Depending on the initial condition of the senior students, we have to establish the duration, intensity, and content of the class. The general rule is simple: always adjust the work based on the student’s health, especially their pulse. Please make sure to start the class by telling the students to constantly monitor how they are feeling and listen to their heartbeat. If they can hear their own heart with their “inner ear”, then it is imperative that their heart be calmed down using breathing. If the student notices that during a class they feel worse in any way, they should tell the instructor immediately and take a break from the class.
It is best to begin the class lying down on the floor, on the back. This helps release anxieties and expectations while allowing the body’s musculoskeletal system to relax. This is where dynamic stretches (away from or across the body) with slow breathing work really well. Stretching away from the body occurs when hands, arms, and the top of the head are stretching “up” (when lying down, this means along the floor, over the head), and your heels extending “down” (also along the floor). As a result, the spine gets a good stretch. Then, extend the arms out to the sides, away from the rib cage, and stretch apart through the fingertips. Stretch on the inhale, relax on the exhale. You can also add stretching diagonally across the body – right arm and left foot and vice versa.
Next, you can try various ways of turning over from back to stomach and vice versa, with the body movement following fingertips and feet/knees. Then, ask the students to crawl as able on their backs and stomachs. Remember that crawling may be challenging for older people; so don’t worry about how far or how fast they move. What’s more important is the process itself: movement by engaging the body’s core muscles and, of course, connecting the movements with continuous breathing.
After crawling, add a workout for the students’ back and stomach muscles. Some exercises that help here include pulling the knees up to the chin while lying down on the back, or pulling each knee to the opposite shoulder. You can also include gentle backward bends while lying on the stomach.
Attention! After every physically intensive exercise it is absolutely necessary to let the muscles relax and release all residual tensions.
Here is a way of doing this. Use slow breathing and alternate stretching of the muscles of the back and stomach. For instance, lying down on the side, slowly bend the body forward on the exhale, stretching the back muscles. Then slowly exhale and bend the body backward, stretching the stomach muscles. Next, spend 5-7 minutes relaxing on the back and listening to the pulse, using attention to move the pulsing sensation to various parts of the body.
The next stage of the class focuses on the sitting positions. This is important for creating mild workload on the cardiovascular and nervous systems, and for highlighting the importance of constant breathing. The simplest way to do this work is to repeatedly sit up and lie down in various ways. Go down while exhaling and relaxing, and sit up while on the inhale. In this case, “going down” basically means gently falling down from a sitting position. Even though the height difference is not significant, such work creates fear and agitation if the body is tense. Therefore, it is necessary to constantly monitor the breathing and the excitement level of the psyche. Periodically pause the exercise and calm down the psyche with breathing.
The next phase is work in standing positions. Just as with lying down, we start with correcting the body form and with stretching. As we work on the proper body position, please remember that any substantial tensions present in the body will interfere with people’s ability to assume and maintain the proper body form. The very act of keeping correct body form in this case becomes a physically taxing task. Stretching can correct this by relaxing the muscles and allowing the body to return to its proper form. You can also combine stretching with twists of the torso to the left or right (at the moment of the stretch). Twisting on the exhale is better because it can put additional stress on the muscles that are already tense enough.
After you have corrected the body form and worked through your twists and stretches, do a slow squat with breathing. It is preferable at this point to do as “forgiving” a squat as you can, holding onto something for balance and only going as far as the ankle, knee and hip joints permit. At the same time, however, make sure to maintain your straight and natural body form and breathe continuously. Once you are done squatting, immediately take note of your heartbeat and, if needed, restore it to its normal working rate through breathing.
The next step is to work for 20-25 minutes on movements. When tensions accumulate in the body, posture is the first thing to deteriorate. Our nature is walking upright, which is a complex skill, requiring good coordination and balance. Excess tension of individual muscle groups causes other muscle groups to compensate in order to maintain balance. This limits freedom of movement and disrupts coordination. The excess load lands on the leg joints, hip joints, and the spine.
Walking with breathing synchronized to a certain number of steps is an effective exercise for restoring and maintaining the natural gait. As much as you can, please be very diligent about maintaining your body structure while walking. Also make sure that shoulders and arms are relaxed and a part of your movement. Don’t walk too fast, otherwise it will be difficult for to control the body form. “Stretch” the breathing (gradually increase the number of steps you take per each inhale and each exhale) until you notice tension in the shoulders and neck on the inhale. Don’t try to break any records. It is enough that breathing is complete, easy, and fills up the entire body. After you have “stretched” your breathing as far as you can, it is necessary to “shorten it” slowly and gradually back to normal. An abrupt transition from long breaths to short breaths can result in a rapid change in blood pressure. There is no need to force any additional stress on the body.
Now that we have done some work with breathing, we can begin working to properly distribute our blood pressure by working our upper body – our arms and shoulders. We can accomplish this through slow pushups off the floor or off the wall. Be careful when doing this exercise – poor breathing can result in increased blood pressure while doing this exercise. For this reason, pushups off the wall are preferable for the elderly.
In addition to pushups, you can offer a series of exercises involving pushing the body, twisting joints, and working with opponent’s resistance. In short, do anything that provides work for the upper body, as well as giving it a variety of new sensations and movements.
Move to Restore
It is best to conclude the class with work lying down on the floor. This allows releasing any residual stress from the musculoskeletal structure that might have surfaced as a result of the workout. It also helps unify the body by using the core muscles, as well as equalizing blood pressure. Do an exercise in pairs on the floor where each partner gently twists the other’s arm and leg joints. One partner slowly twists and holds any joint; and the other moves on the floor to escape the uncomfortable position. Follow this up with free movement on the floor with breathing – rolls, stretches or any other movements, matching the breathing cycle. Conclude the class by stretching with breathing, and by taking some time to assess the body while lying on the back.
This suggested class takes anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes, which is more than enough for an elderly person.
Throughout the class, it is important to check how the students feel, and periodically have them measure their pulse after a workout. The pulse should be restored after each segment to around 60-80 beats per minute throughout the class.
The bodily sensations at the end of the class are crucially important. The body should feel light, energized, and calm. The students should be in a good mood. Exhaustion, weakness, agitation, or persistent negative thoughts all point to disruptions in the content and format of the class, or perhaps incorrect execution of some of the exercises. If several people in the class experience such negative things, that means you should carefully review and rethink the content, structure, and pace of your class. If just one or two people experience these things, watch them carefully and make sure they are doing the work properly. Correct any mistakes, and check with them how they feel more frequently than with the other students.
Systema classes are extremely beneficial for elderly people. It allows them to sustain their good health, live an active life, continue working, maintain a stable good mood, and push back old age and stagnation.
There can be no doubt of Systema’s superiority to the generic sport and fitness classes. Here is why:
·Systema does not require any achievements, nor does it establish rigid rules or standards.
·Systema advocates an uninterrupted and correct process based on the individual’s own sense of the self.
·At the same time, this process is not a rote repetition of similar exercises, but a continuous process of searching, finding, and discovering; a fascinating game that never gets boring, but brings you the joy of natural movement.
As you conduct Systema classes with elderly people it is necessary to constantly remember one of Systema’s most important principles: DON’T DO HARM!
I hope that the upcoming Systema Camp 2014will allow us to study many theoretical and practical aspects in greater detail.
Working with older people will be one of the topics presented at the Full Immersion Camp during the Instructor Workshops. This session will also be open to the camp participants who wish to study it.
(written by a long time Systema student and experienced Ontario police officer)
There are no answers, only questions. That statement might be a little facetious in nature, but the longer I train in Systema the more questions I have. One question that continues to pop into my mind over and over again in the last 11 years of knowing Vlad is “why do I train?” The second question would be “how the heck does he do that?”
How often will most of us ever be in a situation where we will need to defend ourselves from an attacker with a knife, or multiple opponents, or maneuver our way through an angry mob? Although these things are happening, more and more these days, I pray that none of us will ever have to face challenges like these. Maybe the most important aspect of training is knowing how to avoid ever putting yourself in that kind of situation.
I often think that without Systema I wouldn’t be the person I am today. The times when I did not train were the times I had the most difficulty dealing with the everyday stresses of life; big or small. And then when I did train, I was able to handle those stresses with greater ease and objectivity. So I often ask myself, what is really happening when I am learning how to relax and breathe while training against a 6’3”, 240 lb monster of a training partner at class. There is a big difference. Your tension and fear allows him to throw you around like a rag doll. While if you relax through breathing, you can move, work against him and survive.
For most of us in everyday life that hulk of a training partner may be equated to your boss, the guy who cut you off while driving to work, your kids throwing a fit on a sugar high, or your wife’s honey do list. When I learn to relax and breathe in these situations it is similar to my experience working against the hulk in class. Training in Systema has continuously allowed me to discover who I am in all areas of life, to deeper understand my psyche and my own limitations. The only time I struggle is when I do not apply the lessons learned on the mat to situations beyond the gym.
So I leave you with the thought; what really goes on when we train in class is a lot more profound than we realize.
Everyone knows that shooting a moving target is much harder than a fixed one. It requires additional efforts and skill. Something similar happens in a fight. If a person utilizes continuous movement, the complexity of working against them is infinitely higher. Not only does it make a single opponent helpless, but also multiple attackers. Even a group of armed opponents loses the advantage when faced with a relaxed person who is ready to react on a free and spontaneous level.
Working on the move provides a unique feeling of distance and almost chess-like combinations in fight dynamics. Such a fighter is always confusing to the attackers by not letting them work as a team, but effectively using them against one another.
Of course everyone tries to move in a fight, but usually it is just ‘transfers of positions’ with small stops, pauses and tension-caused jerky movements. These tension-filled shifts of positions are counterproductive because firstly, they are visible to the opponents and secondly, they are perceived as a threat.
The secret: Systema approach is different. It develops movements that are completely smooth with no tension in the body or the psyche. This is achieved through specialized exercises to gain uninterrupted breathing, awareness breathing, combative breathing, internal control and unique movement and contact drills, which are enjoyable yet challenging.
Keep in mind that a tense person does not even know what power is. It is an illusion to think that a tense person can be strong. We have to realize that there is a huge reserve of power, spontaneity, speed and precision in every individual. If we remove the tension and fear (along with other negative emotions), these powerful qualities unfold, expand and allow you to prevail in any confrontation.
Systema training addresses the core and flows smoothly through all parameters of human abilities. I try to work on developing skills of fighting on the move in every Systema class at my school in Toronto and plan to explain, demonstrate and thoroughly practice this with the seminar participants in Paris.
The new, modern and most spacious gym of all France is a perfect setting for our training topic and for this great event.
All summer I have trained at Systema HQ Toronto, and applying what I learned to my sport of Nordic combined (Ski Jumping and Cross country Skiing) has been a fun challenge. On the jump hill, I am able to set myself in a better than ever in-run position. I am more balanced and relaxed so the transitions and bumps don't throw me off balance and I am also able to adjust very quickly to the new ski jumps that I have never jumped before. My take off has much more power and I am more relaxed in the air. I can fly farther and land softer. Focusing on breathing and greater body sensitivity really takes the edge off flying through the air at 95 kph.
It is interesting that on the slow pace cross country skiing, the movements came very natural. All the concepts that we use in Systema breathing class directly apply:
Pushing the floor away from you with pushups and squats, Finding how to breathe without the disturbing tension during sit ups and leg raises And of course breathing and moving to eliminate tension in all 4 core exercises. These things come fairly natural while easy skiing.
My biggest challenge that I am still working on daily is to keep the relaxation while in a race of over 60 competitors, who are racing their hearts out for 10 kilometers. It is a very fast speed race and with competition, desires, the will to will, or not to lose, it is very easy to get pulled out of a good position and just start flailing.
The most prominent key for me has been the use breathing to keep my posture. That is where the most power will come from and air will be flowing freely, very helpful when pushing yourself to the limit.
The second thing is breathing exactly when I need to. I am finding I can take in more air with less effort now. You know that exercise from the breathing class when we walk and breathe, 7 steps to inhale, 7 steps holding your breath on inhale, 7 steps to exhale and 7 steps to hold your breath on exhale. Even as you prepare for that exercise you let go of any breath that you were holding and open up your lungs.
I don't hold my breath during the race. Applying what I've learned from exercises like that one, I can breathe when I need to and as freely as I need to.
As we practiced in the breathing class in Toronto, I can also apply the variations such as inhale arms and thighs, and exhale feet and hands, or inhale arms and thighs and exhale low back.
Feeling what I am doing is a great reminder that a good race has nothing to do with crossing the finish line. Each race, I have learned something new. Each training session, I have learned something new. Everything I have learned is helping me keep up with guys who are older, "stronger" and "better trained." I still have a lot to learn and that is what I am going to do.
Systema has helped me not only stay healthy and strong competing almost every weekend but I have actually improved. I do not have the six months of base training that my teammates have, but I have trained Systema this summer and it has been working beautifully.
by Steven Cash Nickerson, an excerpt from the new book BOOMERangs. Engaging the Aging Workforce in America, available on Amazon.
“Even though you’re 60, you can still be a lean, mean, working machine! Pay attention to how you breathe and practice breathing when you exercise. I study Systema, the Russian Martial Art that teaches breathing. Practice your breathing when you walk. Breathe in when you take a step and breathe out on the next. I can tell someone’s age by how they breathe and we all are aware of breathing – it is a subconscious “tell”. I highly recommend the book Let Every Breath… Secrets of the Russian Breath Masters, by Vladimir Vasiliev. I read it every few months and practice these exercises each day. People think I am 10 years younger and breathing is a key part of it.”
Steven Cash Nickerson is a Systema instructor and director of Big D Systema in Irving, TX. He is also a well renowned lawyer and businessman, a published author of popular books.
If you have not read Steven’s entertaining article Memories of Systema Camp, it was listed the Training Tips pages for you to enjoy.
From Vladimir Vasiliev's Mastering Systema, Toronto, August 2013
No matter where we are and what we do, tension will come in the way of effective work. Breathing is the key to understand tension and controillng the body. Breathing is your real strength and will help you to survive any situation. This strength will never let you down. Breathing is the foundation, everything is built on it.
We must realize that everything we take from our outer surroundings is like food. So you can see breathing in as taking in food or as taking in water. So you take just enough that you take nourishment, you don't over eat. We try to do every exercise breathing in through the nose and exhale through the mouth.
As you relax more you can breathe in and out through the nose. Why do we breathe in through the nose? When you breathe in through the nose your fear comes out of you, from your heart, from your mind. Another important principle is that the breathing is uninterrupted. You have to breathe so that there is no tension. Inhale and exhale and make sure there is no tension building up in the body. There is often a choking kind of breathing. Because of the tension you are almost choking yourself.
What is full breathing? Most people answer diaphragmatic breathing and this is right but this is only the mechanical part of in and out but more important is the psychological component. By relaxing the body the oxygen is circulated more efficiently.
If you do deep breathing your body gets more and more relaxed. Especially if you do exercises such as punching or wrestling, if you do martial arts, you need to be relaxed.
There are 3 levels in every exercise we do: Martial Arts, Health aspect and Healing. If you do any exercise it should include the 3 levels of this work. For example, when you practice striking, You share with others ways to hit in martial arts. If your partner has tension you show him how to avoid tension. And you can hit in a way to relax and try to heal your partners.
This is something I have heard over and over during my years of training in Systema with Vladimir Vasiliev. To be honest, it is something I have struggled with especially when presented with something new to try. While working with my students, this idea became much clearer: don’t worry about what the other person is doing to you – just do your work.
Consider how seeing many positive options is far superior to being undecided.
Right now you are saying what does that have to do with Systema.
So my question back to you is – when your training partner starts moving towards you, is the voice inside your head saying:
A. What should I do now? How can I possibly perform the task when my partner does…?
B. I can do this move or I can do that action or I am able to do this move first and that next?
If you picked A, then most likely you held your breath, stopped moving, became frustrated with yourself and struggled to do the job. If you chose B, then most likely you felt like you had lots of time, you were relaxed, your breathing was normal, and you enjoyed doing your own work.
It is simply a choice of focus – “What should I do…?” or “I can do …!” So if you focus on doing your own work well, you can start seeing many options and stay relaxed.
Systema International (SI): First of all can I say congratulations on behalf of everyone here on the 20th anniversary of your school, it’s an amazing achievement! Did you have any idea when you first started teaching in Toronto that you would be in this position, with schools worldwide?
Vladimir Vasiliev (VV): Thank you for your kind words and support. When I started teaching in Toronto in 1993, I had no plans to create something particular. Life takes its course. There are currently over 200 schools and over 500 instructors that teach Systema around the world, over 40 instructional films, regular seminars and camps with big numbers of participants. Of course, I try to put in honest work but have no set goals, I also do not depend on these developments.
SI: You obviously trained in a lot of different things with a lot of different people in the past. What is it that drew you to Mikhail and that now makes him your source of training?
VV: What Mikhail does is always interesting and there is always more to learn. I really like that. Seeing his top level of mastery helps me to continue working on myself.
SI: Systema has grown incredibly over the last 20 years, do you have any thoughts as to how it might develop over the next 20 years?
VV: I believe there is God’s will for everything. I have no predictions for such distant future. I enjoy what we have today – great people and accomplishments. What I can say is that Systema is indeed unique and has very positive effect on the practitioners. It will be great if people continue to benefit from it for the next 20 years and more.
SI: Is there a danger that as people splinter away from the central school that the flavour changes?
VV: There is nothing wrong if people “splinter away”. We do not call for people to join, nor do we hold anyone back from leaving. It is good to explore other options. A lot of people return. Usually the ones that do not need Systema move away, they do not understand it. It is hard to comprehend and take in the whole Systema. Many people take bits and pieces of this style and think they have Systema, this is when it falls apart.
SI: We have seen some military styles become very popular over the last few years, with a very different approach from Systema. Do you think people are surprised by Systema’s military background, given its focus on health and breathing?
VV: A good warrior is a healthy warrior, healthy in his spirit and body. Systema makes people stronger physically and also better, kinder, less fearful and less aggressive. A good warrior that is not fearful or aggressive will do a far superior job defending his country.
SI: A lot of Systema work seems to go against the usual martial arts methods. For instance, you can punch without putting body movement in, you counter tension with relaxation and you look at yourself more than looking at the opponent. How do you best get these ideas across to people from other styles?
VV: Practitioners need to recognize the close interaction between the health and the martial art components. Many martial arts mislead their students. In my opinion, what they teach has no relevance to health or survival. Traditionally martial arts had the goal of preservation of their generations, this is now lost. Systema’s solid and natural approach and breathwork foundation brings back the right way to train, fight and live. The way a person can understand this is just by practicing himself.
SI: People see and comment on how your own level has steadily improved over the years. How do you keep improving and what are your goals in training?
VV: Thank you for these nice words. My goals are to gain deeper understanding of the Systema concepts. Systema is alive, it continues to develop, and this process does not end until we die. There are many examples of Systema instructors whose skill keeps growing steadily, such as Valentin Talanov in Russia, Jerome Kadian in Paris, Brendan Zettler in Toronto and a large number of others.
SI: How do you balance being challenged and safety in training? How do you judge how much a person can take?
VV: This is a great and very relevant question. This is a real challenge. If you punch hard or apply a decisive action to the opponent – he and others complain. If you do not act decisively – they do not believe you. It is a testing for any instructor, especially because in Systema we work on the move. It is easy to show a convincing technique while fixed and stationary, while it is a real skill to deliver just the right dosage on the move and see to what extend your partner will let you work. As for judging how much the person can take, this is easier and comes with practice.
SI: Do you have any stories you could share of your time training in the army of with Mikhail?
VV: This is a whole story in itself, perhaps we can address it sometime in the future.
SI: Could you give some words of advice to - people new to Systema - people training for a couple of years - people who are teaching others
VV: An advice to all practitioners is to have patience. Learning Systema is an extensive process, there are challenges and rewards every step of the way. It is very exciting because new discoveries await you all the time and the profound joy of following the right path is always there.
SI: Despite all our technology - or perhaps because of it! - there seems to be just as much uncertainty and bad events in the world as ever. Do you think Systema has a role in helping people in difficult or “interesting” times?
VV: I am sure that it can and will help. Systema has so many applications if it is studied as a whole and not by fragments as we discussed before. Systema training reduces stress and fear, provides health and clear thinking. It really can be the source of strength and peace. To quote Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”
SI: Vladimir and Valerie, thank you for your time today and also for all your work over the last 20 years – long may it continue!
…You shouldn’t focus too much on stationary work. It’s much better to encourage constant movement; crawling, rolls, walking, or running. It’s not worth relying on strength; rather work through relaxation and mobility.
Classes with kids should also include practice with your eyes closed – training for sensitivity, hearing, a sense of direction, memory, the ability to make decisions in complex situations, etc. Kids love working with their eyes closed and do it easily – think of the popular Russian game “zhmurki” (“blind man's buff”), in which one blindfolded person is “it” and tries to catch 3 to 10 other participants in a limited space.
It’s always helpful to provide as much physical contact as possible using a variety of games.
The beginning of the class should focus on physically challenging activities involving a lot of movement, followed by work to slow and calm the class, such as slow push-ups or squats, in a game format. All of this is intended to shed surplus energy, allowing you to spend a productive 30-40 minutes working on your chosen topic for the class. At the very end, you should conclude with an entertaining activity or game to leave off on a high note. The most important thing is to avoid formalizing the classes or using rigid constraints. Improvise more. Let the kids release the tensions and fly free – they have more than enough constraints already at school and at home.
As an example, here is helpful game I often use when working with kids 9 years or older at the conclusion of classes called “the elephant.” The game is played in groups of eight kids or more.
Divide the group into two equal teams. In the middle of the room, draw or mark a circle about four meters (12’) in diameter. You can mark it by drawing on the floor with chalk, or by laying out a rope. One of the teams designates one or two “guards,” and the rest are “elephants.” The elephants stand in the middle of the circle, put their arms around each other’s shoulders, and lean their heads in. The goal for the team outside the circle is to jump onto any of their opponents’ backs (including the guard’s). If a guard has someone on his back and leaves the circle, the person on his back has to get off. The guard’s goal is to tag the opposing team on their leg below the knee before they can climb onto the “elephants”. All the while, at least one of the guard’s feet must be in the circle at all times. There’s no limit to how long you can stay on top of someone, but the fun part of this game is trying to get on top of the opposing team as many times as possible. As soon as one team member gets tagged, the teams switch.
This game is very fun and involves a lot of movement. After 2-3 rotations I pause the game, point out players’ mistakes and give some advice, then let the game continue. 10 minutes is usually more than enough for the group to cheer up while getting a fairly intensive workout.
Working with kids is fascinating but at the same time requires pretty intense control. To grab and keep the kids’ attention, it’s necessary to maintain a fast pace of the class and a positive attitude. Still, you forget the taxing nature of the work when you see the sparkling eyes and the happiness of the children! Then you realize that you have made a contribution, however small, to a proper childhood and upbringing for them.
At Systema HQ school in Toronto, Youth classes are held regularly for ages 8 to 16. Some Systema schools around the world offer instruction for younger age groups as well.
I will discuss and practice methods of working with kids of various ages in more depth at the upcoming Full Immersion Systema Camp 2014. Teaching Systema to Youth will be one of the topics presented to Systema instructors and will be optional for all the other Camp participants.