I first got to know Mark Winkler back in 2010 when I was organising a charity martial arts festival. I had 12 styles have about 15 minutes each to demonstrate their style and we raised about £2000 for charity. Along with the usual well known martial arts, Karate, Kung Fu, Taekwondo etc; I wanted some arts that were less well known and not necessarily from Eastern Asia! My search lead me to Mark Winkler and the Russian martial art of Systema, which up to that point I’d never heard of before.
I found Mark to be a very knowledgeable martial artist. Before turning to Systema, he was a 6th Dan Karate. Very few people get to that high level, then change styles. Take up a second style maybe, but seldom do they change altogether. So I was intrigued about this Systema and what a man such as Mark had seen in it; especially as he has over 40 years training and has worked in the security field so has real life experience. In short, he knows what’s real and what’s not.
On top of that, he’s a really nice guy, helpful, unassuming with no ego at all. We’ve stayed in touch on and off since then and I’ve attended one of Mark’s open seminars in Cardiff (which I highly recommend by the way). So I was delighted when he agreed to do this interview with me. It’s a very open and honest interview, he’s not shied away from sensitive subjects and has been prepared to discuss his personal vulnerabilities; which to my mind takes courage. This is a man that I have a lot of respect for, so I hope you enjoy this interview as much I enjoyed compiling it:-
CW: Before you got into Systema, you were a 6th Dan at Wado Ryu Karate. Can you tell us about that, who you trained with, who were your main influences and any notable achievements?
MW: I was very fortunate my first instructor was a gent by the name of Peter Morgan who was with Unel Wellington of the WKA. Peter was a good technician and encouraged me in my training and teaching. I had my 2nd Dan with the WKA before moving and joining Steve Rowe of Shi kon. Steve was a great technician he really made me question the application in kata, I would go out to theatre with my wife and instead of watching the show I would be visualising different applications for the kata lol.
My 3rd Dan came from Steve Rowe. It was at that point I set up my own organisation with three clubs with Graham Morgan in north Wales and four I had in west Wales, it allowed us to invite instructors from different styles and different martial arts. We had some great instructors who visited many times, Gwyn Jones Aikido, Peter Jones Tai Chi, Steve Rowe Karate, the late Ron Chillington and late Toru Takamizawa to name a few. The name of the group was named after my brother Michael, he was lost to us in the troubles in Northern Ireland in June 88. Welsh guys in the forces are known as Taff so that’s where the name Ffordd TAFF which is Welsh for Taffs Way, got its name.
My biggest achievements in Karate is I when a former student comes up to me and says thank you and shows some gratitude for something I tried to do.
CW: Apart from Karate and Systema, do you have any significant experience in any other form of martial art? And want attracted you to Karate back when you first started?
MW: I did have private lessons in grappling when I was teaching in Albany and Williamsburg in America and Aikido here in the UK, at the time I was very much into lifting weights so used to try and use my strength and found strength v technique, there was only going to be one winner and it was not strength.
CW: As you rose to a senior grade in Karate, what did you used to do back then in terms of teaching and running your own Karate/self protection classes?
MW: From the start of my karate days with Peter Morgan I was always taught the importance of good form, it is your foundation and if your basics are weak every part of your training will be. So it’s always been important to teach form, have your stances correct and good clean movement, but I also cross trained to keep it interesting and make them prepared for different confrontations.
CW: I know that lots of people train in more than one martial art system and many people try several styles before settling for one to commit to. But I don’t think I’ve heard of anybody getting all the way to 6th Dan (which must have taken a few decades training) and then swapping styles. What was it about Systema that made you decide to change and was it an emotional decision having put so many years into your Karate?
MW: I had got disillusioned in Karate and found I was not teaching for the right reason. But the reality was that the issue was not Karate but something personnel deep inside me was the problem. I will be totally honest I had been struggling with depression for some time and knew I had to make some huge changes in my life or I wasn’t going to get through the next 12months. So after teaching in Kelona (British Colombia, Canada), I flew to Prince George to spend a week with a Faith healer, then flew to Toronto for what was meant to be a week but stayed for six month training with Vladamir Vasilliev. I loved the thought of free movement that Systema offered and the comradery with the guys was at another level that I had before I found the training very difficult because of where I was emotionally with myself.
CW: Thank you for being so honest and open about your depression, that can take courage to admit. You mention about teaching in Albany and Williamsburg in America and Kelona in Canada, how did this come about, don’t they have enough of their own instructors?
MW: I had already taught a short stint a couple of years earlier in the Czech republic, I went to Albany in New York first and whilst there I went to train at the local Karate club. It was not a style I was familiar with but I loved training in any form of martial art. Anyway, after maybe three classes I was invited to join the teaching team which I was happy to accept. Then when I was in Williamsburg, West Virginia, I visited a Karate school there. The instructor there a serving police officer was very interested in how Karate could be modified practically for self defence purposes and we spoke in depth, starting ideas and from that came a invitation to teach him and his small group.
In Calgary, Canada, very much the same. I visited the school and trained and got invited to teach and stayed out there for close to six months. It was that time a friend invited me teach a class of self defence at a private school in Calgary, I ended up teaching for around three months before the school told me it was stopping the class so it could run a visualisation group. Not wanting to end my time in Calgary I told them I taught visualisation back home and so I was given the job. I had no idea what it was so I had to rush back to my home out there and phone someone up in the UK to see what I was to teach the next day I then was able to formulate a class for the next morning I have been using the visualisation now for almost twenty years.
Teaching in Kelona in Canada was a invite through a friend.
CW: How would you describe Systema for anybody who has never seen it before?
MW: This is something I don’t know if I can describe. I tell my students often the most important thing I think is to FEEL what is happening to your body and your partners body listen to both your emotions and training partners emotions through the contact between you and them, feel where the tension is and move around it, connect not only to your partner but also to yourself.
I think this is important in every part of your life, In my security work I have to connect with aggressive people. By connecting with their emotions you can some times manipulate the situation before things turn aggressive but if that fails then you have a better idea as to just how much force is needed to bring the incident to a end. In your personal life dealing with your partner and children by connecting emotionally with them it allows you have a better understanding of their needs.
CW: Most martial arts do to a certain extent adopt the culture of the originating country (lining up, bowing, etc). Separate to the physical elements of training, is Systema very influenced by Russian culture and did you find this at all strange at first coming from a strict Japanese influenced martial art?
MW: I enjoy working under a relaxed environment that Vladimir and his senior instructors offer. As opposed to bowing we shake hands, we work with relaxation, breath , and freedom of movement working away from tension which sometimes a Japanese martial art would work through tension. Although I enjoy all the freedom and relaxation that Systema offers I still enjoy watching a good kata being performed, the focus, clean strong movements of someone like yourself Charlie performing a powerful kick still has the hair stick up at the back of my neck.
CW: Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say so. Did many (or any) of the people that you used to train Karate with, swap over to Systema with you? And was it a bit of shock for whatever Karate association you belonged to, losing a 6th Dan to another style?
MW: One guy Martyn Walters made the change over, he started training with me in Karate at the age of nine, I think he’s thirty six now and still training with me. Martyn was the guy who introduced me to to Systema when he showed a video of the art to me. It shows he had never been to Canada and seen how big the country was when he suggested I pop in to see Vladamir, it was an hours flight from Prince George to Vancouver then another I think it was a four hour flight to Toronto. Pop over he said, as if it was next door lol.
I had my own association at this time but I did seek advice from other instructors as to training on the mats and which instructors to bring to the school. We had five clubs in the group and that was enough for me I didn’t want more because I wanted something I could manage without relying too much on other people. It was not easy walking away from Karate and my group because many had been with me for years, but I had to do what was best for me and by the end with so much going on in my private life as well as in my Karate world I needed a new start.
CW: You’ve taken it seriously enough to travel to Canada several times to train directly under Vladimir Vasiliev, for months at a time. Before we talk about the training itself, this must take a lot of planning, preparation, commitment and sacrifice. How many times have you done this and how did you manage to work this in around your job/business and family life?
MW: I have been self employed involved in security for around thirty five years working from the night clubs, to one on one, to an enforcement officer for the high court. That’s how I have financed my trips working as much as possible when I’m home and keeping my daily training going. I did the same when I did Karate, I went several times to America to train. I often have people tell me how lucky I have been to go and train in Canada and I how easy I have it. If lucky is coming back from these trips with no work waiting for you, not a penny in your bank account, feeling home sick being away from my children and grand children, having gone through a divorce because of my lifestyle, knowing the upset caused to my parents by constantly going away when they have been so unwell and selfishly I stayed away when both my parents had a stroke. Then if they want to call that lucky and easy then that’s ok they can call it easy and lucky, I have other names for it lol. I have spent around three years back and forth there.
CW: I’d call it “commitment”! People often make judgements without all the facts. OK, so what was the training like over there. I have heard that it was quite rough and physically punishing at first without too much control, but had to be toned down a bit. Is there any truth in that?
MW: It was different many years ago, there is a huge emphasis on sensitivity now and connecting to yourself and to each others movement. I was used to being physical because of my work, it was learning the sensitivity of it all I had problems with, working constructively without applying tension. But I was lucky the guys I worked with in Toronto were good and very patient with me.
CW: Many other arts have changed over the years due to many influences, probably the biggest being competition. Many people feel that their art is less effective at real world self protection because of these changes. Do you feel that the change of emphasis towards sensitivity in Systema is good, bad, or indifferent when it comes to real world self protection?
MW: I think sensitivity is a must, a friend and student of mine who is a senior grade in Judo tells me how he uses sensitivity in his game, by being sensitive in touch, every slight movement his opponent makes is transmitted through the body this allows my friend to react a lot sooner to his opponents intention. As we get older our physical strength diminishes and if I was to deal with a physical confrontation as I did many years ago with a lot of force I know I would get hurt. I now try to fight with sensitivity, I try to have freedom in my movement. I move to counter their movements, I allow myself to feel what is happening as opposed to seeing. The more sensitive I am with my touch the more I feel, the better I react. One of the other very important thing we do in Systema is we learn not to take our opponents tension on board, tension from one person to another always happens because tension is transferable.
CW: I agree with you there, I think Karate was especially guilty of to much tension in it’s early years of exporting it around the world. Are there any particular experiences or anecdotes that stick out for you?
MW: There are many, how I feel emotionally and deal with both my emotions and those emotions of a aggressive person in conflict in work as well as being more sensitive to others in my private life. Around seven years ago I got hit with a bottle on the side of the neck which caused internal bleeding and poisoning in the throat, it was two weeks later when I decided with a neck swollen from 17 inch to a 22 inch and not being able to breath that I sought help and was rushed in for a three hour operation. I know before Systema I would have totally freaked out instead of calmly trying to slow everything down and sip in some air until I could get assistance.
CW: What was Vladimir Vasiliev like as a person? I believe he was ex-KGB from the cold war era, and would presumably have had a few real stories of using Systema in the field. Is this correct, and if so could you ever get him to talk about them?
MW: Vladamir served in the forces as a Spetsnaz (Russian Special Forces). He’s a very warm and welcoming guy who is very much in tune with the individuals needs. One of the things that fascinates me is how he can connect with people’s emotions the way he does. As for what went on in the field in conflict he’s not one to tell and I’m not one to ask.
CW: I can understand where you’re coming from, sometimes better to let some things just be. You now do security work in Cardiff. Have you ever had to use your Systema in a real life situation? If so, please tell us about it?
MW: I do night club work in Swansea but work on a one to one basis and high court work goes on all over the UK. We were sent to London for two weeks but we ended up working for twelve months there. Too offten the job can lead to confrontation with large numbers of people involved so having a good team working alongside helps. I have seen people badly hurt and find it uncomfortable to talk about.
CW: Fair enough, I can understand that. What direction will you be taking your training in now? Will you be continuing to go back to Vladimir in Canada? Or will you be focusing more on bringing in other top instructors to you for seminars?
MW: I will continue to visit Vladamir in Toronto but now it only be for a month at a time. Also we will continue to bring top instructors to Cardiff, we have already had Martin Wheeler over this year and we have Emmanuel Manolakakis coming soon.
CW: What would your advice be to anybody who is thinking of taking up Systema, either as their main style or as a second style alongside their existing main system?
MW: As with every martial art that you may want to learn, always seek out for a good instructor. I know this may be more difficult for anyone seeking instruction in Systema because we are still not a main stream form of martial art as yet, but there are good instructors out there holding regular workshops in the UK. If they want to get hold of me and let me know where they are from I will be more than happy to hook them up with a instructor near to them.
CW: You mentioned earlier that you’re bringing top instructors to Cardiff, as well as hosting your own open seminars. Do you feel that these seminars have much to offer to martial artists of other styles? Is there much that they can take away and incorporate into their own training?
MW: I’m not going to make this comment because of my involvement in Systema but because I believe it to be true; I do believe Systema has a lot to offer other martial arts, whether you take on the breathing, the movement the relaxation there is so much more in Systema. It has something to offer every martial art. We have regulars training in Cardiff who teach Krav Maga, Judo, Karate and 2 that teach Tai Jitsu in Cardiff.
CW: What do you think about the general direction that martial arts are heading in today? On the one had you have a drive towards sport with Olympic Taekwondo having been heavily modified to make it more of a spectator sport, Karate running a similar risk having also been accepted into the Olympics, the rise of MMA/cage fighting and martial art schools often measuring their success in terms of how many trophies they’ve won.
On the other hand, many traditional schools are looking for more practical applications and there is a rise in Reality Based Martial Arts.
What is your general opinion on the state of martial arts today?
MW: Although I’m not involved in Japanese martial arts I like to think of them as a traditional martial art, and although it’s not what I like to see I do think these arts broadening out and are offering something for everyone. But you need to be careful you don’t go to far off track and lose your way because without the traditional aspects I think the arts will become without soul and meaninglessness.
CW: Outside of the practical self protection side of martial arts, what do you think martial arts should do for the practitioner in terms of self development, health and general well being? And is it necessary to have these things if we’re mainly interested in self protection?
MW: In my opinion all these things, self development, health, your well being; all come under self defence and self protection. They are the same, it’s to do with looking after yourself. Looking after you body, mind and Soul, to be able to function properly in stressful situations you need to look after yourself.
CW: What have martial arts done for your own development personally? And has there been much difference between Karate and Systema in this respect?
MW: As I said earlier I was a troubled guy having difficulty dealing with my own emotions, what Winston Churchill referred to as the black dog. Being dyslexic in school in my time was regarded as being stupid, so I went through my time in schooling constantly being told by some teachers how stupid they thought I was. I THINK THOSE WORDS ARE WHAT HAS DRIVEN ME SO MUCH, BUT TOO MUCH DRIVE CAN ALSO BE VERY DESTRUCTIVE. I have now found peace and grounding within. I have seen other instructors like yourself in other martial arts who are very keen to go that extra mile to help their students in their self development.
CW: What are your plans now? Do you intend to build up your classes and make teaching into a full time profession?
MW: With my business partner Sean McCarthy we have opened The Forge Central Martial Arts Studio in Cardiff, it’s open to adults now but we will soon have children’s classes and health, breath and movement classes up and running. I’m not planning in the near future to be a full time instructor, I will stay in the security business for now. But as I am fifty six now who knows what may happen in the future!
CW: Well Mark, I wish you every success with your business venture at The Forge, I sincerely hope it works our for you.
On behalf of myself and all the readers, I would like to thank you for your interesting and insightful interview and for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us.
If you are interested in training with Mark or booking him for a seminar, you can contact him via Facebook. As I mentioned at the beginning, I have attended a seminar with Mark and I can thoroughly recommend it if you get the chance.