Session 2 – Conflict Modulation Techniques


Unit 2 – Systema: The Practice of Adaptation

Systema is a technique of survival and adaptation that was developed by the Russian military. The core of Systema approach is to modulate the dynamics of conflict to one’s own advantage, rather than trying to fight back or to destroy the opponent in an “obvious” way. This makes Systema one of the most efficient conflict resolution strategies that exist today and its applications stretch far beyond hand-to-hand combat into the realms of intersubjective relations, personal development, and even politics.

It is important to note that Systema is more of a niche technique trained by only a select few and it’s not used by the Russian military at large. The reason is that it makes soldiers more independent and autonomous, which clashes dramatically with the standard hierarchical approach utilized in the army. So it was mainly taught to bodyguards, special units, and hostage rescue teams – groups that are often outnumbered by their potential opponents, have a third party to protect, and therefore cannot rely on the brutal force but have to be more cunning and inventive in order to achieve their objectives.  One advantage of Systema is that unlike other formalized practices it has been fully developed only recently, so it combined many efficient approaches used in other arts, such as Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Qui chong, as well as the concepts used in cognitive science and psychology. Additionally, it had to be used in real combat situations (several ground wars Russia’s been engaged in since the 80s), so its approach is highly effective and has been tested in life-or-death situations.

One of the basic tenets of Systema approach is to learn how to lose. The assumption here is that the opponent is stronger and has more resources, therefore one should not act from the position of force. In terms of the conflict dynamics discussed in the previous session this approach translates into pacing and leading the conflict in order to dissipate its destructive drive. A Systema practitioner gives in to the incoming force~impulse rather than fighting it, accompanying the incoming trajectory and then changing its directional drive towards complete dissolution. In that way it’s similar to the techniques utilized in Jiu-Jitsu and Judo, but also to surfing, hypnosis and even contemporary contact dance.  

Another tenet of Systema is the importance of adaptation. In order to understand what this means it can be helpful to consider the following example. Imagine one has to survive in the nature for several days. A standard, western way of procedure, would be to prepare a tool for every possible situation that may arise: to build a shelter, to make a fire, to hunt etc. One comes to the environment to conquer it and to make it work for oneself. A completely opposite, eastern way of survival, would be to disconnect from the environment and go into an internal practice so as to reduce the dependance on one’s surrounding through meditation, yoga, etc. Both of those ways can work, but Systema is based on the third way, which is particularly suitable in harsh, unpredictable environments (that are too strong to conquer or to escape). The Systema way of survival is based neither on conquering the environment or shutting away from it, but, rather, on adapting to its inner dynamics. Doing with what is already happening and slightly adjusting it to serve one’s own objectives. This implies that there are no predefined tools, but, rather, there is a certain practice, which can then solidify into a concrete action only when it comes into contact with the environment thus becoming a part of it also.

An interesting fact is that human embryo, unlike animal embryo, avoids specialization for as long as possible during the period of conception. This allows it to remain adaptable to any environment. A similar approach can be used in a situation of combat. If we assume a certain stance when fighting several opponents we may be well prepared for one opponent we’re facing, but not the other. Therefore, in Systema there is never a certain stance or a certain way of doing things. Rather, it’s an adaptive practice where the body is in a state of dynamic stillness ready to deal with any incoming impulses.

We will look into the specific practices that are utilized in Systema in the following units. However, first, we will introduce another practice originating from Japan called Noguchi Taiso, which shares many principles with Systema and can be used as the foundation for further work.