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.
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.
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!