No Need for Heroes “Strikes: Soul Meets Body” Review

Vladimir Vasiliev’s new book “Strikes: Soul Meets Body” is the best text on Russian Systema out there. I write this with intense enthusiasm, because honestly, I was reluctant to put faith in it. I am the kind of reader who wants to hear it straight, and frankly “Let Every Breath,” by the same authors, left me with too many questions. I saw a book filled with interesting exercises, legends of Ryabko and Vladimir, testimonies of the power of breath, and little more. “Let Every Breath” has value as an introductory text, but failed to really get to the point-at best it was suggestive of something beyond itself. When I picked up “Strikes”, my reluctance disappeared. 

“Strikes” provides a complete and accurate overview of Russian Systema in all aspects; the material is about strikes only on the surface. Most importantly, however, the book gives demystifies its greatest teachers, Vladimir Vasiliev and Mikhail Ryabko.

Scott Meridith played a large role in this review, I believe, because he did a terrific job organizing the material. Scott knows what it is like to be a student seeking answers, striving to do what his instructors ask, and wondering about the masters; “Strikes” reflects that understanding. He supplies the right material at the right time and leaves the book feeling complete and satisfying. Never once, did I get the impression that I was missing something. I felt the same way reading his Tai Chi novel, “Juice”, which I now count as one of the greatest contributions to martial arts along side “Strikes”.

Scott gives it to you straight in “Strikes”, giving Vlad a steady platform to speak for himself. Vlad’s own words are honest about his experience and reveal the human nature of Systema, which is not only satisfying, but also necessary for readers like me. I love heroes, but I don’t think you should put your heart into them, as Mikhail might have said. Heroes have their place in myth and history, to teach us about hope, faith, and courage, they even define virtue for our culture. Perhaps we need heroes, since we seem to have an innate longing for them; but heroes are not helpful teachers…we need something more real to fulfill that role. I am reminded of a novel titled “Oman Ra” by Pelvin, a must read for students of Russian culture. In “Oman Ra” the protagonist prepares his whole life to become a hero, in the end when you learn that it was all for naught, you notice that his memories and past life only succeeded in perpetuating a myth. I often wonder why we do not have the same kind of heroes today as we did less than a hundred years ago. It is probably because people face higher scrutiny today, but also because not enough time has passed for generations to perpetuate the myth.

Scott is great, but his depiction of Mikhail and Vlad is often too grandiose. I cringe when I hear students and teachers talk about Vlad or Mikhail as if no one will ever reach their skill level, people often come to this conclusion after visiting them face-to-face, it is very tempting, but not useful. The truth is, the more we create legends out of Vlad and Mikhail, the harder it becomes to understand Systema. If we continue down that path, within a few generations we will be right where Aikido is today, left with a lot of fancy rehtoric and some good moves to show off…If you’ve been wondering how that happens to arts, this is how it happens. Vlad and Mikhail should teach us something about human potential, and “Strikes” does that without diminishing the awe and respect they deserve. 

The book ends with a common question, “can it be taught?” Yes, I think it is hopeful even for us average citizens without peculiar qualities or experience.

For more information or to purchase “Stikes: Soul Meets Body” visit Russian Martial Art

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

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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.