What is Systema? Read this Interview with Matt Hill

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What is System

Doug Swift @ Enso Martial Arts Shop

Matt Hill, Thanks coming in today to tell us about what you’re doing and what’s going on a bit further afield from Bristol. So for those that don’t know what Systema is maybe you can give us an insight into what Systema is and how you can give involved.

Matt Hill, Systema Instructor

Sure, so Systema is a European predominately Russian based martial art . About ten centuries old and comes from the battlefields of Russia and Europe. It came through their cultural knights and through Russia’s history. When the Soviet era came in, they outlawed a lot of cultural customs and Systema was one of them, except the Martial Arts of the Cossacks and the knights second I think. So it moved and evolved pretty much up until modern times. The Soviets kept Systema in certain places they wanted, so they used it in the Special Forces in Russia. There’s a bit of a misnomer here, people think that it was the Spetsnaz, but it was more intelligence services. This has had a bearing on how Systema evolved too. So that’s the background, it’s pretty old and came from the battlefields so it has traditional approaches to weapons, hand-to-hand combat, and it evolved through time into modern-day.

Doug Swift @ Enso Martial Arts Shop

Did Systema have European influence or Asian influence or has it just come out on his own?

Matt Hill, Systema Instructor

I guess it’s mix of all three really. Russia was in close proximity to most of the world. The size of Russia meant it had it had China, the Far East, the Mongol Empire on one side and the Middle East, the battlefields of Europe on the other. They had to have a fighting style that was very adaptable across all different terrain. Horseback, mountainous, desert, rolling countryside, woods and then against a lot of different types of opponents. They had to have something that wasn’t a set way but was quite adaptable, they would have picked up influences from people they fought. It’s a very natural based approach, so it looks for natural responses, key principles that you focus on and using practice you open things up for you. This is our four principles in Systema. It’s really looks closely at how you breathe and move. How well you can relax and stay calm, and how you manage your body position, your posture structure in any given situation. A lot of people think posture is shoulders back, chest out and locked knees. Actually posture is being ready for the next movement and so what it really does is build your operating system. If you want to add other things onto it that’s great but those four things really constitutes a very effective operating system.

Doug Swift @ Enso Martial Arts Shop

So can you tell us a bit about yourself, what’s your involvement with Systema. Any other things you’ve done before.

Matt Hill, Systema Instructor

: So now I run a full-time Systema group in Wiltshire, the Systema Academy. I run about ten classes a week and privates. I run courses, host courses with other teachers so I’m so pretty active. Systema lends itself very well to people that would never in a million years walk in the door of the martial arts gym. I teach Systema health and Systema self-defense or combat and often there is crossover between the two groups.

There are lots of Sports that only think about their health when they break, you think “right how do I get better and how can I heal myself and how do I prevent that happening again” but Systema comes from first teaching to move properly and teaches you how to relax stay calm. So that that’s what I do in Melksham. My background is that I always been interested in martial arts, even before I knew what they were. I was the kid that with a made-up bow and arrow, a sword rI was rolling down hills and jumping out of trees. I grew up in the 70’s, born in 1973 and I saw stuff like kung fu david carradine come on the TV and Bruce Lee and I was like that’s it, and then few years after that people started to open up clubs and that’s when people started teaching it. I was like “wow” they teach this stuff , so even before I knew what it was, mind-body-spirit always gelled with me. I was able to describe it in skills over and above just physical skills and a philosophy that binds it all up. I started with karate, I was quite young and then I found Aikido. I did Aikido in Bristol with Mike Narey and after a long time got my Shodan with him. Then I went to Japan and lived there in a very traditional martial arts school for two and a half years. It was a like a just like you imagine really for a boy who was 19. When I went there it was what I’d always wanted, the only people there were people passionate about it and training. It was a farm, you worked on the farm during the day and trained in the mornings and evenings. There was a temple that you had to sweep and clean everyday, it was complete immersion.

I’m a fifth dan in Aikido but I was always searching. It was an amazing experience but there was still things I needed to find. After that I joined the modern martial arts, the military. I spent a year at Sandhurst and then I joined the parachute regiment and served with them for six years. I left as Captain.

I didn’t practice martial arts while I was in the Army, I just didn’t have time. I taught a few times to the guys before we deployed in operations especially Northern Ireland where you use stuff like shields, hand-to-hand batons, etc. Over a 10-year period I went back to teaching Aikido but I’d found Systema while I was in the military. Stan Praning who does an Aiki newsletter had put a piece on meeting Mikhail Ryabko and Vladimir Vasiliev. He said they were just watching some videos in the lounge and someone put on a video. These two guys in tracksuits in an old hotel room doing stuff that just stopped the whole room. He was intrigued, so he went to see Vladimir and invited him over for one of the Aiki Expo’s. He went to train with him and the piece that he wrote up made me think I need to go and see these guys. It pulled a lot of my background together, it was close to aikido, it’s had a similar philosophy to O’Sensei’s. It was military, a lot of outdoor training and very practical. It didn’t just focus on old style uniforms, old style weapons and old style approaches. It blended the two which I think is quite healthy, so I went on a course that Mikhail Ryabko was doing. I went along to the course, I still in the Army at the time. Within the first couple demonstrations he called me up, normally in aikido they’ll specify the attack and demonstrate certain technique. I said “how you want me to attack” because that was my background he said “doesn’t matter” and I said how fast he said “it doesn’t matter” so I came in with an attack and first time was gently upended and dropped down. I remember looking up thinking “this is exactly how my teacher must have felt when he first attacked O sensei” There’s a lovely story that Morihiro Saito wrote about this when he first met with O sensei. He asked to be student and he said no go away, finally he let him in and offered to punch him. He was gently overturned. He had done kendo and karate, like most Japanese school kids and he had never felt anything like it. He didn’t even realize what had happened to him and that was exactly the feeling I had when I came and attacked him. I just had a smile on the face. That must be how he felt, it was a real connection. As the seminar went on we did a lot of interesting stuff lot of breathing exercises, a lot of mobility stuff and loads I hadn’t really seen before. It felt a bit weird and quite far out but I felt amazing after it even with getting hit a lot and pushed. When they teach Systema the very first thing you learn is how to get hit and how to recover.

It was a while before I came out the Army and I worked in crisis management in South Africa. There was a very good Systema Instructor called Vadim Dobrin, an ex-Russian paratrooper. He taught Systema full-time there and I did a lot of private classes. I went to all his classes while I was over there, about 10 days every month. I just integrated Systema into Aikido and because Systema is not bound by set rituals or techniques so you can drop into everything quite easily and so people didn’t know I was doing Aikido.

In 2012 I had a business that had gone the wrong way and I used coming out of the back of that as a chance to immerse myself in the study of something. I thought I’m going to immerse myself in Systema and every two years Vladimir Vasiliev in Canada does a week immersion camp in the forests in the North of Canada. You do 10 11 12 hours a day training for five days, so it is quite intense. Training in the water, what it feels like to get held under, drowned hit how to escape from that. We’d worked in the forests, I’d been used to that obviously from the army but it was a different approach, in the field, with weapons, multiple crowd work. I’ve never done that apart from in the parachute regiment.

On the first day, I was sat outside and Vladimir walked past. I didn’t know him, just seen him in videos and he said “are you OK? you look pretty tense, pretty stressed” I didn’t think I was but clearly I was, just going through a very difficult period with my business. I wasn’t sensitive enough or didn’t know enough of what proper relaxation feels like. I think that’s a big problem in society today. Most people don’t even know what relaxation is let alone how to achieve it. At least without drinking. That struck me, just walking past with a glance to notice and to take the time among 150 people. Vladamir’s martial skill was a level that I’d never come across before, quite astounding. With nothing planned or rehearsed he’d just call people up and do stuff and just the precision and ease which he did things and dealt with things. You see people from time to time in the martial arts world, but the question is, Can they teach it, can pass it on. A lot of people there were at a very high level themselves and I thought “okay it’s something that can be passed on but the other thing was to just to aspire to get the skill that Vladimir had got but the calm and the ease and the humanity he had The relaxation seemed to blare out from him and went into the people around him and so that was very appealing too.

When I came back about 2012 I was more openly saying so this part of what i’m doing the Systema and these parts are Aikido. The time came when I couldn’t ride two horses for much longer. I had to really decide which one to teach if I really wanted to excel in one. It took about nine months to make the decision because I had a lot invested in Aikido, time, friendships, I was the UK representative for my teacher in Japan, family. I had all the students with grades but in the end it was quite easy. I woke up one morning, this was the martial arts I’ve was looking for and so in the end it was quite easy but the process was a difficult one.

Doug Swift @ Enso Martial Arts Shop

You mentioned your classes, you’ve got like health classes and Martial classes. If I came to either what could came I expect walking through the door?

Matt Hill, Systema Instructor

Firstly a lot of focus on your breathing and that’s for both classes. Not just static breathing exercises, very common in meditation and yoga, bit we work on adapting your breathing to pressure and stress. Use your breath much more functionally and with movement. When most people do something vigorous like lifting something or stand up out of a chair they tend to hold their breath, which can make you tired very quickly. You don’t hold your breath along doing ground work to realise how tiring it is. It can be seconds if in an intense environment. It’s just about making a conscience of continuous breathing the correct way and being able to adapt that breathing. When you incorporate it with much more physical, stressful situations like combat or even getting hit, people hold their breath.

So, we do lots of breathing, lots of movement, lots of variety too. No two classes are really the same and because there’s no techniques. There’s no repetition of them doing the same thing time in time out. You might be on the ground one day, you working with sticks, multiple opponents, crowd work, knives, one by holding you, one trying to stab, just as much variety as you can get. Both for health and combat classes, because outside of a set environment of rules and a ring, no two situations are going to be the same.

Doug Swift @ Enso Martial Arts Shop

You talked a bit about the head honcho and the presence he has. You get that a lot in different martial arts now. When the head guy sets up a system, they tend to set quite strict syllabus so when they go, the syllabus is still there. There’s very distinct rules that people can follow and maintain. How do you see Systema coping with that as it evolves over time? Because of the fluidity, how do you keep Systema being what it is .

Matt Hill, Systema Instructor

It’s a really good questions and it sort of happened with Aikido. They had a strict syllabus and a very capable pretty unique charismatic person.

Firstly let’s tlk about the founder of Systema. Mikhail and Vladimir came up with the name before that was just called Russian fighting system. Mikhail is a pretty unique guy, to give you a bit of background on him. He learned Systema from the age of five, fathers in the Army, learned from his uncle who was a bodyguard to Stalin. By 14 he was operational with Spetsnaz a very distinguished career. Stories about him are legend and while he was in the army he was known as the go-to guy for empty-handed stuff. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the late eighties, he was the guy left holding this mantle. He was able to come and teach it openly and freely in the communities. He says it’s just really trying to be a good person and everything else will to come to you so that’s a philosophy. I used to work in crisis management I did governance as well with a very big company for 450,000 employees around the world. There are two philosophies the rule based approach, in which you try and put a rule every time something goes wrong and make a rule to make sure there’s no rules but people always find their way around rules. Then there’s the principle based approach, which is try not to do the wrong thing that’s very simplistic of course but Systema is a principle based approach I think it tries to follow that idea if you’re breathing properly, if you’ve got continuous movement, never locking, try to focus on state of your muscle tone, you’re then it should always look like Systema.

The other thing about it is to get everyone that Systema is an approach that tries to find your Systema. It comes from the inside out. Most martial arts teach external form and then you try to internalise it, your weak areas and improving health. Systema is the other way, it works of flavours and colours everything not just a fight situation everything should be a natural response to any given situation.

So to answer your question, I don’t think you can really. In terms of current teachers of Systema they’ve got pretty tight quality control. Iif you want to be a Systema instructor so there’s no grades or ranks or belts that but there are is instructor training first. Generally for about three years or so then after that you can do your instructor qualification. Either Vladimir or Mikhail has to see you and say yes ok then you’re fine. They just watch you work for a bit and see if you’re embodying the principles of Systema. Then you have to see them every year and just to get refreshed you don’t have to pay for that you go to seminar and then so it is actually not a money-making scheme actually Systema in terms of certificates and grades and rankings you pay back 50 quid to get your instructors certificate and that’s it

Doug Swift @ Enso Martial Arts Shop

So just on a final notem can you tell us a bit more about your club in Melksham and where is and when it is etc etc

Matt Hill, Systema Instructor

It’s a full-time club in Melksham and I teach on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and there’s private sessions that go on around that. Your regular courses and classes generally start at quarter past six, that’s the junior and health ones. The adult classes start at seven-thirty. On Saturday mornings , it’s a nine o’clock and anyone that’s interested just drop me a line. The website is and the email is I’ve got two Systema book, one on the system health so if people that just want to learn to become more relaxed more mobile move more ease and fluidity you have to get rid of the aches and pains of life then that was really useful also every useful info into Systema and I’ve got a Systema combat book which gives 25 drills exercises that anyone can do anywhere.

Watch the interview win full here