System? What System?

· 1146 words · about 6 minutes

First published 2008

I recently saw a comment on one of the multitude of martial arts forums that caught my eye:"How can they call it the System when it doesn't have one?"

It caught my eye as it illustrates perfectly how on first glance Systema can confuse or puzzle. I'm guessing that the author of the statement practices what have become known as "traditional martial arts" or TMA. This is one way that martial art styles are classified these days. Generally the other two ways are MMA (mixed martial arts or sports martial arts) and RBSD (reality based self defence).

For those for whom classification is an important issue these labels provide a convenient short-hand for telling other people what it is you do for 3 nights a week. Like any classification they tend to blur at the edges when scrutinised more closely, but that's perhaps the subject for another article .

Back to the System. I would hazard a guess that the author of the above comment was a TMA practitioner - I guess the "big three" TMA's are karate, tae kwon do and the various forms of Chinese kung fu.

Typically each of these arts encompasses a body of knowledge taught in a particular method and sequence. This may encompass empty hand work, weapons training, meditation, and so on. The student starts at base level, learning particular stances and techniques and then develops in a set progression through the ranks. In other words you can see a clearly defined "system". Furthermore, each style has its own methods, techniques, strategies, postures. In this way we can distinguish between, say, Wing Chun and Shotokan.

Learning each system involves conforming to the dictates of the style. The long, sweeping arm movements of one style might be considered anathema by the tight, in close movements of another. Students can gauge their progress by how closely they conform to the requirements of the style.

Such a person might look at a clip of a Systema mass attack drill and find it hard to perceive any notion of style or technique in the movement. - they might say it looks "just like a brawl". In some ways they would be quite right - as far as Systema goes, techniques do not define the art. Ironically an RBSD student might look at some training clips and see only slow movement, perceived lack of aggression and intent and find it hard to imagine such an approach being effective.

Interestingly we have TMA people training with us who cite the freedom of expression within Systema as one of its main attractions. We also have professionals training with us who cite Systema's training methods as being of real benefit in their "real life" work.


The answer is that the person is the system.

Human beings consist of the following:

1. Nervous System

2. Cardiovascular System

3. Respiratory System

4. Genito-urinary System

5. Digestive System

6. Lymphatic/immune System

7. Muscular-skeletal System

In addition we might be said to possess physical, psychological and spiritual aspects to our make up. Training in Systema is designed to work on and through each and every of these systems. Frequently an exercise might work on several at once. Even a simple push-up, performed in a particular way with certain breathing patterns can be working on the respiratory, muscular and psychological systems simultaneously. Systema is designed to bring you personally an awareness of all of these areas - their strengths and weaknesses.

As Vladimir describes, this is also why Systema can be described as “poznai sebia” or “Know Yourself”. This, on all sorts of levels, promotes our understanding of others. If you can truly understand yourself and others, self defence - or survival - takes on a whole different perspective. Doing what is necessary in any situation becomes clearer. Understanding destroys the two biggest killers - fear and ego.


The answer is simply through constant awareness of what have become known as the "Four Pillars" - breathing, relaxation, posture, movement.

There are a core set of exercises in Systema that provide a foundation of understanding the Four Pillars - the push ups, squats and sit ups. On paper it may sound very similar to what you already know, but there are quite specific methods contained within those simple sounding movements that stretch and challenge beyond what you might expect.

Each drill or situation is a lesson in applying the four pillars. When applied correctly the best and most appropriate response (or technique) will naturally happen. This means you learn to deal with what is actually happening rather than what you would like to happen. The response fits to the moment rather than trying to fit the moment to the technique. Once you have your basic response it can be built upon, refined and tested under increasing amounts of pressure. For an idea of training progression see my article on Links in the Chain


There may be an element of technical knowledge necessary to apply work - for example if you want to know how to choke someone you need to know the correct place to apply pressure. However there may be 50 different situations before you even get to that position. Are you standing, seated, in a confined space, drunk, tired, cold - so many variables. Systema drills are designed to explore as many different situations as possible. Creativity is encouraged. There is no perfect technique, just what works and what doesn't. If it does work, can it be made to work better?

It is the instructor’s job to provide meaningful situations for the student to respond to. This may apply as much to a ground fighting drill as to a question regarding an aspect of a person's lifestyle. Everything is an opportunity to learn. But we are often lazy - it's easy to stay with what is comfortable. Our instructors and colleagues are always there to assist, be it with a word, a push, a hug or a whack with a stick!

The beauty of Systema is that the body of knowledge within it increases with every generation. Different needs bring new problems and new answers. Having said that, fundamentally many of the problems today are the same as a thousand years ago, and here we can look to the spiritual roots of Systema for guidance.

Maintaining the approach of individuality and creativity means that Systema will not become a museum piece or an exercise in art for arts sake, as worthy as those goals may be. At the same time it gives us an avenue to explore our cultural roots and hopefully brings us a respect for traditions and an appreciation of the fact that we "stand on the shoulders of giants".