Systema and Tai Chi – similarities and differences

Matt Hill and Vladimir Vasiliev

I had a great visit to The System Academy in Wiltshire last week where I enjoyed a bit of 1-1 Systema coaching from my old friend and owner of the Academy, Matt Hill. I also recorded a podcast episode with him for The Tai Chi Notebook Podcast, which will be coming out in November. Matt trained Aikido in Japan and served as a Captain in the British army, as well as working in crisis management before he became a full time Systema instructor, so he’s got a lot of experience of different types of martial arts and working in pressure scenarios. Because Matt and I live quite close to each other I had the opportunity to get a bit of hands-on work in before we sat down to record the episode. It was great to experience some Systema myself this time, and I particularly enjoyed the striking aspects, which is something I’ve put on the back burner a bit as I’ve got more into grappling over the last few years.

One of those eternal questions that pop up on discussion boards a lot is, ‘how close is Systema to Tai Chi?’, and this was one of the things I’ve been mulling over since I had the lesson. Both these arts stress what Systema calls the Four Pillars – breath, posture, relaxation and movement – but on a basic level I think one of the immediate differences between Tai Chi and Systema is that Systema seems to only exist in relation to something you are doing, whereas Tai Chi has this weighty set of philosophical principles that exist independently to the art, like Taoist philosophy and yin and yang, as well as concepts from the Tai Chi Classics regarding posture, movement and strategy. Tai Chi can certainly be talked about in terms of these abstract concepts and ideas, but in contrast, Systema needs to be shown. When you’re not doing Systema, then where does it go? It’s a bit like your lap – when you sit down you can point to your lap, but when you stand up, it vanishes!

Systema seems intrinsically tied to what you are doing, not what you are thinking. Of course, you can argue that even when you’re doing nothing and not moving, say, just sitting there, you are still doing something, so perhaps Systema is always there: You still have a posture, and you are always breathing, and that means some movement is happening in the body and you can still relax, which is a kind of a movement in itself. But there doesn’t seem to be an underlying theory, comparable to something like Tai Chi’s theory of yin and yang, that underpins it all.

Another interesting difference is that when Systema teachers talk about embodying the 4 pillars – they really mean it! They’re not just paying lip service to the ideas – they are living them. Even outside of the martial art practice, Systema seems to have the potential to pervade everything you do. In Systema you tend to lead movement with your breath, you breathe the tension out of your body as you work and you try not to muscle anything. And that can be applied to anything, not just fighting.

Of course, you could say the same thing is true of Tai Chi, but there’s so much other ‘stuff’ to worry about in Tai Chi – like a form,(and getting the form just right), dantien, and the 6 harmonies or the 8 co-ordinations, etc, etc.. I think inevitably, with so much on your plate, some things slip. But with only 4 principles to keep in mind, you can spend a bit more time really digging into them.

And then there’s the amount of physical discomfort you experience. Tai Chi can be really hard on the legs for sure, but push ups, leg raises, sit ups and squats are the meat and potatoes of Systema, none of which you’ll find in a bog-standard Tai Chi class. Not to mention learning to give and receive strikes. Even more martially inclined Tai Chi classes don’t tend to work on actively standing there and learning how to receive strikes.

Chen Xiaowang, Tai Chi broadsword

Adopting any sort of ‘martial arts pose’ is frowned on in Systema. Again, you can argue that there are no fixed shapes in Tai Chi either, but Tai Chi does put a lot of emphasis on structure – keeping a connection to the ground through a relaxed frame, and there are ‘kung fu’ style postures. Systema seems to prefer you trust in your relaxation and let gravity do its work. For a Tai Chi person, it’s quite freeing and fun not to have any fixed shapes you’re expected to adopt. The emphasis in Systema seems to be on not trapping yourself into patterns of tension that you first have to exit before you can move freely. Fighting somebody else is hard enough already – you don’t want to have to fight seven battles within yourself just to move freely before you even begin!

So yes, Systema is different to Tai Chi. But I think the two work really well together. The Tai Chi practitioner can take from Systema the idea of not being trapped in ‘postures’ – fixed shapes (Ward off, Diagonal Flying, etc) and the value of removing as much tension from your body as you can while still working on moving with an opponent. Also, breathing tends to get only a cursory mention in Tai Chi, but focusing more and more on keeping your breathing smooth and continuous, and noting how that relates to tension in the body, is a great addition to any Tai Chi form, and I think that has to help make your Tai Chi better, by any objective measurement.

For more on Systema have a listen to my chat with Rob Poyton again, and look out for my interview with Matt Hill in the next episode of The Tai Chi Notebook Podcast, coming in November.

2 thoughts on “Systema and Tai Chi – similarities and differences

  1. It sounds to me most of the differences you discuss are superficial or peripheral related to cultural (Chinese v. Russian) or temporal (17th-19th century v. 20th century), rather than the actual martial content. Systema also claims to be military special forces training, or a derivative of it, and taijiquan does not.

    It seems like you are comparing apples and oranges observing that they are different but both fruit, and concluding, if you mix them together and add a little coconut, they make a good salad. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Taijiquan tends to play well with other martial systems, and even cursory knowledge of taijiquan can enhance other systems.

    A more in-depth approach might compare two arts on the same level. Either by looking at the roots of Systema during a similar time period (17th-19th century) or technological level (Before firearms, or at least repeating firearms, were commonplace). Or, as interesting as that might be, it might be more relevant to most of us to look at taijiquan with modern eyes, stripping away the superficial and peripheral, before we compare the two.

    First, I would strip away the Taijiquan Classics. After studying them for decades, I have observed that that Classics were written to people who had already learned Taijiquan. Each “classic” was a reminder of what had been taught in-person previously. I find that they work really well in this regard, and they can even lead to greater depths of understanding. However, as a guide for learning or even accurately defining taijiquan, I find them lacking. YMMV.

    The lack of conditioning exercises in taijiquan is largely a temporal difference. Due to lifestyles of the time, the Chen and Yang families by contemporary accounts were strong, rugged people who were physical laborers. Taijiquan students in cities, in order to get to a place to study, often had to walk as much as five miles, for some, daily. I am going to strip modern conditioning away as a peripheral difference.

    The article lists the Four Pillars of Systema,

    In the biomechanics of taijiquan, I’ve observed Five “Elements” (an homage to taiji’s traditional philosophical roots, but I could have said, “five components of training”.)

    At a glance, there seems to be a lot of overlap here. Posture and relaxation are part of taiji structure. Taiji expansion, contraction, and rotation are all movements. However, either of these lists could be used to describe just about any kind of movement or training system, so a deeper look is warranted.

    Gazing below the surface usually yields significant differences between taiji methods and other martial systems. There are specific taiji methods for performing each of the “Five Elements”, Taiji structure, Taiji expansion, etc. These are natural and efficient ways of moving, and specific to taijiquan’s martial end goals. Commonly used habituated daily movements that might lead to self injury in a confrontation are avoided. This forms a basic foundation.

    Taiji training is taught in layers, but also it does something rare. It takes a step back from conflict and violence and teaches students how to control their movements with taiji methods, and uses push hands training to teach how to use those methods to control the opponent.

    Finally, with these skills under their belts, selected taijiquan students learn what to do when faced with a killer. Systema is reputed also to be a deadly fighting system, and historically their student selection was external to the art, being Spetsnaz and KGB members. The selection of which students received knowledge of how to use deadly force is a difference that is probably both cultural and temporal.

    Unfortunately, I cannot do justice to the Systema side of a mechanical methods comparison, since I only know general information about the training. This comment has also gone on for way too long to address even the Five Element mechanics of Taijiquan in detail.


  2. Pingback: Systema and Tai Chi – similarities and differences – Roberto Luis Rivera

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