Join Date: May 2003
Systema Seminar with Vladimir Vasiliev, Part 1
Review of Systema Seminar with Vladimir Vasiliev
Saturday and Sunday, June 28th and 29th, 2003
New York City, New York
by Alex Loglia
I have heard a lot about Vladimir Vasiliev over the last year, getting introduced to the Russian Martial Art last year by George Ledyard Sensei of Aikido Eastside in Bellevue, Washington. This introduction also happened to coincide with the last years Aiki Expo, where James Williams and Ken Good did some Systema related demonstrations that intrigued me. At Ledyard Sensei's recommendation, I ordered some tapes, and saw immediate overlap with Aikido, but also interesting differences. Later in the year, my friend Stanley Pranin, editor of Aikido Journal and organizer and mastermind of the Aiki Expo in Las Vegas, visited Vasiliev's school in Toronto, Canada for a seminar taught by both Vasiliev and his teacher in the Russian system, Mikhail Ryabko. As both Stan and I live in Las Vegas, I got immediate feedback from him that both Vasiliev and Ryabko were the real thing. Stanley has more than enough experience for me to trust his judgment, but I definitely wanted to experience things for myself first hand. For those who do not already know, Vasiliev will be one of the featured instructors at the The Expo this year, which will be particularly exciting this year, since Shizuo Imaizumi Sensei of Shin Budo Kai with whom I have trained for many years, will also be one of the featured instructors. Now, after logging a very positive seminar experience with Vasiliev, I look forward to training with him as well.
This review is directed primarily to an Aikido audience. My thinking is that if you train in Systema already, none of this is really new to you. For the benefit of the Aikidoka out there, I will use the japanese terms as much as possible to avoid confusion and to make useful comparisons. For those of you with no Aikido background, the "jo" is the short staff 48-52" long. "Ukemi" generally refers to receiving an attack, but in most cases specifically refers to safely taking a fall. As for some of the other Japanese terms I use, don't worry, they won't clarify much for you anyway unless you have the background and have seen certain types of movements and techniques.
The Systema seminar was packed full of good stuff. Two days, four hours per day, no breaks. I came off a very sweaty and vigorous Friday night advanced class at the Shin Budo Kai hombu dojo with Imaizumi Sensei, so I was all primed and broken in for the weekend. I came in very open minded, with my only experience in Systema having through watching some of Vasiliev's tapes, and also me submitting some of my Las Vegas students to my experimentation with what I gleaned from these tapes. The atmosphere at the seminar was very positive. In Systema, in keeping with their practical approach of natural movement and living the martial art in the day to day world, there are no ranks and everyone wears comfy, tough, street clothes. Everyone there came to train, and there was no problem coming in as an outsider and jumping right in. I met many very talented martial artists, and felt welcomed. I also noticed immediately that Vasiliev had a very open and generous character, and a great sense of humor.
The Saturday session began with "warm up" exercises. These were hard core flexibility, ukemi and strength exercises that incorporated integrated body movement. I was very happy to see this, since one of my pet peeves with many Aikido students I have trained with is a lack of good solid overall physical conditioning. This is understandable, since traditional Aikido training is technique centered, and valuable class time which would otherwise be spent on exercise generally goes to learning and training specific technique. Nevertheless, few students today have the opportunity to train as many of the original students of the founder did, with 6-8 hours of class time per day, so unfortunately, many of today's Aikido students don't exercise outside of class, and I personally think this is a bit of a mistake.
So I was happy to see that there was plenty of conditioning in Systema. I was even happier to see that the exercises I saw in the seminar were well thought out, involved strength training integrated with balance, and related directly to the movements and work done in Systema. I'll give a descriptive run down of the exercises we were put through. Also, much to my surprise, most of the warm-ups done at this seminar involved the jo, a weapon readily available in almost every Aikido dojo. For this reason, I will give a specific run down of these exercises in case anyone out there wants to get experimental. I would also like to add that most of the students there who I was able to identify as having trained in Systema for any appreciable length of time were very strong, but also very loose, relaxed, and flexible.
THE WARM-UP EXERCISES
1. We started with an exercise on the floor. #1 lays face up on the floor, arms at his sides. #2 lays his upper body perpendicularly across #1's, forming bridge across #1's body and arms. #1 has to wiggle out from under #2 by moving his body. #2 can vary how much of his weight he puts on #1. This was not easy, took a lot of work, but also required maintaining complete relaxation.
2. Sitting down on the floor with your legs open out in front of you in a "v", place the jo vertically with one end on the floor, parallel with your torso and between your legs near your torso. Grab the jo and pull yourself up off the floor without using your legs at all. If you have tough abs already, use them to try to do this exercise by keeping your legs completely parallel to the floor as you launch yourself up.
3. Same position as #1, but with the jo on the side of your body next to the outside of your thigh. Same deal; pull yourself up off the floor without using your legs at all. Done on both sides.
4. Stand with the jo across your shoulders and drape you arms over the jo, with forearms and hands hanging in front. If this description is confusing, think of the old method of carrying the stick with two water buckets on each end. Anyway, from this position, lay down on your back as quickly and gently as you can. The gently part happens quite naturally, since if you clunk down mindlessly or with tension, the awkward position of the jo gives you a gentle pain to correct the error of your ways. The exercise really forced me to use my abs to support my movement and gently let myself down. An observation. In Systema, I notice that most of the experienced students there took their ushiro ukemi by letting themselves straight down on one leg, with the other leg straight out in front of them until their rear end was just near the floor. This in contrast to the standard Aikido ukemi (except in Yoshinkan) where you tuck the back leg. This alternative method took a bit more leg strength and control, but I notice that the ukemi used in Systema did allow you to roll to either side if you had to once you reached the floor, while the typical Aikido ukemi limited you to rolling off only to one side if you had to.
Anyway, so you are on the floor with the jo across your shoulders. Now, get up as fast as you can without using your hands and without hitting the jo on the floor. Again, great control and overall center strengthening exercise. The exercise also forced me to really relax and control my upper body and move softly. If you really want to build up your leg strength and balance, get up by sticking one leg out in front while tucking the other foot, sole on the floor, as near to your body as you can and press up on one leg to standing.
In general, I found that training ukemi with the jo really forced me to be much softer and controlled in my movements.
5. Now, same position with jo across the shoulders, sit on the floor with your legs our in front of you. Roll over onto your stomach as quickly and gently as possible. No hands, and don't let the stick hit the floor. This requires flexibility, and forced me to train to really relax my body so I could use it to absorb the force of the fall very gently. It also forced me to use a nice strong supple full body bridge full of energy to absorb and disperse the impact of my chest hitting the floor. Once your laying face down, roll back over and get back to sitting position, again as quickly and gently as possible, again, no hands and no stick contact with the floor. Getting up, a good strong curve needed, as well as a lot of ab control to get my upper body up high enough to flip over without using hands or hitting the jo on the floor.
6. If your feeling really brave, go from standing with the jo across your shoulders, to flat on your chest as quickly and gently as possible, no hands, and no hitting the stick on the floor. Then get up to your feet as fast as you can.
7. In this exercise, stand with the jo horizontally across the thoracic vertebrae of your back, and holding the jo up there by wrapping your arms around it from behind, with your hands sticking out in front of your body. You are basically holding the jo up behind you in the inside of your elbows. Sit on the floor. Go from sitting to face down flat on your stomach as quickly and gently as possible. Then get back up to sitting position. Basically, you are repeating the movements in number 5 above, again staying relaxed, and without using your hands or hitting the stick on the floor. The movement from being face down to sitting and vice versa was harder than in number 3, since the jo was a lot closer to the center of your body, and this required a lot more strength, flexibility, and bridging to move without using hands or hitting the jo on the floor.
Throughout all the exercises, and also during the rest of the training, Vasiliev stressed breathing, leading us in inhaling, and then exhaling for the execution of the movements.
8. Push-ups with the jo. So, get in the position with the jo across your shoulders (as in No. 5 above), and lay flat face-down on your stomach. You hands are near the sides of your head. Make fists, and, as your forearms and hands are on the sides of your head, place the fists on the floor for push-ups. Now, the jo across your shoulders completely prevents you from getting a push up, since it locks up in your elbows and across your neck. It ends up with you just bridging and struggling to get your body off the floor and hold it there as long as you can.
9. Push-ups with jo, another version. Get in the position with the jo behind your back ( as in No. 7 above), and held on the inside of your elbows, with your hands out in front of you. Lay face down again, make fists, and do a push-up. Again, the jo prevents a real push up, so now you are bridging with the jo across your back. A whole different set of muscles is used, since your hands are near your waist and are supporting you at a much lower point on your body.
Now for the exercises we did on the first day without the jo.
10. Standard push ups. Well almost. We got with a partner and set up parallel to each other in a standard push-up position. We put a tennis ball between our triceps which were right next to each other, and then did very slow push-ups, making sure not to let the tennis ball fall. Trade sides. This is much harder than is sounds. First of all, it forced you to do push ups with perfect standard form, which has the insides of your elbows facing forward, and with you arms and elbows staying at your sides and parallel to your body as do the exercise. Most people abandon this form, or never learn it properly, doing push up while allowing the elbows to flare out to the sides. This exercise of doing push-ups with the tennis ball required a lot of sensitivity to the other person's movement, and careful arm adjustments. It also forced the push-ups to be done very slowly, and in very good form. We then repeated the exercise with three people next to each other, with two tennis balls, one either side of the middle man. Rotate through each position. The guy in the middle had to respond to the man on either side, requiring even more squirming and adjusting, all while doing good slow push-ups. Needless to say, we very sweaty and there was lot of grunting going on. If you have any experience with this, you know that doing these sort of slow and controlled movements is a lot harder that running through them fast.
11. Two man squats with the tennis ball. You and a partner stand back to back, feet a bit more than shoulder width apart. Put the tennis ball between you in the lower back area. Then, both of you slowly squat to the floor, all the way down to sitting on your rear-ends and with legs out in front, all without letting the ball drop. Then, and this was really hard, get your feet back up under you and slowly stand up again, without losing the ball. Sound easy? Try it.
12. Sensitivity exercise with the tennis ball. Stand facing your partner. #1 gently cups the tennis ball in his hands. #2 places his hands just immediately under #1's hands holding the ball, but without touching #1's hands. #1 drops the ball at will, and #2 tries to catch it. This is really hard if you try to react visually to #1 dropping the ball, which we all did with very little success for a few tries. Vasiliev then indicated that the real point of the exercise was not to react to seeing the ball drop, but to anticipate #1 dropping the ball. He demonstrated being able to catch the ball every time in this manner. So the attention was not focused on the ball, but on to sensing when #1 would drop the ball. This made a huge difference. I got to the point where me and my partner were doing this looking over each others heads (not looking as the hands at all), and even had some success relaxing and trying this with eyes closed. This was a great exercise, as it forced me away from reacting visually, but instead using a different kind of sensing.
13. #1 stands facing away from his partner (#2), hand naturally at his sides. #2 tosses the tennis ball up under #1's arms, up under his legs, and drops the ball from over #1's head. #1 has to try to catch the ball. The problem is that he doesn't get a lot of time to react, and has to pay close attention to sensing where the ball is or will be coming from. Catching the ball dropped from above was the hardest. The tennis ball would reappear on Day 2 of the seminar during the bodyguard training.
ESCAPES FROM HOLDS
Before I begin these descriptions, let me say in advance that they will pretty hard to unravel unless you sit there and try to do it with a partner and do through the description. Even, they are still hard to follow. Photos would be a lot better, but I have none. I know these description will be a bit tedious, but I promised several people that I would do my best to give a full description, so that is what I did. I am painfully aware that you cannot learn techniques from these description, but a few brave souls may want to experiment, so here they are, take them or leave them.
Vasiliev started by showing several techniques to use against side headlocks, both static, and coming to hold. The first technique involved responding to a person standing next to you, reaching up to grab your head into a side headlock. The responsive movement was done before the hold was firmly made, in other words, a come to hold technique. It involved moving and turning in the same general direction of the grab around the front of the attacker. With the attacker unbalanced, you continue turning and leading the arm around your neck (optionally grabbing it) into a turn that unbalances him and he falls. The transfer of energy to the attacker to make him fall was through the upper body and neck. We then did an offensive neck hold, where you grab the victim in a side headlock, drop to the floor in front of him while turning away from him, throwing him over your body into a roll as you rolled towards an on-all-fours position on the floor. The variation of this that Vasiliev showed was for the attacker to grab the victim and then drop more on his back, but keeping his outside knee up, and bringing the victims face to the knee as he is dropped to the floor.
Most of the holds, however, were from a facing headlock with an the victims head under the attackers armpit, otherwise known as the guillotine. For the purposes of these descriptions that follow, the attacker (#1) has the head of the victim, (#2) in a guillotine, holding the victim to his left under his left armpit, with the headlock being done by the left arm. Vasiliev demonstrated the first escape on me. I came up in front to get the grab, and he just sort of disappeared behind me. I turned around a little confused, not sure what went wrong. Vasiliev was standing behind me giving me his best dead pan expression, and I must have looked confused, because he just cracked a little smile; the spectators all got a good laugh. I missed the technique completely. In fact, I didn't even feel anything. He slipped the grab completely somehow. After a couple of more tries, I saw what was going on. As I came to grab, the technique was to drop a little and turn around the attacker, while keeping facing him as you moved behind him. I thought I saw it done with both clockwise and counterclockwise turns, but the clockwise turn seemed to work best. Just a simple step in around and turn. The slip was so soft and easy, it was hard to tell what happened. Just like grabbing air. In execution, I found it to work very well once I got the hang of it.
The next technique was also so simple I got confused. #1 grabs #2 in a guillotine. #2 grabs the elbow of the off hand of #1 (the right elbow), and pulls it towards towards his head. I laughed when I had this done to me, because the simple pulling of the off arm totally took all the energy out of the headlock.
In another variation, #1 grabs #2 in the guillotine. #2 adjusts his position slightly so he is moving towards a standing up position. While he does this, #2 takes his left hand and uses it to push #1's head towards his own head and a little upwards. This ended up taking all the energy out of the headlock, and put a huge amount of pressure on the attackers shoulder and collarbone, which clearly could be easily broken. On the receiving end of this, I felt intense pain.
#1 grabs #2 in a guillotine. #2 grabs the elbow of the off hand of #1 (the right elbow), and pulls it towards towards his head. This takes all the strength out of the hold. #2 then slips his right arm between #1's left elbow and body, while turning counterclockwise, and ends up standing side by side with #1, to #1's left. While this is happening, #2 grabs #1's left wrist with his left hand, and wraps his right forearm under #1's left forearm near #1's left elbow area, and finally grabbing his own left wrist/forearm. Complicated in description, but basically a simple arm bar. Vasiliev then used the arm bar with a scooping motion to dump the victim backwards.
We then did a simple two hand grab techniques (ryote-tori). #1 grabs both of #2's wrists. #2 grabs #1's left wrist from below with his left hand and rotates his right hand on top of his own left wrist, using it as a lever to break his right hand free. Once free, the index and middle finger of #2's right hand us used to poke #1 in the trachea, and then #2's right hand drops to the inside of #1's left elbow, applying pressure down and towards the left rear of #2 with a slight turning movement of #2's body in that same direction. This brought #1 to the floor. The throw/take down was executed in exactly the same spiral manner of a variety of kokyu-nage techniques.
We also did an offensive maneuver. #1 stands facing #2 and grabs #2's right wrist with his left hand, and grabs under #2's elbow from below with his right hand. This pressure on the elbow locks up the arm. Then, with a shoveling motion past his right shoulder, #1 unbalances #2 up and forward, throwing him into a forward roll, or if you want to be naughty, dumping #1's face into the floor.
We also did a cross hand grab (kosa tori) technique, which was done either defensively or offensively. #1 grabs #2's right wrist with his right hand. Then, while moving off to his right rear, #1 pulls #2's wrist downward and to the right at the same time, unbalancing #2 to #2's forward left, and twisting #2's wrist away from #1's body. Then, #1 places his left hand on #2's left shoulder/neck, and pulls #1 down to the floor. In aikido terms, it is much the way one would start a come to hold version of shiho-nage, with more emphasis on the downward pressure. In shin budo Kai parlance, this was kokyu nage ude mawashi, but simply moving backwards instead of forwards. Vasiliev executed the initial downward movement with a shock that easily sent #2 to the floor. You see this type of shock movement in many aikido and daito-ryu styles.
After going through these techniques, we moved to a simple movement exercises. The first consisted of your partner trying to grab you, either same side or cross hand, and you evading and moving naturally into an advantageous position, and without very much hand involvement or technique. Vasiliev emphasized that we were to move slowly, to not rush, and focus on the movement and the relationship with the other person's movement. Then we did the same basic exercise with more hand involvement, evading the grabs and moving into simple technique. The point was that the technique was to evolve naturally out of the movement. Vasiliev demonstrated the basic idea, demonstrating with an attacker, and running through a wide variety of technique flowing naturally out of the movement with the student he was demonstrating on. We followed suit. I found the exercise very useful. The idea stressed was to keep it slow, not use force, relax, and move naturally. Specific technique was not stressed, and we were encouraged to let technique develop naturally out of the movement. My wide repertoire of Aikido technique came in very useful, but it was nice to work in a very freestyle fashion. I was also happy to see that many unusual variation of standard Aikido technique came up, and some very new movements, trips, traps, and takedowns. It became clear that in Systema, they use their feet and legs to execute technique as much as they use their arms and hands.
After dealing with the holds, we got into some movement exercise based on using the body and legs. Vasiliev demonstrated evasive movement against several attackers using just body movement. His demonstrations in general were beautiful. I particularly enjoyed how relaxed he remained, and his economy of movement, as well how he used feet, legs and hands as easily and efficiently as hand and arm movement. Also, I was really impressed by how he was able to freely demonstrate with 2-4 attackers at a time in a space that was usually only 12-15 feet in diameter.
So we then did the same type of exercise, simply moving to evade kicks, without using our hands. This really made me focus on relaxed body movement. The small space and the multiple attackers also made me very aware of moving economically. Once we did this movement exercise, Vasiliev demonstrated the same exercise, except now, he used his body and legs to trip, trap, and unbalance the attackers. His demonstration was amazing and very inspiring. He moved through several attackers gently and deftly with no problem, dropping all of them over and over again, and on top of each other, without any problem. Many of the take downs involved pressure on the knee joint from the sides or back to collapse the leg, "riding" the attackers foot and/or leg before it hit the floor only to reposition just away from where he wanted to place it to unbalance him, attacking and unbalancing the off leg, redirecting kicks with the feet and legs to spin the attacker around, stepping on the feet and applying pressure to the knee with his knee, and a lot of close body contact to help gently unbalance the attacker. Higher kicks were dealt with simple slips, with the hands and arms following the movement of the kicks and attacks to the standing leg or enter and attack the body or standing leg, or continuing the momentum of the kicking leg to spin the attack around and get his back. Middle level kicks were slipped with a body turn, or the force absorbed with an outstretched leg making a slope. Low kicks were spun around using the fee to continue the kicks original direction, or blended with using the leg and repositioned before reaching the floor, thereby unbalancing the opponent by opening his stance up into an unnatural or too wide of a stance where he could easily be pushed over with a light body check or light push.
So we then tried the same exercise with 2-3 attackers, and using no hands, and only trying to trap, trip, and redirect the attackers kicks with our bodies and legs. Vasiliev stressed that we had to relax, and move slowly. This was very revealing for me. It opened me up to many possibilities of use of body movement and position I haven't experienced before. This slow speed training required that the attackers make their strikes behave as if the strike had speed and momentum, and respond to the techniques in the same way. Accordingly, the person getting attached had to watch to not anticipate the strikes coming at him, and not speed up. This slow speed "sparring" was really eye-opening for me, and I think it is going to sneak its way into my Aikido classes.
With another demo from Vasiliev, he only now added hand movement, demonstrating dozens of techniques against kicks, none of which he explained in any depth or detail, he just did strings of techniques against a kicking attacker. Many of these techniques were based upon following the movement of the strike, and redirecting it in a very soft and relaxed manner, often simply following the kick with a a hand or leg and moving the attackers leg to unbalance him. At this time, he added strikes with fist, forearm, elbow, shoulder, knee, and hip movement during the slow movement against the kicks. The strikes I saw were not linear, nor were they stiff. Many are open handed. Even the fists appeared relaxed. The strikes with the hands were very much the hands following whatever position the body was moving in and naturally following the movement. Because of this incorporation of natural movement and relaxation, Vasiliev combined many strikes together in chains of continuos attacks. Wherever one strike ended, the next one began. A strike across the face, then pulling and turning the head with the hand on the way back. An forward moving elbow across to the face, a rip down the chest unbalancing the attacker, a strike to the groin, all without stopping. An upper cut, an elbow down upper cut, an elbow to the shoulder on the way down, a fist to the spine on the back. A note about the strikes I saw Vasiliev doing. The impacts were heavy, and when they were directed to the hip area, back, or leg, they went deep and unbalanced the attacker, rather than just attacking the target area. Also, there was a lot of intent in the strikes, so that the attacker seeing the strike clearly effected his body. As we practiced, the attackers were practicing to be responsive and respond to the counters in a relaxed manner, and respond to the counters while moving naturally and slipping or minimizing the impacts and making sure that the impact on the floor was soft. I noticed that Vasiliev would slip off to the side with some advanced students occasionally while we were practicing what he demonstrated. They were practicing much closer to full speed on a hardwood floor, and their ukemi was soft and graceful. Some folks training in Aikido could definitely take a lesson in trying to do the same to see if their own falls allow them to survive repeated ukemi on hard floors.
We now broke into groups of 3-4, moving slowly, with the attackers kicking, and the guy in the middle evading, slipping, using his legs and arms, and incorporating strikes of all kinds, but again, moving slowly, and making sure the strikes came naturally out of the movement. Practicing in the groups with small spaced and multiple attackers forced me to not linger on one attacker, because 2 more were coming all the time. Also, basic randori principles applied. The slow movement really allowed me to see how I could use and manipulate the position of the attackers to my advantage. The pressure of the multiple attackers also forces the strikes to come out of the body movement, since there was not time to waste in setting up a strike, or reaching for some strike that would take an extra half-second to execute.
Vasiliev stressed over and over again that technique was not as important as proper and natural relaxed body movement. He said he could use the time to show specific techniques, but this was not the really important thing. Over and over again, he started with sensitivity and movement exercises, and only later moved to adding hands and feet and showing technique. He stressed that moving naturally and responding with natural movement was the primary concern. Indeed, I found that after we went through these exercises and got to the free form multiple attackers, techniques were indeed coming naturally. I should also say at this time that Vasiliev stressed breathing a lot. As he demonstrated, his clear deep and relaxed breathing was evident, and he often made it audible, probably to make sure we would understand that we should endeavor to breath in that manner as well.