10 Common misconceptions about Systema

By Kevin Secours

The Russian martial art of Systema is a relatively new art in Western consciousness. Having been previously classified during the Soviet era, it was only first revealed beyond the country’s borders in 1993. Even then, early promoters needed to work to establish its credibility as even many government and military officials refuted its existence. Today, it is widely established and has grown exponentially beyond its borders but still in the youth of its expansion, it suffers from many misconceptions and misinterpretations.

10-The art is a hybrid of Asian styles:
Not true. Systema was formally created following a detailed experimentation and exploration of the Asian arts by the government. Naturally, it does therefore contain influences and responses to Asiatic systems. It’s chief foundation however comes from the synthesis of uniquely Slavic cultural folk systems, including ancient Cossack traditions which trace their origins to the 10th century.

9- Systema is purely a military art:
Systema was certainly designed initially for the military and is still employed by Special units within Russia as well as individually practised by professionals around the world, however there is much greater depth than simply hand-to-hand fighting. Many people see the sensational highlights of training in forests and lakes, in camouflage with weaponry and assume there is no place for civilians. In reality, the greatest advantages of Systema comes from its unique teaching approach, its emphasis on breathwork, biomechanical efficiency, relaxation and healthy function. Through this, it provides a total health and personal protection system that is at once simple to learn and sophisticated in its profound depth.

8-Systema is exclusionary:
Many myths have been propagated about Systema being less than inviting towards non-Russian or specifically non-Orthodox practitioners. This is simply a feeble attempt at counter-marketing. A quick survey of Systema’s instructors worldwide and the location of its affiliate schools will show that Systema is enjoyed by practitioners around the world, regardless of their cultural origins or religious denominations. While every instructor may bring their own life experiences to bear in training, there is nothing inherent in Systema that requires the adoption of specific religious or cultural beliefs.

7-Systema is all about no-touch knockouts and chi blasts:
All Systema training addresses the relationship between the psychological and the physical. This includes a very small portion that addresses the role of reflexes and fear responses. Some drills do employ deception and influence quite similar to hypnosis to show students how easily the mind and body can be tricked. Others use stimuli and responses in a playful game of exaggerated movement to help s

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tudents learn to free their responses from fear. All of these games are simply training devices and can only be helpful within the context of a training environment with partners that one trusts. While these can translate indirectly into strategies for combat, they have little direct translation to combat technique–not unlike fakes in boxing can play a role but cannot be relied upon as a trusted tactic. Sadly, some instructors from other styles have chosen to exaggerate the importance of these drills and to sensationalize them, claiming or implying that they are somehow combat relevant. Adding to this is the unfortunate translation of “psyche” to “psychic”. Ultimately, these drills are of little consequence in the more practical side of things and once experienced can be quickly understood and integrated to their proper role and importance.

6-Systema advocates body hardening:
Systema believes that contact should begin early in training, with slow but incremental increases in the amount received. This includes a use of exercises that teach practitioners how to absorb punches, largely to the body. Many viewers wrongly assume that this means Systema advocates some Russian version of Iron Body Chi Kung. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. Punch absorption in Systema is more of a psychological drill than a physical one. It is designed to show students the role that fear plays in responding to pain, particularly through the use of stances and flinch response. Punch absorption reveals to the student their individual responses to fear and pain and teaches them how to safely and effectively deal with them. The end goal is not to make the body “tougher”–in fact, all Systema combat techniques rather yielding to force rather than stopping or absorbing it. Furthermore, by striking the human body rather than an inanimate bag, students learn to adapt to an ever-changing surface. In actual application, students would rarely employ so much punching or target the body so heavily. Strikes to vital areas are emphasizes far more. To some extent, punch absorption has become a parlor trick that is over-valued by some instructors. In reality, strikes to the eyes, throat and groin can never be “absorbed” or conditioned against. These drills simply appear to be more sensational on film and so have been promoted to saturation.

5-Systema is based on “natural movement” so anything goes:
In Systema, natural movement does not refer to simply any action we do automatically. Rather natural movement refers to movement that is optimally efficient in its freedom from fear. When a human is relaxed and healthy and balanced, he or she will move to the greatest degree of their inherent capacity–this is what is the ideal every practitioner seeks. Initial reflexes are often tense and stiff and quite the opposite of natural or effective movement and so training seeks to chip away at the inessential tension. As instructor Martin Wheeler has said, Systema is not the art you learn, it’s the art you remember.

4-Systema has no technique:
This is not entirely correct. Yes, Systema does advocate principles over pattern, but some degree of technical training is still required. There is a better way to kick, a more efficient way to punch, etc. It would be more correct to say that Systema does not employ choreographed drills or fixed patterns of movement. Students are taught the biomechanical reasons why a specific technique works and then led to their own individual interpretation of that principle.

3-Systema training is always slow:
Systema does make a strong use of “slow” training. As the old military expression touts, slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Every training experience in training has the potential to either erode fear or else to add to it. Training quickly, while helpful for testing, does nothing to improve responses in the immediate context. When you train quickly, you reinforce your existant responses. Like learning to walk, swim, ride a bike or drive a car, Systema advocates slow work where practitioners provide unchoreographed stimuli and explore various responses. Contact is introduced first to understand the effect this has on the psyche, distance and timing and speed is added second. While much of Systema training is done at slowly speeds, faster training is certainly essential in the formula.

2-Systema does not advocate sparring:
This misconception stems from the previous point about slow training. At faster speeds, all movement becomes closer in type and more familiar. Simply promoting the end result does little to highlight the distinctions in Systema. In the end, there are only so many ways the body can inflict harm. The true greatness in Systema is the manner in which it approaches learning and training. The slow training approach is a huge benefit, but equally important are theoretical education and pressure testing phases. Sparring is definitely essential, against weapons, empty handed attacks and multiple attackers.

1-All Systema is created equally:
There are numerous major lineages of Systema now known outside of Russia. The Ryabko Vasiliev lineage from which I hail is renown for a more intuitive approach to training and the heavy use of contact in application. This stems from the detailed and intensive military experiences of our founders. Other lineages are far more scientific and theoretical than practical and still others are promoted by practitioners with little to no actual ability or experience. These realities can be seen easily in their work. In the end, there are as many Systema as there are practitioners. Each student and teacher combines their own unique life experiences with the art, as with any style. The distinction with Systema perhaps is that there is simply more room for this interpretation and application than in many other arts.