Systema: The Russian martial art

A class of Systema Vancouver students with instructor Cristian Isbasescu (front left).  | Photo courtesy of Systema Vancouver

A class of Systema Vancouver students with instructor Cristian Isbasescu (front left). | Photo courtesy of Systema Vancouver

When you think of martial arts, you may think of karate or taekwondo but you may not have heard of Systema. As a holistic martial art, Systema does not focus on teaching specific skills or techniques but is comprised of principles and concepts to strengthen the spirit as well as the body.

Systema is a Russian martial arts style acquired by Russian warriors as they adapted to battles on different terrains and climates in Russia. This style focused on having a “strong spirit”: it’s versatile and effective against any type of enemy.

“The big idea is to understand yourself and to really dive deep in to that. You need to study breathing and your emotions,” says Cristian Isbasescu, head instructor of Systema Vancouver.

After the Communists came into power, this style of fighting became reserved for just a few Special Operations Units. Mikhail Ryabko, colonel of the Special Operations Unit with the Russian Military, is the founder of modern day Systema and is also the Master Teacher.

From Aikido to Systema

Isbasescu has been doing martial arts since he was 14. He holds a first-degree black belt in Yoshinkan Aikido, from Robert Mustard, and has also studied Aiki-jutsu, Bujinkan Ninpo, Kenpo Karate and freestyle wrestling over the last 18 years.

Originally from Romania, Isbasescu moved to Vancouver with his family in 2001. After seeing a video of Vladimir Vasiliev, the founder of Systema Headquarters (the first school of Russian martial art outside Russia), Isbasescu became interested in learning more about Systema.

Vasiliev is the top student of Ryabko and has certified over 300 Russian martial arts instructors at various schools worldwide, including Isbasescu who was certified in 2010.

“I was at an army shooting competition in Ottawa and I changed my plane ticket to go to Vladimir’s school for two weeks,” says Isbasescu, who has been a part of the infantry army reserves since 2003.

Although he did not initially intend to teach, Isbasescu took over as head instructor of Systema Vancouver in 2013.

Systema Vancouver

A typical class includes a warm up and massage before incorporating various forms of wrestling, sparring and weapons training. Isabasescu says most students find out about his classes after watching instructional videos with Vasiliev online and want to learn more. Each class has about eight to 10 students.

“In Systema what we try to do is understand our limitations. The vehicle we do that through is breathing, relaxation and natural body position,” says Isbasescu.

According to Isbasescu, most martial arts drill a technique to perfect it but says this limits people to use those skills in certain situations, and what they know may not fit all situations. In contrast, Systema teaches you to be more versatile and adaptable. In addition, you will also learn to use breathing and relaxation techniques to navigate emotions, develop patience and train your body to move fluidly and be free of tensions and limitations.

“If you train this way, you’re not afraid to be afraid because you explore your fears and limitations – not through aggression but with breathing,” says

Connecting Systema and health

Isbasescu credits his martial arts training and the great people he’s met for shaping his life in a healthy direction and realizing his passion for health. After receiving his Bachelor of Arts from UBC and working in the finance industry for a number of years, Isbasescu is currently working on prerequisites to become a physiotherapist. He feels his unique background in martial arts and Systema will help him connect physically and emotionally with future patients.

“For me, martial arts now is all about health,” says Isbasescu, who intends on continuing to teach. “I want to help other people be as healthy as possible and heal any injuries they have.”

Systema classes take place every Mon and Wed evening from 5:30–7:00 p.m. at Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly. For more information, please visit