Tension is Not a Bad Word by Kevin SECOURS

Thursday, 7 February, 2008

Tension is NOT a bad word. Sometimes in Systema, we get into this reflexive habit of vilifying the word "tension". We so often talk about the need for relaxation and hear "You're too tense" that we make the subconscious assumption that all tension is bad. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some degree of tension is absolutely necessary, otherwise we would just collapse as we were reading this like a pile of melted wax. Tension keeps us standing, it keeps us moving. The goal is to learn how to balance tension, with relaxation. How much tension is necessary? How much tension is too much? This is likely a lifelong journey of discovery in the deepest sense, but a great amount of benefit and understanding can nevertheless be had on this front rather quickly.

Simply put, we should be seeking to strip away at the inessentials. To Michelangelo, we are just chipping away at the marble block to reveal the sculpture that is sleeping inside of it. We need to learn how to feel the existent  tension in our body and to play with it. One of the very simplest tricks Vlad teaches is to over contract a muscle with correct breathing, to teach the body what absolute tension feels like and then to allow it to release. This provides a starker contrast for the brain and makes it easier to let go. Often when we try to just sit there and think about relaxing, that pressure alone creates its own form of tension.

Thomas Hanna said it best I think: The better we feel our bodies, the more able we are to move them. In turn, the more able we are to move them, the more we can feel them. The same is true in the reverse direction as well of course (to rest is to rust). This is why so much of Systema's work just focuses on learning to "feel" our bodies--to simply contract to varying degrees and then to relax. It's like a very hands-on, practical and no nonsense approach to progressive relaxation, and of course it always includes a strong emphasis on breathing. If there is a great secret in Systema, it is precisely its breathing and sequential and targeted contraction and relaxation drills. So we just learn to play with tension and to strip away the excess until we can get a good idea of what "necessary" tension feels like. How much do I need to keep my posture aligned? If my spine is aligned already, with all the components of my body stacked one above the other, then I will need very little. As I move, those demands will change, but how will they change. How much work do I really need to do a push-up? I can full contract my body during a push up and try to move and I will find it's impossible. I must relax to some small degree in order to budge, so performing a push-up with full contract essentially involves releasing and re-contracting those muscles. At first this will be rather jerky. I will forget to contract and drop a bit then remember and stiffen up, but over time, this interplay of relaxation and re-contraction will become seamless and sustainable. Then I can play with performing the push-up with lesser and lesser degrees of tension until at last I am using only the balance of my structure and the most essential target muscles to make the movement happen.

The exact same is true of taking punches. It’s about learning how to keep some degree of contraction in the area being hit (let's assume it's the stomach) but not allowing that tension to infect the rest of our structure. I like to think of the stomach in such cases as if it were a ball in the water. Certainly there is some degree of strength in the ball. If you were to grab the ball and squeezing it, you could perhaps feel the ball give. If you were to push against the ball against a solid wall, again you might feel some gain or compression, but if that ball, with that same degree of "inflation" were afloat in a pool of water and you were then to try to strike that ball, it would both maintain its strength and structure and simply bob and roll and slip to one side, escaping the full power of your shot. This is how I perceive the balance between tension and yielding.

Training is truth,