Systema and Brainstem Function

by bobby schwartz

 Anyone who is an avid Systema practitioner knows that Systema is a philosophy that improves all aspects of life. My name is Bobby Schwartz, and I am a Board-Certified Physician in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, a Fellow in Vascular Medicine and an avid Systema practitioner and instructor.

I often get asked why I think Systema is beneficial to health. Some point to the incredible energy of Mikhail Ryabko and explain that he somehow passes this along to all of us. Others cite the unrelenting, unconditional, jewel of Vladimir Vasiliev as he shares his wisdom and skill. Then there are more basic things like push-ups, sit-ups or rollovers, and squats. When done with the four pillars in mind, tendons and ligaments are strengthened in ways unlike any other discipline I have seen.

Brainstem development is a major benefit of Systema Russian Martial Art

There is one additional theme, however, that I cannot ignore. Systema provides a mechanism for people to grow brainstem connectivity and responsiveness. The brainstem is not the brain, but instead it is a separate structure that sits below the brain. It houses basic vegetative and autonomic functions such as breathing, heart rate, balance, cross-body movements, posture, consciousness, and the fight or flight response. It is the seat of anxiety and tension. From an IQ point of view, it has nothing to do with intelligence.

Many of us do not have a fully developed brainstem, and because of this, we find ways to compensate by using our brain. The problem is, the brain is not intended to be a brainstem, so it simply can never be as good as a one.

The good news is that through reframing, cognitive restructuring, and three-dimensional exercise, the brainstem can continue to develop and mature. There are numerous practical examples and applications of this on my medical office web site (for those who care to take a deeper dive into this use the Education link: In a nutshell, when Systema instructors suggest to stop thinking and allow your body to do its work, they mean just that.

That is difficult however, as it requires the building of new brainstem pathways. When we are young, we don’t realize if a deficiency is present as we use our brains to compensate. But as we become overwhelmed with responsibilities, or simply grow older, our compensatory behaviors break down. We may find ourselves more irritable or angry, more prone to mistakes, or simply feel like we have lost the vitality that we once had.

These changes force us to make choices about how we will live life. Some people run from challenges, others attack them, and others still learn to coexist with them. I, for one, tend to address them head on. This is especially true if I believe doing so will be in my best interest. For me, since a decision to embrace Systema is a decision to work toward reducing tension in all aspects of life, there is nothing else to discuss.

There are very few practical tools that are as effective as Systema when it comes to brainstem development

The beauty of Systema is that each exercise can be looked at as an opportunity to grow physically, psychologically, and spiritually. The whole of Systema fills a void that is sorely needed. Simply said, there are very few practical tools that are as effective as Systema when it comes to brainstem development. For those who are in need and ready to receive its gifts, Systema can feel like a young child reveling in the mysteries of life for the first time.

 Yes, it takes work; it does not just happen. But the rewards are well worth it.
Bobby Schwartz is an accomplished medical doctor specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation.
Bobby has been seriously training and teaching Systema since 2013 at Systema Greenville, South Carolina.

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