The following article was written by Lindsay Loytchenko on Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 12:20am. Lindsay is a friend of mine whom I met in Montreal, at Vladimir Vasiliev's weekend seminar at club Nagaika. She is one of the bravest human beings I have ever met. AND I MEAN EVER.
Coming home last night, soaked from the rain and covered in bruises, I was overcome with a sense of both accomplishement and sadness. This past weekend had been spent at Club Nagaika, where I practice a Russian martial called called Systema. I was there along with many others to receive instruction from a keystone figure in this unique community, Vladimir Vasiliev. Friday everning I helped clean the school in preparation for his arrival, it was there I met a new friend and fellow practitoner named Justin. He hails from Australia and has been on his own Systema journey which has taken him from his home down under, to both Moscow and Toronto. He showed me an invaluable foothold that helped me conquer a serious milestone when it came to my sensitivty and flinch response to strikes.
Systema involves three key components. Combat skill, a strong spirit, and a healthy body. Combat in Systema is precise. There are no roundhouse kicks, there are no combo punches, or elaborate stances. This is an art with a strong military application. So combat has a strong focus on energy conservation and the maintenance of one’s structure. My teacher has often told me while putting me in a number of confusing and painful holds “Just get back to a position of comfort and you’ll be fine.” The spiritual aspect of Systema involves the development of discipline of one’s psychological state. Our worst enemies are our self-pity, our ego, and our fear. It is only when we have mastery over these aspects of our psyche that our spirit can become strong. When faced with adversity, sitting on the ground lamenting solves nothing. Sure someone else may solve the problem, however that only shows that their spirit is stronger than yours.
Courage, strength and humility are words that often float around our heads as we train, because it is important that we do not let doubt and fear restrict out progress, we must learn to grow and find the seeds of strength within ourselves while at the same time not letting our ego get the better of us. As our strength and skill increases, so too should our humility. And that is something I noticed very strongly when I met Vladimir.
Okay so my teacher Stephane had to drag me over to introduce myself. I was overcome with apprehension at this point. I found myself afraid of being judged. Of being deemed unworthy of my presence there. Why should he take any time to acknowledge me? I did not know this man who was I to take his time for myself? He was sitting on a desk, his posture was relaxed.He looked up at our approach and I swear I wished I wanted to dissapear. Then he took my hand and said hello. I felt trapped, pinned like a butterfly on a card when he addressed me. I managed to stammer back an introduction, then he gently took my left arm and asked me where I got my scars. The tightness in my throat increased but I managed to choke out that I was a self-mutilator, and while I had mostly stopped, I had yet to beat this addiction entirely. I expected to see judgement or contempt in his eyes. I didn't.
Instead I saw warmth and understanding on a profound level. He said simply that we would speak further on the subject. I managed to nod and thank him, then found a place on the floor near my classmates, and the seminar began.
I started off on shaky footing, my impatience got the better of me during the first exercise and as a result I did not achieve my goal. However this at least taught me something of myself. And so I went through to the second exercise with a different attitude. I shifted my focus not to the success of the task, but to the tension buildup inside myself. As a result, my lack of tension was enough that the work progressed much further than the results I had expected. This proceeded to set my tone for the remainder of the weekend. My focused remained more on my internal state than projecting it towards the task at hand, and as a result I gained much more ground. Lunch came with it a decent surprise, as fellow practitioners devoured the cookies I had baked and brought as a contribution to the class. Over the course of the day, practitioners from near and far tendered me advice. Andrew, a leader of another Montreal gym showed me a more biomechanical approach to the work (before cracking my head on the floor), while a practitioner from New Jersey urged me not to stop at what he called the halfway mark. Telling me not to stop simply when he was on the ground, but to send him headfirst into the wall where he belonged since he was trying to send a knife through me. I even got to work with Stephane's former partner at Nagaika's old location. Training with Jordan is always a treat, as he is a top notch fighter in Brazilian Jiujitsu, his insight is always well worth listening to.
By days end we were all slick with sweat and grappling became very difficult. After a shower and a change of clothes, it was time for dinner with my Nagaika mates,Salim, and Gabriel, a few other practitioners including Andrew and Justin, as well as Vladimir himself. Being seated next to him turned out to be an interesting experience, as he enjoyed teasing me extensively at certain points throughout the evening. In fact he had a few choice comments throughout the weekend that left me turning a number of interesting colours. Regardless, I headed home that night with a happy heart, Stephane had told me he was proud of my progress and hearing that meant a lot to me. As I got home I wished that it was already the next morning, and that I could already be on my way back to the school for day 2 of training.
A wish that changed drastically when morning rolled around. I awoke to find my muscles stiff and very sore. A conversation with an online friend gave me the tip for a cold water immersion and added intake of vitamin C, which helped quite a bit.
Upon arrival at the school I was relieved to see others seemed to be along the same lines, misery loves company I suppose. Either way day two seemed to flow a little easier, probably because I spent a good chunk of it with Justin taking me under his wing and getting my pesky flinch reponse under further control.Our day started with an interesting exercise, where after breathwork we were told to lie motionless for five minutes, not even our breathing should be noticable. I found focusing on my heartbeat helped. After that is was group work, then partner work.
At one point Vladimir came and struck at the emotional tension in my shoulders while explaining to Justin "Now, because the emotion is released, she will cry. The important thing is not to let the emotion take over or the work is no good." He spoke true, my eyes did tear a bit. Then is was close quarter work with knives, where I got slammed into walls and stabbed in the face. I spent most of the afternoon working on my flinch response and again progress came relatively well. At the end of the day, photos were taken, books were signed, and I finally screwed up my courage to talk to Vladimir about my scars.
Vladimir took a few precious moments, and gave me advice, advice I heard and will most certainly heed. He told me about the darkness I would spiral into, and how devastating it would be for me. He compared that darkness inside me to a snake that was coiled throughout me, and gave me insight on the toold behind it. He said I was a better person than I realized, and that the sensitivity I possesed was a good tool that would serve me well even as my fear diminished. As he spoke I felt my shoulders liquify and the tears started coming freely, he told me that was a very good sign and hugged me.
And then it was done. My experience with Vladimir the former Spetsnaz operative had come to an end. And with it the realization that Systema is more than just an art. The people who are truly passionate about it are a compassionate bunch. People took the time to hear my story and they were warm. I've been told the are no jerks in Systema, and to a very serious extent that is true. This weekend left me feeling more open towards my fellow practitioners. And I hope to forge deeper bonds with them as time goes by. Whether it was David from Ontario, or Ray from Boston. Andrew the fellow Montrealer, or Stephano from Italy. Everyone I interacted with was kind. There was no ego, no one scoffed or judged another as weak. Which leads me to think that systema has much more to teach the world if it has such an emphasis that it's students are always good and decent folk. And the lessons I am coming to learn I will pass on in my daily life, even if just to teach a colleague a nifty breathing trick that helps with their daily stress.
Sunday night ended with another dinner, sand Vladimir, and then a bit of striking in the rain. A trek home that left me soggy, and exhausted and filled with a sense that I had grown in these two very short days. If the bruises will help the lessons stick, then I hope they last a while so I'll be sure not to forget this whole experience. And with that I wish to thank everyone who worked with me. Vladimir for taking time for me, Justin for his wonderful footholds, the people I worked with for all their varied insights. My fellow classmates for putting up with me, and Stephane for believing in me.
And so my fellow Systemaniacs, I wish you all well, and I hope to see you all when the zombies come.
Vladimir has zero clue how to spell my first name ;)
Systema Sydney Russian Martial Art