Join Date: May 2003
Systema Seminar with Vladimir Vasiliev, Part 2
WORK WITH THE SHORT STAFF (JO)
We then moved on to working with the jo, or short staff. Vasiliev began by explaining that the jo can be used to massage the bodies soft tissue. We did this a bit, rolling and rubbing the jo all over on the larger muscles. He then demonstrated an exercise that I only really understood a little later. Vasiliev took a student and had him stand with feet a little more than shoulder width apart, and with the arms up in the air on either side of the body. He began to gently hit the person with the jo, telling him to exhale forcefully when the impact came. He placed his hits on larger muscle groups, starting off pretty soft, but slowly escalated to the force of the strikes till they got pretty hard. He explained that it was an exercise to maintain relaxation and take the impact. He then focused his strikes on the solar plexus, and the strikes got pretty hard. The student he had up took harder and harder hits, and near the end, Vasiliev was applying them with a lot of whipping force. The exhalations of air on impact were very hard, and the student shook his upper body between hits as they got harder, apparently trying to relax more. So after this demo, he had everyone get with a partner and experiment. Everyone broke into pairs, and he asked if anyone wanted to try with him. I volunteered . . .
The first hits to my solar plexus were light, then got much harder. By the sixth or seventh one, they really stung, and I had to use my exhalation a lot to take the impact and relax my upper body, abs and diaphragm, which were slowly accumulating tension as the hits got harder. I noticed that the strong exhalation did put a little tension in the abdominal muscles if you timed it exactly to the impact, but the point was not to tense the muscles to resist the strike. I felt tension accumulate more and more in the area getting hit and my upper body in general, and tried hard to relax, exhale hard, and shake it off in between strikes. The next hit was even harder, it stung, but I was still OK. Vasiliev paused. I let my arms down, and I said its not too bad. There may have been a hint of self-satisfaction in my voice and demeanor . . . which may have encouraged what happened next. I forget the exact words, but Vasiliev said something like. "No, not too bad, the point is to keep going." I understood this as encouragement to continue, and was a bit reluctant based upon the pain of the last hit, but, I figured I better experience whatever I can while it is available. I took the position again, and Vasiliev hit me right in the solar plexus, and my diaphragm started to spasm just a tad. You know, that wonderful effect when you get punched in the stomach and get the wind knocked out of you. I felt it start, but the exhaling and the trying to relax stopped it before it got to take a hold. But I had a lot of residual tension I could not shake off. The next strike did it. The pain was intense, and I felt the nerve impulses go right to my head, and my diaphragm completely locked up. I nearly passed out and started to doubled over. Fortunately, Vasiliev appears to have known exactly what he was doing. He caught my attention before I lost my focus (and consciousness), and told me to stand up straight, breath in through my nose and out through my mouth. I followed this direction, except that for about 25 seconds, I could not actually inhale or exhale, but the effort to do so eventually got my diaphragm out of its rock solid spasm. Vasiliev told me that when you get hit like that, don't bend over, since the muscles will lock up even worse. Basically, stand up straight or lay down straight, but don't bend at the waist. Good advice I will surely remember. It was only after getting hit so hard and noticing the building up of tension in the upper body and solar plexus that I think I actually understood the exercise. It sounds a bit brutal, but really wasn't. For some reason, something in Vasiliev's demeanor and character made me trust him, despite the fact that I watched him hit the guy before me really hard with a jo, and had him doing the same to me. It was done very matter of factly, and I really appreciated it. The bruise that came up later was extraordinary, and made the next day's work on the floor, and other sensitivity exercises, pretty dicey. But on the whole, a good experience. Aside from a lesson in relaxation, also a good lesson in humility.
We worked for the next part of the seminar with the jo. We did a warm-up where #1 held the jo up vertically and parallel to the floor at various levels starting at chest height. #2 had to drop laterally under the jo and come up on the other side. #1 would then lower the jo to abdomen, waist, thigh, and knee level, and finally, the floor level. #2 had to stay relaxed and find different ways to slip under the jo without moving it or hitting it.
Vasiliev demonstrated very basic evasive movement against two attackers with jos, and then had us work in groups of three, with two attackers with jos slowly and constantly try to poke the third guy. The third guys job was to relax, evade the attacks, and not use hands. Just use movement. We did this for a good while. It is an excellent exercise both for movement and timing, especially once I got the hang of all the possible movement options, and tried to keep the size of my movement to a minimum. Vasiliev then demonstrated against a single attacker with a jo, this time using his hands and demonstrating a string of techniques to throw the attacker and take away the weapon. He did not focus on any particular technique, but made it very clear that the techniques came out of the movement. So there was no specific focus on a particular technique, but to just let the technique flow naturally. Before he had us train this idea, he pulled up a three student with jos, and had then attack him, and then fooled around a bit against them after picking up a jo himself. His movement was really beautiful, relaxed and effective. His use of the jo was also very creative. I have some limited background in Muso Ryu, but Vasiliev's use of the jo was really fun to watch because it was so unstructured, responsive, and moment to moment.
We then broke into pairs, and worked on evading poking attacks (tsuki), moving slowly, not using strength, and finding efficient ways to disarm the attacker or his stick. I was lucky to work with a student with a firm foundation in Systema, and was happy to see him stop me when he felt I was using any force or pulling or pushing against his strength. Basic Aikido principles were evident. This was a very good exercise. Many of my own repertoire of Aikido jo tori techniques came out, but also, after doing this free form exercise for a while, many techniques came out spontaneously. I enjoyed this very much, and see it particularly useful for Aikidoka who train almost exclusively in completely structured and controlled waza.
Then Vasiliev demonstrated against an overhead, shomen-uchi type strike. He first demonstrated how to slip the strike with no hands, just a small movement of the shoulder and the leg; he bowed his leg out very slightly on the side the jo was moving past in order to protect the foot. Then he incorporated arm movement. The movement was not far different from the irimi movement done in Aikido to head towards a kote kaeshi tenkan. It was just bit closer, with not too much extension of the arms and less degree of turn. He went on to show a number of techniques where you could use the jo to make the attacker hit himself. He finally demonstrated freestyle work with multiple jo-wielding attackers doing whatever strike they wanted, with many techniques involving use of trips, leg traps and jams naturally incorporated into the movement. This was especially nice, since this is not done to much in Aikido, but is part of some of the other martial arts I studied. But these techniques were very soft and relaxed, a relied a lot on redirecting the victims leg at the moment of the weight shifting or the strike hitting. Again, none of it used any brute force. All very aiki. At the end of this set, he himself picked up a jo and worked against several attackers with sticks. It had a lot of one-handed work in it, with body and weapons movement that was very relaxed and loose. It was very easy for him to control these attachers with weapons and get them to hit each other and get tied up in each other.
We proceeded to work in groups of 3 or 4, with one guy in the middle evading the slow strikes of the others jo-wielding attackers, and incorporating leg traps, trips, and unbalancing movements, as well as strikes. It was an excellent exercise. With attackers with jos in such small spaces, big techniques were impossible, and it really forced and economy of movement and tactical use of getting the attackers to hit each other or get in each others way.
Vasiliev's last demo for the day was a short discussion of multiple attackers. He pulled up a group of 5-6 guys and said that when you face a possibly aggressive group, it is best to keep a distance initially. Otherwise, the attackers get used to you, your presence, and your energy, and they begin to feel comfortable, and may more easily dominate you or be more prone to attack. By staying outside of their range, you still maintain the psychological advantage of surprise and uncertainty. He also noted that in mass attacks, not everyone will come at once, and you must take advantage of positions and the psychology of the situation. He said that with some practice with sensitivity and understanding of body language, you can tell who will initially attack, who wants to attack, and who does not want to attack, and use this to your advantage. He then demonstrated an interesting trick. He moved the guys into a shoulder to shoulder bunch and said one method is to sucker the group into attacking by giving them a target, in this case it was his chin. He ever so slightly hedged is face towards the group, moving in and back slightly and seeing what response it got from the attackers, he then inched in really close and the entire group came at him at once, and he drew back and down on to the floor, and the group followed him, moving forward with their punches, tripping over each other, and falling into a heap.
Vasiliev then asked for questions. Someone asked a question about how his strikes seem to unbalance the attackers. He then demonstrated a variety of strikes on a student. He showed how some were superficial, while others, although they looked soft, penetrated deeply and unbalanced the student. His strikes did not have a lot of "body" behind them and did always rely on hip movement, but they hit very hard and really effected the victim.
He compared strikes to the surface, versus ones that were the energy was directed to the spine or deeper into body tissue. Although the strikes looked similar, the effect on the student was very different. The "deep" strikes went right to the students center and brought him off balance and down. He also said that certain kinds of hits create tension, and one can use the tension created by a strike and follow up with another to create movement in, or unbalance, the attacker. He did a series of one-two combinations to show this principle. I could see that the first strike would create a certain tension in the upper body of the student, and they he would use another immediate follow up strike to take advantage of this tension. The second strike then really moved the opponent, and in almost any direction Vasiliev wanted. He also gave a curious demonstration, saying that shifting or traumatizing certain organs can produce and effect in the body. He took his hands and placed the the edges of his hands right around where the student's liver was. He then made a small shaking movement with his hands, and the student collapsed. Vasiliev explained that the body reacts automatically and in an extreme way to feeling the internal organ displaced.
Another question came up from a student asking what if someone doesn't move in so deeply against you, but uses short jabs. He simply called the student up to show him what he meant. The student came up and took a few jabs, and Vasiliev softly redirected the jab with his near hand and gently redirected the guys lead knee and he dropped. Vasiliev said that you have to fight and respond to the person, and cannot focus on specific technique.
I left the first day sweaty and very excited. Vasiliev was really an excellent teacher in the sense that what he demonstrated and had us practice made sense in a practical way, and it built up from basic to more challenging progressively. I also keyed in very well to how in every area he was teaching, whether it was holds, stick work, or kicks, we started with body movement and only later ended up doing technique. Coming from a traditional aikido background, I really liked the lack of focus on technique, and the in-depth focus on natural movement, relaxation, and building technique out of movement.
Vasiliev was very engaging in class, very responsive to questions, and would throw or get down and dirty with anyone who would ask. He also had a great sense of humor and I was glad that he was very personable and warm, and clearly enjoys what he is doing. There were no injuries, (other than those volunteered for, like me), and all the students there were very focused on training, and respectful of each other. Much like in Aikido, falling safely clearly seemed very important. I heard him admonish some local students for not having perfected their falling and rolling enough. My aikido training did prepare me well for the falling, but I also noted some interesting falling methods some of the advanced students were using, and was again impressed at how soft the advanced students were when they hi the floor. Not a lot of slapping out here. Try it on concrete a few times.
MORE WARM-UP EXERCISES WITH THE JO
The second day of the seminar began with more warm-up exercises with the jo.
1. #1 holds the jo vertically straight up off the floor. #2 stands as far back from the jo as he can and leans in with his arms outstretched over his head and grabs the jo. #2 then walks his hands down the jo hand under hand until he gets to the bottom, and them comes back up hand over hand.
The exercise is then repeated with #1 moving the jo around, making it harder for #2 to grab it.
Once you are able to do this individually, try to climb up and down the jo at the same time with your partner.
2. #1 hold the jo palms up, chest-width apart, with the jo close to his body at chest level. #2 grabs the jo. #1 then walks backwards until #2's arms are outstretched over his head. #2 is basically in a flat bridge, his body flat, with his feet on the floor and his hands stretched straight over his head. #2 holds this position as long as he can.
3. #1 and #2 sit across from each other, with legs spread open, pushing each others feet. The jo is placed between them, and they grab it. #1 and #2 then have a tug of war with jo, seeing who can pull the other towards them.
4. #1 and #2 sit next to each other with legs out in front of them. The jo is placed across their laps, and they both grab the jo in front of them. Then #1 and #2 wrestle, trying to pull the jo away from each other. These "wrestling" exercises with the jo were grueling. Try them even for a couple of minutes. Its great for the grip and uses really useful combinations of muscle groups. We were soaked in just a few minutes.
5. Same as #4, except the jo is placed across behind #1 and #2's head and shoulders. They grab the jo there and try to wrestle it away from each other.
6. Same as #4, except the jo is placed across behind #1 and #2's lower back. They grab it behind them and try to wrestle it away from each other.
7. #1 and #2 lay on their backs. The jo is placed parallel to their bodies between them. They grab the jo and try to wrestle it away from each other.
8. Same as No. 7, except the jo is placed perpendicular to #1 and #2 across their bodies.
You can also try Nos. 7 and 8 laying face down if you're really brave and don't mind scuffing up some of the skin on your joints. In all of these wrestling exercised with the jo, you just need to make sure you don't poke, push, or pull and end of the jo into your partner's face.
SENSITIVITY DRILLS WITH THE JO
#1 lays on his back. #2 takes the jo and and applies strong pressure to points all over the front of #1's body. #1 has to try to relax and slip the pressing jo off his body with as little movement as possible, focusing on relaxing and manipulating his musculature. Repeat the same exercise with #1 on laying face-down, getting pressed on points all over the back of his body. Repeat the same exercise with #1 in an upward-facing wrestling bridge, pushing up with his hands near his head and with his feet flat on the floor.
We then did an exercise where #1 lays face down, and #2 stands up near #1's head and starts with the jo pressing on the small of #1's back. #1 has to swing up his legs one at a time and kick the stick off his back. The jo is then places in the mid back, upper back, shoulder level, and finally neck. #1 has to relax enough that he can maneuver his body to swing his leg to catch and hook the jo with his foot. This also requires back and leg muscles involvement coordinated with relaxation.
SENSITIVITY DRILLS WITH KNIVES
#1 stands in front of #2, and starts pressing the knife in various places on the front and sides of #2's body, including legs, but focusing on the chest, abdomen, etc. #2 is to relax and slip the knife by letting his body loosely move naturally in response to the pressure, but without moving around; ie, no footwork, just staying in place. The point was to go slowly, not anticipate the pressure, and respond to the pressure of the knife in a very relaxed manner. The next stage of this exercise was for the guy getting poked to close his eyes and slip the pressure from the knife. Then, both #1 and #2 had to close their eyes. These exercises were really interesting and did help me get a idea of relaxing and responding to the feeling. Also, it was very hard to be the one doing the stabbing with the eyes closed.
The next stage was to have #1 slowly stab at #2, but to have #2 slip the knife, but to catch the blade from the side of the blade and redirect the knife hand back to #1's body, or otherwise trap the blade or lever it out of #1's hand, using only the body. This required a lot of relaxation and responsiveness, and letting the body be articulate in areas like the abdomen and chest that I was not used to. It was excellent training, and I got the hand of it quickly. Vasiliev's demonstration of this was amazing. I got the impression that in Systema, they are very comfortable with blade. They appear to like to train with real dulled knives and very realistic training knives. They also are very accustomed to touching the blade where it is safe (i.e., the side of the blade), and train in letting the attacking blade touch you as long as it is unable to apply cutting pressure. This opened up a huge variety of knife defenses I saw during the course of the seminar, that go far beyond the standard tanto-dori techniques of Aikido.
We then moved on to the person getting stabbed (#2) moving around more, and having #1 slash, stab, and strike with the knife in any way he wants. #2 had to slip the knife attacks, and try to trap, lever out, or redirect the blade back to #1.
After doing this for a while, we added the element of the legs and feet. #1 attacks #2 in any way he wants with the knife, and #2, without using his hands, moves around, slips the strikes, and tries to trap, leverage out, or redirect the blade back at #1 using only his body, but now we added the element of trying to trip or trap #1's legs, or to unbalance him with leg movements. Vasiliev demonstrated a wide variety of movements along these lines, using several attackers and not repeating or focusing on any one movement. He stressed that technique was secondary, and that the most important point was to move correctly and have technique happen naturally.
Only during the last stage did we add using the hands. Vasiliev showed a lot of knife disarming techniques in rapid succession with several attackers in a a very small space. We then has to do this exercise, moving very slowly, trying to stay relaxed, move naturally, and let techniques happen. The techniques fell into three basic categories a) using various movements to leverage the blade, redirect back at the attacker, and get him to stab himself; b) leading and redirecting the strikes to unbalance the attacker and get him to fall while controlling or disarming the knife; c) using various strikes with hands, legs, knees, shoulder, etc. to dislodge the knife from the opponents hand; d) any combination of the above.
After trying this for a while, we simply did freeform knife work, with #1 attacking in any manner he wanted, and #2 responding any way he wants. Using, strikes, leg trips and traps, throws, getting #1 to stab himself, and always controlling or disarming the knife. The point was to move slowly and focus on relaxed, natural movement.
This progression from slow sensitivity exercises to free form slow sparring with the blade was excellent. It really gave me a whole different perspective on movement, and on the possibility of different kinds of movement and techniques. By the time we got going in the slow free style attacking with the knife, I felt much more comfortable than I imagined I would, and the I found my Aikido technique coming out naturally in all variety of unusual ways, along with new movements and techniques that spontaneously appeared.
The next exercise was interesting. Vasiliev explained that the problem in real life situations with knives is that there is a tendency for the victim to move back and away, and this is dangerous, because the open space favors the attacker. He gave an exercise to practice constant forward movement against a knife attacker. #1 and #2 start about 3 meters apart. #1 takes a step and makes a strike, and in response, #2 makes a corresponding evasive movement, but only moving in the forward direction, not back. There is still distance between them. #1 then takes another step in and makes another attack of his choice, and #1 again has to make a responsive movement, although they are still safely apart. Finally, #1 makes a final forward step and strike. Now, #1 and #2 are close enough that #1's strike is an actual threat, and #2 responds with an actual disarming technique. This was a very good exercise, and did clearly show the idea of maintaining forward movement in the face of a knife attacker, and had clear application for empty-handed training as well.
Now we moved to the floor. #1 and #2 are on the floor in any position they want. #1 attacks #2 and #2 has to move and respond to evade or slip the attack, or apply any technique to throw, redirect, or disarm #1. It was all freestyle floor work. It started with just evasion, and they went on to striking the attacker and disarming his knife. Vasiliev demonstrated this exercise, and I have to say it was beautiful to watch. He moved as deftly on the floor as he did standing up. His movements were so relaxed and he moved around on the floor without any problem or restriction. He was able to use his feet and legs as easily as his hands, managed to tie up and disarm the knife attacks as easily as he did standing up. I saw Vasiliev do a lot of ikkyo, kote kaeshi, and even kokyu nage done with legs and feet instead of arms and hands. He also showed every possible strike using the feet you could imagine.
We tried this exercise as well, moving slowly. I really enjoyed it, and after all the previous sensitivity exercises, got very comfortable very quickly on the floor against my knife-wielding partner. It was a really great experience. I was able after a time to move pretty freely, and found that I could use my feet to do versions of Ikkyo, kote kaeshi, and kokyu nage techniques myself as I had see Vasiliev doing. It was a lot of fun, and opened my eyes to many possibilities. It was also a great confidence builder. I surprised myself at how effectively I could move on the ground and deal with an knife attack. After training in this way, hand work was added. It was easy to incorporate a lot of suwari waza from aikido, but I most enjoyed the use of feet and legs, and the types of movements we don't usually do in Aikido, since Vasiliev was comfortable, moving, striking, and throwing in any position you could imagine on the floor.