In Systema we train without gloves or protective equipment – even in the delivering or receiving of strikes to the face, we do them full contact. There are many reasons for this, but I shall be discussing only one: that of finding comfort in discomfort. As we seek to emulate the conditions of real-life combat we are careful to introduce things which change the dynamics of the fight. In Systema, the hands that deliver devastating strikes into our opponents are the same healing hands that sooth and relax our training partners. We control the dynamics of the situation by controlling our comfort levels and avoid the use of things that easily become crutches. If you look at many of the “street martial arts”, you will find that it is common to use protective gear when they are doing pressure testing. This is to enable the fighters to go “all out” on each other to “see what happens” in a “real scenario”. There are benefits to this, of course, especially in the realm of athleticism, but as Systema practitioners we are not interested to find out who is the better athlete – we are trying to understand ourselves better. Let me give you an example:

If I were to put you in a Volvo with a helmet on, seatbelt buckled tight, air bags activated and other safety features installed and asked you slam into a wall, how fast would you accelerate to? Now would you dare slam into the wall at the same speed on a motorbike without a helmet? No. No normal person would dare to. They would go slower. And the same thing happens in combat – without the gloves and helmet, we wouldn’t hit our partners sloppily because we might sprained our wrists, we wouldn’t charge into our partners so readily knowing that if they tripped us we would fall over harder, we wouldn’t slam our training partners heads into the wall because we might irreparably damage them. We learn, when we do not use protective equipment, that combat isn’t just about our athleticism and physicality but our psychology, our emotions and, I dare say, our humanity. When we begin to learn just how fragile we are, we realize we need to find ways of surviving. In Systema, we protect our bodies with movement, relaxation and structure and we protect our psyches with breathing. The more we practice, the stronger we get and we start to discover that we have the capability to be much more resilient. We start to find a sense of comfort in what was previously an uncomfortable situation.

This is one of the big differences between us and sports martial arts.

About 3 years ago I was still doing my National Service (all Singaporean males have to go through 2 years of military, police or civil service). I had just posted out. It was a Monday and I was awaiting my next posting. I was seated with 2 friends of mine and an acquaintance. My acquaintance had a fiery temper and an ego problem and was teasing me. Perhaps I should not have done so, but I soon let out a one liner which angered him very much. He walked towards me with his eyes facing the floor. I sensed hostility. He drew his arm back and punched me in the chest before sitting back down. My 2 friends on the left and right of mine were taken aback at the series of events. I pulled one of them to the side to explain to him what had happened. My friend asked if I was okay. I told him I was fine and we went back to our seats. Shortly, the angry acquaintance received his posting and was sent to his division. Before he left, I called out to him and shook his hand. He seemed surprised that I was so nonchalant about the incident.

Systema’s methodology had just proven itself. I was initially taken aback at the incident, but my body’s ability to quickly normalise itself proved useful and helpful in de-escalating an otherwise problematic situation. I had found a way to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. Had I been fearful and aggressive, I’m sure I would have confronted him about it which would have certainly lead to a clash of egos which would result in the both of us getting into trouble with the authorities.

In Systema, our drills work on 2 different realms at once – the physical and the psychological. We are always working on both the physical and the psychological one at the same time. Whatever the drill is, we need to make sure that we can grow in both these realms together.

A newcomer normally learns by separating the two. For example, if he were to learn to take strikes, he usually only mirrors what the instructor or practitioner is doing on a merely physical level. Usually with the light strikes, the newcomer is able to handle them easily. However, the heavier and deeper strikes always surprise them and they start to panic and hold their breathes or tense up. This is the point in which the newcomer begins to work on getting comfortable with discomfort. He has physically learned to take a strike, but he has also just started to understand the importance of the psyche. Gradually, with training and good advice, he learns to accept and even get comfortable with the work. He is stronger and has expanded his comfort zone. This is something that is missing in many fighting systems – genuine psychological conditioning – and not just a dulling of our senses or using aggression to overcome the pain but real letting go of the fear of getting hit.

This applies to another of my favourite parts of Systema – the massage work. Systema massages can be anything from soft and calming to deep and excruciating (a la the stick or whip massages). The masseuse intends no harm, however, and it is the job of the recipient to co-operate with the masseuse even when it hurts. I’ve had massages which were so insanely painful that they caused me to have existential crises. But I hanged on with breathing and trusted my partner. This discomfort was real, but I managed to find a deeper sense of comfort afterwards in the form of a stronger, softer body.

All this helps describe a very odd position Systema practitioners universally find themselves in – we’re always talking about comfort (“stand comfortably”, “push from a comfortable position”, “strike comfortably”…) but always doing very uncomfortable things (“strike deeper”, “stronger”, “don’t forget to hit the face”…). We are constantly looking for new ways to develop more relaxation. I guess you could say that we are very demanding people; we are always looking for comfort – even in discomfort.