Systema Training is B.S….and That’s a Good Thing!

In his groundbreaking book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (which I perennially recommend to everyone), Robert Sapolsky contrasts the life of a zebra on the savannah with the life of a modern human.

A zebra lives with a relatively calm psychological set point. It hangs with the herd, drinks water and eats grass. It leads a ho-hum existence, until a lion begins to stalk it.

The presence of a predator sets off the zebra’s stress response, sending it into survival mode. Provided the zebra escapes the lion’s jaws, it returns to eating grass and wandering the savannah.

For the zebra, the stress response is a rare event that fires then dissipates, so the zebra doesn’t feel any long-term effects of this full-body physiological alarm.

Humans, on the other hand…

live in a world of constant stress, both high and low level stress responses that never quite shut off.

The acute Stress Response is normally followed by a corresponding Relaxation Response that seeks to bring out bodies back to homeostasis, back to our normal, free-from-stress existence.

But when we are pressured from all aspects of life, from screaming children who have to be carted around town, to our bosses, employees and customers, from the pressure of having to beat the Joneses and appear hyper-successful, to live up to our own and others’ expectations, to “have it all” and be happy 24-7, and to keep up with the entire planet on social media with constantly “digital reminders”, we have set the stage for chronic stress with no time or space for recovery.

Chronic stress is a premature killer to virtually every one of your body systems. You name it and chronic stress affects it, high-blood pressure, inefficient breathing, weakened immune system, reproductive problems, obesity, diabetes, the list goes on and on. (read the book)

If I haven’t convinced you that living a life of chronic stress is a bad idea, read Sapolsky’s book. The mountain of research already done about chronic stress should do it.

Which brings me to the topic of martial arts training.

In times of “fight or flight” it seems to make sense that martial arts training would fall on the side of repeatedly putting you under the most stress possible so you learn to handle it if your simulations ever become reality.

It is a common belief in martial arts training that you should chronically activate your stress response in training, or else your training is worthless. It is a fight fire with fire approach that trains you to match aggression with aggression, and to a large extent it works for what it is.

Remember the zebra.

The zebra rarely fires its acute stress response, only when absolutely necessary, then returns to calm.

Heed its lesson.

Experiencing the high stress of an assault is a necessary component of effective training, absolutely. Without the skill to deal with a high-stress situation any skills you may have will break down.

But how much of this training is really necessary? (not as much as you might think) And when does it become counter-productive to your health? (almost immediately)

In my case, when I was young I trained to take aggression and stress and, like Anakin Skywalker, turn my fear and anger into power.

It sucked.

Fighting in a myopic rage made me less effective and I lost much of the precision I worked for because of the emotional hijacking I felt when I got amped up.

I also noticed effects outside of training. I became easier to set off, quicker to offense and more easily upset. I was ready to fight and defend myself at the slightest conflict. And I walked around far too tense in everyday life.

I was the embodiment of the chronic stress response and the health dangers Sapolsky wrote about.

I knew it wasn’t right but I lacked any alternative, until I found Systema.

Systema training is total B.S. — Beyond Stress — and let me tell you, that’s the best thing that’s happened to me in my martial arts career.

Before Systema, I harbored the belief that true martial arts mastery involved being poised under pressure, the calm in the storm, yet no soft martial art I had seen quite convinced me that this state of skill was possible, or attainable for most people. I defaulted to the best training methods I could find, the so-called reality-based martial arts.

When I experienced Systema with Vladimir, I saw both the necessarily brutal skills needed to win a fight coupled with the training methods that could bring about a sense of calm and control in a crisis.

As one of my students says,”that’s the stuff.”

The Systema training method purposefully and strategically teaches you how to stay in control of yourself in the midst of chaos, uncertainty and the potential to endure grievous bodily harm and come out safe.

It all comes back to preserving this poise, training to think, breath and relax, which allows you to master the pressure of combat.

You can learn to access your Relaxation Response when under threat so your choice becomes more than just “fight or flight.”

Systema training teaches you to FLOW, physically and psychologically, and for that I’m eternally grateful.

I’ll leave you with this thought, your training should not do you more harm than good, in the short term AND the long term.

You may have to fight for your life one day, but you have to live your life every day.