By Scott Meredith
The new best-selling book The Survivors Club : the Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life by Ben Sherwood does not mention Ryabko-Vasiliev Systema
even once. It’s not about martial arts. And it isn’t published by Systema Headquarters. But never mind all that – It’s going to be one of the most compelling, motivating, and informative books you ever read about Systema or martial arts. If you do read it, that is. I’m betting that by the end of this piece, you’ll be running out to get it. If not, I’ve failed you as a writer, but more importantly, you may have failed yourself, at your most important task – staying alive.
‘The Survivors Club’ explains why some people live through things that creep your flesh even to read about – mass drowning events, horrific fiery infernos, metal spikes through the heart, and beyond. Sherwood makes the crucial distinction between “surviving” and “living”. The idea being that you need to apply the same calm awareness and rational sensitivity which have probably served you well in the calmer waters of your daily life, to the maelstrom of a life-threatening emergency. He thoroughly explains all the recent cutting-edge survival research, and spices his narrative with incredible anecdotes that will make you proud simply to count yourself one of the same species as these “ordinary” people who walked (or swam, or fell…) through hell and back again.
(Click link below to continue reading)
But, not to take anything away from the scientific pursuit of survival science (now being researched in secret military labs and the psychology departments of major universities throughout the Western world), that same distinction, the difference between “SURVIVE” vs. “LIVE” was not news to me. I already understood, because I’d been taught exactly that point almost ten years ago, when I first took up the practice of Systema under Vladimir Vasiliev, Mikhail Ryabko, and Konstantin Komarov. They taught it and mirrored it to us, because it has been part of them for a long time. That’s why they’re still around to pass it on.
In ‘The Survivors Club’, Ben Sherwood paints the best broad picture of survival research ever assembled. But here, I want to focus on a particular point. Consider the following observation from Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht of the University of Manitoba, the world’s foremost authority on hypothermia (freezing to death), as quoted in The Survival Club:
“Some 95 percent of those who perish in cold water aren’t actually hypothermic. In fact, their body temperatures turn out to be almost normal. The cold doesn’t kill them. It’s the terror that leads to drowning and heart attacks. ”
This is a truly shocking fact. 95% of those deaths were entirely needless! How can this possibly be? Sherwood continues the explanation, and here is the crucial link to Systema training: “So what should you do if you end up in cold water? Professor Giesbrecht recommends a straightforward 1-10-1 system: You have one minute to get your breathing under control, ten minutes of meaningful movement, and one hour before you lose consciousness. Survive the first minute and you’re on your way to saving your life. The most immediate danger comes from what’s called cold shock. This includes a gasp reflex followed by uncontrolled breathing known as hyperventilation. As you gasp for air, you’re more likely inhale freezing water. This response also makes it very difficult to coordinate your swimming movements. Your first goal is to fight the panic and get control of your breathing. ”
Do you understand? Did you get the key lines?
“You have one minute to get your breathing under control”.
“Your first goal is to fight the panic and get control of your breathing.”
There it is. But this great book does not really explain How-To. He has to get on with his narrative of plane crashes, fires, kidnappings, ferry capsizes, parachute deployment failures and other mishaps. And Sherwood wraps everything up with a fascinating psychological profiling protocol, so that you can self-analyze your survival strengths and your likely reactions in an emergency.
But now, here, I want to stay with his key sentence for a while. I want to reiterate this sentence: “You have one minute to get your breathing under control”. But: HOW exactly are you going to do that? No really – how? I don’t mean give a breezy nod and a mental thumbs-up “Yep, that’s the stuff!”
I mean suppose RIGHT NOW your entire body was plunged into freezing water, right this minute, could you do it? Get control of your breathing – within one minute? And if not, how can you learn this? Can it be trained at all? Or maybe it’s magic, or an innate ability that you either have (- and live), or lack (- and die)? Neither Mr. Sherwood nor Professor Giesbrecht offers any specifics, beyond the key word: Breathing.
There are many breathing disciplines. You might want to explore them all. You may think training in some of these fashionable practices could pull you through. For example, I personally trained in Ashtanga Yoga. This venerable yoga tradition, despite the tortuous appearance of some of the advanced postures, is primarily focused on teaching the student breath control. This yoga system is widely taught and practiced, and I can say I’ve become fairly proficient at it over the years. But, would yogic breathing, as typically taught in a warm and peaceful studio get me (or you) to the other side of our own One Minute? I’m sorry – it would not.
You see, there’s a … gap… between every breathing method out there and the real world of pain and danger that any of us could face at any unpredictable time. It’s a narrow gap, so you could go for years without ever detecting it. It’s so narrow that it’s only about… One Minute wide. You need breath training that has been entirely formulated with that goal in mind – laying you a plank over the gap and bringing you to the other side of it alive. I’m talking about the One Minute “reality gap” that can suddenly crack apart your ordinary life, your ordinary training, and your ordinary breathing. It doesn’t apply only to cold water and hypothermia. When you read Sherwood’s book (you are going to read it now, aren’t you?) you’ll see that it applies everywhere. It applies to every single emergency, because he’s essentially saying: You have to control yourself before you can save yourself.
To the best of my knowledge, having studied and practiced dozens of breath and energy cultivation systems in great depth for decades, among all training systems known to me, only the Russian Systema breath training program pioneered by Mikhail Ryabko and brought to the West by Vladimir Vasiliev bridges the gap. It’s the bridge you’ll someday need to walk over from death to life, when nothing else is there for you. Nothing else is real – for bridging that space.
This is not to criticize other methods and systems which are so enjoyable, delightful really; in the visions they paint of an ideal world of perfect serenity. But, as Sherwood’s book makes painfully clear, the real world doesn’t care about your visions. The message I took from this book is that when it counts, you’ll have only a short time to control yourself if you are to save yourself.
The breath training program presented in the DVD “Systema Breathing” and the ever-popular book “Let Every Breath… Secrets of the Russian Breath Masters”, both by Vladimir Vasiliev, teaches exactly how to master that One Minute gap. Coaches you on how to bridge it and cross over to the other side, and not to waste your energy and throw away your life when you could have survived. Though this term itself (‘One Minute’) never appears in the book, still make no mistake, that’s what we’re talking about here. The effect of the training is to address with steely precision the challenge Dr. Giesbrecht had in mind when he said:
“You have one minute to get your breathing under control… Survive the first minute and you’re on your way to saving your life.”
Carve that quote into your mind with a laser scalpel. There is no program, not meditation, not yoga, not anything, known to me other than Systema Breathing that can install this into your body/mind. Install it so deeply and unconsciously that it self-activates when you face death head-on (as I have many times).
And it isn’t only about breathing. Chapter after chapter, as Sherwood surveys the charred ruins of airplane crashes (yes, there can be survivors!), multiple car pileups, falls from mountains and out of helicopters, and much more, again and again the core trainable attributes of the Ryabko Systema program are cited:
For example, Sherwood writes about RELAXATION as a critical attribute of a survivor of extreme impact:
“… [The survivor of a fall from a high building] may be physically relaxed at the time of impact, which appears to be, in itself, an important criterion for survival of free-fall”
“ … People who are drunk also appear to have a disproportionate survival rate among free-falls of extreme distances because they were abnormally relaxed”
So you may think: Great! At least for THIS attribute (relaxation) we ARE given the training method: hoist another cold one! But it isn’t that simple. Alcohol is shown elsewhere in the book to be a negative factor in an emergency. All kidding aside, HOW are you supposed to acquire this degree of relaxation control over your mind and body, facing an unprecedented situation of absolute terror? Sherwood doesn’t hold your hand here; no path is laid out for you. He offers the “what” and the “why” but not the “how”. So I am offering you the “how” right here and now. Relaxation, again, just like breathing, is one of the fundamental attributes explicitly engendered in you by the Ryabko Systema breathing program.
Finally, Sherwood discusses the role of faith and spiritual connection, as he writes:
“When I started writing this book, I was somewhat skeptical of the role of faith in survival. But as I began to interview survivors around the world, I noticed a remarkable pattern…”
I won’t go into that aspect further in this brief article. You may read Sherwood’s book. But I will drop you a bread crumb: Faith is the cornerstone of the Ryabko Breath Training program, and is also covered in great depth in Vladimir Vasiliev’s book: ‘Let Every Breath… Secrets of the Russian Breath Masters’. I’m not going to disclose too much here, but … Faith is one of the secrets that the subtitle refers to.
This brief present article is dedicated to those 95% of lost human lives, needless deaths. I’m writing this in sorrow for them. Even a few hours of Ryabko Systema breath training would have saved them – this is the scientific fact.
You can take up Systema training for many reasons: the cultural interest of the amazing Russian ambiance, for the warmth of the camaraderie, and/or to fulfill your visions of “winning” in some imaginary street combat in your head. You can do it for fitness and fun, and for that there’s nothing better. But after you’ve read The Survivors Club, and pondered the bridge I’ve tried to build for you here – the bridge between Sherwood’s generalized research results and immediate reality of surviving your own One Minute – at that point you’ll know why you’re really in it.
‘The Survivors Club’ presents the THEORY of survival – Ryabko/Vasiliev Systema training is the PRACTICE.
About the author:
Scott Meredith is a certified instructor of SYSTEMA under Vladimir Vasiliev. He is a lifelong student of martial arts, intimately familiar with the cultures and languages of Japan and China. Scott is a professional technologist who holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has worked for 20 years as a Senior Researcher in human-machine interface technologies for IBM, Apple Computer, and Microsoft. Scott is the writer of Vladimir Vasiliev’s famous book Let Every Breath