Natural Born Heroes

How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance – by Christopher McDougall (2015)  [author of Born to Run]

For much of human history, the art of the hero wasn’t left up to chance; it was a multidisciplinary endeavour devoted to optimal nutrition, physical self-mastery, and mental-conditioning.   The hero’s skills were studied, practiced, and perfected; then passed along from parent to child and teacher to student.  The art of the hero wasn’t about being brave; it was a bout being so competent that bravery wasn’t an issue.  You weren’t supposed to go down for a good cause; the goal was to figure out a way not to go down at all.  Achilles and Odysseus and the rest of the classical heroes hated the thought of dying and scratched for every second of life.  A hero’s crack at immortality was to be remembered as a champion, and champions don’t die dumb.

It all hinged on the ability to unleash the tremendous resources of strength, endurance, and agility that many people don’t realize they already have.
Heroes don’t bulk up on muscle; instead they relied on the lean, efficient force of their fascia, the powerful connective tissue that is like your body’s rubber band.  Bruce Lee became so adept at harnessing the power of his fascia that he perfected a one-inch punch, a blow from a barely moving fist that could send a man twice his size sailing across the room.  Fascial power is an egalitarian and almost undepleteable resource.

Heroes had to be masters of the unpredictable.  They trained their amygdalae by practicing “natural movement,” which used to be the only kind of movement we knew.  Just to survive, humans had to be able to flow across the landscape, bending their bodies over and around any obstacle in their path, leaping without fear and landing with precision.  Back in the early 1900s, a French naval officer named George Hébert dedicated himself to the study of natural movement;  he watched the way children play—running, and climbing and tussling around—and began to appreciate the importance of spontaneity and improvisation.  When Hébert’s natural movement disciples were later tested for strength, speed, agility, they scored on par with world-class decathletes.

That’s why the Greeks didn’t wait for heroes to appear; they built their own instead.  They perfected a hero’s diet, which curbs hunger, boosts power, and converts body fat into performance fuel.  They developed techniques for controlling  fear and adrenaline surges, and they learned to tap into the remarkable hidden strength of the body’s elastic  tissue, which is far more powerful and effective  than muscle.  More than two thousand years ago, they got serious about the business of releasing the hero inside us all.  And then they were gone.

A middle school teacher in San Antonio Texas named Rick Riordan began thinking about the troublesome kids in his class.  Maybe the wild ones weren’t hyperactive; maybe they were misplaced heroes.  After all, in another era the same behaviour that is now throttled with Ritalin and disciplinary rap sheets would have been the mark of greatness, the early blooming of a true champion?  What if strong, assertive children were redirected rather than discouraged?  What if there were a place for them, an outdoor training camp where they could cut loose with all those natural instincts to run, wrestle, climb, swim, and explore?  You’d call it Camp Half-Blood, Riordan decided, because that’s what we really are—half animal and half higher being, halfway between each and unsure how to keep them in balance.  Riordan began writing, creating a troubled kid from a broken home named Percy Jackson who arrives at a camp in the woods and is transformed when the Olympian he has inside is revealed, honed, and guided.

Churchill recruited poets, professors, archeologists and other oddballs to his Special Operations Executive, though the military said they weren’t commandos but calamities…bullied at school, pelted with cricket balls, beaten and ridiculed, humiliated to the point of hiding in nearby woods,  Churchill transformed himself over time.  If he could do it, so could his fellow misfits.  And his misfits believed him—because some of them had already seen a real superhero in the flesh.  All they had to do was look out the window and wait for Thomas Edward Lawrence—winner of dagger fights, conqueror of evildoers, chieftain of desert bandits—to come roaring across the Dorset countryside on his big Brough Superior motorcycle.   Lawrence of Arabia was more than their idol; he was their evolutionary road map, a guide to the transformation he’d followed from “them” into “him.” …out there in the wilderness, Lawrence had learned a secret.  He’d gone back in time, to a place where heroes weren’t a different breed—they just had different breeding.  They were ordinary people who’d mastered extraordinary skills, who’d found that by tapping into a certain body of primal knowledge, they could perform with remarkable amounts of stamina, strength, nerve, cunning.  To be a hero, you had to learn how to think, run, fight, and talk—even eat, sleep, and crawl—like a hero.  If Lawrence of Arabia could learn the art of the hero, so could they, so could you.

“The right person in the right place is a devastating weapon.”

—Motto of the US Special Forces


(More on natural born heroes next week…)

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SYSTEMA as Stretching

Analogies are helpful because they allow you to transfer learning from one domain to another. When you understand the relationship between two things in one area of your life, and see that the same relationship applies elsewhere, it provides a new perspective, and an opportunity to learn something from a new angle.

Understanding something from many angles is a way to understand something deeply. It helps clarify what you are learning, and what the underlying essence is. I recently remarked that in the warm-up, Emmanuel had us performing a task (e.g. 2 times 4), but then in the applied work, it seemed completely different (4 times 2). Same problem, different format. The quality of the work, and how we all perceived it was changed.

Why is this? Perhaps because we are focused on the specifics, and not the global characteristics of the system we are learning. While there are specifics to every permutation of work (knife/gun/stick/chain; grabs/strikes; static/dynamic; breathing/not breathing; standing/kneeling/ground; etc.), we need to understand the underlying essence of each, and work directly on those. These are the hardest to learn, but have the most leverage in the learning process.

I’ve been thinking of the following analogy lately. Imagine you are a sketch artist. I suspect the Systema approach is not to have you accumulate many new shapes in your drawing repertoire, but to repeatedly consider how you are holding the pencil. Changing the grip forces you to have to re-experience drawing all the shapes you know, yet again.

I think Systema takes a long time and a lot of commitment because of this process. Every time you change the grip, it requires so much exploration and rebuilding of yourself because we have to forget what we know, and see if we like the new way better this time. Konstantin made a strong statement in his book that the unlearning process is very challenging, and I feel it acutely. Having to give up habits that I felt took me so long to acquire, in the pursuit of a new way of understanding, is very hard. You’ve come to rely on certain ways of doing things – of striking, of breathing, of wrestling. To throw it all out the window and start again? It almost feels like you’re throwing away part of your identity, but it’s actually the only way to be true to the path.

Some people may be able to draw many shapes, but those who are comfortable with the pencil, who feel its weight and can vary the angle they press the lead into the paper, will have a world of possibilities and creation. Those that learn many shapes may be competent artists, but may not have understood the true beauty and capabilities of the tool. Easier to learn a good grip as best you can, THEN master the shapes. Going the other way will only extend the process, because the process of rebuilding takes longer. In practice, we learn the global through exposure to the specifics, but I think it’s worth looking at the global as much as possible.

Our shapes are simple – breathing, pushups, squats, body raises, strikes, grabs, wrestling, mass work etc. They are not techniques or “real” drawings as of yet… they are components of real drawings (some other arts or approaches may have you practice drawing specific things from the beginning and get better at those directly). It may take a couple years to understand these basic shapes. In fact, many people can draw these shapes from the beginning. But to refine them… that will take the rest of your life.

Watching Systema masters at the top of their game, it seems like the refinement is at a level that is beyond us – we have no framework for understanding it as of yet. Somehow though, we can see the shapes are better. Their circles are somehow more elegant; their squares, crisp and symmetrical. The weight of the pencil seems defined and yet not overbearing. Some add shadows which are aesthetically pleasing, but those with stark unfettered shapes also provide a clean minimalist beauty. The pace of the drawing is easy; unrushed and not prolonged. The pencil seems to have a life of its own. Then you watch them draw “live”, and it’s simply a pleasure to watch and experience.

John Gardner has said that “life is the art of drawing without an eraser”. Whatever you want to draw, I think Systema will help it be incredible.

Best wishes to you in discovering your own masterpiece.
Mark Fan

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Systema Training at FightClub

If you cannot control your breathing, life will not fair well for you. When you consider how many bodily functions are regulated though breathing one can never emphasize its importance enough. It keeps the mind calm and focused, regulates core body temperature and supplies much needed oxygen to the body. Its importance to self defense is no different and its relevance can be seen in every class or seminar.

Breathing begins by inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. Here are a few simple examples of how this is applied: when walking or running, take a step and inhale through your nose, then take a second step and exhale through your mouth. You can keep repeating this cycle or increase to 10/20/30 steps inhaling and 10/20/30 steps exhaling. The number is not that important, the focus is on connecting the breath and movement.

The same idea can also be applied to exercises like push-ups, squats or leg raises. For downward movements you inhale; upward movements you exhale or vise-versa. Once again, you can keep this cycle or increase it. I have seen students that can complete 20 push-ups inhaling and 20 exhaling with less than one year of training. The concept is to be aware and in control of your breathing, no matter what you’re doing.


The ultimate application comes when breathing is incorporated with the drills and movements in a martial art context. Inhaling as the attack happens and exhaling in putting the person down. Exhaling as a punch lands, inhaling as the punch goes. Obviously it is a little more complicated but the idea is what I am presenting.

Another important component to breathing is the rate of breath. Your body takes many cues from your breathing rate. If breathing speeds up the body becomes more alert, while a slow breathing rate makes you calm. As a situation changes so must your breathing, if you’re interested in getting the most out of your abilities. It is like an engine of a car, if you want the most out of the engine you must be in the right gear. However, the right gear changes as the road or situation does. Similarly a situation (road) will dictate the proper breathing (gear) rate. Your training must be diverse enough to allow this to happen. The reality is that a common day for most people may involve many different breathing rates. No one is right or wrong, until you know the situation. The same is true for martial arts.


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Systema Training at FightClub

The body is in constant movement, even when you believe it to be still. Blood is moving and organs functioning, slowly shifting the body. The world is also in constant movement, even though one could swear it’s standing still. Training focuses on understanding movements versus techniques. The ability to move your body in an efficient and safe manner is of extreme value. Everyone has a unique form of movement, as unique as their own written signature. Many friends of mine have noticed me in a crowd just by my walk. Training, therefore, begins with an array of drills and exercises geared towards a student coming to terms with their own movements and understanding others.

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Systema Training at FightClub

Body weight exercises and drills are favored over machine and cast iron weights. A large array of conventional push-ups, squats, leg raises or body raises are used in conjunction with unconventional ones. Keeping good body alignment and posture allows breathing channels to operate properly and to strengthen the muscular, skeletal and nervous systems of the body. The breath is incorporated and should drive the body’s movements.

Building strong tendons and ligaments is favored as opposed to big muscles. The theory is that muscles rob the body of energy by requiring a lot of oxygen to function properly resulting in fatigue and limited mobility of the person. Tendons and ligaments give the body energy, require less oxygen to function and therefore the body does not fatigue as quickly, and mobility is not compromised. Strong tendons and ligaments stay with a person longer. Big muscles actually damage and stress the body unnecessarily and ultimately limit the body’s natural ability to protect itself.

Flexibility training focuses on increasing your range of motion. Therefore dynamic stretches are favored over traditional static ones. This is not to say static ones are not good, just limiting. The goal is to build functional flexibility. A stretch is not held but is kept in motion from one position to the next. As you begin to stretch in a single direction and reach the end of your flexibility, simply change the angle and start another movement in a different direction. Stretching the body in this fashion allows you to see and feel what range your body has with movement and stretches the little ‘hidden’ muscles in the body.

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