Going Deeper: Why do you train?

During class a couple of weeks ago we were working on a drill that involved having your partner grab you while your eyes are closed and then with your eyes still closed taking them down. Emphasis was placed on taking time to feel the options and conducting the take down smoothly and with a high degree of control. The partner that I was working with said to me that we need to go deeper because what we were doing was fake and not realistic. In a real situation people won’t grab you like this and it will be more of a struggle. I partially disagree and agree with this statement and I will explain why beginning with why I partially disagree.

Often times when we work with partners during class on specific drills we are not ‘fighting’ we are training our martial arts skills. Much in the same way as when we perform work with knives we are not ‘knife fighting’ we are using a knife to train our martial arts skills. Many of the drills that we perform in Systema are not intended to simulate real life situations; they are intended to help us develop the attributes and skills necessary for survival under duress whether that duress comes from a physical altercation or other stressors. So relating this back to the initial drill I mentioned, where one partner grabs the other and the partner being grabbed has to take down their partner with their eyes closed in a calm smooth manner, of course it’s not realistic. We were working with our eyes closed, we were expecting to be grabbed and were purposefully taking our time to explore our options and study the movements of both our and our partner’s bodies. But this doesn’t make it fake. The purpose of this drill was to train our sensitivity, bodily awareness and psyche which are all indispensable attributes of Systema. This was not a ‘fighting’ drill intended to simulate a real world scenario. In Systema we train at the speed and intensity that we can handle and push these boundaries until our skills fall apart and then we start over again to rebuild these skills to a higher degree or threshold. In this way training in Systema can be compared to driving. We usually begin at a slow speed in a very controlled environment until we become comfortable enough to drive faster in less predictable conditions. With all of this being said I also agree with my partner that for training to become more realistic we need to go ‘deeper’ and this is necessary for our training to evolve.

So what does going deeper mean and what does it mean to evolve in Systema? Different people train for different reasons and because of this I can only give you what my thoughts are about going deeper and evolving as a Systema practitioner. To evolve in anything it is very important to ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Why are you training in Systema? Why do you dedicate hours and in some cases years of your life to this martial art? For me one of the reasons (not the only nor most important) is that Systema is a very practical form of self-defense rooted in survival. I have years of experience in the security industry and I have used my training several times both in and outside of work. Some of these incidences have involved physical altercations and others have not but my life experiences have taught me that Systema has applications beyond training at the club and I try to keep this in mind whenever I step onto the mats. For me ‘going deeper’ means pushing myself by opening up to situations that make me uncomfortable such as being hit or restricted in holds and then working from these areas of discomfort. If I do not consciously do this every time I train, I risk believing that I am more prepared than I really am for the reality of self-defense on the street. One of the reasons Manny holds outdoor seminars is to open us up to the realities of Systema and what it looks like in an environment that more closely represents reality. In class I need to open myself up to as many experiences as possible to counter balance working in such a controlled environment.  Regardless of level of training or experience anything can happen to anyone at any given time but just being aware of this already puts you at an advantage in a real life survival situation. None of the altercations that I have been involved in were anything epic but they all could have gone very wrong had I not been  taking them seriously but also remaining calm. This brings me to another insight into going deeper that involves work outside of training at the club.

Never underestimate the importance of having an honest conversation with yourself about what you are willing to do to defend yourself and your loved ones and under what circumstances. What is your line in the sand? What is your ‘green light’ to fight? I may have all the martial arts training in the world but if I do not know under what circumstances and to what extent I am willing to utilize this training, it is useless. For me this work has taken the form of reading books, playing out scenarios in my head and reflecting on personal experiences. We live in a fairly safe society but there are people who carry guns, knives and other weapons and commit heinous crimes that the majority of us cannot understand the reasoning of why (below I will list several books on this topic that I have found very informative). I still come to class to have fun and enjoy my training partners but keeping this in mind from time to time has helped give purpose and meaning to my training. I also try to always keep in mind that regardless of who I might hypothetically encounter I must always strive to see their humanity. For me the highest form of martial art is not having to fight but if I have to fight the highest form of fighting is controlling a situation.

Our training can go as deep as we want to take it but the deeper we want to go the more we have to invest in it. We have to make a conscious effort when we train to open ourselves up and come to class with a purpose. The highest form of knowing anything is feeling, but feeling cannot be taught, it has to be lived and this takes practice, commitment and applying it in our daily lives. See you on the mats and God bless.


The Gift of Fear – Gavin De Becker

Meditations on Violence – Sergeant Rory Miller

Strong on Defence – Sanford Strong    

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Techniques of Living I

I can’t say that I agree with everything that Freud ever wrote, but I can definitely get behind the second chapter of Civilization and its Discontents. In this chapter Freud enters into a discussion of happiness, suffering, and what he calls ‘techniques of living.’  This discussion is simple but profound. And, best of all, it can help us to think more about Systema.

Each of us seeks happiness in two supporting ways, writes Freud; we strive to remove painful experiences and we work to promote strong feelings of pleasure. Unfortunately, because suffering is so common, we spend the majority of our efforts trying to remove pain so that we fail to secure pleasure. Happiness, as a consequence—at least according to this definition—is episodic: one day it is here, the next day it is gone, another day it is back again. Our bodies decay and worry, nature assaults us regularly, without warning, and other people hurt us (or we hurt ourselves with others).

In response, humanity has developed techniques of living meant to ward off or avoid the effects of suffering. Freud lists eleven: denial, techno-science, intoxication, the control of the “inner sources of our needs,” mental and intellectual work, art and entertainment, asceticism, polyamorous love, beauty, religion, and neurotic illness. We turn our eyes from the world or we seek to harness its powers; we teach ourselves self-control or fall into books; we watch TV or try to live off the grid; we find love in bodies or love in souls; we turn to god or are overtaken by madness. In all these ways and more we try to escape or otherwise manage the forces which assail us.

I submit that Systema is, among other things, a technique of living. It represents one of the ways in which humanity has sought to free itself from suffering not by influencing the senses, as with intoxication or art, but by manipulating the instinctual impulses as such.

Freud, whose understanding of Yoga was based on late nineteenth-century conceptions, viewed it, along with “the worldly wisdom of the East,” as one of the more extreme methods of instinctual control, as a means of “killing off the instincts.” Less extreme but still effective were other regimens of self-control, in which “the higher psychical agencies,” those of the Ego, managed to gain a degree of mastery over the body’s numerous desires. Through these means, one can acquire a degree of protection against suffering. Disappointment stings less, but so too is excitement less of a rush.

Systema, Freud might have said, is a method of placing the demands of the Ego over those of the instincts. It does not remove suffering by deadening us, but teaches us how to manage pain as we live in the world.  In particular it attempts to teach the mind and body to regulate and maybe even lessen the effects of fear responses.

It accomplishes these things through various ethical practices–breathing, relaxation, and movement–conducted within the ambit of simulated physical conflict. One is placed into a position that naturally produces fear and tension, and then is gradually taught—through breathing, relaxation, and movement—to consciously stand with fear and to control tension.

Over time these techniques begin to find a home in the body, becoming second nature. At first the change is small. You begin to realize, for instance, that you hold your breath every time you pick something up off the ground. Then you notice that your stamina has improved generally. You’re just a little less stressed out than you used to be. And then, before you know it, you find yourself able to stand up to others in the street or at work without backing down. You learn how to view fear as something that you can ride out, like a breath held too long.

Eventually, through these techniques of self-monitoring, you come to see yourself as in a mirror. I call this the clinical gaze. The body becomes both something that is yours and something that is external to you. In moments of conflict and high stress, you feel your skin tingle and track the distribution of chemicals, taking note of their effects, working consciously to calibrate your actions. The nerves do not lose their life but become familiar through self-surveillance.

You do not stop feeling fear. That will never ever stop. But you will begin to see fear for what it is, our constant companion. (to be continued…)

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Weapons can be a great training tool and are commonly used in classes. What I always enjoy is how awareness and survival skills come alive when using weapons. Regardless of the weapon, there are a few steadfast principles that students learn. If using a weapon don’t be a ‘slave’ to it. You have legs, arms and a mind that can also work.

If defending, remember it is not the weapon that works against you but the person. All by itself the weapon will just lay there. Do not be preoccupied with the method of attack or weapon. The body’s survival skills kick in and clear the direction or line of attack spontaneously.

When you consider the speed of most weapon attackers there is not much time to think things through. I will discuss how this type of training is incorporated and utilized further. For the sake of simplicity and in keeping with the scope of this article, I will refer to a knife as the weapon of choice.

Some warm-ups with a knife:

-Hold the knife in your hands and find which grip feels the best. Then spend time just walking with it in your hands calmly. You can pass it from one hand to the next, change grips, even starting to run a little.
-Put the knife on you somewhere, preferably a place you might commonly carry a knife. Start to walk, run, crawl, roll or even jump, just begin to feel this as part of you, not something foreign.
-Once again hold the knife in your hand. This time start to outline or trace you body with the knife. The focus should be on not touching yourself, while still remaining very close to the surface. Stay within a few inches. This builds awareness.
-With a partner, begin to push each other with the ‘safe’ areas of the knife. The butt end, sides or handle are quite good. Simply move out of the way as contact is made.

It is important to note that a knife is a tool, not just a weapon. It can be used for many things. Historically most weapons began as tools, and then became weapons out of necessity. These types of soft drills are very deep and important in preparing students psychologically. A knife can easily overwhelm a person with its energy. If your training does not prepare you psychologically, it will be difficult to defend or use any weapon. Learning how to carry, conceal, use and defend any weapon is of great value.

There are three main distances for knife attackers. Training firstly begins from contact – with the knife touching the body. The main reason for this is to keep the body calm. If you were to study knife defense from a distance, the body would tense up in anticipation and would not be able to work as effectively. A knife is held and placed on the body, once a direction is detected the body moves from the line. The idea is simply to move first and then start to build your offensive skills. The second distance is the knife coming towards you but has not made contact yet. See the movement and clear the line, then mount your offense strategy. The last distance is when someone is walking towards you with a weapon but they are not yet close enough to reach you. In reality this is a very tense moment because you are dealing with many possibilities and options. Some are within your control and some not.

Some training drills with a knife:

-One partner attacks with a knife the other defends. No preference is given for the style of attack. Students can work which ever way they feel. The goal is to disarm the partner.
-One partner attacks with a knife the other defends – from the ground. No preference is given for the style of attack. Students can work which ever way they feel. The goal is to disarm the partner.
-The partners stand side by side and throw the knife in front of them on the ground about two or three meters away. When you say “go” have them race to get the knife. Whoever gets to the knife first attacks, the other defends.
-You can add a third or fourth partner into any of the drills I have mentioned above. It adds yet another dimension to training and skill development.

Yous in learning,



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Ethical Practice

Systema, when taken seriously, becomes an ethical practice. Ethical because it relates to one’s ethos, that is, to the elements of your character which determine action; and a practice because it is something that you work at, like a skill.

In a strange way it is an ethical practice similar to, even if outwardly very different from, that of René Descartes. Descartes, as you may recall, is famous in the history of philosophy and ideas for his cogito, ‘I think therefore I am.’ Back in the day, prior to the time when mathematics was considered a respectable art, Descartes and some of his contemporaries argued for its value as a means of training the mind’s attention on objects of the intellect. Mathematics, particularly geometry, taught one how to form ‘clear and distinct’ ideas that would lead one to truth and thus goodness.

The problem with mathematics in Descartes’ era, in his opinion, was that its insights had either been acquired by chance or according to the whims of genius. University students looked to past techniques, believing them to be the essence of mathematics rather than mere instantiations of past achievements. These students and their teachers, argued Descartes, learned nothing of their own and thus knew little of value.

Something similar exists in the world of martial arts. Students and their teachers practice techniques born of chance and genius, mistaking these admittedly powerful and effective tools as the essence of martial arts. Systema, although I would never consider it to be as significant or revolutionary as the philosophy of Descartes, views the techniques of traditional martial arts as epiphenomena of the practice of martial arts, as things that can be found at the surface of a deeper practice.

Descartes held that only a systematic approach to mathematics, in which one learned how to recognize the interdependence of steps in a formal mathematical proof, could give a practitioner an intuition about mathematics generally. Geometry offered a powerful training in the development of this intuition, providing geometrical acts that would teach one how to act geometrically, so to speak.

Systema likewise treats the acts of martial arts not as an end but as a means of learning to act like a martial artist. We learn to focus our mind’s attention on the objects of the body, particularly our emotional states and tensions. Only through the ethical practices of breathing, relaxation, movement, and conflict can we come to understand the interdependence of our actions and behaviours, developing within us an intuition towards bodies generally.

One virtue that Descartes believed would be acquired through acting geometrically would be ‘generosity.’ Having learned to perceive ‘clear and distinct’ ideas, one would—through his Meditations—be led to see the truth of the self and of God’s necessary existence. As such, like the Jesuits among whom Descartes lived and practiced, the mathematically-trained philosopher would see that nothing belonged to man beyond his or her own will. Such a philosopher would be inclined to use their will only to pursue the best, most worthy goals. This in turn would lead to generosity, the act of treating others well.

The practice of Systema-acts, in their own way, like Descartes’ geometry, seeks to produce in us the virtue of generosity. I cannot say that I have learned it. I probably never will. But I do see generosity in some of my fellow students and in my teacher. Unlike me, they appear to be willing to allow the formation of ‘clear and distinct’ ideas regarding the body to lead them toward a belief in either the existence and providence of God or at least toward a belief in the necessity of treating others well. You can only practice healing yourself and others for so long before it starts to soften you.

I do not write this either to disparage my fellow travelers or to demean myself. I commend their attitudes and skills, which are greater than my own, even as I—for my own reasons—refuse to join them. My metaphysical commitments are incompatible with those of my beloved art. This is neither good nor bad. There are lots of different ways to come to virtue in this world, lots of ethical practices. Systema’s are not unique, but they are powerful and worth having in your life.

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The ancient Greeks devised an easy two-step test for telling apart heroism and impulse:

Would you do it again?
And could you?

When the Greeks created the heroic ideal, they didn’t choose a word that meant “Dies Trying” or “Massacres Bad Guys.” They went with “heroes” meaning “protector.” …Empathy, the Greeks believed, was a source of strength, not softness; the more you recognized yourself in others and connected with their distress, the more endurance, wisdom, cunning, and determination you could tap into….He or she has to care so much for what’s human, it brings out what’s godly. Aristotle points out in Politics the foundation of both Greek theology and Western democracy: the notion that ordinary citizens should always be ready for extraordinary action.

Because the way the Greeks looked at it, you have a choice: you can either hope a hero magically comes to the rescue when your kids are in danger, or you can guarantee it!

Daredevils aren’t the answer; Fearlessness doesn’t really help either; when your car breaks down, you don’t want a mechanic to say “I’ve never done this before, but I’m willing to give it a try.” What you want to hear is “Don’t worry. This is right up my alley.” Heroism isn’t some mysterious inner virtue, the Greeks believed; it’s a collection of skills that every man and woman can master so that in a pinch, they can become a Protector.

I couldn’t agree more with those ancient Greeks! This is also what training at FightClub is all about… Come try some classes and see for yourself. What are you waiting for?


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