Vladimir Vasiliev and the Russian Style of Hand-to-Hand Combat, feature article

March 09, 2016 by  
From the front page of Gazeta Plus, a Canadian Russian newspaper | February 19th, 2016

translated by Anthony Trufanov

It’s been over twenty years now since one of the buildings in our city was graced with the small sign “SYSTEMA Russian Martial Art.” This building, located at 39 Glen Cameron Rd., houses the Systema Headquarters and most important international training center. Its founder, Vladimir Vasiliev, is well known across the world. After intensive training with the legendary Mikhail Ryabko, Vasiliev moved to Canada in the early 90s, bringing a vast body of experience from service and instructor work in a Russian special operations unit.

1993 saw the establishment of Toronto’s first school devoted to the study of the Russian Martial Art. Since then, Vladimir Vasiliev has trained and certified over 500 instructors, and created a wealth of critically acclaimed instructional video materials. Vasiliev is one of the very few people worldwide who has reached the peak of Systema mastery, perfecting his ancestors’ ancient fighting style.

Systema is a holistic approach to training and conditioning that draws on physical, psychological, and spiritual exercises that can help anyone, regardless of gender, age, or fitness level. This art fosters physical development as a means to achieve stable psyche along with spiritual growth and strong value system.

Having heard that Vasiliev doesn’t like giving interviews, I decided instead to get his students’ perspective.

Lera: I’ve been taking classes at Vladimir’s school for about a year, along with my dad and my son. I like that Vladimir teaches how to defend yourself, not how to be aggressive. As a woman, this focus works well for me: my arms aren’t very strong, so Vladimir’s method allows me to defend myself and control my inner state without fear, tension, or excessive force. I’ve also learned how to breathe correctly – something that has been incredibly helpful both in stressful situations and in my daily life.

- Do you feel that you can defend yourself in the event of an unfortunate encounter somewhere in a dark alley?

- I’m only just beginning to feel the difference between my abilities before taking classes and now. In any case, I know my reaction speed has noticeably improved, and I now have a grasp on what I should do in such a situation.

- Are you bothered by the fact that there aren’t many women in this training group?

- Not at all. People here are incredibly friendly, everyone is fascinating to work with. Sometimes we work in pairs, sometimes in groups. The scenarios Vladimir asks us to simulate are constantly changing. I’d also like to say this – Vladimir has an incredibly positive energy, and that creates a great environment at his training sessions. I always leave the class feeling cleansed, which is so nice!

A young teen was listening attentively to our conversation with Lera. It turned out that he was her son, also Vladimir’s student. The kid didn’t strike me as a trouble-maker; he was sitting with a book in his hands, patiently waiting for the adults’ class to end. As Lera enthusiastically rejoined the group and continued to hone her Systema techniques, I sat down next to Alexei, her son, and struck up a conversation.

- You think there’s some use from these training session?

- Sure thing. I’ve been coming here for six years now. I was almost seven years old when I got started. Every class there is something new to learn.

- Do you ever get the urge to show off your knowledge and training, and maybe start a fight with someone in school or on the street?

- Of course not. The thing is, all of the training here focuses on defending yourself, not attacking others.

Dimitri started his own Systema Vasiliev School in Chicago in 2008, having studied the Russian Martial Art for over five years. But even many years later, Dimitri occasionally visits here in order to, as he put it, “connect to Systema roots and replenish his strength”. He has now come to Toronto for a week, to train with the Systema Master.

- I am incredibly grateful to Vladimir. Whenever possible, I attend his seminars and classes even though I now run a school and share this gift of health, serenity, and confidence. Today these qualities are so important!
Stress is such a hot topic these days… In fact, my upcoming workshop series in Chicago is focused on stress control using Systema principles in three key areas: breath, body work, and mind conditioning. A failure to deal with any of those areas allows the stress to creep back in and renew its grip on you. Thankfully, Systema’s holistic approach ensures that we cover all bases.

If Vladimir Vasiliev is Systema’s root, then his wife Valerie is its soul. She shoulders the burden of the organization’s logistics, including meetings and talks to the press.

- Valerie, today’s class looks very internationally diverse. Did I luck out, or is that typical?

- You could say it’s always the case. People travel here from across the world to immerse themselves in Systema. Tonight’s class has members from Japan, New Zealand, Belgium, five people from France, four from the US.

- How do they hear about this unique style and about you?

- Through our video material, through clips on the internet, and through recordings of seminars that Vladimir conducts globally. We do have an online store, from which you can purchase videos to work in convenience of your home. Most people prefer to visit us in person and to get the chance to work with Vladimir.
Recently, he published a book called “STRIKES: Soul Meets Body”, which became an instant best-seller among those who are serious about studying martial arts. Vladimir was on the cover of the American martial arts journal “Black Belt,” which published a long piece about him. As for Toronto, we’ve become widely known. We’ve been here at this school for 23 years, after all. Since 2007, we no longer limit our membership to adults; we’ve also developed a special program for youth between the ages of 8 and 16.

- Toronto has a fairly wide range of options for an aspiring martial artist to choose from. What makes your school, and what makes Systema, stand out in the crowd?

- You’re absolutely right, there are many schools in our area based on real-world combat methods. Systema differs from those schools fundamentally: our approach says that in order to become a true warrior, you must first relax and become a stable person. Most martial arts are founded on tension and aggression. While their pupils might win a fight, they pay the price of broken bodies and traumatized psyche. Systema takes a different path. Its goals are defense and healing. Though it’s also worth noting that there is often a fine line between defense and attack, for instance, when you need to protect your girlfriend or apprehend a criminal.

- So, different techniques are practiced at each session?

- Of course. Each class explores a different topic, so the techniques vary accordingly. I’ll give just a few examples. Classes could focus on hand-to-hand combat, defense against a weapon, defense against multiple attackers, against grabs, self-defense on the ground, working with improvised weapons, stamina training, healing and massages, and general physical and mental preparation for conflict or stressful situations.
You’re never going to know in advance how someone will attack you on the street, so it makes no sense to practice the same movement hundreds of times, like competitive martial arts do. It’s much more useful to spend time learning how to relax and to strike calmly, powerfully, and consistently. A student who has mastered this foundation will be able to respond effectively and intuitively in any situation.

- Does it surprise you that working adults with families still find the time to come here 2-3 times a week after their work days?

- Not at all. This is the perfect place for them to relax. In many martial arts people come to the gym exhausted and leave even more exhausted. There is a competitive element in those traditions, movements are often rough and there is a focus on building muscle bulk, this gives rise to tension. In our school, though we strike each other realistically, our emphasis on stamina and sustainability produces relaxation. All of our members say Systema training helps them feel calmer, less irritable, and more energetic. Our unique breathing methodology also benefits our students.

Another thing worth noting: Vladimir Vasiliev teaches seminars around the world. His travel schedule fills up two years in advance. In every city and country he visits – be it Italy, Belgium, or Russia – people look forward to his visits. A typical seminar attendance can be around 200 people – a memorable event for all.

In addition, Systema HQ hosts seminars here in Canada. The key event is a six-day summer camp near the city of Huntsville. Once every two years, the school rents out a 95-acre lakefront territory, and hosts a group of about 100 people from across the world, who spend the week living together in cabins, and eating in a communal dining hall. Daily training sessions are scheduled from 7 AM to late at night. Summer camp veterans say the program is valuable beyond measure and fascinating regardless of the weather. In the evenings, there are interesting discussions, and Vladimir answers questions and shares stories from his rich life experience. This summer, the Core Mastery Camp will be August 15th through 20th. The camp offers our readers a unique opportunity to discover their own potential using the unique ancient Russian art hiding beneath the deceptively simple moniker “Systema.”

To learn more about Vladimir Vasiliev and his school, his collection of educational videos, seminars, and the Systema summer camp, visit www.RussianMartialArt.com. You can also browse its collection of articles, training tips, inspiring photos and videos. Contact phone: +1-905-881-4711.