Systema, Medicine and LifeApril 12, 2011 by Systema HeadQuarters
This story was written by a lady doctor working in the military.
The more I learn… the more I realize I don’t know. I first encountered Systema as I embarked on a new phase of my life, the year I started medical school. Although still in my mid-twenties, I recall thinking that I had already lived a lifetime and that although there were things to learn, they were mostly academic in nature, easily acquired through work and study.
In my mind, becoming a good doctor was accomplished through acquiring the knowledge and mastering the necessary skills and techniques to perform those duties. So too was my initial approach to Systema… As a black belt in both Tae Kwon Do and Karate and having trained in other styles such as Kung Fu and Ju Jitsu, I knew that if I could just learn the skills/techniques that I had seen performed by Vladimir and some of his senior instructors, I would undoubtedly be able to defend myself in any situation. Okay, I know that some of you senior students are already laughing at the naïveté of these assertions, that many of you just came because it looked cool, looked extremely lethal and effective or because you wanted a challenge or perhaps to challenge... hmmm maybe even Vlad himself? And I am sure you quickly learned that this is just not how it works.
Do you recall the frustration of asking a senior student or an instructor to “show you that move” or asking “how did he do that”? Or perhaps asking a deeper question and getting the answers “just breathe” or “move” or dare I say it …“pray”. As a member of the military for several years prior with the experience of serving overseas, I remember thinking: “Now, here is a style that looks extremely effective in accomplishing what needs to be done”. So meeting Vladimir and being told to “relax”, “stop fighting” and “breathe” was incomprehensible. I wondered how someone with so much military experience could say these things and keep a straight face.
I even thought that perhaps he didn’t take me seriously; that perhaps he didn’t understand that I really wanted and needed to learn in order to defend myself. Well I now know, several years later, how little I knew then; about life, the art of medicine, and even about myself. As many of you experienced Systema practitioners know, Vlad can see what we need better than we can. His amazing ability to say just enough to make you think (often for a long time) in a most sincere way has helped my growth immensely; not only in my practice of Systema but personally as well.
One of the most fascinating aspects that I have learned about Systema is how soundly it is based on the natural physiological aspects of the body. As a medical student hearing physiological claims in class, I continuously went to the books to see if the assertions were based on scientific evidence. I can assure you that I have never heard a claim made by a senior Systema Instructor with respect to physiology that I have found to be untrue.
Most recently, I recall a discussion at a seminar where Konstantin was asked about breath-holding. Basically, his response was that it was not harmful… that the worst thing that could happen is that you would pass out and start to breathe again. From a physiological standpoint, this is absolutely true (as long as you have a safe area to do it where you won’t bang your head or injure yourself if you fall). I can go into depth about the physiological receptors for oxygen, and how these act on our breathing, but I do not want to bore you with details. Instead let me give you an example…
Oftentimes, parents bring a child to see a physician worried that their child holds his/her breath when he is angry, that he turns red, purple and sometimes passes out. As a physician, I simply reassure parents that this is not unusual for a very young child who is throwing a tantrum. The child is not harming himself and he will immediately start to breathe again if he passes out, as at that point, he would have lost his voluntary control. It is very disconcerting to the parents who, naturally, react afterwards by hugging the child and showing a great amount of concern; thus encouraging a maladaptive attention-seeking behavior.
Adults also have a maladaptive behavior that a young child does not – for grown-ups it is being limited by fear. A young child does not fear that he will stop breathing, whereas an adult does. Most adults cannot control their fear and panic enough to hold their breath until they pass out. Systema breathwork exercises help us to confront fear and to overcome it.
Systema now pervades every aspect of my life. Whether I am calming my upset child, holding the hand of a dying patient and talking about fear, helping a patient deal with pain through breathing, helping a soldier relax before a mission, or utilizing minimal effort and movement to draw a gun and pull a trigger – it all comes back to the simple, yet profound, words I heard the first day I trained and most every session since: “Breathe... move... relax... stop fighting... pray”. And as I begin to understand these concepts and incorporate them into my daily life, I realize how much I don’t know, not only in Systema but in the practice of the art of medicine and in life in general. I am truly blessed and grateful to have this knowledge, for it means that there is much yet to learn and that this wonderful journey of discovery has really only just begun.