Improving the body, mind and spirit through fighting
So you want to become more relaxed, but yoga isn’t your style? The Russian martial art of systema might be right for you. Systema has a strong military background and is the style used by some special operation units. As a civilian practice, systema does not strictly cover hand-to-hand combat but combines elements of martial arts, self-defence and relaxation.
Gilbert Desrosiers, a Calgary practitioner of systema, says that the practice is a combat survival system aimed at surviving real-life encounters.
“It is made for any situation, anywhere, against one or multiple opponents with weapons involved or not,” Desrosiers says.
Desrosiers says that breathing is basic to systema because in order to survive a fight or deal with a stressful situation, breathing allows a person to perform the necessary movements. In a stressful situation a person naturally reacts by becoming tense.
Photo by Evan Manconi
“A car cuts in front of you and you feel that adrenaline rush come in, and you feel that metallic taste of adrenaline and you don’t know how to deal with it. Breathing is how you deal with it,” Desrosiers says.
To train the body to remain relaxed, systema incorporates breathing into every exercise, similar to yoga. Unlike a yoga class, however, the students of systema practice these breathing techniques while punching each other. The person delivering the punch breathes while performing the movement and the person receiving the punch uses breathing to dissipate the force. Desrosiers says that instead of always relying on the reflex of inhaling then exhaling through the movement, the goal is to maintain continuous breathing.
“What you want is to have your breathing be completely natural through all the movements, whether it is a takedown, a punch or kick,” he says.
The internal state
What about systema causes people to voluntarily get punched by Russians?
Systema focuses on real-life situations and in a fight on the street there are no rules. Desrosiers says that if a person isn’t mentally ready then the body won’t be able to act accordingly. In systema, the people learn how to control their internal state while learning methods of self-defence that could be used in a real-life encounter.
Phil Swann has been doing systema steady for eight months and he says that systema is all about being able to stay calm in a high-stress environment. There is one exercise where a student is blindfolded and two other students punch and kick them. The attacks are meant to annoy more than hurt while the blindfold disorients and adds to the anxiety. The point of the exercise is to create a high stress environment inside the class so that the students can practice the breathing and relaxation techniques as if in a real-life stressful encounter.
“If you can stay calm with what’s going on in the class you can easily stay calm with some drunk guy in the bar,” says Swann.
Photo courtesy of Colin McHattie Dmitry Grygoryev, Swann and Desrosiers’ instructor, says that when people get punched, they tend to become aggressive because of the tension held within their body. He teaches students to regulate their internal state through breathing. He says that through proper breathing, the internal pressure is released and the person can maintain a neutral state.
This relaxation technique is not only used to control oneself but also extends to the hypothetical opponent.
Grygoryev says that he prefers to use what he calls a “neutral punch” to stop a fight. In contrast he says that the other type of punch is an aggressive punch. This type of punch is tense, causes sharp pain and creates aggression. A neutral punch is a punch delivered while being completely relaxed, with no emotion or aggression. He says the goal of the neutral punch is to stop the opponent without adding more aggression to the situation.
It is a way to apply the necessary force to defend oneself while also de-escalating the situation, he suggests.
“After a neutral punch, usually people don’t want to fight after that,” Grygoryev maintains. “You don’t fight yourself; you don’t fight with your opponent. The best way to win the battle is not to fight.”
Practitioner Desrosiers says that when in a conflict, it is best not to bring in emotion. Instead of adding to the problem, it is best to work with the opponent, he suggests.
Desrosiers says: “Just do the work, do what you have to do, work with that other person. That person has a problem—you have to find a solution to their problem.”
What does systema offer
Swann says that since starting systema, he’s found he’s become more physically fit and also much more relaxed.
“Even in a driving situation, where you’re driving down the road and somebody is cutting you off, I find I can breathe better and I just relax more,” Swann says.
Grygoryev says that systema provides the students with practical survival skills that not only allow a person to survive a violent encounter but also compliment regular life. The movements and breathing taught in systema can also be used in everyday situations to avoid injuries, he says.
Desrosiers adds, “It’s a survival system for every struggle and the biggest struggle is life.”
Systema classes in Calgary are held at the Cedarbrae Community Center, Mondays and Wednesdays from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. There is a $100 monthly membership fee with a minimum three-month membership. To try out the class trial and drop-in classes are $15.
What is your opinion of using the Russian martial art of systema as form of relaxation? Please share your comments below.