Systema – Russian Martial Art, as well as other traditions, teaches visualization as an exercise to be incorporated in the practice. The students whom train and include the visualization in their practice can easily perceive the improvement. And like any skill it can and should be trained, improved and shaped to respond to diverse situations.
It is, however, important to understand that visualization is not a purely esoteric thing that has no consequence at all in the physical body. I bring some articles to reflect on the importance of a correct mindset for both the practice of Systema and life.
In the 1950s an American researcher caught domesticated and wild rats and placed them in a “mini pool”. Wild rats were more aggressive and violent. It was observed that the rats remained practically the same swimming, until they stopped swimming and succumbed to death. He noted that the respiratory rate, heart rate and temperature of the mice dropped very quickly and they died drowned. The average time the animals swam was 15 minutes. The researchers then decided to test a theory, remove the mouse from the water when given 15 minutes and put it back water. By doing so the mice survived for over 1 hour swimming. They believed that by taking the animal out of the water they gave it “hope” and so the animals could survive longer.
Although this experiment is ethically reprehensible today, at the time it allowed us to better understand human behavior. This test, leaving the animal in the water, was used as a model of depression and contribute to the development of many antidepressant drugs. The animal enters a state of absence of movement, a state of immobilization, that the researchers understand to be a state where the animal realized that it is impossible to escape and gave up. The absence of movement is considered as a reaction of behavioral despair. This also helps us understand why movement is so essential in the Systema.
Another animal model used in the area is the “learning of the impossibility of escape”. The animal is placed in a cage and receives shocks. This is repeated a few times. The animal is then placed in the shock cage with an exit and it is observed that the animal does not seek to escape. He has learned that he can not escape the shocks and is still, accepting his destiny. This behavioral model shows us that once we learn that there is no solution, we do not insist on seeking solutions even if the situation has changed. Again this help to understand why we talk so much about not getting used to a bad situation, to keep seeking for new possibilities.
This immobilization situation is usually described as being passive maladaptive behavior to stress.
The use of these behavioral tests aims to simulate a behavior of depression to test antidepressant drugs. However it is noted that a number of factors can change the outcome. Animal genetics (behavioral traits are also defined by genetic factors); The sex of the animal (depending on the menstrual cycle the rats may present more immobilization); Age and weight of the rats; If the rats were stressed during pregnancy or in the first days of life; If the rats are accustomed to humans; Water temperature; Noises and different odors; lights. All these factors may influence the response of the depression that one wishes to induce to the animal.
Biologically, rats are not so different from us humans. So it is not difficult to think that we are also influenced by this series of factors mentioned above. Genetics, sex, lifelong experiences shape our behavior. There are studies that show that when receiving the diagnosis of cancer, especially if it is an aggressive cancer, people suffer great stress that can have an early fatal outcome. There is an increased risk of suicide and cardiovascular disease in people receiving the cancer diagnosis. Thus the absence of hope increases the probability of having a fatal consequence.
Viewing a positive mood situation can change the way a person handles stressful events. A positive person has a better quality of life that occurs both because of healthier choices and cognitive adaptations, greater brain flexibility, problem-solving ability, and less processing intensity of negative information. Positive thinking increase the recovery time of an injury, making the process faster.
There are also other studies showing that visualization can be effective in muscle activation. Imagining yourself making a move produces a neural activation as if you were doing the movement in fact, but of lesser intensity.
So we should think positive, right? Like everything in life the “concentration” is the key. Excessive positive thinking may have the opposite consequence, bring more unhappiness, aggressiveness, impulsivity, and economic loss.
And where does Systema and the practice of visualization come in?
We teach our students to observe the environment, to pay attention to what surrounds you. Even if it’s already a known environment. We teach our students how to get out of a situation that seems impossible. We teach our students to visualize an exercise when they can not do it. We teach to pay attention to the body, to have a positive attitude.
This mindset makes the difference in extreme situations, whether at work, sport or life. That is why I often say that the defense part of Systema is the least important. We see the change in the students who begin to practice Systema. Students feel the change. Each in its own time, in its own way, begins a process of personal development. Today I say that to begin to train Systema is a way without return, you will leave different from that entered.