Systema "Gearshift" Breathing - The Road Test

October 13, 2006 by Scott Meredith  

I first learned Systema Breathing from Vladimir Vasiliev, in year 2000. At the outset, I struggled mainly with the basic pushups - much more so than I did with the squats or mid-section work. Pushups have been a serious challenge to me. From the beginning, however, we had been taught various Systema breath-walking patterns that are fully described in our new training manual "LET EVERY BREATH... Secrets of the Russian Breath Masters", in the chapter titled "Hit the Road". If you haven't yet read that chapter of the book, you'll get more from this article if you check out that chapter first.


It was good to learn the basics of Systema breath-walking in the clear, clean, level environment of the Toronto Headquarters school. That way, we were able to focus easily on the nuances of stretching our breath, relaxing our movement, and the calibration and control  of fatigue - to the point that some talented people began to approach the ultimate level of "20 steps per breath" - said to be what the real Spetsnaz commandos routinely accomplish.


While I enjoyed working with the walking/running patterns, for some reason at that time I retained my tunnel-vision struggle with pushups, which I thought would be my own personal "engine of mastery". Immediately after learning the Systema breath-walking, I mentally put it aside as not especially relevant to my interests and needs.


On the 2001 Russia training trip, Systema breath-walking and breath-running patterns were again introduced, from the ground up so to speak, by Mikhail himself and were awesomely demonstrated in action by the incomparable movement artist, Mikhail's colleague and assistant instructor,  Sergei Ozhereliev. We worked quite a bit on these patterns, both out on the soccer field at the training site and then out on the wild bluffs overlooking the Moscow river under Konstantine Komarov's fine tutelage. Yet, the practical utility of this work still failed to sink in. Call me thick... I just kept spending my own training time on those infernal pushups... (actually I still "love to hate" Systema pushups, and I work on them daily! But that is a subject for another article, or please refer to Chapter Five of LET EVERY BREATH).


In any case, even after undergoing several years of fairly intensive training by the greatest masters and commandos of the Russian Systema world, the whole breath-walk thing was a mere curiosity to me, something to tag along with when a teacher called it out but otherwise lacking any particular distinction on my personal training menu.


Now tear your brain away from Systema for a second, and let your mind's eye float across the world's biggest ocean to the world's most isolated island chain. On the northeast corner of the Big Island of Hawaii, underlain by mountainous slabs of gargantuan ancient black lava flows, perhaps the world's most beautiful tidal river creeps along the bottom of the thickly jungled Waipio Valley. The overlook site at the top of the Waipio Valley trail leads your eyes out hundreds of miles into the pure blue Pacific, effectively infinite space.


The valley trail plunges from this miniscule overlook platform for about two miles almost straight down to the jungle-veiled river far below. Technically the trail could be described as a "road", since it has some roughly broken ancient paving, and thus, although regular cars are not equal to it, 4-wheel drive vehicles can make the scary descent and the nerve-wracking re-climb - after all, there are people, in fact descendants of Hawaii's greatest ancient warrior clans, living in the jungle far below! They are mysterious but not unfriendly folks for the most part, living close to the land and in harmony with nature (apart from their 4-wheel drive Jeeps of course!) The greatest of Hawaii's ancient royalty, Kamehameha I, was born and raised in this area of the Big Island. Wild horses and mules roam the inaccessibly steep slopes on both sides.


I like exploring the Waipio Valley on foot, and so whenever I'm on the island looking after any of my business, I always make a point to stop by there and do the hike down and back up. The trail is angled at a grade well above 30 degrees along its entire length, probably 45 degrees or more for most of it. It is a beautiful and leisurely walk down to the valley floor. From the trail's mouth at the bottom, I following the somewhat snake-shaped river to its outlet at the sea, where giant waves have pounded out some of the softest sand on this, the wildest, youngest and therefore most raw of all islands in the Hawaiian chain. I would sometimes just nap or zone out gazing far to sea on that primarily raw beach for hours...


That was... going down. But night must fall... and well, now - it's time to head back!


Going back up. That was always pretty rough on me. I've never been in bad physical shape and I'm stronger and fitter than I look. But this trail is one killer beast if you are in any kind of hurry. The only way I ever knew to make it back up to the parking at the trail head (before nightfall preferably!) was to huff and puff and blast up a few hundred yards, then practically (or literally!) collapse in a red-faced, undignified heap of sweat every hundred feet or so.


So there at my frequent little rest stops at the trailside, I'd be heaving and gagging like a dying dog, looking ridiculous to any freshly crisp down-hikers, not to mention the amused stares (but also occasional friendly hang-loose hand signs) from passing local 4-wheeler drivebys. Most undignified! But those times when I was in a hurry, what else could I do? I needed to get back up the trail, and this process of brief bursts of frantic struggle, followed by humiliating exhaustive collapse, seemed to be my only ladder back. What a miserable way to wind up my hours of mystical communion with Nature! Lower than any panting, drooling canine. I wasn't even sure it was particularly good even as physical conditioning, since it just didn't feel healthy to be that exhausted.


But help was waiting in the wings! On my next trip to Hawaii following the Russia training experience, I once again headed down the Waipio Trail one fine (but very hot!) day. I knew the price I would have to pay, but felt it worthwhile. After vegetating along the beach at the river mouth for a while, it was time to turn back. As I snaked along the river toward the trail's valley bottom entrance, mentally fortifying myself for the long haul back up, anticipating the honks from the locals, the pitying and somewhat appalled glances from the down-hikers, it suddenly occurred to me - Hey, do I really have to suffer that much...  isn't it possible to try Systema walking on this Ultimate Challenge? Call me Einstein but I had never thought to actually try out the Systema breath-walking thing in "real life", I had thought of it as nothing but a gym exercise.


Taking my first steps up the trail, I resolved to ROAD TEST Systema breath-walking for the first time. Trailhead or bust! I set the dual goals:


(a)    To walk continuously to the top, at a brisk, uniform pace, without any rest stop.

(b)   To be able to recover my normal breath in 2 minutes or less once at the top.


From my description so far, it should be evident how impossibly ambitious these goals were. If you've ever made this particular hike (in your pre-Systema days) you KNOW how impossibly ambitious these goals were! But still I thought, ok Systema, if you are the real deal you are gonna do some WORK for me now, or I'm going to know the reason why.


I paused to recall every nuance that my trainers in this work, from Vladimir through Mikhail through Sergei, had emphasized - calm mind, inhalation via nose, exhalation through the mouth,  relaxed shoulders and upper body, relaxed hips, evenly smooth footwork (on a 45 degree grade!)... all exactly as eventually (years later) presented in "Let Every Breath" book and the "Systema Breathing" DVD. As I set my first step onto the incline, I re-affirmed my two Prime Directives - NO STOPPING UNTIL THE TOP, and NO PANTING AT THE TOP. Hate to say it, but I was very very doubtful it could be done...


I began with one step per breath action (inhale or exhale). I started feeling exhausted... darn it's no good... suddenly I realized my shoulders were tense. Without stopping the climb or the breath pattern, I breathed out through my shoulders which immediately relaxed them. Score one point - the fatigue IMMEDIATLEY lessened. But I was running out of breath... why? Systema has a spirit of self-inquiry. At the recent Summit of Masters, the teachers emphasized to us that Systema training is not competition with others, it is learning to use your own body as a laboratory. I hadn't yet heard it summarized so nicely, but even at that early stage I kind of understood this about the training. Apply what works within what you've been taught.


In that spirit, and nearing the point where I'd have to break my vow with a rest stop, I realized I had one basic "dial" I could turn, one fundamental control - the count. How many steps per breath action would be the perfect fit to this trail, this heat, this person, this situation? For some reason 1 step per breath action wasn't a fit to that particular grade. I tried lengthening my breath into 4 steps per action. No, that rhythm could not be maintained. I tried 3 steps... better! How about 2?... Yes! That was it! I felt exactly as you would in driving a manual transmission car when at first you misjudge the slope, but then you catch the exact match of gear-to-grade... click! Smooth... 2 steps per action (2 steps per ever inhale, 2 steps per every exhale) turned out to be the perfect match to that particular trail. 


My upward cruise was then most enjoyable. I was just enjoying the view, for the first time on this trail's ascent, as though I was riding a sky-tram. We all love our Systema training, but I'm ashamed to say how "surprised" I was when it worked like a dream in real life. I had enough excess breath capacity to cheerily hail the downhikers I passed - and I got actual cheers and that "Hang Loose" hand sign from the occasional local 4-wheel drivebys, signaling RESPECT now, rather than PITY! It was a totally enjoyable high. As I hiked through different subsections of the trail, I varied my step count down and up a bit, finding that my body could function pretty much exactly like a small manual transmission car - just gauge the situation and shift accordingly, no strain at all. I found I could easily calibrate physical effort and speed against each other, without ever losing my breath.


I never stopped until the top. And the second part of my goal never materialized as a problem to solve. Because I had never lost my breath, there was nothing to recover.


I believe that anybody who knows Systema breath-walking method, even the rawest beginner, to Systema training can easily win over anybody, simply by getting them out on a long, steep hill or cliff trail and challenging them to make it to the top smoothly, continuously and enjoyably. As they begin to fade and gasp after their first few hundred feet, just teach them what I've outlined above (as also instructed in "Let Every Breath").


I understand that to many people, especially serious military types who routinely hump dozens of miles over hilly terrain carrying hundreds of pounds under intense life-and-death combat pressure, this is not much to speak of. But those great people have written their own experiences elsewhere for our benefit. This is only my own experience, an average guy faced with a small but interesting learning curve... but as I comfortably overlooked the mysteriously brooding late afternoon Pacific from high above the Valley, I could only conclude to myself, categorically and unequivocally, that:


Systema Breathing Pays Hard Cash!



The following is an extract from Chapter Seven of LET EVERY BREATH...


"Start your inhale slowly walking in a normal posture, and stay relaxed. To coordinate breathing, begin with a simple pattern of 1-step per every complete inhale, and 1-step for your complete exhale. Try to keep a precise alignment of steps with breath cycles. This might feel a bit robotic at first, but just relax, loosen up. Take natural steps and start enjoying yourself: 1-step-inhale; 1-step-exhale; 1-step-inhale; 1-step-exhale,..., etc. Count your steps as you go.


Then move to 2-steps for inhale (one single, smooth inhale continuously over 2 steps), followed by 2-steps for exhale (a single smooth exhale distributed over 2 steps). If your training area is small, you may wish to walk in a circle for the work described in this section. After a few circles, move up to 3-steps per (single, continuous) inhale, 3-steps per exhale. After a few circles at 3-count, you may then move on smoothly to 4, 5, 6 up to 7 steps or more. At each count, try to do approximately the same number of circles, for symmetry. Naturally, you will begin to step somewhat quicker on the higher breath counts, but try to stay relaxed, even, and calm-minded throughout. It is also possible to perform the same patterns with a light jog or run. After reaching your peak count (for example, 8-steps per inhale action, 8-steps per exhale action), you should wind back down sequentially to 7-steps, 6, etc. until you finish with 1-step per inhale, 1-step per exhale. This kind of slow buildup to a peak intensity, followed by working gradually back down to the starting point is called a pyramid sequence...

When you feel comfortable with the basic pyramid pattern, you can try more challenging variations..."


For more exciting details, read LET EVERY BREATH:


or better yet, get the whole Systema Breathing Package which includes LET EVERY BREATH and the accompanying SYSTEMA BREATHING DVD:


Learn to apply proper breathing to every single activity of your life... you will be amazed at the results!



Scott Meredith Scott Meredith, the writer of STRIKES: Soul Meets Body and of Let Every Breath, is a certified instructor of Systema under Vladimir Vasiliev.
He is intimately familiar with the languages and cultures of Japan and China, and is a lifelong student of martial arts.
Scott is a professional technologist who holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has worked for over 30 years as a senior researcher in human-machine interface technologies for IBM, Apple, and Microsoft.