First of all I feel the need to address the elephant in the room. This book (curiously?) doesn’t have the word “Systema” in its title or anywhere on the cover, except on the jumper Vladimir is wearing, but make no mistake, it is a book about the Russian martial art called systema. Systema often gets a bum rap from other martial artists, not by the practitioners, or the people who have tried a class, it should be noted, but more often by people who see the numerous videos of the art being trained on YouTube and cry foul. The videos often contain people moving in slow motion while falling head over heels backwards at the merest hint of a punch from a seemingly out of shape martial arts instructor. The BJJ community in particular is scathing of the systema groundwork videos out there.
To be fair, it’s not unreasonable to question a lot of these systema videos, but I feel the criticism is often born out of ignorance about what is actually happening. There are certainly some videos that seem like nonsense to me, but that’s often because systema uses unusual drills as a chief training method, often without explaining what the rules of the drill are before posting a video of it. Add to that the fact that there is an awful lot of nonsense in martial arts in general, from ‘no touch’ chi masters from China and Japan, to overweight, out of shape Western guys who think they’re ninjas, and you can see why it’s hard for systema to catch a break. But if you think about it, any martial art has parts that make zero sense to people outside of the art. For example, just look at a video of two high level black belts in BJJ scooting about on their butts and leg scissoring each other for 10 minutes in a competition to become ‘world champion’ and tell me that’s not as ridiculous as the wackiest of systema videos.
Contrast this reaction to the people who have actually trained with the key figures in systema, like Vladimir Vasiliev and Mikhail Rybko, and you’ll find they talk of a master level of skill and lessons that are more like a finishing school for experienced martial artists, rather than the sort of thing you’ll find at the local YMCA karate class.
But this is not just a book about Systema, it’s a book about strikes.
If you’ve ever watched Vladimir Vasiliev punching people you’ll probably have some questions (see video below). For a start, it doesn’t look like what you expect a martial art to look like. There are no immediately recognisable stances, gestures or techniques. There is no jab, cross or hook, or even a reverse punch or superman punch that you can put a label on. At best you could say there are a lot of ‘overhands’, but that’s about it. Instead it looks like somebody just moving and hitting in a relaxed, almost sloppy way. The movement he uses to evade his attackers is often the movement he uses to strike with, so there is no clear distinction between strike, block, advance, retreat, evasion or kick. It’s all just movement.
And so it is with this book – it’s called Strikes and yet in systema terms it’s impossible to separate the strikes away from the rest of the art, so this is really a book about the whole of systema, seen through the lens of striking. And so, it begins where everything else in systema seems to start, with breathing.
If you’re wondering why, let Vladimir explain himself:
VV: Breathing is important for talking about strikes because in a fight you’re going to be hit. Sooner or later, it’s inevitable. The punch you don’t see coming can be the worst. When you’re in that terrible condition, all you have to hang on to for restoring yourself is your breath. In a fight, proper breathing can keep you focussed on the next threat, instead of collapsing into yourself.
Strikes recaps the breathing information found in the previous book Let Every Breath… and gives you the basics of systema breathing, but you should seek out the earlier book for a full investigation of the subject. The book then goes on to talk about the things that make systema strikes effective – these are things like non-interference, freedom, continuity, spontaneity, clarity, acceptance. These concepts might sound a bit woolly, but systema strikes address the whole person, rather than just the mechanics of how to punch as an isolated event. Of course, the mechanics are covered too, in great detail. As are striking drills – the book is chock full of these. In fact, the reason it took me so long to review Strikes is that I got a bit bogged down in this section of the book, which incorporates the Rabota (work sets) of systema. For systema practitioners, or somebody with a partner to practice with, these will be useful, but they don’t lend themselves well to free reading.
Some of the information from Vladimir regarding the effects of strikes borders on the magical, so if you’re the sort of person who gets upset with the notion that your negative energy can be transferred with a strike, you’re better off avoiding this book. If you can take these things with a pinch of salt and look for the deeper meaning then you’ll be fine.
The book is a combination of writing from Vladimir and Scott Meredith, an early student of systema. Scott and Vladimir have worked together before on Vladimir’s previous book, Let Every Breath… but while that one was Scott giving voice to Vladimir’s ideas, this one separates out the two people as distinct entities. So now you get to hear what Vladimir has to say directly.
The majority of the text is in the form of long quotes from Vladimir interspersed with further explanations or extrapolations from Scott. Vladimir does the touchy feely stuff, giving the book its heart and soul, while Scott does the more rational, technical analysis, and explanatory text, giving the book its structure. As a double act, it works perfectly.
I think every martial artists who has an open mind would find something of value here.
At the very least, Strikes will give you something new to think about when you next train martial arts. In fact, a lot of the information in this book would be equally at home in a self help publication, as it crosses many boundaries.
It does make you question what it is to be a martial artist, and what it is to know yourself through martial arts. As such, it bears repeated reading well. I can imagine coming back to the book in a few months and learning something new, which I missed the first time.
Finally, I’d like to draw the reader’s attention to the high production values on offer here. In the post-truth Internet age where anybody can write a book and self publish it on Amazon, often with dreadful results, it’s important to point out when a book has been properly written, sub-edited and professionally laid out and printed using good quality paper. It also has a nicely chosen font and nice photographs that complement the text. There’s even a strange little graphic novel about Vladimir’s life at the back, which seems slightly out of place, but shows the attention to detail. This book has clearly been a labour of love and the extra effort reflects in your overall enjoyment of the finished product.
Q) Is this book of interest to anybody who doesn’t do systema?
A) I’d have to say, an emphatic, ‘yes’. If you are a systema practitioner then it’s a given that you’ll find much of value here.
Q) Is this like Scott’s Tai Chi books?
A) The author, Scott Meredith, has written plenty of Tai Chi books (See JUICE: Radical Taiji Energetics), and has a particular writing style which is often based on creating his own terms, then turning them into acronyms and almost creating his own language out of them. It definitely adds a bit of modernity, informality and spice to an old martial art that is often weighed down by obscure Chinese terms that have no equivalent in English, and have limited practical use. But the endless acronym approach can grate on some readers. Many may be worried that he uses the same methods here, but fear not. He does slip into acronyms occasionally – for example SET, which stands for Strike Experience Team, gets used a little unnecessarily, but here the acronyms tend to be the exception, not the rule. What’s more important is that his natural wit, flow and rhythm as a writer shines through and keeps you interested and entertained throughout.
Q) What do systema strikes look like?
A) Here’s a video of Vladimir doing some movement and strikes:
Q) What do systema striking drills look like?
A) Take a look at this recent drill from the UK’s Rob Poynton of Cutting Edge Systema, as an example of the type of drills (not an exact drill from the book, but close enough) contained in the book: