Fun and Not Fun
I do not often dislike my time on the mats. Even when I am frustrated or overwhelmed or pushed to the point of tears, I still like being in class. Systema is almost always an activity that maintains my interest and feels like it does me good.
Very occasionally, however, it feels like a waste of my time.
Having somewhat recently experienced this sensation, I have been left to wonder just what it is that made me feel so down on my beloved hobby. What is it that can make Systema so boring that I would want to reject it? When do I become bored? What does a boring Systema class look like?
If we were to graph it, I would say that, on a horizontal axis, a Systema class can fall somewhere between health and combat work. Health work deals with breathing, massage, stretching, and calisthenics—the stuff typically practiced during warm ups and at the end of class. Combat work, at the farthest extreme, includes wrestling, striking, weapons work, and sparring.
At the same time, a Systema class can fall somewhere between formal and informal work. Formal work involves training to perform very specific, codified and repeatable ‘moves’—breathing, moving, striking, and grappling in prescribed ways that exclude the possibility of other, less consistent ways of acting. Informal work, on the other hand, at its most extreme, involves making it up as you go along, letting intuition and circumstance alone guide action and learning.
Using this matrix, I would say that—for me—a fun Systema class is one that on average is tilted more toward combat and informal work, so that the point of the graph lands like this:
A boring class is tilted more towards combat and formal work, looking like so:
I have no problems with Systema’s health practices. Indeed, I love them. The more health work the better. What I find disdainful is a class that, in its formality, takes away choice or realism in the field of combat training. Martial arts is by necessity already, to borrow a current floating signifier, Fake Combat. To pile formal constraints upon an already artificial practice is to take a step even further away from reality, making practice itself worthless. It turns combat training into dance lessons. And I didn’t sign up for dance lessons.
We may also, having dealt with the form of a Systema class, graph its content. The horizontal axis of a content matrix would be a line between internal and external work. By internal work I mean those exercises that require one to look inward, such as closed-eye work or slow push ups. External work, meanwhile, involves looking exclusively outward, such as during sparring, group running, and multiple attackers.
A class can also fall somewhere on a line between variety and restriction. Variety would be a class that covers lots of topics while restriction would be a class that involves one single, repeated exercise.
For me, a fun class balances internal and external work, but leans heavily towards variety, so that the graph looks like this:
A boring class is one that keeps the work internal and insists on restriction, devoting itself to a single exercise or type of exercise:
Admittedly these are merely my own preferences and I am hardly typical in what I seek from Systema. Many times I have found that my opinion of a class (and much else in life) differs drastically from those around me. What appears self-evident to me may be nonsense to another. Furthermore, I should repeat that boring classes are not problems that I regularly face. Indeed they are very rare. Fight Club is a fun place to train ninety-nine times out of a hundred.
But when it isn’t fun, those are moments that call for special measures. On those rare days when someone teaches a class that bores me to anger and makes me want to quit, I have to remember to—somehow, all on my own—practice during that time what I value in Systema above all: informality, variety, and utility, and a balance between self and environment.
To continue with Systema, I must continue to love it. To love it, I must have fun. To have fun, I must know what it is that makes me happy.