The Zettler Twins / “We practice everything”

Interviews like these tell a much more human story of Systema than articles on Methodology and Philosophy. They are also more fun to read. . . thanks for sharing.

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Apart from Adam being “the talker”, what other differences are there between you?

Brendon:  Well, he’s older by four minutes first of all, bigger in size (laughs), punches harder thats for sure.  Actually we’re very similar.

Do each of you have different focuses?  Things you like doing?

Brendon:  Yeah, I like to move more – a lot of movement, a lot of up and down.  He likes to move less and hit harder.

Watching you teach, I think the main thing that comes across is how much passion you have for Systema.  Its infectious, isn’t it?  How do you keep that level of passion in your training?

Brendon:  Well you know for me its really the constant growing as a person – Systema helps every part of the person – physically, psychologically, spiritually.  Its the whole package martial art.  We started when we were about 14 – young, aggressive…

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Old Frame Yang Family Taijiquan

World Tai Chi Day occurs on the final Saturday every April. In celebration, we would like to present the Old Frame Yang Family Taijiquan as taught by Bill Parkinson (living master). This is very exciting as there is little material on Old Frame Taiji that you may find on the internet. We also hope that these descriptions will help those who are learning the Old Frame commit it to heart.

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Learning by Principle

Learning techniques and principles are two different things. Learning by technique produces clear instruction and is usually well developed. Moreover, while teaching by technique, it is easier to gauge a student’s progress. Indeed, technique is the preferred method of many martial artists. Whereas learning by technique means dedication to step-by-step instruction on particular blocks or strikes or movements, learning by principle means participating in attribute drills and games, as well as dedicating a lot of time to internal analysis. 

While the methods vary, Systema focuses on learning by principle.

Principles produce spontaneity
Principles produce natural and “true” action
Principles open an unlimited reserve of techniques
Principles are necessary for honest self defense preparation

Earlier, we addressed the importance of spontaneity in terms of self-defense and the Tao, but it also plays a key role in success. Spontaneity suggests that a practitioner has internalized life-saving principles and that they are at his or her disposal at a second’s notice. Imagine you were on a road-trip, but only filled up the car with exactly what you needed to reach your destination. You would not be prepared for the unexpected; only for what you expected. Any detours, flats, traffic conditions, or vacant gas stations would cause you to fall short of your mark. Learning by principle is akin to keeping your gas tank full.

Natural and “True” Action
Natural and “true” action relate to spontaneity in that natural action is always spontaneous; it is not contrived, planned, or nervous. Natural action is non-threatening and unique because it comes from within. Some may wonder why a non-threatening appearance is important to self-defense, but besides keeping you out of trouble, it will relax an opponent, lull them into a sense of security, and hopefully, deescalate the situation. Otherwise, natural action will make your opponent’s demise even greater when they realize they are not in control at the last moment! Natural action is confusing, yet simple.

As for “true” action, consider the following quote:

“If you perceive the true form of heaven and earth, you will be enlightened to your own true form. If you are enlightened about a certain principle, you can put it into practice. After each practical application, reflect on your efforts. Progress continually like this.”
-Morihei Ueshiba (Trans. Stevens, 2010)

“True” action is a reflection of the true form of heaven and earth, or the Divine Form. So what is the Divine Form? We know from the same person, Morihei Ueshiba, that the Divine is within each one of us, and we need not look any further than our current position.

Unlimited Reserve of Techniques
You may have already guessed, but principles generate an unlimited reserve of techniques that are reflections of the divine form or natural, “true,” action. Therefore, there is no need to spend a lot of time on technique. Let’s look again to Morihei Ueshiba,

“The techniques of the Way of Peace change constantly; every encounter is unique, and the appropriate response should emerge naturally. Today’s techniques will be different tomorrow. Do not get caught up with the form and appearance of a challenge. The Art of Peace has no form–it is the study of the spirit.”
-Morihei Ueshiba (Trans. Stevens, 2010)

When it really comes down to putting principles into practice without taking time to learn techniques, it is hard to trust that techniques will emerge naturally. A lot of time will pass before you witness this process occurring in your own practice, but it is nonetheless true. You must have faith or all the time in the world won’t help.

Honest Self-defense
Honest self-defense is always principle based. There are many examples. You must train your natural responses to attacks, you must learn to move, to relax, develop a combative body, learn timing, distance, and rhythm among other things. Many profess that one can increase personal safety in an attack by soft movement alone. Pressure points, strikes, and joint manipulation is only part of the story. In fact, most people do not need these things at all. For children, the best defense is kicking and screaming. . .not a karate chop. Right? It is more important that a child (or an adult for that matter) does not freeze and just does what comes naturally.

The best self-defense happens before contact even starts. Consider the children’s tale “The Story of Ferdinand” by Munro Leaf. We all know what happens to a bull in the ring. The banderilleros excite the bull with pins and spears, the bullfighter taunts the bull and finally finishes her with his sword. In the story of Ferdinand the Bull, no matter how much the banderilleros prodded, Ferdinand refused to participate because he preferred to smell the flowers. Ferdinand’s response (or lack of response) drove the bull fighters mad because they couldn’t show off for the crowd. Finally, they sent Ferdinand home  and he lived to sit in his pasture another day. . .no self defense techniques required (Munro, 2011). The story shows that if you don’t add fuel to the fire, it will die.

There is another story by Taoist, Chuang Tzu: a man takes his fighting cock to a well-regarded trainer, but every time he comes back for his fighting cock, the trainer tells him that the bird is not ready because he fluffs his feathers and squawks in the presence of other cocks. Finally, the man returns and the trainer tells him that the bird is ready, because now the fighting cock pays no attention to the other birds, stands calm, unintimidated, and motionless. The trainer says, “the other cocks will take one look at him and run,” (Merton, 2010). This a great example as long as we also remember to show love, respect, with the best intention, to those around us.

Lastly, remember that there are some things that no one can prepare for, but your attitude about it will greatly improve the quality of your life.


Ueshiba, Morihei, and John Stevens. The Art of Peace. Boston & London: Shambhala, 2010. Print.

Leaf, Munro, and Robert Lawson. The Story of Ferdinand. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 2011. Print.

Merton, Thomas. The Way of Chuang Tzu. Rev. Ev. ed. New York: New Directions, 2010. Print.

REVIEW Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain: the Essence of Tai Chi


l Chung-Liang Haung’s Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain: the Essence of Tai Chi is not typically recommended for students of Systema, however, its unique approach to Tai Chi contains useful insight for any practitioner who emphasizes form and technique over free movement. To summarize, Embrace Tiger is a synthesis of Eastern and Western modes of thinking and learning; however, it also attempts to redefine how readers relate to Tai Chi in practice. The phrase “Essence of Tai Chi” adequately describes Al-Haung’s teaching method because he breaks down Tai Chi to its simplest and most universal form. As a result, Embrace Tiger is slow, cautious, and contemplative.

If Al-Haung’s text is read casually, the reader will very likely walk away with little or nothing in return. His text must be treated like an art form itself; and art often requires a vivid imagination, sharpened by a focused mind. Because Al-Haung presents the material of his book as if the reader is present at a summer getaway, he indirectly encourages readers to visualize his instruction in their minds. Since one cannot possibly read and simultaneously practice good Tai Chi, the reader must visualize themselves along with Al-Haung on a secluded resort, imitating what they read only in their heads. This practice is often referred to as the “Mental Movie Method.” When the imagination works through a visual exercise slowly and cautiously, it is common for muscles to twitch as if they want to move alongside the mind.

Al-Haung says that Tai Chi “is what it is” (38). In other words, there is no right or wrong way to perform Tai Chi because it has many different manifestations. The form is only one manifestation that makes up Tai Chi. As such, Tai Chi can be practiced in the mind as well as in the body. This practice is extremely useful, especially for beginners who struggle with the form. After all, one of the most difficult aspects of learning the Tai Chi form is to get out of the head and let the body guide through muscle memory and natural movements. Early practitioners let their minds get ahead of their bodies so they can anticipate the next move. If their minds forget, (and the mind most certainly will forget,) their bodies will stumble forward like a person who has forgotten how to walk.

The mind must always be rooted in the present while practicing.

Visualizing the Taiji form in the mind, slowly and gracefully, trains the mind to move along with the body (not ahead of it.) Why? While imagining the form, the mind cannot think ahead, it must always be in the present movement. In Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain: the Essence of Tai Chi, the form is never described in its entirety. Instead, the form is practiced slowly, without breaking the form into pieces, and without thinking about the technique. In fact, Al-Haung explains that the moment a practitioner begins to think about what they are doing, they are no longer practicing Tai Chi. He describes it as if it is a natural process that is born within a person and then grows into his own “Tai Chi.” Consider the same process while working through Russian Systema.

At first, it appears that Al-Haung’s Tai Chi is a deeply personal experience, but then he introduces a number of exercises that develop the interaction between the self and another person. For example, one exercise requires two students to lightly touch fingers and move their arms together in a circle, simulating ying and yang. They might also touch their partners elbow to complete the image. As their hands move together the student focuses on the slightest pull or energy that his or her partner gives off and follow it. Another example is how often Al-Haung’s students held hands or danced together just to share the excitement of free movement or interaction. Communicating with another person properly through touch is the first hurtle in martial arts towards good work.  For whatever reason, adults carry a lot of tension in regards to “playing,” wrestling, rolling on the floor, touching another’s arms and face, or being touched by others in those places as well.

Finally, Al Chung-liang Haung’s Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain: the Essence of Tai Chi is a great complement to Systema practice because it reminds students to practice slowly, to focus on the principles, to avoid getting caught up in thought, and “just move.” Learning by Principle is not unique to Systema and there is reason to believe that principles will bring students closer to the essence of all internal arts, which is to “know the self.”

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.” – Matsuo Basho

Systema will be unique for everyone. Incorporate practice into daily life and make it your own.