Kwan Lee Amsterdam 2015: increasing depth

Training Systema can be a little bit overwhelming. It has so many layers and so much depth that each time you learn one thing, it will enable you to see many more new things that you still need to develop. In some ways this can be demotivating, but I find it one of the biggest advantages of training and teaching Systema. There is always plenty of opportunity to work on yourself and many different ways to do this. This gives everybody the chance to find there own way in Systema. And most Systema instructors off course keep developing as well. This makes that seminars, especially by top instructors, never get boring. Even if you have trained with them before, both teacher and student usually have changed, so the teacher can show new things and the student has developed the ability to see new things.
For me this was certainly the case with Kwan Lee’s seminar. The previous seminar of Kwan I was able to attend is already a couple of years ago. In that time I was struggling to recognize the connection between all the different exercises in seminars. For example between the physical ‘fitness’ exercises and the partner work. During Kwan’s previous seminar in the Netherlands I certainly learned a lot and had a good time, but I am quite sure this time around I was better equipped to appreciate the depth of Kwan’s seminar.

So what about this seminar? For me the seminar was mostly about agency and control, how this translates to Systema and how you can train this.
During the seminar Kwan showed a lot of physical drills to improve mobility and control of the body, such as joint mobility and how to use the structure of your body in your movements. These drills translated for example in dealing with punches against the wall where due to lack of space the ability to move ‘within’ your own body becomes more important. Or in using the wall as a tool to create force and/or momentum when you have your back against it.
We did several drills where we practiced dealing with both the physical and mental side of impact. Stepping on each other, using the breath to deal with impact, dealing with impact during breath holds or on the in breath. During all the exercises Kwan emphasized the importance of observing yourself: what happens with your body, what happens with your mind, are you able to stay in contact with the situation, are you not ‘checking out’.
The third main point I was able to follow concerned working with your ‘opponent’ by properly seeing him or her. We did several interesting exercises on this topic, but my favorite one was copying the movements and the walk of your partner. For me it really made my own ability to see another persons posture/tensions/attitude really clear, whereas before I was much less conscious of this.
In the end these three points culminated on the Sunday afternoon in ‘practical’ exercises with legwork and punches. This was off course the moment where it got really difficult (not that the rest was easy 🙂  ). Even when only in exercise we (or just me) lose all lessons learned so easily. Anger, fear, ambition come to take over and agency and control slip away. Nevertheless the positive atmosphere and good training partners created the possibility to reset and try again.

In short: a very good and instructive seminar. Many thanks to the organizers Patrick, Vivian and Gertjan, to the other participants and of course to Kwan!

Beginnings or how Systema helpt

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.”
– Gospel of Thomas –

“When I want to learn some self-defence, what martial art should I do?” I ask my brother who has some experience in the field. “Systema” is his immediate and certain answer.
His attempt at explaining what Systema is gets stuck on my lack of knowledge of any martial art, but his conviction that this would be the right thing for me to do is enough for me. In certain things I believe his judgement is very accurate.
I am lucky enough to live in a city with two different places to train Systema; with the student martial-art association and with a non-profit organisation offering sports ‘for all’ that has something like a dojo in the basement. Already doing fitness there I noticed the small, somewhat vague, poster inviting people to join the self-study group in the basement. Even though somewhat hampered by an unexpected familiarity with one of the trainers, my hesitation to go was overcome by something else and despite some awkward moments I found myself feeling all right in the group.

Without going into to much detail it will suffice to notice that at that time certain things were getting me down. I used to do a lot of climbing, but throwing all my spare time and money into it became somewhat unsatisfactory. My decision to focus on my studies and quit working for a while left me feeling useless. A bad relationship with my (ex)partner and my parents left me feeling alone. I felt miserable and knowing the circumstances I felt justified. Keeping friends at a safe distance I was able to keep this misery up. Convinced that I needed a ‘new’ start I started planning a world trip, solo. For which I though it would be sensible to learn some self-defence.

Enter Systema.

I had no intention of learning any more than some self-defence, but soon got more than I bargained for.
One of my favourite Systema-work was and is punching. However training to hit and get hit is something very intimate. A lot of trust is asked and given and as such certain physical and some emotional intimacy is impossible to evade. To me, the comfort this contact offered was a surprise. Giving emotional trust and finding it not being damaged was practicing something I had become too afraid to do in ‘normal’ life. Though it was not that clear to me at the time why, I think this kept me coming back.

Things changed after my first seminar, March 2009 Kortrijk, Vladimir. I have honestly no idea what exactly changed. All I remember of the seminar was my feeling of lack of understanding, which might have been the exact reason for my enthusiasm. Something was going on here and I had no idea what.
I increased the frequency of my training, but to no avail. I felt clumsy, did not know what to do in many situations and felt I was disappointing my trainers. I did not understand what was expected or what I was doing wrong and the only thing I seemed to have some talent for was landing a punch.
In the rest of my life I felt stuck as well. Finding myself less and less able to focus on my studies and more and more involved in family crises, I found my general state of misery more and more justified.
At this time we were training with sticks. For me for the first time and to my own surprise, I seemed to have some natural talent for it. During the training I overheared one of the trainers talking to another student. “That your ankle hurts or is pinned down does not mean you cannot move the rest of your body.” I turn my head and see the student lying there convinced he is unable to move, while all that is stuck is his ankle. “But it really hurts” is his reply to the trainer. Suddenly a thought arises. ‘That I am in emotional pain in some area, does not mean I can’t move anything else.’

Something became unstuck, the all out misery suddenly did not seem justified anymore and in stead of seeing myself as held down by circumstances I figured that there must still be some place in which I can move.
And in practicing Systema I obviously already wás moving, though I only realize that now, writing it down.

More seminars followed. A weekend outside with Sergei Ozhereliev outside near Berlin and a week in the French Jura with Maxim Franz made me realize more and more the importance of a ‘neutral’ attitude in conflicts. “A good punch has no personality” as Max told us during the week. Not wanting more than what needs to be done in any situation and especially not caring about what others think made Systema training and life easier to handle. More and more I began to see the phrase “don’t feel sorry for yourself’ not as an incentive to never give up, but as an incentive to leave my ego out of whatever has to be done.

By the end of September I left for a year studies in London. After the summer-seminar I got determined to ‘get good’ at Systema and as such started training in London 3-4 times a week. Nevertheless my determination and hard work did not seem to have helped me very much when I meet my Systema friends from back home in November in Bern during a seminar with Vladimir.
This relative lack of improvement does not ring a bell and since I was hoping to teach Systema myself one day, having been a climber instructor for a long time and always having enjoyed it very much, I go back to London even more determined to improve my skills.
During the weekend in Berlin however I begin running a low fever that will last for almost five months, accompanied by increasing physical and mental fatigue all I seem to be able to do at a certain point was sleep and study. Obviously this meant no physical training.
It also meant all the more mental training. I had to let go of all non-study related activities, where I tend to be a person that finds it hard to give up. I had to see how long I could study without taking a nap, where I am a person that likes to work by schedule. I had to let go of many wants and expectations and as such in a sense of myself. I found that sometimes ‘not feeling sorry for yourself’ means giving up what you were doing and not holding onto it.

A changed attitude towards mostly myself clearly helped me while I was ill, but to my surprise when again in Kortrijk, March 2010 with the Twins, hardly having done any physical Systema training, my practice seemed to have improved a lot. More importantly I found myself less eager and having more fun at the seminar.
Back in London, having improved physically enough to start training again I decide to take my time for my final exams, only starting training again when I am back home in mid-June, where a summer of thesis-writing awaits me.

First however the summer kicks of with a Seminar with Kwan Lee in Meppel, where again I notice that my practice has improved though I have hardly done any training. After this seminar I start writing my thesis. Sitting behind my desk all day, being back home, being confronted again with old problems and conflicts and practically living of my boyfriend seem to get the better of me and I realize I still have a lot of work to do. In the one week between handing in my thesis and leaving on a two week holiday beginning with a seminar in Kortrijk with Konstantin Komarov, I find myself in the middle of several difficult issues that seem to be pushing me just a bit further than I thought I would be able to take.

But apparently I thought wrong, breathing, being angry, but mostly not acting on it, being hurt, but remaining open and wanting to leave but staying, I manage to make it till the end of the week and find myself sitting on the floor listening to Komarov. “Don’t hook on other people, make your own plans.”

Unashamed to say, I cried.

This was originally posted on the now gone Systema forum of the website.