‘Every exercise is just to make you relax’

Systema Masterclass with Martin Wheeler

A few years ago now I’ve started training in the Russian Martial Art Systema with Loren Clements in Auckland and it has been an invaluable addition and part of my training ever since. I haven’t written or posted anything about it so far, but this long weekend’s trip to Melbourne lends itself to the occasion. Though also not my first Systema seminar, it was the first time that I attended a seminar with Martin Wheeler, a long time student of Vladimir Vasiliev and Mikhail Ryabko, and an accomplished martial artist and instructor. I don’t have any videos from the seminar, but am sure there will be some online shortly, but even outside of that there is plenty videos of Martin working online as is, so no need for me to post any of that here now. Instead I’ll just wanted to share some of the moments and gems that stood out for me during the 4-day Masterclass.

First off, the man lives up to his reputation, both in sheer skill and knowledge in his craft, as well as in the teaching and sharing of it and I thoroughly recommend his classes to anyone interested in the study of Systema and martial arts in general. During the four days Martin took us through an excellent progression of drills and exercises, filling every day with rich information and material for us to take home and continue working on for some time to come.

Leading into the first day, dedicated to groundwork, we started exploring the movement possibilities of our spine and how all movements of the extremities can be generated from there. More importantly maybe, in doing this we explored a deeper and deeper relaxation of the spine that was to set the tone for the next few days.

A special moment from me was when Martin showed us how the relaxation of the spine, hips and legs can lead into a backward roll with zero use of momentum or tension in the abdominal, or any other muscles in the legs or arms. Amongst the reasons for this being special to me was because it shows a beautiful overlap in the fundamentals of Systema and the traditional Japanese arts that might well reach deeper than the more superficial differences and actually point to a more fundamental human movement possibility. The backward roll instructed by Kuroda Tetsuzan, one of the most highly regarded traditional Japanese martial arts instructors today, in the video below shows 1:1 the exact backwards roll that Martin had us practice. For the non-french speaking folks, Kuroda Sensei is making the very same point of difference between a roll with abdominal contraction, and a roll done with relaxation. I can’t say I can do it yet, but when Martin gave me a hand and actually led me through it, I could at least and quite definitely feel what I will be looking for in this from now on. In all my teaching and training of rolling and falling, I am more than convinced that this is THE one addition that will make the greatest difference, not because of the way the roll looks, but because it is done with ACTUAL relaxation.

On the second day, dedicated to striking, Martin had us further spend a lot of time with squats, push-ups, sit-ups and walking that really prompted us to relax our spines, both by ourselves as well as with the help of a partner. The way we did this work on that day really drove home the difference between Systema (Aikido, Koryu, …) and fitness training for me and that gave the title to this post: ‘You only do exercises (like e.g. the above) to relax yourself, not to build strength, endurance, or even flexibility’! Martin repeated this several times and I think it’s importance cannot be overrated, as paying attention to this point so quintessentially changes the direction of our practice. Just like Philippe Orban, Minoru Akuzawa and those others that know and can do it, Martin also pointed out that relaxation is not a state in which all muscles are entirely relaxed simultaneously, but where only the bare minimum of what is needed is working, oftentimes those muscles inside the body, close to the joints and bones. The paradox thing here is obviously that although relaxation always sounds so easy to do, it actually ends up being the most difficult to gain amongst all the physical (and mental) qualities.

Just to make a point of this, the third day I just could not relax at all for the life of me and pretty much spent the day wrapped in my frustration about this. It’s always amazing to feel what a difference it makes when the knife comes into play in training and how much fear and tension creep in almost instantly. Additionally, and probably related to this, I just constantly caught myself trying too hard, trying to do something to my partner, to the knife, not getting cut, etc., the tension in my head just as frustratingly matching the tension in my body. Two things that Martin said weighed heavy with meaning at the end of the day: Firstly, that all those voices in my head actually end up being additional attackers that I have to deal with even before I engage with anything or -one outside of me and that therefore it would obviously be best to quiet them down; and secondly, that Systema is all about being creative, something that is only possible when we relax, and maybe even allow ourselves to loose, observe the process, and learn from it.

Thankfully on the last day I had chilled out again and regained my sense of balance and relaxation. Adding to this was almost 2.5hrs spent on much needed massage work and stretching that was greatly appreciated by everyone (despite some minor pains and aches…). With all this I was well prepared and back to my playful self for the last component of the Masterclass in which we tied together all of the elements and work from the previous days, from standing to the ground, with and without the knife. With frequent partner changes and much space to explore freely, this was an outstanding opportunity to train hard and laugh hard with many of the over 30 participants at the seminar.

This is probably also what I should close on, that is, the people that attended and the atmosphere during the entire four days was absolutely outstanding. I have reconnected with people I have met before and met many new people and have thoroughly enjoyed sharing this time and training with everyone from across AUS and NZ. It was truly a fantastic bunch of people, and a fantastic four days, and as I said at the final wrap-up, thanks to the organizers, everyone who attended, and obviously Martin. The faces in the picture below pretty much sum it up I would say and I am already looking forward to next time!