Systema: “Steal” or Study

stealMany people take bits and pieces of this style and think they have Systema, this is when it falls apart.    – Vladimir Vasiliev


I had an interesting conversation with an acquaintance a while ago regarding Systema. He is a current aikidoist and self-admitted “dabbler” in Systema; that is, he takes a seminar here and there and peeks at some DVDs.  In the middle of the conversation, he mentioned receiving advice from an Aikido Shihan of all people,  that he should  “steal Systema and apply it to aikido.” I found this both an odd and a terribly misguided approach to both arts.

As Vladimir has mentioned on numerous accounts, if you are treating Systema as a “collection of techniques,” you are not doing Systema. This Russian art is based upon concepts and free movements, not set techniques to be memorized. There are too many variables which come into play to think that a series of pre-determined, memorized techniques will be effective. How a person punches, the speed and power of the strike, the experience or size of the opponent doing the strikes are just of a few of the variables to consider.

if you are treating Systema as a ‘collection of techniques,’ you are not doing Systema.

Aikido is a technique based art. Writer and Aikido master John Stevens Sensei mentioned in one of his books that there are “thousands” of documented techniques in this Japanese art. Kyu and Dan testing are based upon demonstration of memorized techniques. (Please bear in mind that there is nothing wrong or right about this, just polar opposite to Systema.)

In Systema, there is a grand total of zero. To try to jam diametrically opposed ideas into one art systematically ends up destroying both arts. Square peg? Meet round circle.

Square peg? Meet round circle.

I remember something similar with acupuncture. When I studied acupuncture, it was one section within the broad scope of Oriental medicine which included herbal medicine, pulse diagnosis, tongue diagnosis, tui na, nutrition, Qi gong, theory and a host of others. It was just one sliver of a complete pie. To study just the one aspect without knowledge of the whole was to miss the point, dangerously at times. That is why chiropractors and MDs who only take 100 hours (or less) of just acupuncture training usually do so poorly with it. You cannot take one branch of the tree and expect to understand the whole tree.

I am seeing a repeat with Systema. “Stealing it” implies picking and choosing “techniques” and maybe a concept or 2 and stuffing into another model. It rings hollow.

The best advice I ever received was from my teacher, David Merrell. I was studying aikido at the time and became very interested in Systema. He said to me, “Study aikido and when you want to study Systema, then study Systema.” Implied in this, of course, was that it was ill-advised to do both.

It was great advice, which of course, I ignored. After attempting to do both for a few additional months, I realized how valuable his advice was. Since that day years ago, aikido was in the rear view mirror and Systema, my deep passion, is full speed ahead.

Both are great arts. They have much to offer from personal protection to self-development. Both value ideas such as personal respect, energy flow and compassion for all. As such, isn’t is better to actually study them than to “steal” them?