RA RA Systema!

It’s been about a year since I developed Rheumatoid Arthritis Disease, and now seems like good time to take stock as to how having such an unpredictable disease has had on my martial arts training and skill.

RA, as it’s commonly called, manifests in varying levels of pain, inflammation, stiff joints and fatigue as my body’s immune system erroneously attacks itself. Other than the obvious signs of inflamed joints, RA is invisible and easy to dismiss as something to just get over.

Unpredictability is a hallmark of RA; I never know which body part will throb, burn or generally ache. The ever-changing nature of the disease means I have to be flexible and adapt to whatever body part is not working on any particular day. It’s quite different from knowing you have a bum shoulder and developing a style to work around your limitation.  One day I might not be able to lift my left shoulder and the next day that shoulder is fine, but my right foot will not support my weight.

This daily crap-shoot of pain and immobility has taught me to accept my current condition. Because the stiffness is the worst in the mornings, waking up can be anxiety-inducing as I scan my body and take stock of what can and can’t move. I’ve learned to adapt to each day with the mindset that I’ll move what can move and try to move what won’t because movement tends to help ease my symptoms.

The limits imposed by RA are all-too real.

Before RA I’ve had many injuries, including painful tendon trauma, but nothing prepared me for a full-on attack of RA. You simply cannot understand/relate to such a systemic attack on your body unless you’ve experienced something like it. In the throes of an RA flare-up it didn’t matter how determined I was, I couldn’t move. Nor was I just afraid to move. All the willpower I could muster would not allow me to bend my knees. In fact when RA first struck me, it took me several hours of self-care in the mornings just to be able to walk.

How has RA affected my Systema? How has a disease that severely limits movement affect a martial art that is based on movement?

For starters, it’s made it better, more efficient.

One Systema training principle is to create restrictions to foster creativity of movement, for example, tying your hands behind your back so you have to work without your hands and arms. When I was physically unable to raise my shoulders I had to rely on lifting my hands without using my shoulders. If you watch Vladimir’s arms you’d swear all the muscles from his shoulders have been severed because you don’t see any shoulder movement when he lifts his arms, unless he is strategically using his shoulder to deflect or strike. The sensation of having no shoulder muscles created a deep sense of relaxation in my arms, using solely their weight as I moved.

Result? Moving people became exponentially easier because I couldn’t muscle it.

I’ve experienced fatigue-inducing training when I was so tired I couldn’t use any force, and it helps. But the sensation of not being able to muscle my moves was/is much more pronounced in the midst of an RA flare-up because I was/am not mentally fatigued along with being physically fatigued, a state much more likely to occur in a self-defense situation. The difference between training to exhaustion and having RA is that being psychologically and physically fatigued leads to making mistakes and poor choices, whereas being unable to use strength while being mentally acute allows me to utilize my body as efficiently as I can. I note that training while being exhausted sometimes led to bad habits, but training with RA forced me to economize my moves and move just enough to be effective.

As my knuckles, wrists and elbows swelled up, my grip was shot and I began dropping things on a regular basis. I once gashed open four fingers trying to catch a glass I dropped, which shattered and cut my hand up as I reached for it. I could no longer squeeze anything and manipulating attackers with any kind of grabbing was out the window. The benefit of not being able to grab has been using ever-subtler movements to disrupt attackers. Not being able to bend my knees very far meant any and all acrobatic, Cirque Du Systema, moves were out of the question. Fortunately, Mikhail Ryabko’s work is so efficient and so small that I had the perfect model to follow. Small weight shifts, tiny steps and the gentlest of touches became necessary to make anything work for me.

The main casualty of RA was my ability to strike deeply with my fists, because I couldn’t make fists. I could barely close my hands, much less make a solid, heavy hand. And, striking hurt me more than it hurt whomever I hit, which was quite counter-productive. I had to shelve striking for awhile and rely more on dynamic joint breaks, which I could still perform. Luckily, I’m back to being able to strike. How I missed that.

The excruciating, systemic pain of RA primed me to move much sooner to avoid the force of an attack, especially to my hands, arms and neck. My sensitivity increased, and along with it, my ability to move with and merge with attackers became much more acute. I began supporting attackers less (because it hurt to have them press into me) and became more attuned to their vulnerabilities.

RA is just the latest reason why I’m so happy that I found Systema. In other martial arts I probably would be relegated to adjusting my training away from their strengths, e.g., not being able to grip means no grip-fighting in Jiu-Jitsu or Judo. There’s no way I could training to grab, hold and manipulate someone’s lapels for hours, or minutes, at a time.  I would be missing out on the heart of the training and would at a distinct disadvantage to other practitioners. With Systema, on the other hand, my physical constraints and my adapting to them has led me deeper into the heart of the art’s principles. RA has been a constraint that has led to great advancements in my skills.

There’s a silver lining to every tragedy, right?

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