In the early 2009, I was assigned to a security detail in Japan, my employer at the time was an Israeli man that had lived and worked in Japan for over a decade. After work one day, he asked if I would like to train in the dojo that was in our building of occupancy. I agreed, and he went on to show me some grabs and escapes, ground movement and soft work. My brain was trying to understand what was happening, all while my body was experiencing something foreign and fascinating. I was hooked. So there I was: an American, in Japan, learning a Russian Martial Art, from an Israeli man. I can’t make that up. Thank you, Avry. Once I returned to my home state of Texas, I immediately searched the Internet for the closest Systema school; there was one an hour drive away, in Austin. So I showed up one day, a little eager, and a little nervous, not really knowing what to expect. Little did I know, I was about to embark on something so profound and life changing. That was over 5 years ago, I met Gene Smithson and started my training, and to this day, I get the same feeling every time I walk into his school.
So, what is Systema?
This is quite possibly, the hardest question to answer as a student and an instructor. Could it be that Systema is by far the most diverse, complete, and unique martial art in the world? I don’t know. As I continue my training the question gets harder and harder to answer. Shouldn’t it get easier to understand though?
No, it shouldn’t. That’s because each time you train Systema you begin to see “more”, taking you even further down the rabbit hole. When I say, “you see more”, I mean you see more of everything, more possibilities, more options, more entrances, more exits. However, if not careful, this positive skill and knowledge can also initiate growth of ego. This is where the balance of Systema comes in. You also start to see more of your limitations, weaknesses, and bad habits. This is can both frustrate and/or motivate depending on the individual in training. So a balance needs to come into play, to humbly accept what you are not good at, and at the same time not letting your ego get bigger when you become better at something that others are struggling with. Easier said than done, right? Well, that’s all part of your growth as a student of Systema.
In a weird way, one of the best ways to progress at Systema, is to stop trying to progress at Systema! To clean yourself of everything, and I mean everything. Walking into class with no expectations, no thoughts, no preconceived ideas, and no agenda.
This is can be a challenge for many, especially in today’s world. We live in a time where we are the most connected we have ever been (social media, Internet, instant messaging, email, smart phones) but at the same time, we are the most DISCONNECTED we have ever been. We as humans have lost connection with the outdoors, with our families, with our peers, but worst of all… we have lost connection with ourselves.
For example, last year Dr. Emma Seppala, a Stanford Psychologist, gave a speech to employees at Facebook HQ where she stated, “The urge to check social media and Facebook has now surpassed the desire for sex and addictive substance like cigarettes”. Powerful statement if you think about. Research shows that our desire for social connection is one of our strongest needs in life. This social connection is also considered a strong predictor of physical health, psychological health, recovery from disease, and even life longevity. Sound familiar? Most of my students that I have taught or personally trained in Systema have approached me at one time and said, “I started training because I wanted to learn how to fight, now I train because of a much deeper connection”.
This connection is not only with their training partners, but also with their spouses, their children, co-workers and most importantly, themselves. This is something we will never achieve through social media or the Internet, and it cannot be replicated.
When I wake in the morning, I struggle with the desire to reach over and check my phone. This has become a problem for me in the past year. I would wake up, and without hesitation, reach for my smartphone to check my notifications. Now, I have slowly progressed to leaving the phone in a different room while sleeping (whatever it is can wait for the next day). Here is where I started to implement my Systema, from Let Every Breath, pg. 55 “Starting your day”. Vladimir articulates that the body over time can suffer when it’s trying to adapt to “cold starts”. He says that the way the body handles the transition from rest to activity is paramount, so it’s best if we do not rush ourselves and try to begin the first moments of our day rapidly. A better way to begin your day is by slowly waking, remain in the laying position and begin with a breath based warm-up routine. This routine has helped my body and me tremendously. It has also helped me to reconnect to myself. If you have not read Let Every Breath, do yourself a favor and get it.
In these modern times, we are completely surrounded by outside influences, and they are starting to affect our mind, body and soul. The good news is, we all have something much more powerful and special within us, and there is a “System” that can guide and help you find it. It’s up to you determine when that starts.
All the best to you and your training!
Michael J Gonzales is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, the founder and chief instructor of San Antonio Systema and is currently pursuing his Bachelors in Psychology at the University of Incarnate Word. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org