Take it…or Greive it (Part 2)

-Second part of an article with Vladimir Vasiliev. Be sure and find part 1 below.

        Student: Could you give a few tips on applying Systema Breathing to taking a punch.

        Vladimir: There are training tips related to preparation for striking and the actual things you do while your are receiving the strike.
Most people have the primary fear of contact. Of course the degree of fear varies from person to person. I have met some who came to my school afraid to get hurt to such an extent that they were shaking even in a peaceful setting of the gym. Learning to take strikes should follow a good progression.

          One day at Mikhail Ryabko’s class in Moscow one of his students brought a friend who was not a fighter at all. In fact, the man had no experience in any martial art or any sport, he was from the world of science and classical music. He wanted to know how to take strikes, but was absolutely unprepared to have any contact with a fist. Despite his interest, he was completely unable to understand the principles of breathing and taking strikes. Even talking about punches made him panic.

(Be sure and follow the link "READ MORE" to the rest of this article)

         To help this man understand, Mikhail demonstrated this fundamental drill. In order to gradually reduce the fear, do not punch right away, but begin with pushes. If you are the recipient of the push stand comfortably with your mouth slightly open to allow exhaled air to flow freely out though the mouth. Have your partner place his fist on your upper stomach and apply intermittent pushes in a pumping action without breaking contact with your stomach. Allow the air to be expelled freely with each push though your mouth. Once you got the feel for exhaling the extra pressure, just to sense the alternative, close your mouth and try to take the same kind of pushing. You will immediately realize how much less effective this is. The extra pressure now cannot exit and you will clearly feel the discomfort that builds up.
           For another easy test, try to keep your mouth closed as you are just standing and doing nothing else, you will feel tension increasing inside. So imagine if you have tension to start with, then pushes cause more tension, strikes cause yet greater tension and hitting with an object or weapon would cause even more tension inside. The very thing we want to avoid, since as we know, unresolved tension leads to destruction.

           Student: Can you explain what you mean by that.

           Vladimir: If the impact of a strike enters a space enclosed by tension it has an increased power, it is explosive from inside. A strike that penetrates past the superficial muscle layers carries this force and destroys the internal organs and structures. That is why it is so important to make sure that the strike does not enter inside.

           Student: During these drills is it better to exhale quietly or to make a sound?

           Vladimir: You see, due to the everyday stresses, people arrive to class very tense. Their breath cycle has been constantly distorted and interrupted throughout the day. And they were not even aware of that. At the very least, what an instructor can do in class is to teach them to breathe. If breathing is audible, or obvious to the person himself, he will be more likely to remember that he is breathing, it will take less effort for him to concentrate on breath work rather than muscle work. Thus, it will be easier to reduce the tension. (for more description of Audible Breathing please refer to Let Every Breath··· page 50.)

            Student: When I am comfortable with pushes and exhales can I begin taking punches?

            Vladimir: We need to advance the skill by building a strong foundation. Continue working on the exhale phase of the breath cycle. Take light punches only. But now have them delivered to various body parts such as shoulders, arms, upper back. You can have your partner walk around you as he strikes. This drill will help you control tension in different body areas. Your goal here is to acquire an instinctive exhale to any contact.

             When you have gained this automatic response of contact-exhale, then you can start on real punching. You may like to prepare by doing a few sharp inhales and exhales to prevent the fear from developing. As we discussed in the first part of our conversation, such dynamic breathing interrupts the fear-building process. Sharp breathing keeps you in control while at the same time fills your muscles with oxygen needed to match the physically active condition of your partner.
             When you begin to practice taking punches, make sure you stand in a natural and straight body position, as described in Let Every Breath···, pages 51-54, at a comfortable distance to each other. At the very moment that your fist touches your partner’s stomach, he exhales sharply though the mouth. Then he immediately draws a short and sharp inhale though the nose with the mouth closed, ready to repeat the exhale at the point of next contact. 
            Punches can now get stronger than in the previous drills, but stronger for that recipient and his level of skill. Your primary goal is to teach your partner to breathe, so as you strike watch your partner vigilantly and make sure that your strikes do not make him tense.
            In Systema, we call these short and sharp inhales though the nose and exhales though the mouth Burst Breathing. It is widely used in tolerance training exercises and in combat. More details in Let Every Breath··· pages 69-70 and throughout chapters 5 to 7.
           When training, the more discomfort and pain you get from a strike the more you accelerate and intensify your burst breaths. This way you do not allow the pain to penetrate. By doing Burst Breathing you can also stop the destructive feelings of self pity, anger and resentment from arising within yourself.
           In Russian, Burst Breathing is also called The Saving Breath. There are numerous instances where this type of breathing helped to prevail in a confrontation or saved a life.
           I heard about one such dramatic episode from Mikhail’s student in Moscow. This young man was in a horrible accident. The minivan with several people in it fell off a cliff and rolled down a steep and rocky hill. The minivan took one shattering bounce after another and each time this young man tried to group himself, move and roll, he kept doing Burst Breathing constantly. (See news story Ken Good Breathes thru a Crash)
            Tragically, all other passengers were killed in the crash. He was the only one that took Systema classes with Mikhail, and he says that it was breathing more than anything else that saved his life.

            Student: Why does it have to be short breaths? It seems that slow deep breathing is a lot more relaxing.
            Vladimir: If you do a big long exhale when you are punched, it will make you take a big inhale and that is when you drag the pain and all the unwanted emotions into yourself. Whereas if you only breathe with the top part of the lungs, the stomach muscles remain slightly contracted and in tone even after a punch, and the punch remains on the surface. This type of breathing allows you to take a series of punches and allows you to stay mobile in a fight.

            Student: How many times should I hit my partner when we are practicing?

            Vladimir: Your partner is not a punching bag, so quantity is not important. What is more important, do not hit until your partner is ready. Make sure that he has totally recovered himself from your punch, that his face, position and breathing clearly tell you that he is ready to go on. Only then you continue and take turns.

            Student: I noticed that when I am being punched, I sometimes close my eyes for a very brief moment. Why is that?

Vladimir: Many people do that, especially during sparring or real fight. Your fear of getting hit is bigger than your will to protect your body. You can not handle the tension of anticipating a punch and therefore avoid facing it.

           You can deliberately make this an element to work on. It is important to watch and see when the strike comes at you so that you know exactly when to exhale. With more experience, you will be able to catch the right moment even with the eyes closed. Keep in mind that the perceptions of pain are different when the eyes are open and closed.

Student: Some strikes make me kind of disoriented for a moment. What can I do to control that?

            Vladimir: The reason is that you begin to concentrate on the pain and other body sensations, you become too consumed with these and thus loose the control of your surroundings and become disoriented. During practice, it is useful to look at your partner, remain in visual contact with him. It does not even have to be him, you can maintain eye contact with another person in the gym. Burst Breathing will also help you restore your awareness much faster.

           Student: Is it beneficial for an experienced martial artist to practice strikes with a non-experienced student?

           Vladimir: I often ask more experienced students to work with newcomers. It is a great opportunity to check oneself, because the new person presents something unknown and unpredictable, a chance to control the tension of anticipation and adjust to a variety of punches.

Student: What kind of things we can do to accelerate our learning progress?

            Vladimir: Make a habit of breathing properly all the time in class, during any exercise. No matter where and how you are training watch the tension as it appears from any contact or any effort and exhale it. Apply the same to your everyday life, do not let the stress, tension and negative feelings get in.

           Student: Are there any words of caution in training to receive strikes?

          Vladimir: It is important to proceed gradually, preparing your body physically and preparing yourself psychologically. Systema also recognizes that the one who strikes transfers his internal condition to his partner. As the skill of striking improves, it becomes easier to transfer inner feelings to the recipient. This is a word of caution especially to those who teach. An instructor may not even recognize it himself but he may be trying to prove that he is not just an ordinary person··· Sometimes we forget that we cannot be the strongest ones. The desire to be the strongest makes us the weakest. An ideal teacher is a calm and balanced person with no ego. His strikes would be safe to take.

       Thanks Vladimir: this is a great article. Be sure and visit Vlad’s website at www.russianmartialart.com

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