By Rob Poyton, the head instructor of Cutting Edge Systema Academy in UK and the editor of Systema International publication.
Systema International (SI): First of all can I say congratulations Vladimir Vasiliev 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 flavor 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!