7 October 2013 by Club Nagaika
(This article recently appeared in the Internationl Systema Newsletter.)
A few years ago, a staple of Systema, the front roll, seemed to elude me. In training, the back roll was very natural, but the front roll created all kinds of fear and tension. This most basic of basics is often one of the more difficult and frustrating things to become proficient in. Some people are more afraid of rolling back, alarmed by not seeing where they are going. Others, like me, stuttering at the sight of the ground being thrust towards the face. Working freely, I had become quite adept at corkscrewing my body during falls and transforming forwards falls into back rolls.
Then, one day, as I was bicycling to work, I reached a spot where the bike path I was on crossed a large, six lane street. Probably due to one of the innumerable festivals that paralyze Montreal every summer, there was a police officer directing traffic at this intersection. As I was crossing the street, I came behind the police officer to merge onto the bike path. Not seeing me, just as I was coming close, the officer waved to a cyclist going in the opposite direction – right unto my way. I crushed the brakes, lightly bumped into the other bicycle, and went flying head first (with no helmet) over the obstacle.
This is where everything we know about stress psychology and motor learning says that, without conscious confidence in the skill-set I needed, I should have tensed up, yelled one of those inspiring expletives the Francophones of Quebec are famous for, then woken up in the hospital if I was lucky… Yet this is not what happened.
Rather, as I was flying through the air, perfectly executing the recipe for skull pudding, I found myself in a state that I have no name for, but can approximate with “indifference”. In this state, I landed into a noiseless front roll popping back to standing, the kind that feels like you did not roll at all. Still in this almost but not quite indifferent state, I grabbed my bike, straightened the handlebars and rode off without a word under the dumbfounded stare of the police officer who had already pulled out his phone to call an ambulance. Under the proper lighting of my workplace, I could see there was not a point on my body that had traces of friction with the pavement.
Progress in Systema can feel frustrating at times. Under conscious scrutiny, as we work the drills of the classes, we feel like we may never master the skill of getting out of our own way. Yet there is another layer of ourselves that is paying just as much attention to what we do in class. Our bodies get smarter from our work in ways we cannot suspect. The painstaking work of subtracting ourselves from the domain of fear, ego and self pity will allow us to stop the process of interfering with our body. And our body will then express how extraordinary are the things it learns in Systema. Sometimes, we get a glimpse of that in moments too short for our minds to jump in. I have heard such stories from many students of Systema. Usually there is a sort of disbelief from the person telling such story, as if he has just heard an urban legend about himself.
It took another year for my front rolls to reach something like competence in training…
About the Author: Stephane Beaudin is a certified Systema instructor. He has served in the Canadian military, worked in the security field and has been actively training and teaching Systema in Montreal, Canada since 2004.