Understanding Systema

May 12, 2011 by Frank Arias & Juan Pedro Serna  

Frank Arias, one of the experienced instructors at Systema Headquarters in Toronto, was interviewed by Systema Spain head instructor Juan Pedro Serna on Frank’s understanding, training and teaching of the art.

Juan Pedro and Frank kindly translated the interview from Spanish and offered it to all of us to read and enjoy.


Juan Pedro Serna: How did you first discover Systema?

Frank Arias: In 1996, on New Year’s Eve, I was confronted with a situation where I had to unexpectedly defend myself against multiple attackers.  I was able to survive this dangerous moment thanks to some previous martial art training (Asian Arts).   It was at that precise moment that my interest in martial art was reborn and I started to search for training that would help me be ready for this type of unexpected circumstance.

Juan Pedro: How has Systema influenced you as a human being and as a martial artist? Or perhaps the right question is how has Vladimir Vasiliev influenced you?

Frank: It’s difficult to compress thirteen years of Systema experience in a few paragraphs but I will try….

The training itself has always kept me on the journey of self-improvement and it has always had me to move forward. The time in class fuels the fire for me to keep coming back to find out more and more about myself.  It feels like a never-ending process and I know it feels right.

The major shift for me happened when Vladimir asked me to concentrate, train and develop my skills to become an instructor.  He explained to me that when you become a teacher, your development of Systema will grow and you will improve in your work.  He was right.

Through teaching, I am now aware of the responsibility of guiding others.  It requires me to be clear and clean in all parts of my life.  Through teaching I understand Vladimir’s instruction even more.  You have to be caring and be there to help people on their journey.

I am grateful that I have received so much from Vladimir and from Systema.

Juan Pedro:  What are the main principles of Systema? How would you define the most important aspects of the art?

Frank: The four main principles of Systema are breathing, relaxation, posture and movement.  From this you will learn to trust your intuition, align your senses, free yourself from tension and achieve a high level of fluidity.

To the beginner, these principles may seem straightforward and simple but as you progress in this work, you will find that each of these principles has a lot of depth. For example, movement is not defined only by the physical body but also by one’s thoughts, intentions and emotions. When used positively, every principle has the capacity for healing.

To “Know thyself” is where Systema will ultimately lead you.

Juan Pedro: What kind of people practice Systema?

Frank: Whether you are a combat soldier or a civilian, this work has a lot to offer.  From police officers to accountants to stay-at-home mothers, people of all ages, cultures, physical shapes and abilities train together in one space.  Essentially, Systema is for everyone.

Juan Pedro:  Recently you taught some seminars in Latin America to law enforcement units. What was the result of the experience? How was Systema received in these countries?

Frank: In South America there is a lot of crime from the street to government corruption. Kidnapping, knife stabbing and robbery at gunpoint happen far too frequently.  Of all the people that I met, I was surprised how many of them had been mugged two or three times already.  

There are a lot of companies that provide security such as body guards.  I found that the police wanted to focus on how they could control or submit a perpetrator without violating his human rights.

My experience with the Marine infantry was different.  They wanted to know practical techniques that they could use in real life.  They were not interested in a sports-orientated martial art.  However, once they were introduced to the training they could see for themselves how much Systema can really offer.  Tested throughout the ages, Systema is alive and strong today.

Juan Pedro: The Latin character is very different from the Russian. How does the Latin character adapt to Systema?

Frank: Without perpetuating stereotypes, I will say that Latin people are known to be passionate and hot-blooded. In fact, this romantic poeticism is celebrated in Latin culture. Whereas Russians seem to show less emotion and to value self-control more.  How does this apply to Systema?   A challenge for the Latin character might be because they tend to be expressive with their emotions it is more difficult for them to be detached in their work.

It gives you an entrance into a high skill and deeper spirituality.

Juan Pedro:  Systema never trains specific techniques. A frequently asked question is “How is it possible to learn a martial art without practicing technique?”

Frank: One of the fundamental principles is movement.  Through movement technique will flow.  Systema does not teach specific techniques because then it would be a formulated linear, mechanical response.   

Juan Pedro: What advice would you give to new Systema practitioners in their training?

Frank: Go in with an open mind. Don’t let your old habits or prior knowledge obstruct the development of this martial art.  Systema does not follow specific formulated steps.  Initially, this can be frustrating for new students but if they stick with it they will quickly learn the benefits.

We are not even aware of how much tension we accumulate and carry in our bodies. If we realize and get rid of that tension - we can free up and be open to the fluidity and effectiveness of Systema.

Un fuerte abrazo.

Frank Arias & Juan Pedro Serna