On a hot and humid weekend on the 7th and 8th of July, Brendon Zettler did his first ever seminar in Tokyo, Japan, for Systema Japan. This was his third time in Japan due to him previously doing two seminars, one with his brother Adam, in Osaka for Ryo Onishi of Systema Osaka. Even though the event was announced on short notice, fifty students from around Japan attended each day. This shows how much Systema's popularity has grown in Japan. The topics that were covered over the two days were breath work, strikes, kicks, groundwork, knife work, massage and much more.
Brendon placed great emphasis on working from relaxation and for this reason started each day with drills that included breath-hold drills of varying sorts, stretching, ground movement drills and, the core exercises of Systema, Push Ups, Squats, Sit Ups and Leg Raises. One of these drills was holding the breath on the out-breath and walking for as long as possible until, when you couldn’t hold your breath any longer, you restored yourself through movement, such as push-ups, squats, sit ups, leg raises, moving on the ground and lowering and raising yourself off the ground in a variety of ways. Once you recovered, you again held your breath and walked.
Another interesting drill he showed us which helped to “clean the tension” out of our bodies, was where you start from the bottom position of a push-up. We then raised ourselves just a little off the ground and relaxed ourselves by breathing and moving the body. We gradually raised and lowered ourselves in stages with the intention of relaxing ourselves. Brendon said that it was important not to rush each stage of the movement.
Brendon said that walking is an excellent way of ridding yourself of tension. However, it is important to really observe your body as you do it so that you can see where and when tension is created. Correct walking also helps the person to move the body as one whole unit, which was one of his main teaching points of the seminar. A great tip he gave was to make sure to pick up the feet while maintaining fifty percent of your weight on each leg. You picked up the feet from the knees and lowered them directly under your hips. This way you were always on balance and in control of your body whatever direction you moved in.
A lot of importance was placed on pushing. He said that without being able to push properly, you won’t be able to strike properly. This is a well-known maxim in the Systema community but sometimes you need a “little push” in the right direction just to help you to remember. All of the work that we practiced whether it was strikes with the fists, legs or knife work began with pushing. However, the pushing had to be honest. If it wasn’t, the person receiving couldn’t get used to real contact and the person pushing couldn’t get accustomed to affecting their partner’s entire body through the push. As Brendon said many times “Contact is good.” From experience, I can say that Brendon’s pushes are almost like strikes in themselves. He was so relaxed and his arms were so heavy that everything went into the person he was pushing rather than getting any rebound.
A lot of the work that we practiced throughout the seminar started from contact which lead to using the fists and legs to respond. For example, we received pushes from our partner from either the fists or the legs and then, when the moment was right, we countered with a simple push of our own, which affected the entire structure of the person. We, of course, practised the same with strikes but the foundation of this movement came from correctly placed pushes into areas of tension. Initially, we did this work from a stationary position and then while moving. Brendon made this all look very simple and easy but in actuality, as everybody found out, it wasn’t easy at all. He pointed out many times that is important not to waste your movement and that you must respond to the attacker with patience, precision and “one good solid strike” which takes all desire out of the offender. Some of the students still probably have some evidence of that “good solid strike!” However, these strikes didn’t create injury but rather left the person feeling invigorated and “glad” to be alive.
At the end of each day, Brendon spent about an hour on massage and showed us a range of exercises that he uses in his Breathing Classes at the Toronto Headquarters. He made it very clear that massage is an extremely important part of Systema. He said that he spends a lot of time on this aspect of training. Through his guidance, participants learned how to find tension in their partner’s body and then relax those areas with varying degrees of pressure. For instance, he showed us an exercise where someone stands on the thighs (near to the knees) of a person who is sitting upright. Like with the push-ups before, the person lowered themselves a little and as they did that the person on top moved a little further up the thighs. In this position, the attendee getting stepped on had to breathe, relax and reduce the tension as much as possible. The person went down and up in stages as the top person stepped up and down the thighs accordingly. Once in the starting position, the person then did ten sit ups while the partner on top walked up and down the legs. For some people this was fine but for others, due to excessive tension in this area, it was too much, so Brendon suggested walking up and down the thighs using the hands or fists. It wasn’t important to tough out the pain but what was important was to gradually decrease the tension. As long as the person could gradually relax, the aim of the drill was achieved. He said that everybody is different and that you must work to your own and your partner’s level. Brendon said that you have to relax yourself so that the “power can come within.”
Even though it was so hot and humid, Brendon tirelessly and with patience and kindness worked with everybody throughout the seminar. While watching Brendon as he did the demonstrations and made his way around the group, his relaxation, calmness, precision and, of course, enjoyment, were what were most impressive. It wasn't just his precision with strikes but it was his accuracy of working at the level of each student and giving them what they needed so they could learn from the experience. Everybody thoroughly enjoyed the seminar and this was in no small part due to the selfless translation provided by Ryo Onishi. Sanbongi and all of the Systema Japan Instructors, IiTs and students who helped with the organisation of the event also deserve a big thanks. I would also like to thank Andy Cefai and Scott McQueen for their help and guidance and, of course, for Vladimir and Valerie for their support and arranging for Brendon to come over at such short notice. If you get an opportunity to attend or orgainise a seminar with Brendon - take it because it is well worth it.