and without sounding too exestential when I grab 2 year old son when he does not want to be picked up, he relaxes his body and nearly slips out of my grip. I firmly believe that we are born with a systema mindset. TS Elliiot defines perfection as a newborn. Not because they are a newborn but because they are completely without experiences. A systema mindset is our default position though our experiences have trained us to become restricted, to become tense. Systema brings us back to being a newborn, without pre conceived ideas of what to next expect.