Systema is a complex entirety of many features interacting in total harmony. To my understanding, one of the greatest assets is the use of natural, relaxed movements in an unnatural combative environment. If mastered, this provides efficiency, calmness and power, whilst its invisibility leads to confusion and uncertainty on the opponent’s side opening up many doors of advantage in a conflict.
One very interesting aspect is the spatial perception we employ in ‘short work’.
Our brain has many different brain maps (pictures of body parts) not only to control our physical body but for instance, also our immediate environment. Our clothes become part of us as they are integrated into our brain maps. So do tools and equipment that we use a lot. For example, we can easily feel the consistency of food that we are cutting through the knife as if the knife was part of our body.
Brain studies were done on a particular Japanese monkey, which does not use tools in the wild. When given a stick to hold, this was not integrated in the monkey’s brain maps. After training to use a stick for a few weeks, remarkably the stick started to become part of the monkey’s brain maps.
We can see this same effect when we give students a stick to hold for combat. An experienced teacher can spot straight away if a student is familiar with stick work just by the way they hold and handle this object.
Also, when we drive our car, our feeling includes the whole car perimeter, not just our body inside the car. We can easily back it into a tight familiar garage. If we now swap cars with similar dimensions but very different shape, we will find that backing it into the same garage is not that easy anymore. We now have to form new, appropriate brain maps which include this new shape. Then it’s back to normal again. When dealing with opponents, especially multiple opponents, it is important to do the same, namely include them into your brain maps. The important part here is, to learn to include the concept of an opponent(s) with all his/her traits and emotions. (We know from the prior mirror neuron article that it is actually a projection of OUR emotions from his/her behavior). In order to do this, we do require a certain state of relaxation so as to facilitate mirror neuron action. By doing this consciously we gently direct our attention to this task, thus amplifying the perception.
We might also feel that we control objects such as cars and knives, whereas we do not have the same confidence with our opponents.
This, however, is another reason why we need to consciously integrate our partners in training so as to cultivate a habit of inclusion and familiarity rather than avoidance and estrangement. We also want to cultivate a habit of generalized perception rather than focused perception, as we want to become aware of their emotions without being too much infected by them!! This has the effect of helping us relax when confronted by aggression or violence.
In essence, we practice not to fight an external opponent but rather to include them into your brain maps, by making them part of our close environment. It’s almost like we are throwing out a net and capturing our opponents, pulling them in close. Then we play with these integrated brain maps, which include our opponents.
Our brain will do this to a certain extent automatically through our mirror neurons (see mirror neuron article), however, through fear and tension this process can become disjointed. By consciously training to include our opponents/training partners into our brain maps, we accelerate a process of familiarity and relaxation and widen our perception. We focus less just on one adversary at a time or one opponent’s quality at a time. We are working more inclusive with an open perception to all possibilities that present themselves to us.
This greatly improves our spatial efficiency in respect to our work with opponents. It can also allow us to minimize harm to ourselves as well as our opponents/training partners.
Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Then focus your awareness firstly on your body-outline. Then include awareness of your clothes and integrate them in your brain maps consciously. From there you can play with awareness of your training partners in close proximity and at different distances. You can start with a single partner but make sure you progress to multiple partners simultaneously. Add a variation by having them at different locations. Then the exercise can progress from closed eyes to open eyes. The initial closed eye exercises emphasis the visualization and reduce the distraction of vision.
Add to it various emotional states from your partners, as well as active and passive focus from your partners on you. Your aim is to first simply feel the presence and location of your training partners. Then you progress to picking up their attitudes and intentions (make sure you include aggressive and violent intentions). You can also play with movements of varying speed.
The important aspect is to have a mental concept (visualization) of a field (brain map), which includes and perceives your training partners with increasing amount of information. Also, remember partners will not always be in your field of vision, therefore this exercise should teach you heightened awareness of people outside your direct field of vision. Eventually you should progress to full contact exercises with your partners. Always keep track of your breathing rhythm and your heart rate.
In simple terms, you want to start to include everyone in a certain radius in your transient brain maps.
This is an exercise you can also do outside of training, say in a café. Sit as central as you can with people all around you if possible. See how many you can pick up and integrate, then try sensing their state of emotion, their movements. Can you do this simultaneously with multiple people? Does anyone stand out (not visually)? You can have a lot of fun with this training.