Tokyo October 2011 - Vladimir Vasiliev - Combat & HealthNovember 15, 2011 by Andy Cefai
After such a great seminar it is not surprising that there has already been a flurry of positive reviews and posts in Japanese on various Systema related sites and Facebook pages.
The topic of the seminar was Combat & Health – especially relevant after the 3.11 triple disaster here in Japan. We were blessed with around a 110 participants each day and coverage by Japan’s largest martial arts magazine. This despite having to use a gym 40 minutes out from the centre of Tokyo, as a result of many sports centers being closed and used as refugee centers.
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The seminar included breath work, work against knife, strikes, kicks and movement and working on the ground. The drills were varied and many, unplanned but structured and one building on the other from Vladimir’s observation of what the group needed.
Vladimir worked with every group in the room and at times with 20 or more people all at once. The mass group work was unscripted and masterful. With Vladimir never injuring nor leaving any doubt as to the effectiveness of his movements. Even in the middle of so many attackers you could see Vladimir varying his response to meet the ability and intention of the attacking students. Including those that came from behind!
Of all the drills and exercises that we covered it was the Breathwork that stood out to me as having the most fundamental impact not just on our health, but on our combat skills and our ability to actually do the fighting work. It felt like an extension of the work we had just been doing in Moscow with Mikhail Ryabko a few weeks earlier – and with Vladimir’s explanations we were able to understand this work deeper still.
I think it happens to most of us that the longer we train the more interest we have in the fundamental aspects and drills of Systema training – especially – if not more than anything else - the Breathwork. I commented something along these lines to Vladimir and he pointed out that we shouldn’t forget that Systema is a whole package and that people come to Systema to be warriors in one way or another. If we will focus on breathing to the exclusion of other aspects we would be best to be clear and call it Systema Breathing.
I thought about the wisdom of this advice and reflected back more than a decade to when I first crossed the doors of Vladimir’s training hall in Toronto at the age of 22. I do wonder at the age of 22 if Vladimir had not represented “the whole package” to me, including throwing me around the training hall, that I would have had experience and knowledge to understand the depth of the Breathwork, and its fundamental connection to both combat and health, that I am now starting to appreciate.
The seminar started with breathing and Vladimir took us through various oxygen deprivation and recovery drills. The focus of these drills was explained as making absolutely sure we were achieving “full recovery”. As this in turn allows us to understand how far from our normal state we are under varying levels of stress and how to proactively return to our normal state.
The first drills involved work held on the out-breath (breathing out most but not all the air), and then secondly held on the in-breath. The rationale for the order of the work was explained as it being psychologically easier to work on the out-breath. Since breathing out releases tension vs. breathing in which actually produces tension. Despite the illusion that work on the in-breath initially seems more comfortable because you have a larger base of oxygen to work from.
The interesting thing about the order of these fundamental exercises is that each exercise, press-ups, squats and then leg raises, takes you through a longer range of movement – thus increasing the psychological challenge.
I am sure the application to combat is obvious to most on this forum, but Vladimir explained it in very simple terms for us. When something stressful happens to us we experience all or some of the above effects that these drills produce. Be it anxiety, frustration, anger, fear or even panic, from an emotional perspective, to increased blood pressure, pulse rate, body temperature, tension, tiredness etc. on the physical side. As Mikhail had said to us in Moscow, if one cannot recover from the initial surprise or shock of a situation (e.g. getting hit), then all the skills you have will be meaningless as you will not be able to deploy them (until you have recovered enough to do so). Thus the faster one recovers…
Vladimir told us that ultimately we should be able to recover ourselves completely with one breath. Obviously very important when response times matter.
We may also start to recognize more mundane situations in our daily life that cause stress and know how far we have become from our normal state – and recover ourselves without getting sucked into the situation. For example, an irate taxi driver taking out his own stress on the “innocent” immigrant passenger... internal voice of innocent immigrant passenger, “oh boy that’s about 5 push-ups worth already” - breath – recover… (real story with me as the immigrant passenger and Vladimir and Ryo Onishi sitting in the back seat of the cab – much to Vladimir’s amusement).
After 2 hrs of Breathwork, the room was alive with energy and glowing faces– quite the opposite of what some might expect!
We then moved on to knife work and the results of working from this increased state of relaxation, having faced and worked with our own fears in the earlier held-breath drills, was obvious. Personally, it seemed as if there was literally more time to see what was coming – as in my perception of time had changed as a result of the earlier work. I was not the only one who experienced this. I had gone past my “normal” state and was working from a much deeper state of balance – if only it was so easy to keep it that way!
Around this time Vladimir said something else which immediately and fundamentally changed my ability to work through the remainder of the seminar and caused me to reevaluate my training overall. Vladimir was watching me work and commented, “move for yourself”.
I now understand there is more than one layer to this comment – on the one hand I needed to start from “my movement” and “where I needed to be” to work comfortably in relation to the oncoming attack (and go there) vs. reacting to what the
attacker was doing to me (and ending up somewhere advantageous).
I later also understood the comment in relation to the attitude we take with us to go teach our classes (for those of us who teach). Vladimir explained if we go to train, rather than to teach, then our students will improve with us naturally and aspire to test themselves as we test ourselves. This is how a warrior should train and how a warrior will inspire others to develop themselves.
In an interview with the Japanese martial arts magazine, Vladimir was asked about his time training with Mikhail back in the early eighties. Vladimir commented that whilst they referred to themselves as Mikhail’s students, Mikhail never once referred to himself as the teacher – he was there to train and they trained with him. I felt I had been given the chance to hear the same lesson twice.
Vladimir’s generosity, professionalism and humility never cease to amaze and on a personal note never ceases to leave a deep desire to be better person and to tread more honestly on the path toward being a warrior. Vladimir is the true bench mark to aspire to for any instructors travelling to teach seminars. To anyone considering attending a seminar with Vladimir I cannot recommend it enough and or anyone luck enough to host Vladimir do take it with both hands and an open heart.