Matt Hill is the owner of the Systema Academy in Wiltshire, England. Matt has a long history in martial arts, starting with Aikido, training under Morihiro Saito Sensei in Japan in the early 90s. From there he joined the Parachute Regiment leaving as a Captain in 2003. After this he started training in Systema under Vladimir Vasiliev and now teaches Systema, Bushcraft and leads groups trekking through jungles all around the world.
Matt was kind enough to give me a 1-1 in Systema before we recorded this podcast at his academy, where he focused on the four pillars of Systema – breathing, relaxation, posture and movement. We discuss all these things in the podcast as well as the next destination for Matt’s jungle trek.
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.
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.
A new YouTube video landed a day or so ago that has caused something of a sensation. It’s a trailer for a movie called The Power of Chi and has some well known UFC fighters and professional athletes in it, all experiencing the power of a Tai Chi master’s “chi”. And there’s a voice over by Morgan Freeman. I kid you not! Yes, the Morgan Freeman!
From the trailer, this mysterious chi is presented as a force that can be produced by the master and defies all explanation. To be honest, this tai chi master has been producing very similar YouTube videos for years now, but he’s usually demonstrating on no-name seminar attendees, this time however it’s a big budget production with well known fighters like Fabricio Werdum and Lyoto Machida being demonstrated on.
You can see the trailer here:
Now I haven’t seen the full film, and frankly, I’m not going to pay to download it, but colour me unimpressed with that. It all seems a bit silly to me.
Friend of the Notebook, Rob Poyton (who I recorded a podcast with recently) has produced his own video response to the trailer and I think it’s hard to argue with his conclusions, but feel free to make your own mind up:
I like Rob’s point at the end, that if you’re going to demonstrate things like this, then what are the functional uses of it? That’s what you should be demonstrating.
My guest this episode is Rob Poyton a veteran of the UK Tai Chi and martial arts scene. These days Rob is a teacher of the Russian martial art of Systema, which he has been teaching in the UK since the early 2000s and has run workshops and seminars all over Europe. Rob is also a prolific author of Systema books and videos which you can get via his website Cutting Edge Systema which is found at systemauk.com
In this wide-ranging discussion we talk about what the UK Tai Chi scene was like back in the 80s and 90s, and the similarities and differences between Tai Chi and Systema. We even get into a bit of politics, and talk about Rob’s experiences as a professional musician and his sideline as a horror fiction writer. So, sit back and enjoy as we get under the skin of Tai Chi and Systema.
So, my last post on what ‘whole body movement’ means in Tai Chi Chuan got some interesting reactions on the interwebs. I thought answering the comments might make a good subject for a few more articles. So let’s get going with the first of them.
“Whole body motion” is a lousy coaching cue. It neither helps people move more correctly nor is it an accurate description of what’s going on. It is possible to have “whole body motion” with only one limb moving apparently, and it is also possible to have the entire body involved but still ‘disconnected’ from an IMA perspective.
In fact this is the case with most athletic movements. Do you really think boxers and judoka don’t involve their whole body when they go to express power?
Firstly, yes, I’d agree that ‘whole body motion’ is a bad coaching cue, since it is so undefined. That’s really what my post was about – how there are different possible interpretations of what whole-body motion could mean, and what it actually means in the context of Tai Chi Chuan. Like most of the writings in ‘the classics‘, Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 important points is only useful if you already know what he’s talking about. Which makes them good as reminders, but rubbish as coaching cues.
The second point about boxers and judokas is interesting. Yes, I agree that boxers and judoka involve their whole body when they go to express power. But they do it in a different way to Tai Chi Chuan practitioners. Or at least they generally do. Sure, you could do both boxing and judo with a Tai Chi Chuan type of whole-body power, if you wanted to. But in Tai Chi you want to use as little physical effort as possible to get the job done. It’s difficult to even understand what that means and even hard to actually do it. Tai Chi movement is subtle and tricky and there’s no real incentive to train that way in combat sports where results matter and there are quicker, easier ways to get them.
It’s not like boxers don’t use their legs when throwing a punch. Of course, they do, but do they do it in the exact way we do in Tai Chi Chuan? I don’t think so. Let’s remind ourselves what the Tai Chi Chuan way of moving is again –
1) moving from the dantien
2) power up from the ground (jin) – rooted in the feet, expressed by the fingers.
3) coiling and spiraling actions from the dantien out to the extremities and back.
That’s difficult. A strong, athletic 20-year-old in Judo can fire his hips into a throw with more than enough speed and power to get the job done. It doesn’t need to have all come from the ground to work.
“Second, there is more in common between the “robot dance” and CIMA than Graham acknowledges. It wasn’t until I learned other ways of moving e.g. Systema and dance that I realized just how blocky and ‘robotic’ the CMA’s are at their core, even flowy and ‘natural’ looking ones like taiji. In fact I think a lot of their power derives from this similarity — simple movements done well.
Still for all the similarities there are important differences between CMA and the robot dance, so it is instructive to consider what those might be.”
That’s interesting. I don’t know what Andrew’s individual experience of Chinese Martial Arts has been, but I’m always a bit wary of using my individual experience to generalise and speak for all of Chinese Martial Art. It’s a very broad church and it contains pretty much every possible version of movement you can imagine.
Is he talking about modern Wu Shu training? The 1920s GouShu experiment that got exiled off to Taiwan? The pre-twentieth century martial arts that were forced underground? Wrestling styles?
I guess, compared to Systema any martial art could be called ‘blocky’ and ‘robotic’ since Systema has no routines or patterns and has no stance, just the four pillars: movement, breath, posture and relaxation. It also looks utterly ridiculous at times. I’m actually not adverse to Systema at all and I think there’s some great stuff in there. I’ve got a good friend who is a teacher and I do want to check out his class sometime. (But it would mean time spent not doing Jiujitsu, and that’s a serious consideration, so some tough choices will have to be made!)
On balance I think there is some merit in Andrew’s criticism of CMA here. A lot of it is just a lot of forms. But again, it depends on how you train it. Are you just training forms for forms sake? I think a lot of Chinese martial arts is like this. I’ve never been attracted to systems that had a lot of forms. A form for this, a form for that. I think that misses the point entirely.
But then Andrew flips it around and praises “Simple movements done well” I think this references to things like XingYi, which has 5 fists as its base. These are quite often practiced over and over, for years. until you get very good at them. Personally, that approach didn’t appeal to me. I found the more varied animals much more interesting to practice and also more alive, less robotic, more spontaneous and useful for actual sparring. I think that’s where real power of Chinese Martial Art lies – not in practicing simple thing over and over, but in not getting too fixed down into any particular method or technique and keeping things fluid and “in the moment”.
Great little video clip on good posture and how it relates to martial arts from my friend Matt Hill who runs the Systema Academy in Wiltshire, UK. I like the point he makes about animals in nature, and how they are always in good posture.
An interesting clip popped up on the BBC website today about self defence for women by a woman. Here it is:
Here’s my potentially mansplaining view: She makes 3 quick points at the end – I really agree with her first two, (don’t be afraid to offend and use your voice) but her last one – “widen your stance” – I don’t get. I’d say the opposite – get ready to move! Get up on your toes (mentally, if not always physically) and get ready for movement. If you make a sitting duck of yourself against a man whose’s first move is probably going to be to try and grab you then that’s not good. Equally, if he’s going to strike you then adopting a firm, wide stance is not going to help either.
Watch my previous post about movement for self defence from Rob Poynton to see what I’m talking about.
Either way, I’m glad she made the point that despite all the martial arts techniques on show, the first two points can be done by anyone and are the most effective.
The comments section on that video is interesting too:
“I want to see that viral video of men teaching boys how to fight off the urge to be predatory.”
“But god forbid she be allowed carry a firearm to more effectively defend herself”
“Give her a gun and she’ll be unbeatble”
“Learning to hate men!“
“Unrealistic sweep, and sloppy arm bar. Train Jiu Jitsu, that will give you more realistic techniques that actually work. The clinch was also poorly done, with no control.”
” I remember reading somewhere that a man was jumped by 2 women. They we’re basically groping him & trying to take his trousers off. They wouldn’t stop & he slapped them. Next day, he had police at his door for common assault.”
There you have it – the great unwashed of the world live in every comments section. Never look below the line 🙂
I really liked the above clip by Rob Poynton of Cutting Edge Systema. It’s about the idea of using movement, rather than a fixed, rooted stance or hand blocks, to defend yourself.
To break down the message:
Your first reaction should be to move.
Use the legs for defence (stepping) and not the arms to block.
With your arms free you can use them for other things – like takedowns or strikes.
It’s simple, common sense advice when it comes to martial arts. The XingYi I learned was based around exactly the same concepts, incidentally. If you look at a lot of MMA fighters you see the same set of principles in action. If you think about it, you generally don’t see them doing a lot of blocking with their hands. Instead, they are moving and slipping punches. Obviously, there are exceptions – for example, the last MMA fight I watched was Yoel Romero vs Luke Rockhold, at UFC 221 in which Romero did a series of bizarre-looking arm blocks throughout the fight, yet came out on top.
To be fair though, it wasn’t getting him anywhere – he was getting him picked apart by Rockhold until Romero finally broke through and delivered a knockout blow, possibly by virtue of being one of the toughest human beings alive at the moment.
I think Rob’s right in saying that the traditional arts are slow to teach this concept of movement, though. Generally, you hear things said like “if you don’t spar you’ll never be able to use it”, which is true, of course, but how about actually breaking down and analysing what you learn in sparring, and bringing it back into training to refine it? I think that’s what Rob is showing here.
The point about a fear-based response vs a confidence-based response is also very interesting.
Of course, the counter-argument is ‘where are all the great Systema fighters, then?’ But it’s pretty clear that Systema isn’t really designed primarily for being used in a cage. It seems like a pretty useful life skill though, full of concepts you can more easily transfer to your day to day existence.
I recently came across these “invisible Systema” videos, and I thought they were so well made they were worth a share, but I thought I’d also say a few words about Systema first.
Having met lots of people who have trained with Vladimir Vasiliev now, some for quite a period of time, the description I always get of him is that he’s a world-class martial artist. You can see in these clips the natural, unhindered way he’s moving through his attackers as if they’re not there. It’s beautiful to watch.
People often equate Systema with Tai Chi because it is relaxed movement, but I really can’t make that connection beyond a kind of superficial understanding. Sure, they both involve relaxed movement, but Tai Chi is (or rather Tai Chi is supposed to be…) about generating movement from your centre, with a connection to the ground through which you can generate Jin (a kind of ground force) to the point of contact with an opponent. Systema (to me) seems to involve much less of these “rules” about how you are supposed to move or fight. It looks freer.
If anything, these “Invisible Systema” videos, where the movement of Vladimir and Mikhail is analysed in detail to reveal the “hidden” moves, really highlight the differences between Systema and something like Tai Chi.
The other point I’d like to make is just how many little strikes, controls or attacks you fail to notice the first time you watch any of the techniques in these videos. Both the Systema masters shown here also seem to be masters of deception. These are the same skills you find in experienced street performers, stage magicians or actors. And again, this brings me back to Chinese Martial Arts connection with Chinese theatre and magic.
Enjoy the videos, and remember – the hand is quicker than the eye!
First of all I feel the need to address the elephant in the room. This book (curiously?) doesn’t have the word “Systema” in its title or anywhere on the cover, except on the jumper Vladimir is wearing, but make no mistake, it is a book about the Russian martial art called systema. Systema often gets a bum rap from other martial artists, not by the practitioners, or the people who have tried a class, it should be noted, but more often by people who see the numerous videos of the art being trained on YouTube and cry foul. The videos often contain people moving in slow motion while falling head over heels backwards at the merest hint of a punch from a seemingly out of shape martial arts instructor. The BJJ community in particular is scathing of the systema groundwork videos out there.
To be fair, it’s not unreasonable to question a lot of these systema videos, but I feel the criticism is often born out of ignorance about what is actually happening. There are certainly some videos that seem like nonsense to me, but that’s often because systema uses unusual drills as a chief training method, often without explaining what the rules of the drill are before posting a video of it. Add to that the fact that there is an awful lot of nonsense in martial arts in general, from ‘no touch’ chi masters from China and Japan, to overweight, out of shape Western guys who think they’re ninjas, and you can see why it’s hard for systema to catch a break. But if you think about it, any martial art has parts that make zero sense to people outside of the art. For example, just look at a video of two high level black belts in BJJ scooting about on their butts and leg scissoring each other for 10 minutes in a competition to become ‘world champion’ and tell me that’s not as ridiculous as the wackiest of systema videos.
Contrast this reaction to the people who have actually trained with the key figures in systema, like Vladimir Vasiliev and Mikhail Rybko, and you’ll find they talk of a master level of skill and lessons that are more like a finishing school for experienced martial artists, rather than the sort of thing you’ll find at the local YMCA karate class.
But this is not just a book about Systema, it’s a book about strikes.
If you’ve ever watched Vladimir Vasiliev punching people you’ll probably have some questions (see video below). For a start, it doesn’t look like what you expect a martial art to look like. There are no immediately recognisable stances, gestures or techniques. There is no jab, cross or hook, or even a reverse punch or superman punch that you can put a label on. At best you could say there are a lot of ‘overhands’, but that’s about it. Instead it looks like somebody just moving and hitting in a relaxed, almost sloppy way. The movement he uses to evade his attackers is often the movement he uses to strike with, so there is no clear distinction between strike, block, advance, retreat, evasion or kick. It’s all just movement.
And so it is with this book – it’s called Strikes and yet in systema terms it’s impossible to separate the strikes away from the rest of the art, so this is really a book about the whole of systema, seen through the lens of striking. And so, it begins where everything else in systema seems to start, with breathing.
If you’re wondering why, let Vladimir explain himself:
VV: Breathing is important for talking about strikes because in a fight you’re going to be hit. Sooner or later, it’s inevitable. The punch you don’t see coming can be the worst. When you’re in that terrible condition, all you have to hang on to for restoring yourself is your breath. In a fight, proper breathing can keep you focussed on the next threat, instead of collapsing into yourself.
Strikes recaps the breathing information found in the previous book Let Every Breath… and gives you the basics of systema breathing, but you should seek out the earlier book for a full investigation of the subject. The book then goes on to talk about the things that make systema strikes effective – these are things like non-interference, freedom, continuity, spontaneity, clarity, acceptance. These concepts might sound a bit woolly, but systema strikes address the whole person, rather than just the mechanics of how to punch as an isolated event. Of course, the mechanics are covered too, in great detail. As are striking drills – the book is chock full of these. In fact, the reason it took me so long to review Strikes is that I got a bit bogged down in this section of the book, which incorporates the Rabota (work sets) of systema. For systema practitioners, or somebody with a partner to practice with, these will be useful, but they don’t lend themselves well to free reading.
Some of the information from Vladimir regarding the effects of strikes borders on the magical, so if you’re the sort of person who gets upset with the notion that your negative energy can be transferred with a strike, you’re better off avoiding this book. If you can take these things with a pinch of salt and look for the deeper meaning then you’ll be fine.
The book is a combination of writing from Vladimir and Scott Meredith, an early student of systema. Scott and Vladimir have worked together before on Vladimir’s previous book, Let Every Breath… but while that one was Scott giving voice to Vladimir’s ideas, this one separates out the two people as distinct entities. So now you get to hear what Vladimir has to say directly.
The majority of the text is in the form of long quotes from Vladimir interspersed with further explanations or extrapolations from Scott. Vladimir does the touchy feely stuff, giving the book its heart and soul, while Scott does the more rational, technical analysis, and explanatory text, giving the book its structure. As a double act, it works perfectly.
I think every martial artists who has an open mind would find something of value here.
At the very least, Strikes will give you something new to think about when you next train martial arts. In fact, a lot of the information in this book would be equally at home in a self help publication, as it crosses many boundaries.
It does make you question what it is to be a martial artist, and what it is to know yourself through martial arts. As such, it bears repeated reading well. I can imagine coming back to the book in a few months and learning something new, which I missed the first time.
Finally, I’d like to draw the reader’s attention to the high production values on offer here. In the post-truth Internet age where anybody can write a book and self publish it on Amazon, often with dreadful results, it’s important to point out when a book has been properly written, sub-edited and professionally laid out and printed using good quality paper. It also has a nicely chosen font and nice photographs that complement the text. There’s even a strange little graphic novel about Vladimir’s life at the back, which seems slightly out of place, but shows the attention to detail. This book has clearly been a labour of love and the extra effort reflects in your overall enjoyment of the finished product. Get this book on Amazon.
Q) Is this book of interest to anybody who doesn’t do systema?
A) I’d have to say, an emphatic, ‘yes’. If you are a systema practitioner then it’s a given that you’ll find much of value here.
Q) Is this like Scott’s Tai Chi books?
A) The author, Scott Meredith, has written plenty of Tai Chi books (See JUICE: Radical Taiji Energetics), and has a particular writing style which is often based on creating his own terms, then turning them into acronyms and almost creating his own language out of them. It definitely adds a bit of modernity, informality and spice to an old martial art that is often weighed down by obscure Chinese terms that have no equivalent in English, and have limited practical use. But the endless acronym approach can grate on some readers. Many may be worried that he uses the same methods here, but fear not. He does slip into acronyms occasionally – for example SET, which stands for Strike Experience Team, gets used a little unnecessarily, but here the acronyms tend to be the exception, not the rule. What’s more important is that his natural wit, flow and rhythm as a writer shines through and keeps you interested and entertained throughout.
Q) What do systema strikes look like?
A) Here’s a video of Vladimir doing some movement and strikes:
Q) What do systema striking drills look like?
A) Take a look at this recent drill from the UK’s Rob Poynton of Cutting Edge Systema, as an example of the type of drills (not an exact drill from the book, but close enough) contained in the book: