The past weekend I packed my bag to travel to a martial arts seminar in Amsterdam. The seminar was arranged by Takemusu Aikido Amsterdam and Systema Amsterdam, hosting Matt Hill to teach a weekend of what the two martial arts of Aikido and Systema have in common and what they can benefit from one another.
I have had the great privilege of taking part of Matt’s teachings before and, to me, no one is better suited to try and build the platform where Aikido and Systema can meet. A long term uchi deshi of Morihiro Saito Sensei, later in teaching under his son Hitohira Saito Sensei and now a certified Systema instructor under the tutelage of legendary Vladimir Vasiliev, he has undoubtibly the experience that allows him to bring the systems together. The fact that he has also served as a parachute regiments captain has given him additional experiences and effective teaching tools to bring into the martial arts arena and has, in my opinion, enabled him to modernize traditional martial arts teaching in a way that many teachers would benefit greatly from, were they able to apply it in their daily training and teaching.
Needless to say, my expectations were high travelling south. This was my first trip to Amster-dam which also meant the great opportunity of training with new people, putting me a little bit out of my comfort zone, which is always a healthy ingredients in martial arts practice.
The Amsterdam people prooved to be a great bunch – friendly and welcoming, very relaxed and easy going. The seminar itself took place in a city sports center that housed a phenomenal and spacious martial arts training space. One of the hosts told me that the local clubs could rent this space for 9 Euros/hour on a regular basis. A great set-up which made me very jealous. Anyway, all the ingredients for a great seminar were there and it was time to get to work!
Day one consisted of body work, starting the day with thoroughly working with the four pillars of Systema: breath, relaxation, movement and structure (of the body). Starting with a combination of relaxation and breathing excercises, working our way into a set of different movement drills, without and with contact and then proceeding into partner drills.
The partner drills, as common in Systema, of course included a lot of strike work, but throughout the day we worked a lot with Aikido techniques, doing what in Aikido terms would have been in the area of jiyu/kaeshi/oyo waza, both standing and on the floor. All in free flow and all in continueous series of attacks. There are two great benefits with this: Firstly, it gives you instant feedback if you can turn your core Aikido principles into practical, hands on work and secondly, if you can relax enough to be able to work for a longer period of time then just doing your usual left-side, right-side technique and then switch. A lot of personal insights in these areas are often made during that kind of work. The fact that you are often hit in the process, something most Aikido people are not used to at all, adds to both these two areas, since it easily disrupts you and equally exhausts you very quickly are you not able to keep your rythm and stay relaxed. This, in my personal opinion are one of the best tests for any Aikido practitioner who wants to get some sort of validity to the practical, martial effectiveness of their Aikido.
The second day of the seminar gave us a chance to work with weapons. The morning started off with knife work and the afternoon continued with jo. In Systema as in Aikido there is really no such thing as learning a multitude of techniques to be adapted to and applied in different circumstances depending on different variables. We use a set of principles to prepare us for any situation, any attacker or attackers, any weapon or no weapon, different speeds, angles, environment and so on. In that way, what we do is pretty much the same, no weapons or weapons, one attacker or many. What changes is mostly the distance and the rythm. Day two allowed us to continue working with being able to move under pressure, being able to stay relaxed and keeping our breath going, even when there is a weapon involved and even when you get hit. And get hit you will, make no mistake about that.
Two full days of training, empty handed and with weapons, left me relaxed and revitalized, even though I got hit quite a few times and even though most of the sessions where about 2,5 – 3 hours long with continueous work. I got to test my Aikido principles and my ability to move and relax and also using a lot of the techniques that I practice every day. And right here is, I feel, where Aikido and Systema meet. The two systems have so much in common that to me they are in many aspects one and the same, they can benefit a great lot from each other and any one training in one of them, will be able to develop greatly by training the other.
Here is what I see we share:
- The emphasis on breathing and relaxing
- The spontanous creativity and improvisation
- The aim to make people unwilling to attack you rather then destroying them with your defence
Any person practicing Aikido I think could develop his skills a lot by looking at the Systema way of:
- Working in motion/free flow in longer sessions, being attacked repetedly (this can succesfully be done slowly) giving you the chance to be creative and spontaneous
- Getting familiar with what it feels like to be hit and to hit someone else
- Not focusing on technique but on principle
This was another highly professionally conducted seminar by Matt Hill and a new great opportunity for me to continue my search for the Takemusu martial way. Interestingly, Matt several times during the seminar emphazised the fact that the practice of Systema starts from the inside. You build from the inside to rid yourself of fears and tension, to be able to stay relaxed and perform even under severe pressure. Having just returned from another seminar, with Hitohira Saito Sensei in France, he spoke very much about the same thing, referring to O Sensei and showing calligraphies illustrating how Aikido builds from the inside and that without this understanding there will never be a strong external expression. In my opinion, we are pretty much practicing the same thing, we just do it in slightly different ways.
My great thanks to Matt for a weekend of great training and exploration. Also my thanks to Patrick, Vivian and Gertjan for hosting the event, making the training possible and helping taking care of me. Finally thanks to all who attended, who gave and received and trained in great spirit.
In Aiki – M
PS. Don’t miss the fact the Takemusu Aikido Göteborg will be hosting a seminar with Matt in Gothenburg on the weekend of March 7-8. This will be the fourth time he teaches here and it means a great opportunity to get some first hand experience of what it’s like.