Horse Archery, Shomogamo Shrine in Kyoto

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The Zettler Twins / “We practice everything”

Apart from Adam being “the talker”, what other differences are there between you?

Brendon:  Well, he’s older by four minutes first of all, bigger in size (laughs), punches harder thats for sure.  Actually we’re very similar.

Do each of you have different focuses?  Things you like doing?

Brendon:  Yeah, I like to move more – a lot of movement, a lot of up and down.  He likes to move less and hit harder.

Watching you teach, I think the main thing that comes across is how much passion you have for Systema.  Its infectious, isn’t it?  How do you keep that level of passion in your training?

Brendon:  Well you know for me its really the constant growing as a person – Systema helps every part of the person – physically, psychologically, spiritually.  Its the whole package martial art.  We started when we were about 14 – young, aggressive, this and that – and we started training and it completely changed our life.  We had Vlademir to look up to every day and we tried to be more and more like him.

How did you come to start training?

Brendon:  I looked on the internet and I saw Vlad showing like knife stuff and so I went there to be more aggressive, but the opposite happened.  You go in there, get hit a couple times and you begin to change as a person and become a better human being.  In this style you can’t be too aggressive because you won’t last – its better to try to work with less fear and try to understand yourself better-

Adam:  -Work on yourself-

Brendon:  -which is the hardest part.

What are you working on yourselves at the moment?

Brendon:  Every day for me its just trying to work with less emotion, trying to have more love for people, trying to just become a normal person.  We try to help people, not just show what we like.  There are all kinds of groups, and we try to make it a seminar for everyone.

When you think about what to do in a class, do you plan everything in advance?

Brendon: (laughs) no!

Adam: Not at all, just like here.

Is it just about what comes up organically? What you enjoy doing on the day?

Brendon:  Our first seminar, we wrote everything down.  And we were so tense running back looking at it all the time.  And then, for us we just have an idea of what we want to show and then one question can change the seminar, completely.  We try to be free like that and just teach what people need.

Did you have that kind of moment here?

Adam:  Yeah we came planning to do something else and then we totally changed everything!

Brendon:  They were starting to get the feeling of what we were showing about how to move freely, so from that we went into a whole bunch of exercises.

You were talking a lot about finding inner freedom, freedom inside and in your movement.  What does that mean?

Adam:  Well, like we explained in the seminar if you have too much fear you can’t control it and it starts to lock your body up.  It affects your psyche and your body starts to become rigid and tense.

Brendon:  It’s like your body and your psyche are the same.  If the psyche’s tense, the body’s tense.  So you have to free yourself from all your emotions and your physical tension.  So its hard – we have a lot to work on.  This is why in Systema we practice with a lot of movement.  If you’re free from tension inside you should be able to move and adapt to all sorts of different situations.  If you have too much fear and aggression you’ll always be too tense.

How would you go about helping someone who was naturally very tense, or had a lot of fear?

Adam:  Just teach them breathing right away.

Brendon:  We have a lot of exercises, like breath holds which help the person to deal with emotions, fear – and to see the inner tension that they have.  And through that you start to see how breathing just cleans everything.  So its not just a martial art, its for life.  You can have a problem just walking down the road, stress comes, fear comes, but breathing restores you.  It puts you in a calm state, and that’s what a lot of people are missing.

Have you reached a point where you feel satisfied in your ability to do that?

Both: Oh, no!

Adam:  No, the thing is the more you train the more you see what’s wrong!

Brendon:  That’s why this style’s so hard, you just have to work on yourself and that’s the hardest thing to do.  Its always free, its always changing its not just rigid, its not doing the same thing every class.  Its always growing, its alive.

What do you hope students will take away from today?

Both:  Movement.

Adam:  Movement and relaxation-

Brendon: -and just paying attention to themselves when they train.  Like I was saying in the seminar, even if you have no martial arts skills but you know how to move naturally, its a very good skill to have.  If you see a car coming, if you see danger, at least you can move.  If you have a knife coming towards you, if you have the ability to move, instead of just getting tense and freezing, you can survive.  Like sometimes, people see a train coming towwards them, and just get frozen from fear.  But for us, when we feel fear and tension we try to escape from it and move.

Adam:  When someone is very tense it’s very difficult for them to move.  Like on the ground, people often become rigid and tense.  That’s why once we learn to move properly on the ground our psyche starts to relax more and our body becomes more relaxed – which frees you up for daily life too.

Do you feel constantly connected with your Systema practice in your daily lives?

Adam:  Oh yeah, even walking down the street is Systema.  Its not just at the gym, you take it outside with you.

Brendon:  Systema’s life.  You can try teaching it to your wife if she gets too tense…

You obviously trained mainly with Vlademir, but are there any other teachers who have had a strong influence on your work?

Both:  Michael Ryabko!

Adam:  Yeah, like Michael, I mean he’s the master…

Brendon:  We practice everything.

Adam:  We always watch him, but I think we’re very lucky to be under Vlad.  Vlad has a really strong influence on us, after all we met him when we were very young.

Brendon:  Yeah, and a lot of other teachers as well like a couple of friends I trained with at the Systema HQ.  But Vlad for me is definitely my main mentor.

Mikhail Ryabko / ‘Faith is the most important’

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What exactly do we mean by ‘the new school’?

It’s inner work, something you cannot see with the eye.  It’s not the shape of the body – its the reason, the process of how muscle works.  To know it, to understand it… this is what we mean by the inner school.

So have these internal aspects always been a part of Systema?

Yes.  Its always been one thing.  For example there is Aikido in Japan.  And it was split into two halves – and they exported it, but only one half of it.  And so, there is something always missing in Aikido.

Does this idea of the ‘new school’ mean a departure from the original form of Systema?

No, Systema is not changing.  Its about reaffirming the fundamentals.

For a lot of beginners, certainly for me, grasping some of these concepts can be very difficult.  Is there a way that we can check ourselves to make sure we are doing the right thing?

You start with the visual, the exterior thing, and then you continue on to the internal work.  This is how you start Systema.  Everyone is the same.  There is also a limited school in Russia, where they train only people from the Orthodox church – I don’t want to put aspects of religion in the training but there is this limited school.  Everyone is of course free to choose their own religion – It’s not my aim to convert anyone.

But I understand that faith is a very important aspect of the way you practice?

Of course, it’s the most important one.

Can you tell me a bit about how faith has informed your practice?

This is a way of living.  Its how I live with my beliefs – its always the same.

Do you feel that through training you have deepened your relationship with your beliefs?

No, the belief is something thats always there.  Its constant.  Its with you every day, and every day you know more and more – you have this aim in communication and in daily life.

In this seminar we’ve been talking a lot about making a connection with a partner.  When you and Daniil work with a partner it seems that you can make this connection very fast – is it a conscious process?  Do you try to scan or read the opponent?

Its just a feeling.  Its instinctive.

How can we cultivate that kind of sensitivity?

First, you have to have a good attitude to people – you have to be a good person.

Daniil Ryabko / ‘It means knowing yourself better’

Welcome back to Japan! How many times has it been?

Five times… I don’t know maybe six!

You must really like it here

Well you know the Japanese come to train with us all the time in Moscow.  They practice very hard and they have good hearts – very open.  When I’m in the US or Europe a lot of people don’t believe anything I say until they feel it for themselves.  Even, you know, don’t put your hand in the fire, it burns!  But the Japanese, they just get on with it.

What does Systema training mean to you?

It’s like everything, you know… More than anything to me it means knowing yourself better.

Is there a single aspect of training that speaks the most to you, or that you are espcially comfortable with?

(Laughs) Which do you like better, your fingers or your toes?  With Systema it has to be everything, and everything is connected.  What matters isn’t what you’re doing but the feeling inside.

What are the most important points for a beginner to keep in mind?

You have to learn to use everything, you know.  You have to know what it is that you’re doing all the time – know yourself, completely.  And relax.

How should we aproach eliminating fear or tension?

Everyone has their own fears that they have to confront.  Some people are afraid of the knife.  For other people its the whip…  You have to learn to face everything one thing at a time and learn to accept it and relax.

Does it get easier?

(Laughs) There’s always more, you know.  It’s something that keeps going, even all the way to god…

What did you do before you became an instructor?

When I was growing up I went to Police College for seven years.  It’s a bit different from in other countries – we learnt about everything – all the kinds of things you learn in a normal school as well as things like social studies and law… after that I was in the Police doing the same work everyone does.  Then I became a Lieutenant, working as a detective in Moscow for a few years.  I was a Captain when I left.  After that, I came to work with my father.  There were some Special Forces guys  who came in to train and finally they said, ‘we like what you’re doing, why don’t you come work with us at the training center’, and you know, that was that.

How did your experiences as a detective affect your attitude to teaching and practice?

Mainly it’s about psychology, you know?  What the bad guy is thinking.  What he’s going to do.  How people work on the inside.

Did Mikhail being your father make training with him more complicated?

In martial arts there’s often this idea that you have to learn with this person, then this person, and so on until one day you can go to the top – like a pyramid.  It’s all about money.  But with Mikhail, whoever you are, whatever your level is, you know he can work with you.

Secrets of Systema Massage

Chances are, if you’ve ever taken a Systema class you will have seen at least some form of massage. Frequently described by its most senior instructors as a critical aspect of proper training, massage is used to encourage proper breathing, posture and relaxation.  With its practitioner’s use of everything from their hands and feet to wooden rods and even whips however, it can also be something of a daunting prospect.

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I first meet Aleksej Sapronov while in Osaka with Daniil Ryabko for a two day seminar.  One of the foremost practitioners of Systema massage having learned directly from Mikhail since 2009, he is kind enough to talk to me while working non-stop for the whole of the event.  A stocky, rather intense looking man, he soon turns out to be friendly and approachable, with an infectious enthusiasm for his work, which he describes as an ancient Russian technique, for healing and rehabilitation.

His subject as we talk is a young man, maybe still in his teens.  I can see the pain on his face, hear it in his shallow, staccato breathing as Aleksej works down his spine with what appear to be a pair of horns.

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‘You see this is hard, because not symmetrical’ he grimaces, as the horns sink impossibly into the space just above the young man’s hips.  Is he working with the spine?  ‘Not only spine…also the inner muscle, organs.  Everything is connected.’

I ask him if there’s any truth to the stories of relived traumas, intense emotional responses.  He nods.  ‘When the tension is released…sometimes there is much emotion.  Some cry, scream, laugh…’ – A conspiratorial look –  ‘some have orgasm.’

Putting the horns aside, Aleksej sets to work on his subject’s shoulders with short wooden batons, digging into the muscle there with deep, scraping movements.  The pain is almost tangible as we watch ripples of tension shoot through the prone body.  ‘See! there, the hands!’

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As he works, Aleksej keeps up a kind of dialogue with his patient – ‘Your shoulders! the left one! relax here…breathe…don’t forget to breathe.’  Now he is working up and down the back with his fists.

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The treatment ends with a series of light but somehow deep blows with a coiled whip, travelling from the soles of the feet to the shoulders and back again.  Finally, he lays it on the body and sweeps it lightly across, as if flicking away the last tension from inside.  ‘Now, he is empty inside,’ he grins, ‘he has nothing.’

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Finally, Aleksej lays the whip on the man’s back in a curiously tender gesture, and leaves his patient to rest for about five minutes.  I ask him what hurt the most, and he frowns.  ‘The shoulders.’  What about the lower back?  ‘Yeah, that too!’

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As he gets gingerly to his feet, I ask how he feels now.  ‘Fine,’ he tells me, and looks bewildered for a moment.  ‘Yes…very fine.’

The Power of Movement with Daniil Ryabko

In this two day event hosted by Systema Osaka, Daniil taught a series of exercises based around sensitivity, movement and working with the structure of the body.

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Beginning with a typical warmup involving walking, breathing and stretching, Daniil added additional layers of work – first, guiding a partner around the room, then with their eyes closed, gradually minimizing contact as students tried to ‘sense’ their partner’s movement.  Finally, students allowed themselves to be taken lightly to the ground, sensing and following the direction given without resistance.  Daniil demonstrated that even with eyes closed, a partner was consistently able to track and follow his movements at close quarters.

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From here, Daniil shifted his focus to talking about the connectedness of the body’s joints, how the body sources energy and movement and how this relates to breaking the opponent’s balance.  He emphasized the use of small movements to keep the opponent in a ‘zero point’ in which he is always trying to right himself and incapable of attempting any other movement.  Daniil stressed that this did not require him at any time to take the opponent’s weight.

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Daniil expanded this to include working with multiple opponents – leading to some great photo opportunities as students queued up to experience his movement first hand!

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Full gallery here