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October 8, 2010 / ccollinsonjones1

Systema: martial artistry from the Soviet Military

Even though it sounds like an over-the-counter treatment for cystitis, Systema is actually a sort of Russian martial art. It was developed by the Soviet Military from their studies in to “the most effective methodologies of physiological and psychological human functioning under a variety of extreme situations.” Excellent.

I approach this class with some trepidation. It sounds weird and cult-like; I’ve never heard of it; and several people I’ve asked to join me have looked at me like I’m mental.  Oh well. Onward.   

The Way of Systema runs classes at various locations. This one borrows a studio at Fitness First on Broadgate Circle. The surroundings are incongruous: Participants make their way through the rows of gym bunnies on treadmills – headphones on, staring at MTV – for a class that is far removed from that ersatz, fitness-lite world. For starters, our instructor used to be in the Soviet Army.  

As the class gathers it becomes clear that this is a man’s pursuit – there is just one other woman – and that I’m the only newbie. Most of the others I speak to have been coming regularly for months and clearly love it.

We begin with a hearty warm up, followed by slow motion kicks to stretch our muscles before we move on to combat.

Combat isn’t as scary as it sounds. We pair up and start kicking each other, aiming for gentle contact. It’s supposed to look like a sort of dance, and when I watch the others doing it, it does. I only know two kicks so my version is a little ungainly. Fortunately, I have a very patient and helpful partner. He shows me a couple of new kicks, both useful in self defence apparently. (Don’t try to steal my phone again, teenagers of Hackney, because I will break your knees.)

There’s a spare person in the group and I feel bad about forcing someone more experienced to go at my pace so I swap out and practise in the corner on the bag.

Then it’s on to the wrestling. Yes, that’s right. On the floor, grappling, the works. I chicken out and watch, secretly glad of the odd number in the group. I’m too awkward and immature to wrestle with a stranger. The inevitable fit of giggles would make a mockery of the whole thing. It looks pretty grizzly – there’s even one slightly bloody nose – but it’s all very good natured.

At the end of the class, our instructor talks to us about Systema. He tells us that it is not about force but about relaxation; that it’s not about power or strength. That’s a theory shared by other martial arts of course. In fact, much of what he said seems to form a common thread through many sports: relax, use your core strength, work with your breath, and focus. You could say that about yoga, climbing, all sorts. Even bowling is easier when you apply those rules.

With one class, I have barely scratched the surface of ‘The System’. This was a combat class but they also do a general conditioning class, and a class devoted to striking. I will be going back to discover more for sure.

It’s certainly good exercise. Mentally I feel like I’ve done a yoga class. Physically I feel like I’ve climbed a hundred flights of stairs with a rucksack full of bricks. That’s just how it should be.

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