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Photo by Melissa Vasiliev

It’s a common saying amongst martial artists that “slow is smooth, smooth is fast” and so naturally I thought of it when I wanted to write an article on the value of slower, more exploratory, intentional training – a type of training referred to as softwork – the sort of which we do quite a lot of in Systema. It’s a tricky topic and I’m not going to pretend I know the underlying mechanics of the matter but I am confident that my experience in the practice will be of value to those who practice it without fully understanding its significance and informative to those who don’t yet use this methodology. Let’s dive in.

The foundational premise of softwork is skill.

Training slowly is fundamentally a practice of skill and understanding. While there are aesthetic elements to martial skill, martial art prowess is ultimately measured in efficacy, unlike the performing arts. This is why I prefer the version of the quote I first heard from my instructor – “slow is precise, precise is fast”. The word “precise” corresponds more closely to the skill we are trying to obtain through slow training than “smooth” does. Simply put, slowing down helps you to develop the necessary components of a technique. This part is obvious enough – going slower lets you perform a movement with more precision and our bodies start to learn the movement at a much deeper level, allowing us to perform the same movement at much faster speeds with far greater efficacy than we previously could with a superficial embodiment of the technique.

Here’s an analogy that emphasizes this: If we needed to quickly grasp the gist of a body of text, we could breeze through it with speed reading, a technique where the reader scans an entire page of text shifting his gaze from the top left of the page to the bottom right of the page, forsaking the reading of each word and instead “catching” entire phrases and key words. It’s a very useful skill to help us filter through a large amount of inconsequential text quickly. On the other hand we have text we are not satisfied with an elementary brush with and want a deep embodied learning of. Sacred texts are the kind that sit in this end of the spectrum and there are likewise correspondingly opposite techniques for reading them. A good example of such a technique would be Lectio Divina (or Divine Reading) – a method invented by the early Christian Monks for reading the Bible. In Lectio Divina, the reader reads at a rate of one word per breath or even slower to fully savour and take in the depth and meaning of the words. The two methods sharply differ in methodology and use. The question, then, is “does it really make any difference?”

Why does softwork… work?

Systema practitioners are always surprised to discover just how much depth there is to a push up. At Systema Singapore we’re practically doing a new type of push up every few months. This happens because we do quite a lot of them (and making all the men wish they had learned Systema before going for our mandatory military service – we sometimes do more push ups in our warm up than most servicemen do in a whole day). The same thing occurs when you slow down your strike or takedown – you start to find new depth in the movement than you previously did. You start activating more muscles and different muscles in your movement, your body connects the kinetic chains better, your positioning gets more nuanced, your breathing syncs with your power generation, your technique connects with your opponent much better… The result of these things being a more effective technique at the same speed – or a faster technique at the same effectiveness. Training slowly enables your every muscle, every movement, every positioning… and even the every other subtle things like breathwork, body weight and psychological intent to consolidate into a much more distilled action. Much like the way great archers take aim:

“Great archery masters often teach that “everything is aiming.” Where you place your feet, how you hold the bow, the way you breathe during the release of the arrow—it all determines the end result.

In the case of Awa Kenzo, the master archer was so mindful of the process that led to an accurate shot that he was able to replicate the exact series of internal movements even without seeing the external target. This complete awareness of the body and mind in relation to the goal is known as zanshin.”

Zanshin: Learning the Art of Attention and Focus From a Legendary Samurai Archer

This sort of self-awareness doesn’t come about when we rush things. And I mean rush things, not doing things fast. Without the proper development of the internal states and physical conditioning, speeding things up leads to rushing: “to perform, accomplish, or finish with speed, impetuosity, or violence” or “to send, push, force, impel, etc., with unusual speed or haste”. There is a clear element of unpreparedness in this sort of work and that is the element we are seeking to remove from ourselves when we go slow.

And it has to be slow

Every person has a certain “level of ability” to cope with activity or stress. When we are stressed by an external stimuli or an internally initiated action we are trying to carry out, we have to ensure the sum total of the stresses are below our capacity, otherwise we start to feel a significant drop in the quality of our actions. If you’ve ever writhed like a snake or spasmed like a dying cockroach while someone is tickling you (or have done that to someone else) you’ve already witnessed this effect. The external stimuli (the tickle) introduces a significant amount of stress which reduces the remaining capacity we have left to perform a meaningful action to escape, and is why people end up struggling ineffectively or violently. This is what happens when you over exceed your stress capacity. This is also what happens when you get punched in the face or find yourself in a lock you didn’t expect – your mind cannot properly deal with the amount of stress it is facing and leaves you with very little room left to respond precisely.

The good news is that we can train in such a way that our bodies don’t get such a surge in the “activity-stress level” when an external stimuli is applied. The methodology is simple in both concept and practice – you simply go through the same movements at a slower speed. By lowering the speed of the movement, we drag out the impulse of the stimuli so that at any given point in time the effect is lower, enabling us to develop the internal elements of a combative situation and train them to the point at which the stress of executing the movements no longer seriously affects our capacity. This is what Systema HQ (Moscow) instructor Artem Usov means when he asks us to be comfortable. This comfort forms a large part of what it means to be relaxed in Systema. When one becomes comfortable with moving in a meaningful way, the movement no longer requires as much stress to perform. That is also the point at which the intensity of the training can increase.

But if Systema has no techniques, how does this methodology apply to us?

Techniques are a double edged sword. They set the stage for the basic movements to be learned and demonstrate to the new students a very visible relation between the physics of the body and the efficacy of movement, helping them learn the fundamentals. The thing about techniques is that they stay on the stage and get very comfortable being there. Nobody wants backstage crew up on the stage for too long because it distracts the audience from the main characters. This is why in Systema, we have no backstage crew. Everything is part of the show and to the uninitiated it looks really chaotic.

In Systema, softwork is even more important to us precisely because we don’t have the help of techniques. For us Systema practitioners, softwork plays an additional role on top of those I previously mentioned. On top of developing our ability to finely control our muscles, align our bodies in the right place and position and syncing our breathing with our movements to perform the perfect move, our slow training forces us to learn how to instantly invent effective techniques for unrepeatable scenarios. Systema teaches her students from day one that things in a fight, no, things in life are never going to present themselves in a way that we can practice for directly. And so we learn to be able to deal with a dynamic and ever-changing playing field indirectly – the field of combat which all serious martial artists know too well that no technique ever actually works exactly the way you practice it to. Those who have reached the higher echelons of martial arts will know this to be the stage at which martial artists “drop the technique”, as Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu Grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi mentions at this point in this video:

All this that I’ve been going on about, however, relies very thoroughly on one assumption – the attacking and defending at slower speeds must quite literally be the same thing as the faster version sans the speed. Naturally, there is a huge emphasis on this in Systema and it even has it’s own (very unimaginative) term – honest work. In order to benefit fully, or even at all from softwork training, the intention behind the practice attack and defends must absolutely be of the same as that of when going at full speeds or at least be exactly what it’s meant to be. A slow punch is a slow punch. A slow push is a slow push. It’s not a watered down, flimsy, weak, slow “punch” you want to give your training partner. It has to be the real deal in slow motion so our minds can start to comprehend the real effects of making a mistake. Stepped in the wrong place? Too bad. That’s a fully formed fist that you just threw your face into. If you mean what you do, your training partner is going to be able to tell the difference. Trust me.

While I’m talking about it, I might as well mention the flip side to this. If you don’t practice honest work (examples include changing the speed or trajectory of strikes or not putting any strength behind the training blades “oh the knife touched you let me just let go”) you’re going reinforce at a time of accelerated learning an illusion of the way things work at full speeds. Presenting your training partners with a false reality is one of the most damaging things you could do to them and should they ever need to apply their martial arts practice in a real situation is going to cause them a lot of hurt or even get them killed. Training in softwork is really by no means an easy task.

Other notes about slow training

To all the benefits softwork has, there is at least one more. Done properly (with full commitment and intention), softwork is quite literally a sort of moving meditation that helps us to realign our inner man to do as we intend and live as effective individuals. In many sports or fitness regimes today, it’s easy to zone out and just pump while following an instructor or drowning the pain out with heavy beats. No such luxury exists in a Systema class. Most gyms are dead silent with only the occasional rhythmic burst breathing and footsteps of our fellow practitioners. There are no sets or routines to follow and there is never an audience to watch us as we perform. Each new drill, each new exercise in Systema is a unique situation in which we find ourselves having to deal with both our true selves as well as a real existing person in an honest way. There is no arguing over technicalities in Systema – something either works or it doesn’t (although we do have discussions on how to get something we know to work to work).

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One could quite fairly describe softwork as the soul of the “art” in our martial art. Much like the white space in art or the pauses in music, softwork is not characterizes by its lack of speed but an overflowing emphasis of the internal elements of Systema which are hidden from those who “speed read” pass her deeper meaning. It is by design that Systema practitioners rise and fall by their ability to see into themselves. Come, stand with us and savour the divine depths the martial art has to offer. Come, journey with us as we mature into more intentional people and effective martial artists at a much faster rate – by slowing down.