Motorcycles and Systema
– Adrian Phillips
I’ve been riding motorcycles for most of my life and a martial artist for almost as long.
As a relatively new student of Systema (coming up to 5 years), the importance of breath work in every part of my life became glaringly obvious to me very early in my Systema journey.
For the folks out there who don’t ride motorcycles (what is wrong with you?), let me tell you – there is a lot to worry about when you are riding.
Before you even hit the road, there’s the gear to consider – do I have the correct helmet, gloves, boots etc? Then the motorcycle itself – is my ride mechanically sound?
Once you hit the road you need to continuously assess the road conditions and weather conditions, while being aware of other road users and pedestrians.
While this may sound largely similar to driving, you always need to be aware that a small mistake can result in a life and death situation, when a similar scenario in a car may simply result in a minor dent in someone’s fender.
For some who fall in love with motorcycles, riding can become an almost ‘zen-like’ experience – feeling that they are steering the bike more with their brain than their body. To a point this is true, in essence, a more symbiotic relationship exists between your mind and your physical body.
With that in mind, let’s talk about the art of riding for just a moment.
One of the most important points for new riders to understand is “You must relax”.
Unless you are performing low speed manoeuvres (eg navigating a carpark), there is little use of the handle bars to actually steer (of course, there’s counter steering which may be used at high speeds, but that’s a story for another day). Instead, ‘steering’ is performed by leaning the motorcycle and shifting your body weight while riding.
Unlike cars, motorcycles cannot change direction dramatically and suddenly with the simple turn of a steering wheel. Indeed, with any drastic change in direction you will find yourself struggling for even a fraction of control on a motorcycle.
Smooth, fluid movement is key when riding motorcycles.
This is where the importance of breath work and relaxation becomes so important.
If you have any kind of tension or stiffness in your body, you will end up working against your motorcycle.
Through Systema, we learn to recognise and explore tension within ourselves. Imagine filling your body with tension while riding – the rider and motorcycle will never be ‘one’. They are two separate beings working against each other, with tension the barrier keeping the flow of energy between the two apart.
With relaxation, the rider and motorcycle share information and become one organic being.
Relaxation at the most crucial time (where it will be incredibly difficult to relax) can be lifesaving.
With Systema, our movements become smoother and less jerky, allowing more control.
So, that’s relaxation covered. What about breathing?
Riding requires a deeper level of concentration, which can be difficult to sustain over long periods. Mistakes happen when concentration wanes and when you’re on two wheels, this can be fatal.
Being aware of your breathing throughout a ride is a great way to combat this problem.
When I ride using the principles of Systema breathing, I find that I am able to maintain my concentration for longer and with greater ease. I become more alert and aware of the world around me; it seems easier to notice small movements around me. Being able to see an obstacle that fraction of a second earlier gives you more time to react.
Target fixation is a real danger when riding; if you’ve never ridden, you may not realise that a motorcycle will go wherever you are looking. If a truck pulls out in front of you suddenly, you’ll find yourself staring at the hood emblem wondering how you’re going to avoid hitting it. The normal reaction is to tense, lock your arms and hold your breath, depriving your brain of much needed oxygen. Keep this up and you’re going to hit it dead centre.
However, if your body is trained to instantly relax and breathe, you’re primed to handle this new situation in the best possible way.
There are a multitude of similar scenarios; you round a corner you’ve ridden a hundred times before, only to find an animal right in front of you, another vehicle suddenly stops in front of you, or you pick a line through a corner, only to find you’ve misjudged the angle and are heading towards the curb.
In each case, if you hold your breath and fixate on whatever is in front of you, your ability to avoid an accident is decreased.
Breathe… Just breathe…. With relaxed breath, the body as a whole responds.
By relaxing and breathing, you create ‘space’ to find options to avoid it.
I can confidently say that Systema, especially with the addition of burst breathing, has saved my life more than once. The act of burst breathing gives your brain the oxygen it needs and (in my experience time seems to slow), giving you precious moments to relax, move and escape.