Systema: What Is It?

Before you start Systema, it will help to know just what it is. Systema is often explained in negative terms — there are no uniforms, no memorized techniques, no kata,  no belts — All the elements that people have come to expect to see in a martial art.  So,whenever this explanation is given about Systema, it still leaves you with the question, “yeah, but what is it?”

The first step is to forget all these things that you have come to expect to see in a martial art, and to wipe the slate of your mind clean because the entire methodology of Systema is in a class by itself.

When the movie The Matrix came out at the end of the 20th century I heard a review of the movie on NPR news. As part of his review, the reviewer needed to set up the plot for his listeners so he played a clip of Morpheus telling Neo,“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” 

This echoes what I have said about Systemists to newbies for decades, “I cannot explain Systema to you, you have to experience it.”

Then Morpheus goes on to say, ““The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth,” to which the movie reviewer comically replies,”you just told him what it is!” Morpheus then succinctly explains, “The Matrix is a computer-generated dream world, built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this.” [holding a copper-top D cell battery].

In the spirit of Morpheus, I will try to explain Systema in the simplest terms I can.

Systema is a principle-based, improvisational martial art method that teaches you to adapt to any circumstance and to create your own defense to any attack by mastering your breathing, controlling your tension, moving properly and aligning your body correctly.

  First, an extremely quick, broad history of Russia will help to understand how and why Systema was developed.

Russia is the largest country on earth, bordered on all sides by other countries and potential enemies who have fought with Russia over the centuries.

Each invader had their own fighting style so the Russians could not rely on one single style of fighting to defeat these various invaders.

Instead, they developed fighting methods that were based on natural body movements and adaptability to whatever an enemy might throw at them.

Any singular technique, no matter how successful it may have been, could be easily overcome when a different army of invaders attacked with different techniques.

This is one reason why there are no rote techniques of the “if the attacker does this then I do that” kind.

As a result, Systema developed as a creative, generative martial art as opposed to a memorized martial art. Rather than spending a lifetime memorizing hundreds of individual techniques, Systema students are taught core principles and train to apply those principles in any situation, creating their own techniques as necessary.

As you begin to learn Systema you will see a sharp emphasis on teaching your body how to move from any position in any circumstance.

Other martial arts are a collection of techniques students memorize, then work to connect so that when one technique fails they can rely on a related technique. Further, students train to maneuver themselves into a position in which they can apply their techniques, what is called funneling, where each move they make seeks to guide the attacker through a series of steps ending in the application of a technique.

For example, on the ground, struggling and grappling to get behind your attacker to apply a rear naked choke. The goal of getting to the technique, the choke, is the purpose of every move that precedes it and dominates the martial artist’s mind. Briefly, students learn techniques, perfect them, and then train to use them spontaneously. Unfortunately, many students get stuck spending their time  perfecting their techniques and too little time integrating them into a well-rounded self-defense system.

The word, Systema, means The System in English, and encapsulates what this martial art is. A System is defined as: a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method.

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