More and more high level aikido people that I know are being influenced or dabbling in the Russian martial art called Systema. If you see it being performed it has a feel of aikido, and I feel it very much is an excellent art to stretch a aikidokas skill and understanding of body mechanics and motion. Mind you I am no real authority on this system, I only have observations from a 2 hour training session.
The teacher was relaxed and thoughtful. He had that look in his eyes like so many people I know in budo, someone in search for the next level. I could tell he is a hard trainer with a diverse background, but has chosen systema as his muse. I believe he is pretty serious about the Chinese internal work too.
When I began to move he looked at my personal guide/trainer and said, "He knows the combative stuff, work on softening him up and breathing." Indeed these are the two most important observations I made about systema today, softness and the breath.
We did not work on a single technique as the Japanese based martial artist would think about it. Everything was movement drills, relaxation drills, and moving what was free drills. Nothing about grips, nothing about turn the wrist. Everything that was talked about was in terms of structure. This mirrors my interests and thinking in my own practice, as I have been steadily moving in this direction. Indeed many of the drills reminded me a Hussey Sensei's innovative drills.
Relaxing is the key. I am usually a soft and relaxed artist, but there always tension that creeps into the equation. They literally massage the muscles with standard massage, muscle compressions, standing on the muscles and eventually striking the muscles. They literally beat the tension out of the system.
Striking seems to be a big key to the practice. It is one of their ukemi (energy receiving) practices. I have done loads of styles of martial arts in my day, and I can assure you they have a different system of striking going on. It was fascinating really. First we started standing. Our partner would come around and use the strike as a massage, targeting muscle groups. Again this seemed to reinforce the relaxation. Then the strikes got harder. If you remained relaxed they felt like massage. If you had any tension the strikes became unpleasant. It was a very fast negative reinforcement of tension. Relaxation was awarded, tension punished.
The strikes became very hard, targeted on the muscles. Eventually you were forced to take a fall or take the hit. It did not take me long to realize ukemi was the immediate answer. Fall man, fall. Literally beating resistance out of the system. It was not painful per say - but it was intense for sure. Another thing is that even though they were laying into each other, they were choosing appropriate targets and energy as to not really cause damage. Although I got wailed on for two hours I only have one sore muscle in my arm from the strikes.
One thing to note, the strikes were designed to alter your posture - true atemi waza. The instructor invited me up because I was not striking with adequate force. He had me wail away on his torso over and over - displeased with my poor showing. He literally relaxed and shrugged off every strike.
The next part was breathing. I did not get the direct lesson, but I saw the good technicians constantly going through breathing drills. Presumably this is part of the relaxation and sensitivity training. The teacher after class told me that he felt in aikido kokyu (breathing) was often just a theoretical term, and rarely is it practiced. I accept that criticism. While I am sure there are some aikido teachers out there focusing on it, in my 16 years of aikido I have never had an instructor really intensely focus on it.
Relaxation, atemi and breathing - three big lessons.
Another thing I discovered that I really liked was there intense knowledge of anatomy and nervous system terms. Some of the guys were serious about the study of the human body.
As a wind up of the class, we had to give a massage to our partner, again reinforcing relaxation and anatomical knowledge. It was fairly intense deep tissue work. Again my partner was labeling all my anatomical areas of pain and pointing out where I am storing tension. I have been wanting to incorporate massage into my own aikido practice, and this reinforced the wisdom of it for me.
Standard massage has never really worked for me. I have heard people talk about feeling released and wanting to cry after getting a intense massage. I will be honest with you I feel exhausted, like a beaten rug. All evening I have been getting waves like I want to cry, exactly the feeling people talk about when something gets released. Weird.
I really liked it. I liked the teacher, and I liked the students. The art I do not feel is for everyone. It is intense. Intense yet absolutely focused on relaxed and free movement. I myself have decided to return, to add yet another flavor to my practice.