The Warrior Spirit in St. Louis
Ancient Russian martial arts practice of Systema teaches defense skills and self awareness.
St. Louis (I-Newswire) August 30, 2013 - On a slightly padded concrete floor in a converted warehouse on The Hill, I'm being instructed to breathe: "In for four beats, out for four beats, hold for four beats... in, two, three, four; out, two, three, four; hold, two three, four..." Our instructor, Joe Mayberry, talks us through a variety of rhythms as we walk, run and even do cartwheels (or try to, in my case).
It's exactly what I expected when I signed up for my first-ever Systema class. The edgy surroundings, photos of ancient and modern Russian Warriors, rows of every imaginable type of weapons lining the walls, all seem in line with what I've heard about this "brutal Russian martial art."
The story goes that Systema (the name means 'the system') originated in the Russian secret service, which still keeps a tight hold on its "secret" teachings, that it's highly militarized, that it's an "outlaw" martial art that eschews the protocols and traditions of other fighting systems, and that it's a macho vodka-drinking cult.
There is some truth in all of these claims, allows Mayberry (even the bit about the vodka, which he will explain later), but it's not the whole truth. He'd like to set the record straight, and as founder and owner of Systema St. Louis, and one of just a handful of certified Systema teachers in the Midwest, he is well-placed to do that.
The mystique surrounding Systema can put people off, but Mayberry is more concerned about the way it focuses attention on a very narrow aspect of this discipline, leaving much of Systema's richness in the shadows.
"People have misconceptions. So there are some aspects of Systema which are better shared without using the word Systema," says Mayberry,
"As my teacher Vladimir likes to say, 'Systema just happens to be a martial art.' Meaning it isn't just a martial art. It's largely a health system, and it's deeply rooted in Russian culture, in Slavic tradition and in the Orthodox Christian faith. It includes a strong mystical element, so it includes practices like breathing exercises, prayer, and fasting.
"In fact, the other name for Systema in Russian is Poznai Sebia, which means self-knowledge. In the Russian Orthodox faith, the belief is that everything that happens to us, good or bad, has one ultimate purpose: to create the best conditions for each person to understand himself. Proper training in Systema carries the same objective: for each participant to realize as much about himself as he is able to handle at any given moment."
But make no mistake-although it isn't just a martial art, Systema is a martial art, and as such is designed to turn people into extremely effective fighters. A brief perusal of Systema St. Louis's website leaves no doubt that we're in the realm of hard core fighting: on offer is training in "hand to hand combat, weapons retention, knife defense, sticks, guns... kicks, strikes and takedowns... bodyguard training" and more.
So beyond the half truths, just what is Systema? I ask Mayberry. He responds with a synopsis of Systema's history, which is closely entwined with the history of Russia.
"Today, Systema is recognized as the martial art of ancient Russia, stretching back at least until the 10th century," he says. Its development for most of that time was organic and decentralized.
"Prior to the Russian revolution in 1918, there was no formal state army in Russia. It was really just the people, the villagers, teaching themselves how to fight or being taught by a local master. Villages had to defend themselves in all types of terrain and weather, and against all types of invaders. People learned by necessity, and by watching and emulating their enemies.
"Russia used to be a versatile warrior nation, with many regional variations. The Slavic people as a whole were exposed to a lot of different angles of war and battle.
"After the revolution, the state didn't want these people training and tried to forbid it. A lot of the knowledge got lost," says Mayberry. And a lot got appropriated by the Soviet military, which quickly realized how powerful this home-grown combat system was, and reserved it for a few elite Special Operations Units.
The powers-that-be kept Systema out of the hands of the Russian people, who instead were offered a state-sanctioned martial art known as SAMBO, which was falsely promoted as a Russian tradition. Two different lineages of Systema emerged out of this period-the one Mayberry follows, known as Ryabko, and the Kadochnikov approach (both are named after the teachers that founded them).
A summary of Mikhail Ryabko's biography makes it clear that Systema in Russia is not just a recreational activity. The son of one of Stalin's personal bodyguards, Ryabko is a Colonel of the Special Operations Unit with the Russian Military, Chief Instructor of tactical training for the Emergency Response Team, and Advisor to the Supreme Judge of the Russian Federation. He has been a tactical commander of hostage-rescue teams, counter-terrorist operations, and armed criminal neutralization.
After the Iron Curtain fell, Ryabko and Kadochnikov were instrumental in bringing Systema back into the public sphere, sparking immediate interest in Russia and, not long after, the rest of the world.
Systema has yet to be the focus of a Hollywood movie, but its star is on the rise in North America, says Mayberry. He estimates that there are several hundred Systema schools worldwide, and thousands of practice groups.
While there's no doubt that some of the interest in Systema comes from its mystique-"The top secret fighting art of the Russian Special Forces revealed!"-people are also drawn to it because it offers something different than other martial arts. Systema, especially in the Ryabko tradition, has very few formalities-no belts, katas, or uniforms.
"It's not as rigid as the oriental martial arts," says Mayberry. "It's based on natural movement and intuition. The idea is to bypass the brain because it just gets in the way in those moments when you need all your resources."
Instead of teaching specific moves, Mayberry teaches a set of four principles: breath, relaxation, movement, form. Students are asked to remain aware of all four principles while moving on their own, and then through progressive intensities of physical challenge-from cartwheels to being grabbed to wrestling to knife-fighting.
"Let's be clear," says Mayberry. "At the end of the day, good movement is good movement. We all have two arms and two legs and a head and we end up moving in similar ways. What's different with Systema is the process, and that's what fascinates me."
Many of Mayberry's students come from all over the Midwest for his programs, and some spend up to six months training intensively with him.
"I've had students ranging from elite athletes, sport fighters, people learning self-defense, the whole spectrum of law enforcement, military people, private security contractors, bodyguards, people getting fit, people wanting to lose weight, and practitioners of oriental martial arts looking for an alternative."
There is no right and wrong person for Systema, he says. "I'm open to all individuals; I don't care what their gender, body type or fitness level is. This is very important because at the end of the day, it isn't the 350-pound Russian bodybuilder who most needs to train in Systema. It's those who are small and disenfranchised, those who need to learn to stand up for themselves.
"At the end of the day, Systema is very much about character," he says.
Although Mayberry's statement makes intuitive sense to me, I can't fully wrap my head around why giving someone the skills to beat the crap out of someone else makes them a better person. So I ask the question that's been in the back of my mind throughout the interview: "What is the rationale for teaching fighting in a time when what we really need is peace?"
"That's a valid question," he says, nodding thoughtfully. Martial arts help us understand where conflict and violence come from, which is essential information when searching for peaceful solutions, he says.
"Violence comes from a place of pain and fear. Martial arts are a practice where you'll quickly start facing these things. You confront your emotions, your feeling that you can't take the pain, your self-pity... and it provides a way to move through those things. Working on yourself is key."
As young men mature, they confront their own interest in violence, they wonder what it means to take a life, or have someone try to take yours, he explains. Women as well, he adds, but less so.
"If this is not addressed, you end up with the mess we have. When the martial spirit is bottled up in young men it will overtake their spirit. In Systema, we cultivate the warrior spirit. We teach where it properly belongs in the person, we teach how to deal with it, how to harness it, how to direct it. We teach what is appropriate, what isn't."
Systema trains people to control the warrior spirit within them, even when it feels strong enough to overwhelm them, explains Mayberry. And this is where vodka fits into Systema. "When you drink vodka, you literally take the spirit into you and if you are really strong, it doesn't take over," says Mayberry. Just as his teacher Vladimir Vasiliev did with him, he has sat around with his students drinking straight vodka, as an exercise.
There's no vodka at the class I attend. We progress from the warm up to strength work. The word "brutal" starts to seem apt as Mayberry keeps us in plank pose for a long, long time, and then takes us into push-ups. After that, it gets fun again with partner exercises that remind me of improv games from the dance classes I am more used to. Then we move into holding each other, and trying to get out of the hold. Then we do two-on-one, trying to grab/avoid being grabbed. Now it feels like a martial arts class!
My heart rate is up, not just because I'm moving but also because my adrenaline is going. I am fully aware of my warrior spirit, and the potential for intensity it brings. But in this particular class, things move along lightly, and as it wraps up my main impression is that I've had fun, and that I now know a little bit of what Systema is, beyond the mystique.
About Systema St. Louis
Systema St. Louis
St. Louis, MO
Phone : 314-773-4530
Published On:August 30, 2013
Print Release:Print Release
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