Finding tension and using it: Mikhail and Vladimir in Bonn

DemoOne of the things that I am sure you will recognize if you have been training Systema for a longer time is that ‘owwww thát’s what they have been trying to tell me all those years’ feeling. On the one hand it can be annoying and leave you feeling incompetent. A more positive view is that things that you learn after a lot of work will not leave easily and I would say that I was blessed this seminar to have this that’s-what-they-have-been-trying-to-tell-me feeling.

So what was it that Mikhail and Vladimir were teaching Bonn that I so skilfully had managed not to get for almost ten years? Finding tension and using it.

When beginning with Systema its very difficult to get what anyone means when they say you have to be relaxed. Because obviously (and as Vlad sometimes points out) you can only be completely relaxed when you are dead.

How relaxed should I be? At least relaxed enough to have freedom of movement, at least relaxed enough to be able to sense the other person, at least relaxed enough to keep a calm, neutral and open state of mind.

What should I try to do when someone attacks me? To make them tense enough to block their freedom of movement, to make them tense enough that they are not able to sense me properly anymore and make them tense enough to make them take their focus from me to themselves.

Both keeping your own calm and giving another person the right amount of tension is no easy task, one of which I would say I am happy if I manage this once in a thousand times. During this seminar however the buildup Mikhail and Vladimir used made these things somewhat within my grasp for the first time.

So what did they show exactly? How a minute change in posture, position or mental focus can create tension with the other person and how to use this while ideally removing tension within yourself. They showed it with grabs, with pushes, with punches, in groups (nearly impossible) and with knife.

And amazingly during this seminar happened what I knew must be possible but was never really able to believe: I (168 cm, 65 kg) was able to handle some big strong guys effortlessly even when they were using strength. And, off course, some absolutely not 🙂 .

Unfortunately as with many things in life, telling you won’t proof anything. All I can do is to encourage you to train, have faith and fun. It will pay off one day.

Instructors: Mikhail Ryabko and Vladimir Vasiliev
Organizers: Systema Bonn

Dinner Bonn

Finding faith and firm ground: Twins in Amsterdam

Only having two days of training is already a great opportunity to have good focus and time for Systema. A four day seminar offers the opportunity to go even deeper. But only if you dare….

Going deeper not just means going deeper physically, but also mentally. Not that a seminar is some kind of confrontational soul searching exercise, but I found with myself usually that a block in progress in Systema was more a mental thing than a physical thing. And if you are prepared to look at what is holding you back mentally and deal with it, you might find yourself making sudden physical progress as well.

This however was not the subject of the seminar, which was ‘Dynamic power’. Unfortunately as with my last post, I started writing this way to late so many of the details have escaped me (I will make more effort to write sooner), so I will not be able to bore you with all the details. A general description would be how to generate powerful action, while remaining mobile in the sense of actually moving or being able to move.

This is one of the interesting parts of Systema: generating power while being mobile means you are by definition limited in the use of your body for the generation of the power. So for maximum mobility the power preferably comes just from the part of your body you are using for the contact without hindering the motion in the rest of your body. Anybody ever having tried this can tell you this is hard even doing each element separately.

As such the Twins had arranged for a full four days with exercises focusing on generating power from the part of your body you are working with, on mobility and obviously a combination of the two. As with all Systema work, this requires tension and relaxation in the right places and to be able to do that requires some faith.

Working as a climbing instructor (already more than a decade ago) you see the same thing. Fear of falling, lack of confidence of being able to do something will create tension, which will make it harder to move and will make you tire much faster. So on the one hand you need some faith to work to the best of your abilities, on the other hand it is still the case that you might fail. For this you need firm ground. In climbing you are secured by a rope (though there are people who like to climb without), in Systema you have your training partners and your instructors. However as with climbing,  where some people still have a hard time falling in the ropes, in Systema people can have a hard time trusting the firm ground of their instructors and training partners. This combination of not having faith in your own abilities and not being able to use the firm ground makes training a lot more difficult than necessary and it has made my training a lot more difficult than necessary.

And at some point, while training with a good friend, Adam approaches us and points out to me that I should occupy the whole space I am working in, not just the part where ‘I’ am at (though I do not remember the exact words). This triggered a feeling which in turn triggered a shift in attitude towards myself and my training partner and the instructors. I felt that I was able to do the work and supported by my training partners and instructors, while at the same time paradoxically emphasizing that I had not had this kind of faith and firm ground before.

Obviously after having this feeling for the duration of one exercise, I lost it completely in another. But I have no doubt I am able to get there again.

Instructors: Adam and Brendon Zettler

Organizers: Systema Amsterdam


Benevolent work: Gene Smithson in Kortrijk

Warning: this posts contains hippie-ish content and might cause anxiety and distress for the more serious Systema practitioner.

Now I am a bit late writing this review. Three months after the fact I hardly remember any details of a seminar. But, to be honest, I don’t believe really believe I have to remember all the details of a seminar: my body and spirit should. And they are in general quite amazing at that, as long as my mind doesn’t hold them back. It is exactly in this area where Gene’s seminar in focused on. So I will refrain from giving you a list of details I admittedly would not be able to give you anyway and focus on what I consider to be the important part of the seminar.

So what did linger and is still present three months later? Benevolent work.

To some benevolent work might sound a bit contradictory to doing martial arts. And even though I think it is not the most important: I’ll start with giving some reasons why training in benevolent work is going to help you be a better fighter.

So to do proper benevolent work, your physical and mental skill will have to be better than when you do non-benevolent work.
Physically it is easier to do non-benevolent work. Break a knee, crush a skull, do some other irreversible damage. Controlling people without breaking them however requires a lot more Systema skill and insight. So if you want to get better from a physical point of view, you better train to do benevolent work.
Besides proper physical skills, you will need excellent control of your psyche. Getting upset, angry, vindictive et cetera will make it difficult to do benevolent work. But again not just benevolent work will benefit from a calm psyche, any work will improve from a calm psyche.

Gene’s build-up was (besides having ample attention for the physical) mainly aimed at learning to keep a calm psyche regardless of what we were doing. Most interesting were the group exercises with tennis balls. Walking with the balls, passing them to others without dropping them while knowing that at some point a signal will turn all the possessors of tennis balls in crowd-stabbing attackers makes for a very testing environment for a calm psyche.

In the end however what I found to be the basis for proper benevolent work is in the spirit (or however you wish to name it). A conviction to have your action come from a place that wishes even your attackers well without becoming a victim. This state of mind is already difficult to maintain while training with a partner. Let alone in real life situations, for example when working with your colleagues. But this is where the true value of benevolent work and many other aspects of Systema lies for me: in everyday interaction.

Instructor: Gene Smithson
Organizors: Systema Belgium

Arend Dubbelboer, summercamp 2016, a review

“Obey gravity, it is the law”

For me this seminar in the woods of Drenthe was all about working with the centre of gravity, helped enormously by great food, prepared by Marga and Odile, and by the company of a group of dedicated practitioners, from all over the country, and abroad.

In previous seminars Arend taught, explained and showed this work, but it somehow eluded me. So it remained a rather abstract subject I could not use very well in training or daily life. Except for walking that is. Except for walking. Because, as Arend explained: you cannot go anywhere if you don’t move your centre of gravity far enough in the direction you want to go, or when you try to stay balanced all the time.

So this is what we did: we walked, bringing our centre of gravity forward, learning how to move from there. We walked while holding dumbbells, and punched our friends with them, allowing the weight of the dumbbell to do its job. We walked while holding shovels, moving around by bringing the shovel in the desired direction.

This may sounds rather abstract, but the thing is: if you know how to put your weight in your shovel, you can start put your weight in other things, like knives or fists. So now your blade becomes ‘alive’, and your fist feels heavy.

It also means that you learn how to start your movement with fist or weapon, instead of other parts of your body, like your feet, your hips, or –  shudder – with your shoulders. George Silver (ca. 1550-1620) called this principle ‘moving in true times’, and it is essential for any kind of effective weapons work.

You also start to see how you are very often stabilizing the other person, by adding your own weight (or ‘density’, or ‘attention’) to the other person’s centre of gravity, either in a psychological or physical sense. You realise that if you try to stay balanced all the time, (usually by moving forward and backward at the same time), you might give the other person ‘support’, something to lean on, preventing him from falling down.

So this is what we did mainly on friday and saturday. Working with these concepts, trying to apply them while breaking structure, escaping from grabs, doing teamwork and working with punches and kicks.

Sunday was weapons day. We worked with shovels, sticks and knifes, and learned how to make use of the environment. The previous lessons deepened the weapons work, which apparently is not just  about slashing and stabbing, but is also about using deception, about trapping attention, while cutting or stabbing at the same time.

Because, when you bring weight (or ‘density’) to your weapons, tools, or fists, something happens with the attention of your opponent. And you can learn how to use this. Sounds like fun to me.

Instructor and organizer: Arend Dubbelboer

Through the looking glass: organizing the Twins in Groningen 23,24 January

This time a blogpost about a seminar from a different perspective: organizing.

We had been playing with the idea already for some time: organizing a seminar ourselves. It only seemed fair after having been participants so often. Some deliberation and weighing of the pros and cons (of about 1,5 year) later we decided to go ahead. After all, in itself organizing a seminar seems simple enough.

  1. Get instructor
  2. Get date
  3. Get gym
  4. Get participants
  5. Make sure people know stuff

1. Get instructor
There are many good instructors in Systema, even if you stick to one style. Nevertheless, we managed to make a choice, although we did not manage to keep it to one. We did consider inviting just one twin but we could not bare to break them up. So both Twins it was.

2. Get date
Getting a date should not be too difficult, but with all the European seminars it takes some planning. First of all we wanted to be on time, secondly we did not want to interfere with other seminars. As the spring and autumn tend to be the busiest times we decided winter was a good idea. After almost picking the same weekend as Eurosonic (huge music festival in Groningen) we decided on 23-24 January. This was an excellent date, even though it meant I worried from the start about winter weather making it impossible to let the plane take off, land or to pick up the Twins from Schiphol. And not without reason. Two weeks before the seminar the north of the Netherlands froze over. No trains going, ice rain in the North, negative advice to go on the roads. I was already imagining planes iced over and unable to come or go. In the end all that went wrong was that we had the wrong landing times and while the Twins were already landing in Schiphol we were still two hours away drinking tea at my parents’……

3. Get gym
One might think getting a gym 9 months in advance should not be too much of a problem, as it is enough time to get pregnant and deliver the baby in that period. I guess it is very much dependent on the country and place, in Groningen there are really only two places to rent a gym. The university sportscentre (in June): “I don’t know yet, maybe you can contact us again in October”. And the municipality: “What did you mean exactly with the whole day? Doesn’t really matter, it will be from 12.30.” All said and done we started on 12.45 on Saturday, which in the end wasn’t so bad after all.

4. Get participants
Now this is really the hard part. When I started to do Systema, to have two seminars in reasonable close distance a year was quite a lot. Nowadays me and Bart don’t have proper holidays because we spent all our money on seminars (and even though we are not rich, we have more than enough money).

So how to get a lot of participants if there is so much choice? Just ask people….. a lot….. and then remind them that they said they would come…. and again. And we had a lot of help with the promotion from a lot of people. I guess it helps being a funny Systema couple as well ;).

Nevertheless, you won’t know if you’ll have enough participants until you have them. In this case we got them plus a little extra.

5. Make sure people know stuff
The one warning I got from other people organizing seminars is that you spent a lot of time answering questions, so I figured making sure people are well informed would be worth the trouble. Homepage, newsletters, confirmation mails et cetera. As we received only few questions, I guess it was effective.So was it worth the troubles and the worries? Definitely! The seminar was really good, we had lot of enthusiastic reactions and all that’s left to do is sorting the 1500 pictures……Big thanks to the Adam and Brendon for the excellent seminar, to all the participant for coming and Guido and Ritzo for helping out!!!

‘Natural born heroes’ by Christopher McDougall

I have been trying to be a runner since my early teens. Without proper training and with lots of injuries I never managed to build up the length of my runs. Until I read Christopher McDougall book ‘Born to run’. One of the best adventure stories I ever read and it really made me want to run even more. In addition to the inspiration and entertainment it also gave a glimpse at a different way of running. So I started running again, so far with success. And now the new book by McDougall ‘Natural born heroes’ arrived. So why should Systema practitioners read this book?

First of all because it is a good read. Second because of the subject. Where I had expected it to be a book about running it is a book about being self sufficient. Not so much in the sense of ‘how to survive the zombie Apocalypse’ but more in the sense of knowing how your body works and what it will be able to do if complemented with the proper mindset.
All this is woven through the story about the Cretans and the British sabotaging the Germans during the WOII occupation of Crete. A nice surprise were the sections about Fairbairn and Sykes teaching the British special agents. It reminded me so much of Konstantin Komarov’s training I could imagine him walking in on the scene.
Even though the resistance story is a big part of the book, it is not what the book is about. It’s about what it takes to be a hero. According to McDougall the ancient Greeks considered this simply a set of skills anybody can attain, so he sets out to find out what it is.
McDougall emphasizes heroes need the right mindset and the right physical skills. He does not give clear lists and descriptions of what these might be, but he describes his own adventures trying to find the answer to what this mindset and physical skills might be. So he shares his interview with a grade school principal who has successfully defended herself against the attack of psychotic man with a machete, the creative tricks of the heroes in Greek myths, his own Parcours lessons and his switch to ‘fat as fuel’.

What does it take to be a hero? Just summing up McDougalls findings would not really honour the book and the way it is written, so I can only recommend you read the book yourself. Even if you have your own thoughts on the subjects, you will have a good read about the Crete resistance and sneeky British warfare tactics during WOII.

Maxim Franz Kortrijk 2015: making the connection

Over the years I’ve been at at least six seminars of Maxim Franz, plus at some classes by Maxim at headquarters. And it never get’s boring. Partly because of his dry humor, but mostly because of the excellent build-up of the training, good feedback and skilled demonstrations. This time was no exception.

From my perspective this seminar was mostly about  making connections: with your attacker, but also between yourself. Through these connections Maxim was giving insight in the thing that seems to come so effortless to him: attacking (or defending) from any movement or action.

As usual, Maxim started us at the basics and slowly moved us towards more complicated drills. For example, we started with pushing the whole person from good posture and working from the movement of your partner. From there the ‘defending’ got more active by showing a shoulder for attack and controlling distance by using good footwork. On Sunday knife work was added while trying to hold on all that was learned on Friday and Saturday. Such as ‘harmonizing’ your footwork with your partner’s movement, your arms with his or her attack and make sure your arms, legs and the rest of your body stay connected to itself. And don’t forget to catch the whole person.

The most important insight for me personally was to drop the distinction between ‘attack’ and ‘defense’ and instead to focus on connection with the other person(s) and honestly work with them in more or less friendly ways.

Combat trauma emergency medical course part two: up close and personal

So why would anyone spent a free weekend pretending to be in very bad situations that you know you are poorly prepared for?
To learn deal with bad situations that you are poorly prepared for. And to gain some preparation.

Now I am not a person to worry a lot about bad things that might happen. I do believe however that it is important to prepare yourself for things that might happen and not pretend that emergency services will always be there to help you.

So not even a year after we attended the first combat trauma emergency medical course in Belgium, we came back. Part two was only accessible for people who participated in one of the previous seminars, which made it possible to progress beyond the first weekend with tactics, triage and additional exercises under stress. Like last time we were very lucky to receive instructions from two instructors who are both skilled and knowledgeable on the subjects taught: Jeffrey Hensley (who was there last year as well) and Chad Edwards.


The tactical element was an important addition to the previous weekend and even though a weekend is very short, it was long enough to get some important things clear, such as:

  • how to pie corners more safely
  • doorways are dangerous places
  • concealment vs cover

And probably most importantly: clearing buildings of victims with active shooters without getting shot is really really difficult.


We spend the whole weekend rehearsing medical things we learned last year, one additional aspect we trained was triage. Quickly deciding who needs what treatment for now and when done start again. This connected closely to something Jeff emphasized both this year and last year. First you’re fighting for seconds, then minutes, then hours. So in triage you determine who needs help now (seconds), who can wait a while (minutes or hours or longer) and who will not benefit from help at all anymore. Especially for this part the extensive knowledge and experience on Jeff’s and Chad’s part was extremely helpful. Even though they were clear there are no black and white answers, they were able to describe how certain symptoms develop, explain why certain things might need attention sooner than others and how they would judge certain situations.

Up close and personal

Maybe the most important part of the seminar for me were the additional exercises under stress. We did get a better handle on the medical side of things and we developed more routine with the ‘blood sweep/weapons search’. Most stressful however were the closing exercises simulating a home invasion in a no-win scenario, where you feel the frustration of trying to control damage dealing with a person who has opposite intentions.

So what has been learned?

Know what is precious enough to fight for, and know what is not.
Some knowledge, some equipment and a good head on your shoulders goes a long way.
Don’t linger in doorways.

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!

Train like you mean it!

Doing serious training can be hard. Especially when you’re tired, your training partner is being an ass or the instructor is just not giving you the right instructions. Unfortunately, you’re in a Systema class and even more than in technique based martial arts: if you want to train well, you’ll have to do it yourself. Better train like you mean it!

It can be difficult though to know how to train, especially when you are only just starting in Systema. Also I notice quite often that people who train for a longer time get too comfortable and stop improving. So here are some pointers.

First of all it is important to realize how to do partner exercises in Systema.

  1. The speed is often deliberately slow. Make sure you keep the same speed as your partner. If he or she is going too fast or too slow, ask them to adapt. Remember however that the speed in which you train also determines what you are training (see below).
  2.  Ask questions when something is not clear.
  3. Give your partner what he or she needs to improve. Sometimes this means more speed/punches/pressure (when someone is getting comfortable), sometimes it means less. Be sensitive! Plus you can always ask the person.

Another big thing is that it is important that you actually try to do the exercise. This is especially the case when you already have a lot of experience in other martial arts. I know it feels much nicer to do something that you are able to do. However, the fact that you cannot make something happen right away does not mean that the instructor gave the wrong exercise. Again, ask for clarification when you don’t get the excercise.

To make real progress, you have to be able to observe yourself. When you are able to do this from the start, you should. When this is overwhelming at first, train for a while and try it again.

  1. The Systema basics (breathing, posture, movement and relaxation) can be explicitly integrated in class, but even if they are not you should observe whether you are able to realize them in the exercises.
  2. Ideally you remain emotionally neutral during training. This is obviously extremely difficult, so it is easier to start with observing what emotions arise when you work. I find fear, anger, frustration, self pity and enthusiasm most common. The last in particular is often not recognized as having a negative effect on training. Training should be fun right? No. It is nice when it is, but it does not have to be fun. Especially not when this means you get carried away.
  3. When you are training for some time, it is good to pick a personal learning point, which you can focus on for a longer time. For example posture or breathing. Ideally you focus on this point not only during training, but also in daily life.

Hopefully after a while you find that you are getting the hang of things. The training is less confrontational, you feel more comfortable and are having fun. Make things more difficult for yourself! Or as a Tai Chi master said: invest in loss. Try things you find difficult, find out new things and work with people who you just don’t like to train with. No doubt you will feel as if you have gotten worse, but in reality you are getting better.

As mentioned above, speed is important in training. When you want to learn and integrate new movements, you have to start slow. When you notice you are unable to observe yourself, you have to work slower. Speed up when you want to test what you are already capable of or when you want to train working under pressure. When you do work fast, take the time to notice the things that are going wrong. As already mentioned,when you are comfortable in a drill: speed it up.


Working towards practical application. It is very important to realize training is never what it will be like in ‘real life’. It can help increase your chances of survival or help to get less serious injuries but it will not be the same. If you want realistic training, you should try to get robbed, assaulted or harassed. Nevertheless there are ways to make training less unrealistic. Obviously there are things like speed, multiple opponents and working from the ground. More subtle, but more important maybe is having your partner point out openings. I don’t mean hitting and kicking you whenever they have the chance, but pointing out the possibilities they have to counter.

When you feel like it (and your instructor agrees it is a good idea), you can try doing an exercise while your partner actually does ‘counter’ you when they can. Again, start slow and remain observant of what is not working.

Finally and maybe a little strange after all the previous points. You should not think too much during exercises. Observe yourself, analyze after the exercise, but try to feel the solutions not think them out. In the end you want to teach you body what to do.

Maybe these are a lot of points and I suspect they are not complete. I can guarantee that if you are able to take this with you in training, you’ll learn at least twice as much in the same time. It does take a little more effort though.