Courage I

This is the second part in the fourth chapter of an ongoing series entitled Know Thyself. You can find the first chapter collected here. The second chapter is collected here. The third chapter is collected here:

Another good thing about viewing Systema as not only a habitus but an immune system is that it helps me to overcome an obvious tension in my argument thus far. I insist that Systema has its historical roots in nineteenth-century European physical culture, and that its primary impetus comes from that era. Systema is not, at its core, a martial art. At the same time, consider the following DVD titles out from Systema HQ: Russian Stick Combat, Fighting in the Water, Street Crime and Knife in a Fight, The Combative Body, and (a personal favourite) Dynamic Joint Breaks. Clearly, if Systema is a physical culture like Yoga, it is one deeply concerned with a specific domain of injury, that of human conflict. Employing the notion of an immune system allows me to massage this tension between physical culture and martial art, bringing all of Systema’s attitudes, practices, and ideas into focus. As a physical culture, Systema seeks to ward off the threats of physical and psychological disease and decline; as a martial art, it seeks to ward off the threat of outside invaders. Both of these aspects, the internal and external, make up a total system of immunization.

We see the intertwining of these two aspects most clearly in the ways that Systema trainers seek to imbue practitioners with the virtue of courage. It takes courage to step up on to the tightrope, to practice at something you feel that you will never master, to not quit. It takes courage also to face an enemy in life or a disaster. Let us call the first sort of courage ‘grit’ or mental toughness and the second sort bravery. The first is internal–moral and psychological; the second is also internal, but outwardly directed–physical.


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The Immune System(a)

This is the first part in the fourth chapter of an ongoing series entitled Know Thyself. You can find the first chapter collected here. The second chapter is collected here. The third chapter is collected here:


Once upon a time we thought that viruses were the origin of life. This was because they resembled genes. But in the 1930s that notion began to unravel. Attempts to produce viruses outside of living media routinely failed. With that theory torpedoed, biologists chose to remain silent about the matter, focusing on the description of genes, molecules, and eventually DNA, carrying on as if they knew what life itself was or as if one day they would figure the matter out. Today there is still no consensus about what exactly life is, despite decades of research into extremophiles, microorganisms, and astrobiological phenomena. Did life come from a primeval soup warmed by the rays of the sun or up from below, out of rich mineral springs? When did the first macromolecules form? The first membrane? [1] All anyone can say with any certainty is that living organisms share three characteristics: “they can reproduce; they possess complex molecular structures; and they exhibit intense metabolic activity that leads to the replication of such molecular structures.” [2] Life begets life, possesses an internal complexity, and regenerates itself over a period of time using fuel.

Michel Morange, a French historian of science trained in molecular biology, in his review of the history of theories and investigations into the nature of life itself, posits—in addition to the above—that life is neither autonomous and isolated nor the totality of all autonomous beings. There is no biosphere as such, no Gaia. Nor, however, can we say that there are individual living organisms.  Put away your ‘Mother Earths’ and your Stoic individuals. Or rather, put them together more closely, bringing them into conversation. One cannot exist without the other. Morange writes that this “dialectical relation between autonomy and totality is therefore a key characteristic of life, for life was a system from the moment of its inception, and it has remained a system in its most evolved forms.”[3]

In this chapter I want to expand on claims made in the second chapter of this series. In that chapter I argued that Systema was an institutional habitus, a way of seeing, thinking, and acting that one overlays and integrates into their being through practice. It instills in practitioners the virtues of prudence and courage. I am going to go further in this chapter and claim that Systema, as an institutional habitus, is an “immune system.” Hopefully my meaning will become clear as we proceed. In short, Systema, by taking into account the systematic and interrelated nature of the life, teaches how to prevent dangers from threatening our bodies and to ward or survive the dangers we fail to prevent. The direct consequence of these efforts are bodies and minds that are less prone to fear (although not totally immune), bodies capable of work (combative or otherwise), and temperaments less easily shaken or agitated.


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The goal of a strike is to apply a direction of force onto someone and have minimal force or ‘recoil’ coming back into you. Consider a strike as a movement, just like walking or running, albeit more calculated, at its core it is still just a movement. A strike should not compromise your own movements and abilities. It should be performed in a relaxed manor. Tension will ultimately rob power and mobility. This is especially true for the shoulder and hip area. Think of a baseball pitcher throwing a ball or a golfer swinging a club. They are completely relaxed as they go through their movements. It is one true way of achieve maximum force. By remaining relaxed and you will also find that your reactions will be much quicker and power much greater.

Good placement of your strikes and proper body position and alignment is also critical to a good strike. Keep a good upright posture and look for forgiving spots on the body to strike. Learning to place your strikes onto the body is just as important as generating power. Training in this fashion is important and will help avoid injury later on when more power and movement is added. With such a variety of strikes and movements available this aspect of training is quite in depth. In short, a strike should fit onto a person like a key goes into a key hole.


Some fundamental concepts about striking are:

- The whole body or any part of it can be used to strike, not just the hands, feet, elbows or knees. Don’t favour a particular strike – your situation will tell you which to use;

Avoid reaching or stretching to land a strike, simply move closer or be patient;

Know how to strike from as many possible positions, not just straight in front of you; and

Use the weight and movements that have been given to you.

Following these concepts will develop powerful, functional and efficient strikes.

The importance of taking and giving strikes is seen as vital in the development process. No padding or protection is used when training. The belief is that it will create false sense of safety and ultimately weaken the student. Training on heavy bags or using equipment to practice strikes is also not favoured. The belief is it only builds the ego and does not allow for the consideration of the other to develop. Its usefulness is seen as limited and does more harm to the body.

The goal of strikes while training is to ultimately build a good fighting spirit. It also helps students overcome the fear of contact and build trust with each other. In this fashion students learn to train hard and help each other at the same time.

A lot of Striking applications will be covered at the SYSTEMA Master – Summer Outdoor Seminar on Sunday July 17th from  12pm-4pm. Registration for this event end on June 30.

If your serious about your training make sure you attend.

Registration can be completed at FightClub


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Finding Space V

This is the sixth part in the third chapter of an ongoing series entitled Know Thyself. You can find the first chapter collected here. The second chapter is collected here. Previous entries in the third chapter can be found using the ‘Chapter Three’ tag below.

We see more of Systema’s bodily perceptual and emotional training in the next drill. One person grabs tightly one of their partner’s arms. The person being grabbed is to consider the arm as lost. Instead of struggling for complete freedom, the person grabbed must find freedom for themselves inside of constraint, moving around the partner as best they can, finding space to fill, places to go. In some contexts, even in the safety of the gym, this exercise can evoke a stress response in the body, bringing tension to the arms and chest, constricting breathing. Emmanuel recommends here a form of emotion regulation that—as we saw—psychologist James Gross names cognitive change. When a situation evokes unwanted emotions, you can choose to reappraise, giving it a new meaning, thereby changing your emotional response. For example, many students experience school exams as stressful. They interpret them as harbingers of failure and guilt. When those same students reappraise their situation, however, changing their inner self-talk about exams, treating them perhaps as fun challenges rather than hopeless dead ends, not only does the change in perspective improve their performance, but it improves their memory overall.[1] Positive affect helps us to achieve our goals efficiently, even under stress.

Emmanuel instructed students, “Don’t see bad people grab you.” Instead, imagine that you and your partner “have a common problem.” Notice that Emmanuel did not instruct students to imagine that they themselves alone had a problem, but that the grab produced a common problem. The person grabbing wants to perform some sort of work and so does the person being grabbed. What they have in common is the constrained arm. The question for the person being grabbed becomes ‘how do I accomplish what I want while allowing my partner to continue to have what he or she wants?’ Cognitive change invites you to be “with your partner and with yourself” as Emmanuel would say. Here again we see the development of a particular bodily emotional mask, as Systema seeks to instill a habitual removal of the student from the drama of conflict or contest, of one against one, towards the drama of dialectic, of two seeking a common truth through conversation.


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