After my recent post about my personal battle with anxiety, my boyfriend got worried. We’d discussed my anxiety before, but he didn’t realize how much of an issue it was until he read my blog. And to be fair, I hadn’t been all that forthright about it with him—or with myself.
That post helped me admit a lot of things that I’ve been holding back. And, more importantly, it inspired a conversation about self-defense classes, and how both me and my boyfriend would feel better about my personal safety if I could learn how to defend myself and control my thoughts and stress level when my anxiety is triggered.
Because honestly, how many of us can say we’d know what to do if someone came at us with ill intent? Would we run, fight, curl up into a useless puddle and take it? I have no idea how I’d react, and I’d like to change that.
That’s how I wound up on a mat last night, doing push-ups on my knuckles while someone (gently) kicked my ribs, pushed my head to the side, and jabbed at my shoulders. Hello, Systema.
Systema is a combat art used by the Russian Special Forces (Spetsnaz) that combines breathing, relaxation, movement, and structure to teach you how to adapt to virtually any threatening situation or method of attack.
Sounds promising, right? It gets better.
One of the main foci of this combat art is to maintain serenity and keep your body actively relaxed to minimize anxiety, fatigue, and severity of injury.
Can you say natural anxiety medication?
We started the class with an hour of breathing and strengthening exercises. And they were no joke. Ever tried to jog while systematically elongating your breathing? You guys, it’s really hard to inhale for ten steps, then exhale for ten—after you’ve already been running for five minutes. Ever tried to crawl across a mat on your back using only your shoulder blades and core to make that movement happen, your legs completely slack? I thought my shoulders were going to fall off.
And that was just the warm-up.
Then, we did sets of knuckle push-ups, leg raises, and full squats, which we practiced first concentrating on form and breathing. Then, we added a partner who messed with us the whole set, gently kicking, pushing, and trying to throw us off balance. The idea is that by concentrating on your breathing, you can train yourself to be a lot less reactive to someone messing with you—even when the instructor gives your stomach a noogie when you’re on your back and trying to lower your legs slowly to the ground. (Note to self: Gotta keep that belly relaxed during leg raises.)
We progressed to movement work, allowing a partner to push us at various places on our bodies, and instead of tensing up or trying to block, we let them move us. (This part reminded me a lot of contact improv! The dancer in me was all in.)
This was good practice, because another key component of Systema is using your attacker’s momentum against them. By moving with an attack instead of simply taking the brunt of it straight on, you can move through the attack and then, hopefully, turn the tables—using your attacker’s energy instead of your own.
We also played catch with a tennis ball with a partner, focusing first on constantly moving and maintaining hand-eye coordination—and then we were instructed to give others a push or some form of contact if we got close to them. Again, working on concentration and connection without getting flustered by your surroundings.
Toward the end, we worked on multiple attacker techniques. I learned how to constantly keep moving, to glide easily out of the way of people coming toward me, to dodge a punch and then make contact with my assailant (I’m sure I’ll learn what to do with that contact further down the line).
And everyone in the class was so cool, giving me tips and laughing when things went sideways, because sometimes a headlock turns into a partner accidentally picking your nose.
Did I mention my boyfriend took the class with me, too, to make sure I was okay with everything? Yeah, he’s pretty amazing and supportive and wonderful.
Today, I’m tired and sore from my two-hour intro to Systema. Gloriously, my back seems to be just fine. And most importantly, I feel a little more confident, a little more competent, a little more badass. I think it’s a good start and that Systema will be good for my mental, physical, and emotional health.
Recently, I’ve been using the hashtag #warriorprincesslife on social media in reference to my new love of archery. It started out as a clever, ironic joke, but maybe, just maybe, I’ll start to really live into a warrior princess life, becoming exponentially stronger and more confident as I challenge myself with new things.
Here’s to a new relationship with Systema and self-defense. Excuse me while I go do twenty knuckle pushups.