Interview with Mikhail Ryabko (re: relaxing)

It’s all a matter of semantics. What Ryabko talks of below is “kan no me” (観の目) as Endo sensei recently often references from Miyamoto Musashi. A state in which you are clear, able to notice and sense, and able to move.

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Akira Hino: When you were in the military before, did you learn the methods of relaxation that we see in Systema now?

Mikhail Ryabko: I wasn’t in the regular military but the special forces. At that time, I learned the relaxation methods and the basics we did today in the seminar – everything. However, I also learned a lot during actual missions, such as hostage rescue, battle, and other very dangerous situations.

Hino: Normally, most people think it’s more effective to strike with strength. But on the other hand in Systema, you very much emphasize relaxing.

Ryabko: Say in the battlefield you have a machinegun. With ammunition, you’re carrying 10 kilograms. With armor, another 10 kg. Under those circumstances, it’s meaningless to use strength. It’s difficult to even take a stance (i.e., plant your feet properly?). With equipment, your movement becomes very restricted. In battle, you need to be able to shoot at all times, and at times, draw your knife to defend yourself. You also need to reload ammunition. Of course you don’t have a single enemy but many. If you tense and plant your feet, you can’t reload. You couldn’t survive.

Hino: Unlike most Japanese people, you have actual combat experience.

Ryabko: I was in Spetznaz in the 90s, when the Soviet Union dissolved and the situation was very bad. There were many armed groups/militias and gangs, and every day was filled with incidents. Drugs, gun sales, terrorism, counterfeit currency, hostage situations – everyday. In one day, you’d resolve one incident, go back home, and as soon as you get back home, you get called to the next thing. Now it’s calmer, but in the 90s, the war in Chechnya started and there were many battles. We would rescue pregnant hostages and take down armed groups that had taken over schools. I learned a lot during that time.

Hino: Those experiences made you able to be relaxed at all times?

Ryabko: Living under those circumstances, it’s impossible to be tense continually. Say you’re in a foxhole with bullets flying overhead. Even there, in that foxhole, you can joke with the person next to you. Like, “Hey, you wet your pants”.

There are many sad things in war. I try to forget those things. Of course I don’t like war, but I have some happy memories and there were some interesting experiences. For example, say there are bullets flying across in front of you, and landmines buried all around you. You have to see and feel all of this. Then you start to develop the ability to predict. When you enter a house, there’s the possibility of a booby-trapped doorknob. Of course this is a kind of technique, but you never stand in front of windows. You always turn off the lights. You beware what’s at the far end of a room. These all become habitual. When you’re sleeping, there may be gunfire and the communications officers may be running around, but the special forces people are still sleeping. They know how far away the gunfire is and how near it needs to be to be of any danger – they know all this. As for happy memories, people who get shot in the behind become the butt of jokes. Getting shot in the behind means you were running away at the time. So we tease each other and laugh together. This is one kind of relaxation. I may write about all these experiences someday in a book.

Hino: Listening to you talk, I think there are many Japanese people who misunderstand what you mean when you say “relaxation”. There’s no choice but to use the word “relax” but I wonder if the relaxation you speak of is something different.

Ryabko: Perhaps you’re right, that there’s a different grasp of the meaning of “relax”. Even if you’re relaxed, you still feel some amount of fear. It never goes away completely. Some people misunderstand because they watch movies. The only place there’s no fear is in American movies. It’s impossible. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to remove fear. If you panic and fear paralyzes your body, you lose concentration and you can’t take in the whole battlefield. Then you don’t know where the snipers are, where it’s dangerous – you can’t grasp the situation. Of course there’s fear, but you don’t let it control you. You grasp the entire picture. That’s relaxation. People who do Systema should really emphasize relaxation methods. There are many fine points about other martial arts, but I feel that relaxation methods is a topic that doesn’t get brought up much. I sometimes wonder if they don’t feel any fear. Maybe, as a Systema person, since I’m always talking about relaxation, I’m the biggest coward. Compared to other martial arts where they don’t talk about fear, maybe Systema people are all cowards and the other people are all heroes.

Hino: The war you’ve experienced is very real. On the other hand, Japanese people have no comparable experience, so they misapprehend what true relaxation is.

Ryabko: Indeed, there isn’t war in Japan, but even in small countries war can come at any time, suddenly. I recall the Sarin incident about 15 years ago. Even in peacetime, something like that can happen. At that time, noone was prepared. Nobody knew that, in the case of a nerve gas, you could get some cloth, rip it, moisten it with urine, apply it to your face, and survive. It’s unfortunate that people didn’t have any such survival knowledge.

Hino: The reason I’m fixating on the word “relax” is because I think there’s something deeper there. If it’s just relaxing, you’re still moving consciously, and you couldn’t do what you (Mikhail) do. I think you’re doing something on a deeper level than consciousness.

Ryabko: There is external relaxation and internal relaxation. There’s relaxation of the muscles, and relaxation of the internal organs. As you say, it’s deep. It would take more than 5 minutes to explain. So there’s various types of relaxation. For example, if you yawn, you get sleepy or fall asleep. However, this is one type of relaxation. The word “relax” has been said many times in the last few minutes, and psychologically I’m feeling affected; I’m getting sleepy.

So even the word “relax” itself has some effect. For the human body, heat has the effect of relaxing, as does water. Also, fire. Also, the woman you love, or delicious food. Actually, relaxation happens after the ups or downs of  emotion.

It seems that you, in Systema, in order to learn control of relaxation, one of the things you do is apply tension.

Ryabko: Yes. For example, in a match, until you get hit that first time, you’ll be afraid. This is the same for anyone. If you’re tense, after you get hit, you start to feel the effects of relaxation. At the start of a boxing match, the boxers hit their fists against each other. That’s in order to relax. It’s not conscious. Rather than going straight into the fight, they relieve each other of tension. Some people think they do that as a show of respect, but I think the effect of achieving relaxation unconsciously is big. It’s psychology.

It can be used just the opposite. The opponent may unconsciously trying to achieve relaxation, so when they extend their hand, you can withdraw yours. Then the opponents gets more and more anxious and tense. The same goes for handshakes. You feel relief when you take a hold of someone’s hand. In old Europe, as soon as you take a hold of the other person’s hand, you would put one finger on their vein to check their pulse. If they’re planning something malicious, their pulse will be faster. So they used to check the other person’s pulse when they shook hands.

By relaxing yourself, you make the other person relaxed. We see that in Systema.

Ryabko: Yes. Unfortunately, there are people in the world who are like animals. Their mental sate is different from normal people’s and they often have ill intent and their pulse is fast. This is because, to do or think bad things regarding other people is unnatural. So the pulse gets faster. Such people are excited/aroused. It’s a defensive response by the human body – when you think to do something bad, your heart beats faster. There are 60 seconds in one minute, and people a long time ago used to have a heart rate of 60 beats per minute. It’s an optimal rate for the heart. Modern people have 75 beats per minute. Modern people live busily and age more quickly. If everyone today could achieve 60 beats per minute, I think the world would look very different.

[Apparently at some point Ryabko also said, “Relaxation goes together with fear. If you have only fear, then you will be tense and your sight becomes limited.” This confirms the idea that he seems to express, which is that relaxation is completely about how one is “in the here and now”, including the environment around you and your own internal state.

And to copy Hino’s concluding words, which are almost identical with Endo sensei’s: “Those who pursue the path just conceive that which is a matter of course (i.e., that which is natural) in a matter of course way – that’s all there is to it. The only thing is, how much can you and how much do you actually pursue that which is a matter of course.”]

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