Sunday, 21 February 2010

A system of humans at play!

Whenever an opportunity to train with Alex Kostic turns up, I do my best to grasp it and you know what? - it's not just because I want to train with him. Please don't misunderstand me, Alex's seminars are full of insights and those "aha!" moments, regarding their technical content. What I find even more fascinating though, is talking to him, because he has this uncanny ability to draw analogies between philosophy and somatic psychotherapy (his fields of academic study) and martial arts training and practice. During the last two times we met and trained with Alex (November 2009 in Sweden and two weeks ago in Athens, Greece), we discussed extensively his personal approach to Russian Martial Art, which he has named "Sistema Homo Ludens" and honestly, a number of his ideas made a huge impression on me. For those of you who do not already know, "Homo Ludens" (Man the Player) is a book written in 1938 by Dutch historian, cultural theorist and professor Johan Huizinga, that discusses the importance of the play element of culture and society. My personal views on an approach of teaching combat skills (or any other type of skills) through play might be the subject of a future blog post. What I wanted to share in this post is a text posted by Alex himself yesterday of Facebook, regarding the philosophy of Sistema Homo Ludens, plus a video trailer highlighting the various aspects of Homo Ludens training and a video interview of Alex explaining more of his ideas. Hope you enjoy these!

"Homo Ludens: Philosophy
(by Alex Kostic)
Combat, as a diverse conglomeration of specific practices of relations with oneself and others, necessarily implies movement as a horizon of more or less set possibilities. For each of us, the possibility of movement is so axiomatic and immediate that we almost never think of it. The moves that people make are most often instrumental in character – walking from part of the town to another in order to get to work, bending over to reach an important document in a drawer, sitting down to get rest, etc. The common thread for all these motions is that they are not an end in themselves, but rather aimed at some purpose exterior to the movement itself. On the other side, in the window of glorious human dignified practices are those that have taken movement to an art: acting, ballet, dance, etc. What does it mean? It is to say that within those practices the movement is not in the function of some immediate goal, but instead it rises to the fullness of its temporality, which realized its essential capacities through the play. Play, therefore, is not something we use to attain any other goal – it is a goal in itself.

The common attitude is that in combat training most important issue is the command of various fighting techniques. Nevertheless, in the course of such training, what is referred to as techniques, and meant to be the desired outcome of a movement, is usually simply “glued” to a body that tries, under the pressure of desire for success, to anticipate the unpredictable spontaneity of the situation, in which only a body educated through movement can lead to more or less favorable resolving of the conflict. The technical training attempts to compensate for what is lacking in the domain of corporal education, by reaching for the satisfactory outcome in a strictly controlled situation. That way, the combative training instills in its practitioners the uncritical self-confidence in an irresponsible manner, the self-confidence that is not founded in the freedom of move, but rather in the fantasy of efficiency.

First one needs to suspend the yearning for the perfection of technique, for the sake of free movement. Such freedom does not bear with dogma or school uniformity, but instead seeks space for play, which in a conflict situation becomes the unpredictable struggle for survival. Therefore, a man who plays will not ask about the origins of the particular movement, but alternatively he will reinvent every “technique” himself.

That way, the first step in educating the body entails linking the movements freely into various biomechanical kinetic chains. At first on one’s own and later with a partner, the body learns to anticipate force vectors and in the beginning starts with imitation, but soon follows with improvisation, in order to relieve itself from striving to do the “right” or “realistic” technique. In its place, it will make the necessary and sufficient movement, thus rewarding the practitioner with satisfaction. In that context, the satisfaction lures the body into breaking out of its shy autism and stepping into the field of its possibilities. However, in that field there is someone else waiting, and with regards to combat, that someone is threatening.

The threat at hand simulates the feeling of being in danger, which cannot be escaped through any training. In the first stage, the subject has acquired fluid movement, softening the body with pleasure and forgetting about the threat. Once it matures, the body needs to be scared by strong hits, impossible situation that humiliate the narcissism of theatrical flawlessness.

The threat at issue simulates the feeling of danger that cannot be avoided through any training. In the first phase, the subject has acquired fluidity of movement, softened his body with pleasure and forgot about the threat. Once the body has matured, it needs to be scared by powerful strikes and “impossible” situations, which humiliate the narcissism of the theatrical flawlessness. Only through perseverance in the experience of stressful contact it is possible to talk about mature, self-critical attitude towards conflicts. Once the spontaneity of movement, which does not stem from the conscious projection characteristic for technical exercises, is unified with the experience of the struggle and overcoming obstacles, the training becomes free play that is no longer played by the child in its naïveté, nor the adolescent in its competitiveness, but rather an adult person in its responsible relaxation.

Let the spirit of play spread through the training hall, and not the dubious authority of a master, who compensates his fear from the loss of control through egotistical perfectionism. Let the gym become a temporal and unpretentious community of equal explorers of corporal movement, instead of a bullying domain, which insists on rivalry, thus establishing the ungrounded hierarchy that, as a rule, only results in selfish egotism

More on Alex Kostic and Sistema Homo Ludens at
You can preview the book Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga here.