My Two Years with Systema- 2005 snapshot by Freddy Macha, musician.
I am in a kickboxing class. The instructor is missing today. He has a bad cold and assigned a senior student to lead the session with light sparring. I believe I am one of the most enthuthiastic learners and seeing this potential my instructor has put me amongst those to get a new belt soon. “You don’t have to go to competitions, but it will boost your morale…” He promised.
So I am loving it.
There is one advanced guy who likes to knock everyone down. Usually when the instructor (a world and UK champion for many years) is around he tames him, making sure the bully behaves himself. Unfortunately, tonight the master is absent, so as the saying goes, when the cat is away, the rat rules. I end up facing Mr. Knockout. Kickboxing, is about rules, I stick to mine, ‘a belt wanna be’, yet after a few ‘lovely jabs and kicks’ I am soon in a situation where my sparring rat can’t reach me. He is a stronger puncher, but I am a faster mover.
(Or so I thought…)
Out of the blue he manages to grab me and next thing I know I am kissing the floor. Pinning me down, he has a devil’s smile on his face. I sense another training partner shouting behind the kickboxing rebel: “No punching on the floor…”
Throw me down; I am done.
It’s over and my ego is ruined.…And that was my final day with kickboxing.
Since I was a child I have done some form of martial art or sports. Part of the first reason were regular boys’ scraps. I had them from the word go, at around the age of seven in school where ‘boys will always be boys’. In my case growing up in Tanzania, in East Africa, poverty makes people fight for the most ‘simple’ things. If you have nice shoes, a better pencil or a girlfriend when teenage days zoomed in, you end with bleeding teeth. Memorable events range from whole school milling out every Friday evening to welcoming the weekend with vicious fights. I would be in one almost every other fortnight. Come teenage days where you belonged to a gang. The biggest fight was over a group of girls when I was fifteen. Our gang was beaten by older guys who used “rhinocerous” tail whips (courtesy of illegal hunting). We all ended in a hospital.
It was around this time I started running seriously and finding myself getting more stamina. A few years later while in compulsory military training I joined the boxing team, but withdrew after a few weeks because I felt a strange “bzzzz…” in my head from the pounding of gloves.
Since my ambitions centred around music and the arts I wanted my brain intact!
Then I discovered Japanese“Goju Ryu” Karate. My sister and brother introduced it to me and said it made use of legs “just like Bruce Lee did in Enter The Dragon.” It was 1974, I was nineteen, and the madness of Kung fu films was just hitting the world like free booze…
My “sensei” taught us what diet meant, meditation and eventually to treat people with respect. But life is not always straight-forward. In Africa you are always struggling for survival. By now I was in my early twenties, working hard and had purchased a motorcycle. Coming back one late night, a gang of four wanted my 350 cc Suzuki. They had sticks and knives.
Luckily that day I had my “nunchakus” and I recall screams I had never heard before from anyone…At twenty two years I thought I was Bruce Lee. I trained more and more – I loved karate.
In 1980, we were having a Chrismas family party. An uninvited gang sneaked in through and started harassing the younger female members of the feast. Come brotherly and cousin solidarity. We efficiently managed to disperse the gang. A few minutes later I was seated, a glass of beer in my hand bragging how I had executed my “Yoko Geri” (side kick)… and so on. But thugs don’t think straight. One had managed to slip and steal himself in through the backyard disguising himself as an old man. Soon he was facing me with a large piece of wood. In my Bruce Lee mood I blocked the wooden, kicked him a couple of times in the groin and he was soon pounced upon by friends and members of the family.
A few minutes later I noticed the serious injury he had inflicted on my right wrist. My hand was broken.
I started questioning karate. You always do when you lose a real fight. I looked around for other ways of training…
For the next couple of years I attended seminars in Tai Chi, Zen Meditation, Yoga, Gung-Fu, Ju Jitsu and while still training my katas eventually ended with “Capoeira” the Brazilian martial arts and dance. Capoeira is a very sneaky type of martial arts where you don’t really show your intentions. It has a very street wise mentality, something useful in self-defence. And since Capoeira includes music I found that morally satisfying. But I felt my knees were getting painful. I soon heard many other mates saying similar things about their knees, even some instructors!
I wouldn’t blame the knee problem totally on Capoeira because I had it since my long-distance running days, but I stopped and went into kickboxing.
Back to December 2002.
After having been thrown on the floor, I discovered none of the stuff I learnt in the past was helping me deal with ground work, grappling or unexpectedness.
I was also reaching a level where at 48 years, your body needs to slow down and do things that will help carry you to the next level of skeletal breakdown, middle age, smoothly into, God-willing, old age. As a musician you don’t think in terms of retirement, so I wanted something similar in the martial arts.
Systema reached me through word of mouth, actually in passing. It caught me at the right time as I was looking for something that had “everything” : strikes, dealing with weapons as well as grappling. I tapped “Google Search” and was astonished.
My first days with Systema were like taking a rocket instead of a plane. Usually with the various martial arts of the past the progress was gradual but with Systema I found “everything” changing. Of course I had problems assimilating most of the changes and information ( and still do) but the “progressive stuff” was stunning. First I noticed things that had nothing to do with fighting. I found myself physically playing with my kids more. As a father you are bound to be doing the “fighting thing” with the kids and clowning around. In pre-Systema days, I would do it “aloofingly” and stop myself self-consciously when “the children got too physical”.
What Systema has actually done, and I find this to be the biggest benefit, is make me feel closer physically, and consequently emotionally to my children and grand children. I think that benefit is worth a hundred sessions of male-father-ego-bonding, psychotherapy sessions.
After a few weeks training I wasn’t bothered with rolling on the floor even under the bed. The rolls in Systema always done on a hard surface build a pyschological freedom unpararelled by many other martial art-forms I had been through.
In Karate or Judo and others for instance, you train barefoot and roll on mats. Afterwards you change into normal clothes and of course don’t see mats ever again until next class. Training on a hard surface with normal shoes or trainers makes you “feel the actual experience” outside the training room. This factor of “realism” in Systema is its best quality to me, especially as a grown up man with no time for unnecessary fancy gimmicks.
My knee pains have not stopped me from training either. When I started Systema I used to be so scared I was going to get worse, and would literally shit in my pants before entering the working out rooms. But I am certain this would have become worse if I had done another style of “repetitive” drilled martial art. Because I have learned one of the “secrets” and basic forms of Systema are breathing and relaxation.
Tension is what causes injury and egoism (like that I experienced as a kickboxer) etc.
In the beginning I used to get “upset” when my instructors Val and David would say: “Freddy you are very tense!” I would take it very personal. Like most of us you tend to think you are relaxed because you are a “sensitive” human being, especially being a musician and song-writer.
But the actual sensitivity, real combat and conditioning drills make you learn to adapt real life into what you are learning and vice versa.
There are hundreds of benefits, which I have learnt in two years, but the biggest one is to realise the natural way of movement and self-defense.
In my previous journeys I thought other martial art forms were fine and I was looking for something to help me deal with a combative situation. But I was always ending being “surprised.” Why? Because the type of training I did had no focus on unexpectedness and realism.
Everthing was set in either cramming and memorising certain kicks, moves or rules. This is not how real life works. I still haven’t been to Russia, the original country of Systema, but in two years I have become a happier fifty year old. And I would recommend this experience to other aloof or “detached” daddies and men out there.