Systema for the Elderly Parts 1 and 2

June 01, 2015 by Konstantin Komarov  
Translated by: Dimitri Trufanov

How does aging start and progress? At what age does the degenerative process begin? Can we do something about it? Why do some people show advanced aging symptoms at 40, while others still look young at the age of 60 and some are active and fully competent at the age of 80 and more? Should people limit their physical activity as they get older?

These are just a few of the questions that need to be answered before attempting to teach classes to seniors. We’ll do our best to answer them without delving too deep into the physiological details of the process.
As our bodies age, they begin to accumulate deep muscular tensions and limit their own mobility. There are numerous potential causes: stress, injuries, illnesses, surgeries, heavy physical workloads, and many others. Childhood and old age are polar opposites. Childhood is highly mobile; while old age is mostly low mobility.

The process that limits our movement begins gradually, with minor aches and pains, discomfort, feelings of “weakness” or “loss of control” over the muscles. Fearing full range of joint movements and of sudden actions appears. Next, the body begins to adapt to these limitations, changing the habitual movements and positions. At this point, the person focuses excessively on physical movements. What follows is the excluding various physical activities from the daily routine, slowing down and altering the lifestyle. Soon, the brain functions follow the body, resulting in problems with memory, attention and thought processes.

This is where we see a fundamental physiological law in action:
UNDERUTILIZED FUNCTIONS ATROPHY, or simply put, USE IT OR LOSE IT! It means that if you stop walking for several months, you may not be able to stand up afterwards. You would have to learn to walk all over again... This law applies just as much to your mental faculties.

The accumulated tensions lead to excessive overall muscle tone, which tends to crowd the diaphragm, intercostal and abdominal muscles. As a result, breathing becomes limited and no longer provides sufficient amounts of oxygen to the heart. The heart starts beating abnormally, with palpitations, thus agitating the nervous system. The muscle tone then increases even more and affects the entire network of blood vessels (they are, after all, muscular organs), causing blood pressure spikes.

So, throughout the aging process, our body systems stop interacting with each other in a balanced way. It is a vicious circle that is extremely difficult to reverse or interrupt.
Recent studies have demonstrated that body aging in itself causes no fundamental physiological changes to its tissues and organs. What happens is that some of the organs and systems start failing and shut down for the reasons stated above. Therefore, even as we age, we can and must do the necessary work to maintain and repair the key body functions.

The Systema approach is very well suited for this purpose.
Working with seniors can take two main routes – the general recovery route, and the “selective” route (focusing on a specific body function that has been disrupted).
I am not going to talk about the “selective” work here because it is more complex and requires specialized knowledge and practice. For now, let’s talk briefly about the general, foundational health practices.

Depending on the initial condition of the senior students, we have to establish the duration, intensity, and content of the class. The general rule is simple: always adjust the work based on the student’s health, especially their pulse. Please make sure to start the class by telling the students to constantly monitor how they are feeling and listen to their heartbeat. If they can hear their own heart with their “inner ear”, then it is imperative that their heart be calmed down using breathing. If the student notices that during a class they feel worse in any way, they should tell the instructor immediately and take a break from the class.

Lying Position
It is best to begin the class lying down on the floor, on the back. This helps release anxieties and expectations while allowing the body’s musculoskeletal system to relax. This is where dynamic stretches (away from or across the body) with slow breathing work really well. Stretching away from the body occurs when hands, arms, and the top of the head are stretching “up” (when lying down, this means along the floor, over the head), and your heels extending “down” (also along the floor). As a result, the spine gets a good stretch. Then extend the arms to the sides, away from the rib cage, and stretch apart through the fingertips. Stretch on the inhale, relax on the exhale. You can also add stretching diagonally across the body – right arm and left foot and vice versa.
Next, you can try various ways of turning over from back to stomach and vice versa, with the body movement following fingertips and feet/knees. Then, ask the students to crawl as able on their backs and stomachs. Remember that crawling may be challenging for older people; so don’t worry about how far or how fast they move. What’s more important is the process itself: movement by engaging the body’s core muscles and, of course, connecting the movements with continuous breathing.
After crawling, add a workout for the students’ back and stomach muscles. Some exercises that help here include pulling the knees up to the chin while lying down on the back, or pulling each knee to the opposite shoulder. You can also include gentle backward bends while lying on the stomach.
Attention! After every physically intensive exercise it is absolutely necessary to let the muscles relax and release all residual tensions.
Here is a way of doing this. Use slow breathing and alternate stretching the muscles of the back and stomach. For instance, lying down on the side, slowly bend the body forward on the exhale, stretching the back muscles. Then slowly exhale and bend the body backward, stretching the stomach muscles. Next, spend 5-7 minutes relaxing on the back and listening to the pulse, using attention to move the pulsing sensation to various parts of the body.

The next stage of the class focuses on the sitting positions. This is important for creating mild workload on the cardiovascular and nervous systems, and for highlighting the importance of constant breathing. The simplest way to do this work is to repeatedly sit up and lie down in various ways. Go down while exhaling and relaxing, and sit up while on the inhale. In this case, “going down” basically means gently falling down from a sitting position. Even though the height difference is not significant, such work creates fear and agitation if the body is tense. Therefore, it is necessary to constantly monitor the breathing and the excitement level of the psyche. Periodically pause the exercise and calm down the psyche with breathing.

The next phase is work in standing positions. Just as with lying down, we start with correcting the body form and with stretching. As we work on the proper body position, please remember that any substantial tensions present in the body will interfere with people’s ability to assume and maintain the proper body form. The very act of keeping correct body form in this case becomes a physically taxing task. Stretching can correct this by relaxing the muscles and allowing the body to return to its proper form. You can also combine stretching with twists of the torso to the left or right (at the moment of the stretch). Twisting on the exhale is better because it can put additional stress on the muscles that are already tense enough.
After you have corrected the body form and worked through your twists and stretches, do a slow squat with breathing. It is preferable at this point to do as “forgiving” a squat as you can, holding onto something for balance and only going as far as the ankle, knee and hip joints permit. At the same time, however, make sure to maintain your straight and natural body form and breathe continuously. Once you are done squatting, immediately take note of your heartbeat and, if needed, restore it to its normal working rate through breathing.

The next step is to work for 20-25 minutes on movements. When tensions accumulate in the body, posture is the first thing to deteriorate. Our nature is walking upright, which is a complex skill, requiring good coordination and balance. Excess tension of individual muscle groups causes other muscle groups to compensate in order to maintain balance. This limits freedom of movement and disrupts coordination. The excess load lands on the leg joints, hip joints, and the spine.
Walking with breathing synchronized to a certain number of steps is an effective exercise for restoring and maintaining the natural gait. As much as you can, please be very diligent about maintaining your body structure while walking. Also make sure that shoulders and arms are relaxed and a part of your movement. Don’t walk too fast, otherwise it will be difficult for to control the body form. “Stretch” the breathing (gradually increase the number of steps you take per each inhale and each exhale) until you notice tension in the shoulders and neck on the inhale. Don’t try to break any records. It is enough that breathing is complete, easy, and fills up the entire body. After you have “stretched” your breathing as far as you can, it is necessary to “shorten it” slowly and gradually back to normal. An abrupt transition from long breaths to short breaths can result in a rapid change in blood pressure. There is no need to force any additional stress on the body.

Upper body
Now that we have done some work with breathing, we can begin working to properly distribute our blood pressure by working our upper body – our arms and shoulders. We can accomplish this through slow pushups off the floor or off the wall. Be careful when doing this exercise – poor breathing can result in increased blood pressure while doing this exercise. For this reason, pushups off the wall are preferable for the elderly.
In addition to pushups, you can offer a series of exercises involving pushing the body, twisting joints, and working with opponent’s resistance. In short, do anything that provides work for the upper body, as well as giving it a variety of new sensations and movements.

Move to Restore
It is best to conclude the class with work lying down on the floor. This allows releasing any residual stress from the musculoskeletal structure that might have surfaced as a result of the workout. It also helps unify the body by using the core muscles, as well as equalizes blood pressure. Do an exercise in pairs on the floor where each partner gently twists the other’s arm and leg joints. One partner slowly twists and holds any joint; and the other moves on the floor to escape the uncomfortable position. Follow this up with free movement on the floor with breathing – rolls, stretches or any other movements, matching the breathing cycle. Conclude the class by stretching with breathing, and by taking some time to assess the body while lying on the back.

This suggested class takes anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes, which is more than enough for an elderly person.
Throughout the class, it is important to check how the students feel, and periodically have them measure their pulse after a workout. The pulse should be restored after each segment to around 60-80 beats per minute throughout the class.
The bodily sensations at the end of the class are crucially important. The body should feel light, energized, and calm. The students should be in a good mood. Exhaustion, weakness, agitation, or persistent negative thoughts all point to disruptions in the content and format of the class, or perhaps incorrect execution of some of the exercises. If several people in the class experience such negative things, that means you should carefully review and rethink the content, structure, and pace of your class. If just one or two people experience these things, watch them carefully and make sure they are doing the work properly. Correct any mistakes, and check with them how they feel more frequently than with the other students.

Systema classes are extremely beneficial for elderly people. It allows them to sustain their good health, live an active life, continue working, maintain a stable good mood, and push back old age and stagnation.
There can be no doubt of Systema’s superiority to the generic sport and fitness classes. Here is why:
• Systema does not require any achievements, nor does it establish rigid rules or standards.
• Systema advocates an uninterrupted and correct process based on the individual’s own sense of the self.
• At the same time, this process is not a rote repetition of similar exercises, but a continuous process of searching, finding, and discovering; a fascinating game that never gets boring, but brings you the joy of natural movement.
As you conduct Systema classes with elderly people it is necessary to constantly remember one of Systema’s most important principles: DON’T DO HARM!

Working with older people is an important element of Systema training and is covered at specialized classes and seminars.

Konstantin Komarov

- Major in the Special Service Police Force
- Russian Military Reconnaissance
- PhD in combat Psychology
- Professional Bodyguard for Moscow's Elite
- One of the master instructors at Systema Camp