Chains, joint breaks and knifes: The Twins in Kortrijk 2015

Age off course is a relative thing and it does not take too much to be considered young in the Systema community (hair for example). Adam and Brendan Zettler, ‘the Twins’, prove however that you don’t necessarily have to be over forty or even thirty to be an excellent teacher.

They checked off an impressive list of topics (combative body, joint breaks on the move, multiple opponents, chains and knife). Starting with basic work in each topic, working towards work with more speed and pressure. Through the different topics, the Twins showed a clear thread in putting focus on how to move the body and continuous movement when working.This solid base was complemented with good action demo’s, where willing victims were sacrificed voluntarily for our greater good.

For me personally its nice that six years after my first seminar (Vlad Kortrijk 2009) I finally have the feeling that I’ve learned enough basics to do some proper training. And I will be very happy to see the Twins in Groningen, the Netherlands 23-24 January 2016.

Back to basics or walking backwards

Sometimes doing Systema feels like taking one step forward and two steps back. I feel like this especially during the ‘know yourself’ seminars series of Arend Dubbelboer. During the excellent seminars Arend offers new insight in the ‘basics’ of Systema, leaving me and some other participants asking ourselves if we will ever get this down.

I started wondering whether this was something specific for Systema, this process of returning to the basics and finding out you still don’t master them. Those who know me, know I did not do any other martial art before I started Systema, so I am unable to compare. I did do a lot of rock-climbing though and started to wonder if things were the same there.

At first I figured that it wasn’t because my weakest link in climbing was endurance and to some extend strength. When I would look at some other climbers of my level (back then at least) it was clear that most of the men could do with some training to increase their quality of movement, most of the women could do with extra strength. But the interesting thing happens when you look at the climbers who are doing a ‘project’. They pick a route that is just a little bit beyond their capabilities and start training for it. To do this you have to get intimately acquainted with the route and then you need to find a way to do all the moves as efficiently as possible. And that takes you back to basics. Not like the first time when someone explained to you how you should hold your hand or place your foot, but by further exploring the knowledge you already have and integrating it more deeply physically.

Same with Systema. I find it a bit more frustrating then climbing, because it is harder to monitor progress (climbing routes are graded). With Systema it is also easier to fool yourself by compensating with strength and other tricks. So maybe going back to basics might feel like taking two steps back, but if you can walk backwards, I’m sure you’ll do fine walking forwards as well.

Collectors Items

Even though I have heard it many times before, it still surprises me when I hear it again. “No I don’t do any particular style, I just use what is best and mix it all together.” Okay….

Don’t get me wrong, I am not at all against cross-training. Personally I prefer to cross train with non-martial-sports such as climbing, yoga and running (though I do consider the last one excellent self-defense). But I know quite a few people who successfully cross train within martial arts.

And on the one hand Russian Martial Arts seem very suitable for this. They are in general more principal then technique based, not very hierarchical and contain a certain element of ‘realism’.

I would argue however that there is a difference between cross-training and ‘cross-collecting’. A difference between crossing on a solid base of experience in at least one style and crossing while not yet having solid experience in any style.

It surprises and even saddens me that there are people who think that a ‘heavy punch’ is some kind of collectors item that will help you become a better fighter. Even more so when they discard the seemingly ‘soft’ elements like breathing and having a vision on life. Really learning anything means you let it get into your body and mind, during training and during life.

My advice would be: before you cross-train make sure you have good teachers, make sure you have a solid base and make sure you don’t lose depth for width.

Like the Buddhist say: “the great way is not difficult, it just dislikes picking and choosing”.

Working with my psyche: observations after Emmanuel Manolakakis in Kortrijk

Two weeks ago Emmanuel Manolakakis gave a seminar in Kortrijk. During the seminar, Emmanuel used working with weapons as a means to instruct us on a stable psyche.

I used to consider the main cause of disruption of my stable psyche during training irritation with my partners or myself. These days however I can manage this quite well and I rarely loose my calm over these things during training anymore. Nevertheless something was agitating my psyche during the training to such an extend that it was difficult to do certain exercises.

Now obviously fear can play a role during training. The interesting thing I observed is that often it seems to creep up on me. Most of the time it does not fall out of the sky and suddenly leave you unable to do anything. It is more like an ambulance you hear coming from afar that eventually stops next to you. The distant sounds already tend to make slight differences in my work. Even though I was already aware of this, the seminar made me more attentive to it and made it clear that even if the ambulance is only far away, it is already a reason to try to stay calm.

Fear however was also not the most disturbing factor to my psyche during the seminar. So what was it? During one exercise we were working on the ground and when we felt threatened by the other, get our gun without agitating the other person. At a certain point, in stead of getting the gun in a calm fashion, I find my fist in my partners face (sorry Vincent) and hear Emmanuel laugh in the background. “That is the opposite of the exercise.” What happened?

I was not afraid, I was actually having good fun.

One might say it is not possible to have too much fun during training. I think it depends, if you are training as a pass-time maybe not. If you want to learn things, it can. It agitates the psyche and can lure you away from the exercise as much as a competitive training partner can. Am I worried that in a violent situation my psyche will be agitated by ‘having too much fun’? Not really (though they might send you to a mental hospital for it). For me however it was the most important point of ‘psyche-instability’ during the seminar and a good point for practice during training. Practicing with irritation I can do plenty during working ours.

Combat trauma emergency medical course

Last weekend we went to the combat trauma emergency medical course in Kortrijk Belgium.


Here’s a short summary.

Why do you train Systema? I like to be able to defend myself and certain others, not just for the fun of it, but to be able stay alive and as healthy as possible. As such, doing some first aid courses seemed logical. In the Netherlands these are mostly aimed at office environments, with a focus on sprained ankles and heart attacks. These skills are also very useful, but as Jeff and Kirill (instructors) showed us in a time span of two minutes, probably not good enough for more violent conditions.

But what can you learn in only two days? With the right instructors, a lot apparently. The course started with a surprise exercise, which made it clear what kind of situation you might end up in. For me, this made it quite clear how frustrating (to put it mildly) it is going to be when something serious happens and all the help you can offer is holding someones hand. And even though I had no hesitation to rush to the scene, I did it with a somewhat ignorant attitude towards my own safety. First lessons: mind your own safety, stress really does interfere with your performance and ehm I don’t know what I should do.

Why did I not know what to do? My first aid classes did not teach me what to do or expect with injury resulting from violent attacks involving guns, knifes or bombs. What kind of trauma can you expect? What to do in what order and how much time do you have? What can you use when you have nothing on you? In terms of safety, what should you pay attention to and how? What kind of nasty scenes might you run into and what difficult choices might you have to make?

Not only did Jeff and Kirill manage to give as much answers as our minds and bodies were able to absorb in a weekend, they made it clear that learning does not have to end with the weekend. So I want apologize to my co-workers beforehand for putting tourniquets on them and making them put them on me.

Big thanks to Jeff and Kirill for teaching us and the patience to answer all our questions and to Koen for organizing another good seminar!

Keep digging

Two and a half weeks and two seminars later the question arises ‘what have I learned’. Just a pick from trivial facts: the Friday of Ascension weekend is bad for travelling, short haired man burn their heads in the sun and the lever I used was not for the gas tank, but for the hood of the car.

More related to Systema: first the seminar by Konstantin Komarov in Belgium shed light on my poor state of basic skills such as breathing and moving on the ground. After a more ‘applicable’ day with fun things such as knives and guns I noticed how easy it is to loose track on basics and end up in ‘just trying to take the gun away’.

Maxim Franz’ seminar in Groningen two weeks later could have been too fast after the first seminar if it had not been that many elements of Konstantin’s seminar returned in a different form at the second weekend. Obviously again attention for basics, but also the use of stretching the body and body parts during the work.

To keep things short, here are the three main points I (re)learned during these seminars. Unfortunately I have to admit that I have learned them before, and might have to learn them again:

  1. Do the exercise properly. This is quite hard and I guess more than 90% of the work.
    What am I supposed to do during the drill? Should not be too difficult when you pay attention, but apparently this is not my strong point.
    What am I supposed to learn during the drill? This is rather difficult because often you won’t find out until you ‘get it’. Paying attention again helps, so does asking questions.
    Dump my ego that likes to just throw people around and hit them hard and doesn’t like to fail at those things.
  2. Work more on the basics. There are a billion ways to do this, but integrating it in daily life is surprisingly easy.
    I breath all day and night. Might as well pay attention to it.
    During the day my body has some kind of posture most of the time. Might as well pay attention to it.
    Usually some movement occurs as well……
    And of course tension is everywhere….
  3. Keep digging……

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.