Thursday, 5 March 2015

Intersections & Synergies (Seng-Yew, Melbourne/AUS)

Hey all, I am delighted to share this guest post by my friend Seng-Yew whom I first met in person in mid-2014 at the Melbourne Systema Seminar with Martin Wheeler, following a brief exchange of emails in regards to our Aunkai seminar later in the year. Seng-Yew is a kindred spirit in more ways than one I believe, even though we have not known each other for very long. He is also a long-time practitioner of Aikido, an Instructor-in-Training in Systema (Vasiliev, Toronto) and maybe most importantly just a very reflected yet open mind. Not wanting to give away the 'moral' of his post, I am very grateful for it, as it perfectly expresses the notion of Budo Kenshu that is the foundation of our practice at Jikishin Dojo Auckland. So with that I leave to enjoy Seng-Yew's reflections..

My journey began with my first love, Aikido. For several years, that had been my sole focus. Whilst researching about the art in those early days, I would intermittently come across a strange, and bizarre art called, Systema. My fascination about this Russian system grew, but any hands-on exploration was limited due to my isolated geography. After moving interstate several years later, I was fortunate enough to learn more about it from a brilliant instructor. Side-by-side with my first love, I began my foray into Systema. My infatuation grew into a passion, and eventually developed into a firm commitment. At times, I questioned about their compatibility, but for the most part, I was able to compartmentalise my training, and use each to build upon the other's strengths. Whenever others asked how I perceived the two seemingly different arts, I would give the analogy that...
Aikido was akin to classical music, whilst Systema was like jazz. The former, idealistic and refined; the latter, vibrant and full of spontaneity. Both were different, yet both were equally beautiful to me. I refused to give up one for the other, though I secretly feared that one day, I might be made to choose.

So for a few more years, I continued training both side-by-side. Lo and behold, during that time, yet another facet of Aikido started creeping up. Like a pubescent teenager who could not resist the allure of the exotic temptations of this esoteric promise, I started dabbling in this elusive element of training that went by various names: 'aiki', 'internal power' (IP), 'internal work' etc. Having yet another focus in the mix made juggling these various practices that much harder. But no matter, being the young virile man that I was, I felt confident in being able to manage my expanded harem. Unfortunately, as any experienced polygamist would know, the fantasy did not last long before fractures started appearing between the jealous lovers. Several exercises and principles began to contradict each other quite fundamentally. One posited that I should always keep moving, and never stay still. The other asserted that I should be able to root myself, and form an immovable structure. One was erect like a mighty bodhi tree, the other slinking around like a floppy kraken. I was no longer sure I could prevent an existentialist crisis, and it felt like I had to eventually divorce myself from one, or the other. However, as fate would have it, I suddenly lost both my instructors within a span of a month of each other. I became lost myself, and was simply trying to stay afloat.

Seng-Yew with Akuzawa Sensei
(and Adrian Knight in the background)
Fast forward to late 2014, I had the opportunity to attend a Systema-esque workshop by Alex Kostic, and an 'aiki/IP'-esque workshop by Akuzawa Minoru Sensei, just a week apart. Getting the chance to train with various people from different martial backgrounds gave me a rare chance to evaluate my progress. Unexpectedly, the pieces started to fall together then. I cannot be certain, but I suspect that I had finally gotten a sense of how Systema and Aikido--or more specifically 'aiki/IP'--could fit together. For a while now, I had a feeling that they were closely linked, but I always got thrown off by a number of explicit exercises and principles that appeared to contradict each other. Although the memory now seems vague, I recall a brief insight of conceptualising 'aiki/IP' as an inherent structural foundation to work from--but with the shape and flow of Systema movements. 

More importantly, I also found my answer to another puzzle of mine, which was on finding a way to reconcile the different training methodologies. At the aforementioned workshops, I discovered that that I might not really need to! My experiences there suggested that my different trainings have somehow been 'absorbed' into my body, and it came out as needed without me consciously thinking of which I should use, or manifest. 

For instance, at Kostic's seminar, we had a really fun game where there the goal was to have the 'last person standing'. All participants--from various MA backgrounds, would get on the mat, and try to throw, trip, or wrestle everyone else until only one person remained. At about three quarters way into the game, where most of the participants were already out of the mat, I was just darting between the remaining survivors, as I could not really throw these skilled participants. At one point whilst I was tied up with someone, Kostic loudly declared that participants should be ganging up on each other! Before I knew it, two more people grabbed a hold of me, and tried to throw me off. It must have been a funny sight because there was one person grabbing my arms in front of me, another tugging on my back, and one more pulling on my leg, whilst I was hopping around on one leg! This actually went on for a while until one of my attackers gave me a big swing, and threw the three of us to the ground. To be honest, I did not not even know I had three people on me, as I was just simply focusing on maintaining my balance. I was surprised when people were laughing and applauding when I finally got thrown off. More importantly, I had no idea what I did to keep my balance in such an awkward position for that amount of time. Nonetheless, clearly something 'interesting' happened then. Was it Systema? Was it Aikido? Was it 'aiki/IP'? I don't know. And although not as dramatically illustrated, I found similar revelations when I attended Akuzawa's seminar the following week. Whilst I was groping around the dark with various drills that appeared foreign to me, something from my previous trainings would intermittently click in--and again, interesting things happened, without my conscious awareness.

Seng-Yew with Aunkai Instructor Watanabe Manabu
Whilst reflecting at the time, I came up with a provisional thesis that Systema is easier to learn and use, at a moderate-to-high level of competency, in a relatively short period of time. I suspect that if someone with a decent baseline were to put in a solid 2-5 years in Systema training, they would probably be able to defend themselves under most general circumstances. When it came to 'aiki/IP' however, I propose that it would take a very long time, possibly in range of 5-10+ years, to develop and build, and probably even longer still to use in a practical setting. However, I feel that if someone wanted to achieve a supreme level of competency, it would almost be inevitable that they needed to do some form 'aiki/IP' training--under whichever name/style. 

As for me, I'll keep going where the road takes me, and enjoy my training in whatever shape or form it comes. Whilst tricky to balance at times, every moment on this journey is too precious to fuss over arbitrarily drawn lines.

Seng-Yew is based in Melbourne, AU, where he strives to satiate all his loves. You can follow his sporadic ramblings at, or better yet, get together and play if you are in town.