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Systema: The Russian martial art that sends you to the mat even without touching it
With the Russian Revolution in 1917, not only did the tsarist empire disappear, but also an old Russian form of struggle that was too scary for the Bolsheviks and which they therefore forbade: Systema, a holistic form of self-defense.
Fortunately, the fighting tradition was not lost. When the Berlin Wall fell, ex-soldiers from the former Soviet Union began to bring their defense skills closer to people in many corners of the world.
There is also an official Systema teacher in Spain, Juan Pedro Serna. Serna is the head of a security company and tells us that Systema practitioners have a very good reputation in his profession. "You enjoy a lot of prestige with us, which is why I wanted to study with the best master ever, Vladímir Vasíliev," explains Serna.
Juan Pedro Serna (with the cap) during a Systema training camp in Denmark. Photo: Arne Jakobsen
Alongside Mikhail Ryabko - who learned the martial arts from Stalin's bodyguards - Vasíliev is considered to be one of the best Systema fighters in the world. But what is really important with Systema? “It's a completely different martial art, and I'm not saying it's better or worse. The good thing about Systema is that it is an extremely versatile discipline that can be used in almost any situation. Systema is applied biomechanics. That may sound strange, but what it means is that you learn by trying out natural body movements and not by dull repetition of some techniques, "explains Serna.
Before he landed at Systema ten years ago, Juan Pedro had founded a regional kickboxing association and trained various boxers: "I come from the field of contact sports, but I found that my previous experience was not really compatible with Systema". And there it was If there are no official techniques, it quickly becomes complicated when trying to explain Systema.
Serna tries anyway. “Systema has four basic pillars: correct (that is to say: uninterrupted) breathing, natural posture, economic movements and a relaxed psyche. Breathing helps with relaxation and mental relaxation with movement and the right choice of movement, "summarizes Serna.
There are no competitions at Systema because it is a martial art that is solely used for self-defense and security. So there are no belts or degrees.
Systema also causes a lot of criticism. And that has to do with videos in which masters like Ryabko force their students to the ground without even touching them.
I confront Serna with videos of such strange-looking performances and he emphasizes that you have to see the scenes in a larger context. “Ryabko's exercise in Berlin was about sensing and redirecting the opponent's body tension. It has nothing to do with magic, but with the flow of human energy. "
Jack Slack, martial arts specialist for Fightland, explains to me that he has no use for these mystical aspects of Systema: "When a teacher speaks of energies as if they were detached from physical movements, he is definitely talking nonsense."
Serna, at one of his seminars in Alicante. Photo: Systema España
But Systema also works as a contact sport. And to show us what Systema looks like in the real world, Serna plays us a video in which several soldiers fight each other. One could again believe that they use certain techniques in doing so, but Serna insists on the philosophical-spiritual background of his teaching.
“People who watch videos like this are sure they can recognize certain techniques. But what you see emerges completely naturally from the moment, "he emphasizes." It is similar to the 'Be water, my friend'-Maxime by Bruce Lee. It's about turning off your head, but letting your body find a solution. Our training also consists of sharpening the body's instincts ".
Even if the no-contact excesses seem a bit ridiculous, Systema is an exciting and effective martial art. After all, Stalin's bodyguards would hardly have trusted hocus-pocus.
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