On the 31st of March and 1st of April, Systema Japan held its first ever seminar with Sergey Ozereliev. Systema practitioners were also very lucky because Sergey Ozereliev was accompanied by Vladimir Zaikovsky, who has conducted seminars in Japan a number of times. While here, Sergey conducted a two day seminar and two special classes; Vladimir also taught one special class. In this report, I will be focusing on the seminar. However, I will provide notes on their special classes at a later date. I would like to show my heart-felt thanks to Andy Cefai, Head Instructor of Systema Japan, for holding another great event and all of the people who helped with the organisation.
Before starting my review of the seminar, I would just like to give my sincere thanks to Sergey for providing the participants with such an enjoyable and profound seminar. As with all Senior Instructors who have come over to Japan, Sergey was a true ambassador of Systema. He was humble, inspiring and created an atmosphere that was joyous and one of discovery. This seminar went so fast, it was unbelievable. The work that Sergey demonstrated looked simple, natural and relaxed. However, the simplicity with which he moved hid a deep understanding of Systema’s principles. As ever, the simplest things are the hardest thing to do! To feel this simplicity was an unbelievable experience. As I go through the exercises that were done, I will give my take on the experience of working with Sergey. I also sincerely want to thank Vladimir for his patience, insightful teaching and kindness throughout the seminar.
Sergey began the day by asking the students to do breath-hold drills. First, he asked us to remember how we were feeling at that moment before the exercise. He said that when we restore ourselves, we should try and return to this feeling. He said that while doing this we should always be checking ourselves e.g. tension, blood pressure, heart rate, breath, fear and psychological state. The exercise was done by inhaling, exhaling, holding our breath and then doing one push-up. We then completely recovered and then did the same thing but two push-ups; we did this up to ten. After finishing the push-ups, we did the same but with squats. Sergey made a point of saying that it was important to do these exercises at your own pace.
Sergey next got the group to lie down on their backs and use only the shoulders to move forwards and backwards. This was also done while on the stomach. This was done using two methods. The first was moving the left and right shoulder individually (normal variation) to move and the second, was using both shoulders at the same time.
With a partner, we then, with the fist, pushed them in a variety of ways. When doing this with Sergey, he never gave any support for my fist to make steady contact with. Upon making slight contact, the power of the push disappeared because the support wasn’t there. To be honest, while pushing his body it felt like water. I could barely feel anything. And the harder I pushed, the better it was for Sergey. I found that the harder I pushed, I lost my balance more. An analogy of this would be like a bullet ricocheting off a surface. Following this drill, we did the same thing but in groups of four.
Sergey then demonstrated a drill whereby his partner had to try and push him, with the fist again, from the right side of the hall to the left side. It was Sergey’s job to prevent him pushing him to the other side by moving his body as practised previously. The person who tried to push him found it very difficult because he could find no support to push on. I was lucky to practice some of this work with Vladimir. He said that it was important to not let the push go inside of your body, therefore creating tension and changing your form. When I pushed him, using very subtle muscle work, he was able to keep the push just on the surface and with a slight twitch of the muscle, redirect it off the body in any direction he wanted. This was amazing to feel because no matter how hard and fast I tried to find support to push, I couldn’t find it.
Getting all of the students to make two lines going down the gym, Sergey then asked everybody, one at a time, to “run the gauntlet.” The people in the lines pushed the person trying to make their way through. Instead of using brute force, the person being pushed had to use breathing, relaxation and body movement to get to the end.
Again working with a partner, Sergey asked them to push him. Upon being pushed, Sergey raised his fist into a position to strike. An easier way to think of this is that the person receiving the push uses the movement and force of the push to raise their own hands; it’s almost like one complete movement. This also was done with the eyes closed.
Sergey then went on to show a series of challenging plyometric push-ups. The first one was moving from the normal push-up position, to a simple clap and then back down again. After this, from the push-up position, he clapped his hands in front of his head and then returned to the original position. Lastly, he clapped his hands behind his back. We did ten repetitions for each exercise. The purpose of this drill was not to develop power, muscle or look good. Vladimir Zaikovsky simply said that it was a drill to teach you how to go from a relaxed state to one of tension and back again as fast as possible.
With a partner, Sergey demonstrated plyometric push-ups on a partner who was standing up. Slightly leaning with his open palms on his partner’s chest, without bouncing or moving at all, he quickly clapped his hand in front of him and then placed them back in the beginning position. Sergey then did a similar drill but started with his fists on the partner’s body rather than the palms.
Sergey showed how this concept, of going from a relaxed state to one of tension and then back again, relates to short strikes. From a very short distance from the partner’s body, Sergey quickly struck them. Even from very close range the effect on the person was very obvious. When I felt these very short strikes, the power of the strike was unfathomable and very difficult to explain. The strikes didn’t annoy or hurt and left no trace. All I can say is that they vibrated through my whole body. The shock of the strike simply left me blank without any feelings at all. In order to help everybody return to their normal state before going for lunch, Sergey got the students to perform the breath-hold exercises (push-ups & squats) that were done at the beginning.
After the break, Sergey began by showing some massage using the stick. With the point of the stick, he searched around the body until he found a point of tension. He then, with his chin and hands on the other end of the stick, leant on the stick, thereby creating more tension in that area. He said it was important to push, find a reaction, which was usually burst breathing, and allow the person to relax themselves and get used to this pain. Due to not everybody having sticks, he also showed that you can do the same thing using the foot and the fingers.
In the next drill, Sergey demonstrated how just manipulating the little finger can affect the whole body. This wasn’t done by using a lot of strength, in order to lock and control the body. Sergey did it by using the finger as the point of contact to put tension into the whole body. This was also done using the wrist as well. When he just applied a little tension and direction to the little finger and wrist, a ripple of tension occurred through the body, eventually ending with the feet kicking out. I was lucky enough to feel this first hand in the demonstration. Sergey initially put tension into my body by use of the finger or wrist and then continued to build up layers of tension in my body, by kneeling on my stomach, chest or head or affecting the elbows and shoulders in similar ways. Frankly, this was not a pleasant experience, as it was rough and created some fear because of the fact that you felt totally restricted because of the amount of tension that had built up in your body. All I could do in this position was burst-breath, which eventually enabled me to relax and find space to move. It’s important to mention that after Sergey finished affecting the joints, there was no pain or strain to these areas. It was done in a very controlled and calm manner. For me this drill had a two-fold purpose. First, it taught you how to build up layers of tension in a person’s body and secondly, it helped you to learn how to deal with fear and stress.
Sergey next demonstrated affecting the whole body through the fingers and wrist, as before, but this time from a standing up position. With hardly any movement, and certainly no strength, Sergey was able affect his partner’s entire body very quickly. As before, the tension travelling through the receiver’s body was very noticeable.
Against grabs to the wrists, Sergey showed the group how to use the attacker’s motion and redirect it, so that the person could be taken down or put in a very uncomfortable position. Sergey timed his movement perfectly with the attacker’s movement, thereby making it easier to take the motion over. He usually just used one hand to do this but at times, he added the extra just to add to the partner’s momentum, thus taking the person off balance or just making it more difficult for the attacker to control their movement and speed. It’s important to add here that everything that Sergey did was economical, non-flashy and effective. He seemed to never waste his movement and energy. He always did what was required in that moment.
The last drill of the day involved Sergey inviting somebody again to try and grab him. Standing in a calm and relaxed with good form, just as the person was about to make contact, he put out his fist, elbows or feet at exact places, in order to surprise and create a beneficial response in the partner. This reaction involved the partner stopping dead in their tracks, turning away, arching their back and so on. This was basically non-contact work but if there was slight contact it didn’t seem to matter. The important thing was to surprise the partner and get them to react in a way that would put them in a bad position. After demonstrating this concept for a little while, he then made the most of the attacker’s bad reaction by striking them in open areas using the fists, elbows, feet and the straight arm (contact was made with the forearm). I’d never seen this idea of using the straight arm before in a Systema context but it looked highly effective. It, of course, was done in the normal fashion of doing a strike. It kind of reminded me of hitting something with a club from close range. When having the opportunity to experience this with Sergey, he was able to create tension in my body by either making me fear that I would get hit, which would tense my body up and stop my breath. And for the slight moment after this happened, I was open for a strike. Sergey, however, didn’t rush, he just precisely, and with just enough power, placed his strike on me. Although the strikes were heavy and quite shocking, at times, after each strike I didn’t feel any pain or anxiety. The strikes seemed to relax me more and more. It was almost like a massage in some aspects.
The day began with Sergei getting the group to walk around the gym doing breath-holds. We had to go up in increments of three, with the final number being thirty. For example, we inhaled for three steps, exhaled for three steps, held our breath for three steps and then, as with yesterday, completely restored ourselves with the use of burst-breathing. Once restored, we did the same thing but six steps inhale, six steps exhale and six steps with the breath held. As you can probably gather, this became very challenging as you got up into the higher numbers. This drill gave each person the opportunity to recognize their fear and overcome it. It also helped to release any tension that was stored up in the body.
Participants, on their stomachs and backs, then practiced shoulder-walking forwards and backwards over a partner. Following this, Vladimir Zaikovsky demonstrated a very challenging exercise where one partner lays on the floor with their hands straight up and their partner goes into a push-up position with their hands on the raised hands. Vladimir preceded to lower the person down straight to the ground, like in a bench-press, and then easily pushed them back up. He then lowered the person to the ground again but this time took his hands above his head, so that his hands finished with his hands on the floor above his head. The partner was stretched out in a lowered push-up position. The way that these exercises were done was not just by using strength to lower and raise the person because, especially in the position where the arms are extended above the head, it would put a lot of tension into the body making it a lot more difficult to do. Vladimir explained that you have to return the tension that is given to you by your partner back into them. This makes them change from feeling heavy to feeling very light. You basically make the person on top do the work while you just direct the movement up and down. To do this, you had to change the angle of your hands so that you noticeably felt the tension go into the partner and get lighter. Also, even in the extreme position you should feel very comfortable. Another piece of advice that he gave was to shake your hands a little, therefore decreasing the tension in the partner. If you can do this right, you use very tension to move the person on top.
Sergey and Vladimir then demonstrated rolling with a partner. Sergey faced one way and Vladimir the other, and together, while changing hand grips, practiced rolling. Next, sitting in a kneeling position with a partner, Sergey held their hand, like when you shake hands, and affected their whole body by affecting the wrist in a variety of directions. From the outside, it might’ve looked like Sergey was just doing a wrist lock but, in actuality, he was subtly creating and manipulating tension in the person’s body. From experiencing this, my basic understanding of how he did this was three fold. First, he increased tension in the body by manipulation of the joint, thus creating a kind of support for the person receiving it. Sergey then either relaxed taking away the support, causing the person to fall down or move, or, through the place of contact, directed his movement into the place of tension where it was highest in the body. He kind of used the structure that was initially created by the tension as a kind of road, in which he could travel through the body to the place where the tension was the highest. This of course is just my interpretation of what happened through my own feeling and experience. When watching Sergey do this you really saw this play between tension and relaxation.
Sergey then practiced the same work but with the partner grabbing the wrist. When he showed me this, another aspect, apart from the principles I explained above, that he used to create movement in my body, was the natural bounce or spring that the body has when it’s under tension. In a way, it was almost like bouncing a basketball! And the more strength or tension I gave him, the more of a reaction it had on me when he released all of that stored tension and energy. It was very amazing to feel.
After everybody came back from the break, Sergey concentrated on defense against a knife. Firstly, Sergey taught us a drill where we have to try and feel the safe distance from the knife. With his partner, he asked them to choose where they felt the correct distance was. This distance shouldn’t be too far away or too close. You had to just be out of range of the knife. Once the person chose the distance they thought was correct, Sergey raised the knife to see if it made contact or the person was too far away. He suggested that we change our distances to play with finding the right feeling where you were safe.
With a partner, Sergey got them to hold the knife out in front of them, so that it was more or less right next to his chest. Sergey then demonstrated how to pass the knife, without the hands, by moving the body while stepping to the inside or outside of the partner. This progressed onto Sergey showing how to use the hands while doing the same movement as before. Sergey lightly put his hand on the knife hand while stepping into the person and moving around the blade. Following this, Sergey got the partner to stab at him. He just lightly guided the knife with his hand while moving forward on the outside or inside.
With three or four partners, Sergey got them to line up with him at the front facing the line. He then asked them one at a time to continuously stab him. It looked like a conveyer belt of knife attacks! Sergey then used the same movements as practiced in the previous drill to deal with the knife attacks. He didn’t just stay on one side of the attacks, he kind of weaved his way through them.
In about 5 groups, with each lead person having a stick, in lines, one person at a time made their way past the person who was swinging the stick. It was important not to rush, get excited or time your movement. It was more important to develop the feeling of the right time to move. Sergey, in pairs, then demonstrated the same thing but this time using a knife. The action of the knife was more of a slashing action moving from left to right.
Sergey, with the partner slashing the knife from right to left, moved past the knife as before but this time applied the hands. The hands were used in a light way just to get guide the knife hand or absorb the knife’s movement rather than blocking it. He either moved on the inside or the outside. His hand movements were short, simple and natural. While doing this, he always kept his natural form.
With his partner close to him, they tried to stab and slash Sergey. He would get a connection with the knife hand and then never lose it. With the connection maintained, Sergey kind of shaped his hand around the stabbing and slashing knife. He also never lost his straight wrist form. When I did this with Sergey, I never felt like there was an opening to take advantage of. He was always in control of my movement through his connection with my knife hand or forearm. Even if I tried quick cuts to his wrist, he was always able to align his hand and forearm, so that I wouldn’t be able to cut him. Even though Sergey was very relaxed, there was a definite heaviness in his arm which enabled him to control me.
Kneeling with a partner on the floor, the person with the knife stabbed and slashed at Sergey. The aim of this drill was to guide the movement of the knife with the hands into a position where the person would put themselves into an uncomfortable or unbalanced position. Once in this position, Sergey showed us the importance of using the weakness of the little finger to take away the knife. This basically involved levering the knife out of the hand by way of affecting the little finger first. He explained that it is very difficult to disarm the knife if you try to lever the knife against the thumb first.
In the kneeling position, still doing the same work, Sergey added short hits or slaps to places of tension. By doing these kinds of strikes to specific places of tension, the person holding the knife would briefly relax their grip or change their attention making it easier to disarm the knife. Sergey finished the knife defense segment by defending himself against a standing, stabbing and slashing attacker. Sergey showed us how we can apply the previously practised work in more free work. As with everything else, he did this with simplicity, economy of motion and calmness. He also utilized the principle, that we studied earlier on in the day, of giving tension to the partner and then relaxing in order to initiate movement.
The day ended with Vladimir demonstrating how to massage someone with a knife. He said that it is better to massage with a steel knife because it is sharper. He slowly and sensitively cut, poked and spread the knife over the body almost as if he were spreading butter on a piece of bread. He also placed the knife along the length of the spine, so that the spine would align itself with the straightness of the knife. This was an extremely deep relaxing massage. Afterwards, you felt so relaxed and energized. The tension in my muscles seemed to completely disappear.
Although we were taught a lot in this seminar, the main things I took from this seminar were a better understanding of how to use tension and relaxation and the importance of being natural, calm and economical. My deep gratitude once again goes to Sergey Ozereliev and Vladimir Zaikovsky for coming to Japan and sharing this beautiful, deep and wonderful art with such patience, kindness and joy.