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The further I travel along my Systema path the more I appreciate and understand the role of relaxation. I came into Systema from the Chinese Internal systems, so the concept of “relax” was not new to me. However I’ve found that there are many layers of “relaxation” beyond maintaining a neutral structure.
Relaxation is a touchy issue in the martial arts as a whole, where it tends to be tension that attracts and sells, whether for entertainment or for promoting a school. In the past I’ve been involved in martial art demos that included dramatic wood breaking, set piece “fight scenes” and plenty of shouting and jumping about. Contrast that with Systema work, specifically designed to be “quiet” and unobtrusive and you can see the difficulties involved in getting “relaxation” across as a viable and important principle.
The sad things as that when browsing through martial arts forums, particularly for some styles, you read a list of injuries, some quite serious, from people as young as in their 20s. People at that age should not be talking about knee surgery! It’s disquieting to thing that this level of injury has become an acceptable part of training - “that’s the way it is, that’s just what happens.” Well it is if you train wrong
We go back to a mainstream perception that any form of exercise has to involve a lot of tension to be effective. But this is nonsense. A glance at people who live a more “primitive” lifestyle soon shows that. Want to cover long distances on foot? Learn a relaxed jog and how to breathe properly. Forget the wearing all the right gear, screwing your face up and puffing (whilst carrying a water bottle) that you see so many joggers do. Dealing with violence is no different. Do you think warriors of old, decked in armour and carrying weapons, went into battle red-faced, every muscle tensed, veins popping? Why do you think there are strong parallels in most cultures between warriorship and dancing?
The reverse aspect of this are the “soft” martial arts that have all the fight removed from them. It is just as naive to think that you can prevail over a strong attacker by being extremely limp and inactive. This is where the concept of “relaxation” is again misunderstood. Relaxation, in my view, is not a final state but an on-going process that adapts to the situation. This is something Systema teaches, to be adaptable to the needs of the moment. That may mean extreme tension in the hands if we are holding onto something, it may mean complete relaxation if we have to slide through a narrow gap. But even this is only part of the picture. Muscular tension is our most obvious, outward form of tension. Even then, there are layers. Deeper muscular tension sits below the surface and is often tied in to emotional and psychological issues. These can take some work to access and release but, again, Systema gives us all the tools to do that.
Psychological tension can also be shallow or deep. Think of stubbing your toe as you walk. There is a flash of anger or irritation, but it quickly passes. Now think back to that nasty bully at school who used to steal your dinner money. That kind of tension can stay with you for years. Life throws all sorts of thing at us, some pleasant, some not. Finding a strategy for dealing with these highs and lows is vital if we are to be fully functional human beings. Learning what to hold on to and what, and when, to let go is part of that deeper “relaxation” process.
Earlier this year I ran a workshop in Madrid called Freedom to Flow. We tend to think of freedoms as freedom to - freedom to travel, to say what you like, to wear what you like and so on. On the workshop I spoke about freedom from. Freedom from fear, from tension, from stress, from negativity. Understanding the process of relaxation is a major part of learning to let these things go.
Watching Vladimir up close recently, it was apparent to me just how relaxed his movement is. That doesn’t mean he is a limp noodle, though he can be if required. It means that his mind is uncluttered by fear, allowing his body to move not only naturally but precisely and just as required “in the moment.” Mikhail even more so, of course. At that level the work is looks deceptively easy, so it’s really no wonder it confuses or angers people used to the “flash bang” of extreme tension and overt display of technique. The upside of the Systema approach is that our training not only makes us stronger, it makes us healthier, too. Everyone claims that for their art, but I’ve experienced nothing that delivers as quickly or as deeply as Systema.
This area of work will be the major theme of our 2019 Autumn Camp. Participants will be taken on a journey from shallow to deeper levels of relaxation, into expansion of awareness and, most importantly, how to then link the internal state to the external situation. We have an experienced team lined up to help you through the process and will be working in a beautiful rural environment, the perfect setting for this kind of work. I hope you can join us!