An interview from the gym of Vladimir Vasiliev
Student: We heard that you are currently working on a new book on STRIKES. One of the topics covered in that book will deal with the skill of taking strikes. It is of great interest to anyone studying martial arts, self defense or even human psychology. In Systema training, this skill is recognized to be very important, quite a lot of time is devoted to learning it. Why is that?
Vladimir: Why study this, you ask, but when they get hit, students also ask Why Me?… There are 2 reasons for training to take strikes. The practical-apparent one and the underlying-psychological one.
No matter how good a fighter is, sometimes he gets hit. Some strikes you just do not see, some pleasant ones may come from the back, unexpectedly, or can be more powerful than you anticipated such as when hit with an object or a weapon.
In my experience with numerous martial arts and martial artists, fighters avoid getting hit by trying to be the first one to punch, by learning escapes, evasions and blocks. But they rarely talk about dealing with the strike that actually landed on you.
There is also an approach of taking strikes by withstanding pain, deliberately toughening up and tightening up various body parts. Aside from ultimately destructive effect of such practice, it would only work for a visible, anticipated strike, while in place. But what if you have not seen the strike come or if you were on the move then you would need alternate relaxation of muscles.
I have seen how an unexpected punch can send a skilled martial artist into a state of disorientation, shock, panic, resentment, and many other counterproductive conditions. Moreover, I have never seen anyone capable of avoiding all strikes in a mass attack or crowd fight. You can easily verify it yourself in a group of 10 or more fighters.
Here is a typical example seen in class many many times. A new student joined in, big and strong guy, experienced in martial arts. We began a mass attack drill where everyone comes to the center of the gym and is hitting in all directions, each man fighting for himself. Right away the new guy got punched on the head, he turned to see who did it ready to hit him back. At that moment he received a punch from the other side, with some anger building up, he turned to that side, his fist ready to fly in that direction. And then of course he was hit again from the opposite side. He was twirling like a good punch bag. Finally, he realized that a punch-for-punch does not work in a mass attack. So he exhaled and started punching those who were close by and not those who hit him.
Unfortunately, most of us have an almost automatic response: when a strike touches us we immediately go to retaliate and hit back. This is caused by pride. Systema training of taking punches deals directly with pride.
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Student: When did you realize the need for learning how to receive punches?
Vladimir: When I was young and involved in many confrontations, due to my body type, I had an easy time evading and escaping any punch, I could move, roll and twist my way out of any situation. Although it worked for some time, I knew that I will not always be able to escape. And true enough, I learned though my injuries. First torn neck muscles, then broken ribs, and later torn knee ligaments.
These injuries clearly showed me the limitations of my agility. That led me to very serious thinking that good agility, reaction time and strength do not guarantee success. I realized incompleteness of all martial arts teachings that I had known, or almost all…
By the way, these injuries of mine happened while I was training with my legendary teacher Mikhail Ryabko. Being a restless student, every so often I would try sparring outside of my gym, tried other ways of fighting or tried to prove something… Now, though the 15 years of teaching at my own gym, I see a very similar picture with my students. An injured student arrives to class. What happened? His answer is usually: I was wrestling with a friend on the weekend, or played some soccer, or had a volleyball game.
Student: So how does that relate to taking punches?
Vladimir: A punch is a potential injury. And there is only one sure way to minimize or prevent destruction from a strike and from physical stresses to the body. This sure way is offered in its completeness only by Systema. Of course, you have guessed what it is. Breathing.
With proper breathing it is extremely difficult to sustain an injury. If the circmstances were very serious and trauma does happen, then the damage is a lot less severe than would have been otherwise.
Breathing is the most interesting, useful and largest physical resource that we have. If we want to enhance ourselves we must incorporate this key element into our training and our life. If we look at a person, we see that he or she is complete, our training method also has to be complete with all the components present and connected into a system, or Systema…
Student: Can breathing really help that much to take a punch?
Vladimir: Let’s look at it step-by-step. What is a strike that landed on you? It is a sudden force or impact or increased inner pressure, in other words, a quick transfer of tension from person to person. Keep in mind that the tension not only comes from the physical impact but also psychologically from our perception of threat and pain.
I have seen punching sessions where one or several punches were signaled or shown in a convincing way, but the fist was stopped just before making contact with the body. Although the recipient was not even touched, he became sick to such an extent that he had to throw-up.
This clearly shows us the vicious cycle of fear causing tension, tension producing more fear, fear leading to more tension, etc. This is where breathing comes in as the best method to break the cycle in such a simple way.
The effects of breathing are very well described in the book Let Every Breath… If you have not already read it, please check it out.
Let’s say you are punched in the stomach. If you breathe properly, the physical impact of the strike is dissipated, the tension does not build up in the area, there is no excessive blood flow and therefore, minimal or no bruising. Moreover, what is extremely important breathing does not allow the feelings of fear and self pity to enter the body, you literally exhale them. This way, even a powerful punch brings no damage physically or psychologically.
Tension always builds up in the muscles from the anticipated pain of the punch and from the real pain of the impact. Breathing helps to eliminate the tension and thus removes both pain and all the negative feelings.
Student: And still, people do not really want to get hit, so if we are training to receive strikes, do we have to overcome this weakness and just force ourselves to get punched.
Vladimir: It does not have to be forced, it all depends on your instructor and training partner. Over the years of teaching, I never stop being amazed at what happens when we work on strikes at Systema seminars.
As you know and have seen on DVDsDVDs, Mikhail Ryabko can hit with the power of a cannon ball. He stands calm, relaxed and smiling and from his subtle punches, the recipients drop on their knees, totally loose focus of their eyes, laugh or cry. Yet, what is most incredible, every seminar there is a huge line-up to experience his punches. Out of a hundred participants at least 50 voluntarily stand in line. These are people of all athletic abilities including the frail ones, all ages including the older ones, instructors, new students, as well as women. Each volunteer gets from one up to several punches. Each participant gets a different reaction, some are in real pain and Mikhail instantly shows them how to come out of it, some go though a whole spectrum of feelings, but all come out enlightened. And guess what, at the next seminar day the participants line up to get hit again. People say that with every strike delivered correctly and received with proper breathing fear leaves the body, replaced by peace and strength.
Student: I realize that training to take strikes is an extensive and exciting process and I look forward to the next class. Could you give a few tips on how Systema applies breathing to taking a punch.
Vladimir: I will be glad to. There are training tips related to preparation for striking and the actual things you do while your are receiving the strike…
…to be continued
Thanks Vladimir: this is a great article.
Be sure and visit Vlad’s website at www.russianmartialart.com