Ames martial arts instructor Jack Shilkaitis has taken thousands of punches over the past decade, but he remembers none more fondly than the one he took from Vladimir Vasiliev. Vasiliev delivered the blow over four years ago, as part of a demonstration at a seminar in Chicago, but when Shilkaitis told me about it this past July, there was still a hint of awe in his voice.
“It was a good thing,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh, Vlad hit me!’”
The man whose fist so deeply impressed Shilkaitis is North America’s leading exponent of Systema, a Russian martial art with a small but devoted worldwide following. Today, Shilkaitis assists his fellow instructor Lance Rewerts in teaching it at Ames’s Family Martial Arts Center, where Systema classes have been offered since 2005.
What first strikes the uninitiated observer about Systema (Russian for “the system”) is that it lacks virtually all the things that are associated with martial arts in the popular imagination. There are no belts or uniforms, no ranks, no set techniques, and no forms. Rather than drawing from a canon of rigidly codified movements and rituals, Systema instructors teach a broad set of skills that they say can be applied to any combat situation. According to Rewerts, mastery of these skills frees students to be more flexible in responding to attacks than other martial arts training would typically allow.
“We . . . concentrate less on specific responses and particular movements and more on breathing and moving [in general] and being relaxed,” Rewerts said.
The intuitive approach Rewerts described stands in clear contrast to those of the martial arts in which he and Shilkaitis were originally trained. Rewerts holds a first-degree black belt in Taekwondo and a third-degree black belt in Hapkido; Shilkaitis holds a fourth-degree black belt in Taekwondo and a third-degree black belt in Hapkido. Neither man denied that these Korean systems had their applications, but they both had felt constrained by their experience with them.
“With Hapkido, there’s this idea of ‘attack, defend, respond, finish,’” Rewerts told me. Someone comes at you, they attack you, they go to the ground and then you’re done . . . Systema allows you to be much more creative.”
Since Rewerts describes Systema in such non-threatening terms, one might be surprised to learn that a form of it is taught to members of the Russian Army’s spetialnoe naznachenie (Russian for “special forces”). These units – which are commonly referred to by the abbreviation Spetznaz – gather intelligence, fight insurgents and perform covert attacks on military and economic targets. A fairly close American analogue would be the U. S. Army’s Green Berets.
Vlad Vasiliev himself learned Systema before it had a name, while serving in Spetznaz in the late ‘70s. The name “Systema” is actually a recent coinage of his original teacher, Colonel Mikhail Ryabko, but the methods that the two teach under that name are said to have deep roots in the Slavic past. Vasiliev’s website claims that Systema’s principles can be traced back to folk fighting styles developed by Russian warrior clans in the 10th century.
Today, Systema still retains some traces of its military pedigree (a video clip on russianmartialart.com shows a student pretending to suffocate Vasiliev with a plastic bag and then strangle him with a rope), but both Vasiliev and Ryabko have adapted some of their more brutal training methods for a civilian audience. Rewerts told me a story about a student of Ryabko’s that illustrated this point.
“Someone famously asked Mikhail if he could ever be as good as [he] was. And he said, ‘No, because they’ll never do to you the things they did to me.’”
“They can’t do the things to people in this country that they did to people in Russia. You couldn’t get away with it,” Rewerts added.
Though their methods don’t immediately bring to mind the teachings of Christianity, Ryabko and Vasiliev contend that the Russian Orthodox faith is the bedrock of their Systema practice. A tone of religious zeal pervades much of the copy on Vasiliev’s website, where a quick search of the “Philosophy” section yields passages like this one:
“[T]he Word of God in the Bible tells us that there is no bigger sacrifice than to give up your life for others. Thus, anyone who prepares to be a true warrior, who undergoes training and takes a weapon in his hand, accepts this possibility of sacrificing his life in the name of love for other people; in essence, he prepares to become a martyr.”
When I read this quote to Rewerts, he nonchalantly denied that it had any application to him. “I have no such calling,” he said. “I don’t view myself by any stretch of the imagination as a Russian warrior saint. I do this because I love it and I think the skills have utility.”
Obviously, the form of Systema taught in America is less brutal than the kind practiced by Spetznaz soldiers and more secular in its justifications than the battles waged by Cossack warriors. Still, the American variant of the art is far from benign. I learned this firsthand when I took a class with Shilkaitis and his brother Joe at the FMAC.
We began by literally rolling on the floor, taking care to ensure that all of our movements were fluid and connected. From there we switched to performing a series of extremely slow pushups on inward-turned fists. After flipping over for a set of similarly paced straight-legged sit-ups, we finished our warm-up with a set of squats. Shilkaitis told me that doing the squats would prepare me to attack and defend from all levels.
The warm-ups completed, we commenced what Systema students call “The Work.” The Work can vary considerably from class to class, but that evening it started with an exercise Shilkaitis called “sensitivity”, during which the three of us took turns pushing one another softly with our fists. Then we varied the exercise by fist-pushing each other with interlocked forearms.
The object of the drill was for each partner to anticipate and preempt the movements of the other – to push before he could be pushed. As Shilkaitis demonstrated on his brother, he explained, “I want to be aware of what’s going on in him as well as what’s going on in me.”
Eventually, we moved up to what Shilkaitis called “tapping” – hitting each other hard enough that the impact of our fists on each other’s flesh was audible, but not hard enough to cause any pain. After we’d tapped each other to Shilkaitis’s satisfaction, he stopped us so we could brace ourselves for full-force punches. These, he told me, would help us confront the fear and shock that inevitably come with being struck, as well as teaching us to overcome it.
“A lot of emotions come out,” he warned me. “It’s almost like therapy.”
Shilkaitis directed his first real punches at my chest. They were surprisingly tolerable: after each one I would feel a deep, localized ache, followed seconds later by a soothing rush of endorphins. I felt an unexpected sense of calm. Minutes later, that calm was shattered by several consecutive blows to my stomach. Pulses of nausea radiated from the site of the punches, engulfing my torso from groin to clavicle. When I lurched forward, Shilkaitis took hold of my shoulder to keep me upright and urged me to breathe in a series of short, rapid exhalations. This technique seemed to ease my compulsion to vomit. Once I’d recovered sufficiently, I asked to him to hit me again, now wondering if I was blurring the line between participatory journalism and pure masochism. After he’d (enthusiastically) honored my request and I’d spent a few more minutes dry-heaving, Shilkaitis suggested I hit him. When I did, he credited the power of my blows to his having punched me so hard beforehand. This connection made no sense to me, but I felt as though it would have been trifling to pursue his line of reasoning.
Next came a drill Shilkaitis called “hold and escape”, which required each partner to lunge at the other, grab him, and try to bring him to the mat. Shilkaitis brought me down almost without seeming to exert himself. Once he had a grip on me it was the work of an instant to contort my standing posture into an unbalanced position and knock me over. Often, he was able to topple me with little more than a well-placed poke.
“I’m breaking down weaknesses in your structure,” he said with a smile.
Finally, Shilkaitis led us in a series of kicking drills, during which one partner would kick and the other would use his leg to deflect the kick. Once, when Shilkaitis threw out his leg to demonstrate, Joe was able to ensnare it in the crook of his knee.
As he staggered toward his brother he shouted, “I’m giving you my balance!”
With the exception of that incident, I never saw Shilkaitis struggling with any techniques or exercises that night. But weeks before, in the course of our interview together, he’d told me he often falls short of his own expectations.
“There are nights when I’ll go to class and we’ll be doing something, and for whatever reason, I’m just not getting it,” he said. “At that moment, you sort of have to swallow your pride and say, ‘I’m not as good as I thought I was. I’m not as good as I want to be.’ But that allows you to grow. If you never have that experience, you’ll never know what you needed to improve.”
Even after years of practicing it, Shilkaitis is still humbled by the challenge of Systema. As a newcomer who was thoroughly humbled by it himself, I find his sentiments consoling – so much so that I might come back for another class.