Nearly 14 years ago, I met Vladimir Vasiliev for the first time. Both of us were presenters at the world-renowned Arnold Classic in Columbus, Ohio. I'd watched many of his DVDs and read his now out of print "handbook" after a mutual friend, Brett, wrote a piece about his first encounter with Vladimir, in Toronto.
In the article, Brett recalled being "courageous" enough to challenge Vladimir because he just had to know, via the school of hard knocks, if this so-called Russian Martial Art Master was the real deal. He wrote about taking Vladimir to the ground… and immediately wishing he hadn't done such a thing as the beating woke him up more than he'd bargained for.
Over the course of many years, I saw many of the DVDs that Vladimir, Mikhail and other Systema practitioners have created. As I watched each new DVD, my respect deepened, and I often told myself that I was eventually going to reconnect with Vladimir and study Systema in much more depth.
Earlier this year, I hooked up with a local Systema instructor, Kenny Gonzalez, and wouldn't you know it, in my very first class he told me "Vladimir is coming to town." To me, that's much better than Santa, so I immediately enrolled in his December 6-8 seminar, in Tampa, Florida.
Before the seminar began, Vladimir spotted me stretching. He smiled from ear to ear and approached. I jumped up and as we shook hands, I felt right at home.
Once the training began, Vladimir seized the day, giving us an hour of warm-up exercises, replete with twisting, turning, falling and breathing. From every angle and position you could imagine - and then some - the Master challenged us to be nimble, soft, smooth and tension-free. And just when you thought he'd gone too far, making an exercise too difficult to understand, Vladimir assumed the position and made it look like child's play. To say I was "impressed" at this point would be less than accurate.
"Got my money's worth in the first five minutes," I told the guy sweating next to me. "This is awesome."
Now, in case you think the warm-up began with hard-core exercises, think again. The very first order of the day was to lie on our backs. Yes, this is how the warm-up started. From this position, Vladimir gave us breathing exercises. And then, when it was time to move, these same breathing exercises were incorporated into everything we did.
If you were stuck, you needed to breathe and relax more. That was it. All of it. Don't try harder. Simply let it happen with the proper breathing and reduced body tension.
After the warm-ups, we stood and began doing two-person drills. I quickly realized that Vladimir never stops evolving. EVER. If you think whatever you've watched or practiced on his DVDs or in previous trainings with him is "all there is" - think again.
Wayne, a fellow student of Kenny Gonzalez, said: "The people who've trained with Vladimir the longest will tell you that where he was six months ago in his teaching in already ‘old’. You miss training with him for a year and you have no idea what he's doing now."
In my books, that may be the highest praise an instructor can receive.
Why? Because so many instructors, regardless of the endeavor, stop learning way too soon. Many instructors do little more than pass on exactly how they learned something. Vladimir doesn't do that. When you train with him you're getting the "V effect." You're getting "Vladimir squared." Everything he's ever taught before, he multiplies it. He divides and conquers whatever the next mission or exercise is - and without reservation, gives it away to all who come to learn.
On Day Two, if you expected to see a warm-up that was remotely similar to the first day, ah, that would be a mistake. There was no lying down to begin. There were no exercises from the ground. Nope. This time we began by running. But not forward. Backward would be so much better. Then again, how about backward with one arm lifted skyward? Or one arm out to the side and one directly in front? And by the way, no bumping into anyone. Be aware. Focus on what you're doing. And what is it that you're doing? You're breathing and relaxing as you move. Not after. During.
Want to know what Systema really is? Vladimir would be the first to tell you. It's "knowing yourself." And how do you come to know yourself? Through your breath. Through realizing you've got tension. Through experiencing the fear that's stored in your tissues, and discovering how to release it with and without the assistance of a partner. Through making what once seemed impossible, totally possible.
Every exercise on both days, whether it was a bodyweight callisthenic or learning to defend against a fist, an elbow, a kick or a knife, the goal of "knowing yourself" with breathing and relaxed tension-free movement was omnipresent.
And throughout it all, Vladimir was almost all smiles.
Long before the seminar ended, I got 10X my money's worth. This is why I will end by saying: Next time Vladimir is coming to town within 1,000 miles of you, hop on a plane, jump on a train or hitchhike to the event. Do whatever you need to do to go. Your life will be touched by the V effect.