Happy Friday! I hope you all crushed your training sessions this week and are getting ready for a fun weekend! If you have been following me along lately, you’ll know that I had an amazing opportunity to FINALLY dive into the martial arts world again. For years now (and I mean YEARS!) I have been searching for an opportunity to try out a freaky and bizarre form of martial art called Systema. Systema is native to Russia and is in my opinion, the scariest version of martial arts out there. If you’re looking to spar with someone with hand to hand combat, or master fighting with the use of weapons (I am not kidding), Systema is for you.
Last weekend was my very first Systema session here in the land we know as Pittsburgh (yup, turns out kettlebells aren’t the only Russian fitness program you can get your hands on in da Burgh). I teamed up with Jason Swanson, the local Russian Systema instructor here in the East End, and he not only got me through my first session, but he was also nice enough to sit down with me for a fun little fitness interview. Jason and I met through a circuit class at Pittsburgh Kettlebells, and well, let’s just say that we have similar interests when it comes to combining kettlebell training with body weight training. Jason is an amazing man and, without further delay, here’s the interview I had with Pittsburgh’s best Systema Instructor.
Me: So tell me, what is Systema?
Jason Swanson: Systema is a Russian Martial Art. Systema, or “the system”, is something I see more of a general kind of term, as there are quite a few different kinds
of Systema out there. You can trace a lot of what we see in terms of modern Russian Martial Arts to Sambo, and then from there to an art developed by V.A. Spiridnonov that is called SAMOZ. A student of this style, Aleksey Kadochnikov, developed Kadochnikov Systema from there by combing the trench fighting method of Stalingrad, a number of traditional folk styles, the work of Spiridonov, and combined these things with his knowledge of physics and engineering. This style is believed to be the first to use the term Systema.
The Kadochinkov style of Systema also greatly influenced many other modern Russian Styles, including ROSS (Rossiyskaya Otechestvennaya Sistema Samozashchity), which was developed by General Alexander Retuinskih. Retuinskih, who is a master of sport in Judo and Sambo, applied the biomechanical work from Kadochnicov Systema, and ROSS was developed.
Both ROSS and Kadochinkov Systema have had a great influence on other Systema styles, such as ISVOR, and Siberski Vjun, to name a few.
In the USA, the term Systema is now synonymous with what is Ryabko Systema more than any other style. The Ryabko style of Systema is a bit different that the styles I mentioned before. This style of Systema is a bit softer, with more emphasis put on free play, heavy strikes and instinctual movement.
Me: Wow! That’s pretty intense! So, how is systema different from traditional martial arts?
Jason Swanson: That is a pretty big question! :-p All of the different styles of Systema I outlined have a few things in common that make Systema a bit different. Systema is largely about expressing theory over memorizing a vast number of techniques. The student seeks to know the feeling of being, able to apply the laws of physic and biomechanics in order to capitalize on the opponent’s tension. In doing so, one can learn to defend themselves rather quickly, and avoid the paralyses by analysis that may come from learning or having to memorize large sets of techniques.
Me: SO COOL! Now, how exactly did you get involved with systema? Do you have a set rank in systema? If so, what does your rank in systema entail ? (ex: martial artists carry black belts, kettlebell instructors can be HKCs, RKCs, etc. Different ranks mean different things. Explain your rank if you have one or if there is a rank system in systema).
Jason Swanson: Well I have been involved in martial arts my entire life. I started out learning a Korean martial art called Tang Soo Do under Master Rob Kloss when I was about 5 years old. I stayed with Master Kloss till I was 18, then when I moved to go to college went on sort of a martial arts odyssey. I studied Kung Fu with Master Quader Noorzad for a bit, then he moved away, and I began studying Kung Fu with Master Kevin Sun, who I became a formal disciple of. Under Master Sun I was exposed to a really high level of internal martial arts, which I is why I think I was so drawn to Systema. I came across Systema in a round about way, I suppose. I had read some stuff about it, and it sounded really interesting. Master Sun was traveling a lot at the time, and I was looking for more instructor time. I supposes I should back up a bit, I have been VERY blessed to not only have had what I feel are extremely highly level instructors, but they have all been very open to learning from other styles. My instructors, across the board, where big proponents of applying critical thinking to your training and were more than encouraging about exploring other styles beyond their own. Anyway! I found a Systema instructor, Ali Seyed, who had a small group maybe 10 minutes from my house. We emailed back and forth, and I came to try a lesson, and immediately found something I didn’t know I was looking for, and was hooked! I learned from Ali for a while, and began helping teach the beginners. After sometime Ali became injured and wasn’t really available to tech, so I found myself at Delaware Systema under Kevin Huke. Kevin is amazing, very open-minded in his approach to martial arts. I feel Kevin really opened the doors for me to see not only a high level of Ryabko Systema, but the other types of Systema out there. With Kevin, I moved from training in Systema, to really studying it.
In regards to the ranking, Systema doesn’t really have a ranking system. All levels work together. It is a very personal, intuitive pursuit. The different styles do have different ways of certifying instructors. I don’t feel it is my place to go into them, as our group out here is not tied to or affiliated with any specific organizations.
Me: There was something that always drew me to Systema, and that was the breathing techniques associated with the martial art. Can you explain the nature of breathing with systema? i.e. why does sytema emphasize proper breathing as the foundation for it’s practice?
Jason Swanson: Sure! Systema breathing is used for regulating tension, both mentally and physically. Have you ever been really upset or mad, and had someone tell you to,”take a deep breath and relax?” I think of that in terms of breathing and Systema practice. I want to use my breathing to keep me calm and in the moment, and I also want to use that breathing to keep my body soft, to manage my physical tension.
Me: Awesome! Now, have you found Systema practices useful in your own kettlebell training? If so, what specifically about systema was helpful for your kettlebell training?
Jason Swanson: I have. I think they really complement each other. For starters, Kettlebells are the best workout I have encountered for building functional strength as it relates to the needs of martial arts.
In terms of specifics, the breathing aspects of Systema have certainly helped my Kettlebell work, as has the ability to effectively manage physical tension in my body.
Me: So what made you want to bring Systema to the city of Pittsburgh?
Jason Swaonson: Well, I moved to Pittsburgh about a year ago, and there were really no Systema schools around. I was hungry to train and progress, so I started the group that we have now. I also knew I would meet some new people, which helps in terms of being the new kid to town.
It was my goal in starting the group to really create a laboratory to explore the science behind Russian Martial Arts, and be able to incorporate all the other experiences I have had over the course of my time training. I wanted a place that I could really break down and pressure test this stuff, in an environment that is safe, sane, open, and friendly. I feel very lucky to have found a group of folks who think the same way.
Me: I want to get back to your time spent at Pittsburgh Kettlebells training with weights. Would you say that systema and kettlebell training compliment each other? If so, would you recommend systema to other kettlebell instructors?
Jason Swanson: Yeah I think so. I think the attention paid to breathing, structure, and tension management in Systema works really well in terms of Kettlebells. I recommend it to anyone!
Me: Last question. What would you say are the major benefits of systema training? (i.e. increased flexibility, breathing, strength, etc).
Jason Swanson: It will make you better looking and invincible! 😀 No, not really, but in all seriousness there are tons of benefits. Increased flexibility, increased strength, managing mental tension, reclaiming the natural body movement we had as children, the self defense aspects. There really is quite a long list, but for me, the main benefit is the mental aspect. Systema in all its forms, really helps put your ego in check and helps cultivate humility and a softer mind-set. Systema helps you learn skills to defend yourself, it helps you become a healthy individual, both physically and mentally.
Well guys, there you have it. If you are curious about Russian Systema, please be sure to visit this site. You can find additional information on Systema here and here. Also, I wanted to mention that Pittsburgh Kettlebells is hosting a Systema Workshop on march 23rd. Details can be found on Pittsburghkettlebells.com. That’s all for today! As always, remember to eat smart, train hard, and enjoy your life!
Janelle Pica-HKC, CPT