POSTED: February 15th, 2015
Day 3 (Wednesday April 3rd) — Double Dmitrij Day
Before I continue on with my story, I have something important and rather frustrating to explain. Writing these stories is not always easy. There are times when the ethereal hand of the Muse reaches through my body to grab my heart with one hand and my brain with the other, hauls my ass in front of the computer, and gets me to start typing away at breakneck speed. However, there are other times where I can't write anything despite my damnedest wishes. Of course, this is commonly referred to as writer's block, and is nothing I should be shocked about.
What I find to be frustrating is that all these stories are non-fiction, unbelievable as that might be, and I am actually working really hard to write down events as they happened and in the order that they occurred. Often while I'm in the middle of experiencing a misadventure, I am already paying attention to details that will be important for writing the story later, so that when I get myself in front of a computer I simply pour out the creative juices that have already had time to ferment in my head.
However, if I don't take the opportune moment to revel in these creative juices, they quickly go sour and it takes a lot of effort not only to recall the memories, but also to get that quirky gusto into my writing that I enjoy. When I miss my opportune moment and slip into this writer's block, I become very frustrated because I know I missed the best time to do the writing AND the longer I wait, the less accurate the story is going to become. This all creates a vicious circle: I push off the writing because I become frustrated, then I forget more because I pushed it off, causing me to get frustrated because... you get the picture. I even promised two of the people who will be appearing in this story to send it to them once I had finished it. My here-to-now inability to fulfill this promise nags me and feeds my frustration even more.
This is precisely what happened with this misadventure in Augsburg, during which I even took notes in my little black book in order to have memory aids in the future so I could write the story as accurately as possible. When I had returned from Augsburg to Vienna, the Muse had gripped me fully and I sat down and busted out the first two days of the seminar, quite happy with my results. Unfortunately, I had other things to attend to in the immediate world. Days slipped by, which is not long enough for me to lose any creative fermentation, but it is long enough for me to lose momentum. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and now I'm approaching two years since the event with only two out of the seven days written, running in my vicious circle like a hamster in a perpetual motion machine.
Thus I offer to you, the reader, and apology for not only making you wait (as this is one of my favorite stories), but for the loss of quality that will ensue beyond this point due to my waiting. I endeavor now to smash my vicious circle beyond the point of repair, and I will do my best to recall events (I still have my little black book with the notes I took) as I write them down.
Without further ado, I bring you Day 3 of Redefining Brutality: Double Dmitrij Day.
I woke up in Xiayou's room as I had done the day before. My priorities today were much more clear than the day prior. I had food in the apartment, I knew how to get to the training hall, and I knew there was nothing I could do on Xiayou's iPad that could get money to my bank account faster than it was going to take on its own accord. I also knew that if I didn't get any money to my bank account today that I was going to have to come up with some seriously creative financing. However, I decided to leave the possible options of that suspended in the air until I tried the ATM again. In dire circumstances you have to take things in small steps—worrying about things unnecessarily can destroy the energy you need to make those small steps. For now I had to get out of bed, make some food, and take a shower before I could get on my way.
I cooked up some breakfast from the remaining food from the day before in Xiayou's meager kitchen, showered up, got my things together, and headed out the door. By now I had simply accepted that I was going to be cold all the rest of the week. If I could handle -20º F in during winter in both Vermont and Bulgaria, I told myself, just-above-freezing should be a walk in the park, even if I wasn't dressed for it. This rationalization didn't cause the siege of damp, cold air on my bones to lighten up and I walked to the bank with a stiff upper body and a numb face. Everyone I passed by was dressed in a warm coat and they probably all wondered who this weird guy was with the crazy hat and not enough clothes.
The only feeling of heat near me was emanating from my wallet. The five whole euros left to my name could sense my showdown with the ATM machine. I thought about the three different people back in Vienna who owed me money—several hundred euros—and how much of a dweeb I was for not demanding it in a more timely fashion. My distance to the showdown became smaller and smaller and the haunting spectre of ideas for how to get more money clawed at the boundary of my awareness, tempting me to waste my precious energy worrying about things I couldn't change. No. I refused to contemplate that until I had seen the outcome of the ATM.
I slipped in through the front door of the bank and shuddered in warm relief. The ATM was in a separate room that was locked with a mechanism that could be opened by my card. I took out my wallet and slowly opened it up to produce the card, so anxious that some effort had to be exerted to prevent myself from shaking. The green light let me know that the door was unlocked and I entered. I was face-to-face with the ATM.
I offered my card to the ATM, which sucked it up like a spaghetti noodle. I typed in my PIN, waited for the computer to process, then told it that I wanted 80 euros. The ATM hummed and chugged along and I waited in horror for it to throw my card right back into my face like the other ATMs had done. I was mere seconds away from having to battle the how-ya-gonna-get-some-money demons at the edge of my mind.
A slot under the screen slid open and several colorful bills protruded towards me. I nearly fell over—I had to lean with my hands on the ATM to keep my balance. I had never in my life been so happy to see a few pieces of paper. The bank transaction had finally gone through and I had enough money to last me the rest of the week! ALL RIGHT!
Floating on my own elation-inducing biochemicals, I exited the bank into the cold April air, stuffing the bills into my wallet. The 45 minute walk to the training hall still awaited me and I doubted that my rush from finally getting my money was enough to keep me warm all the way.
My doubts were confirmed when I entered through the back door and shook myself like a wet dog, groaning in relief. I was greeted by a myriad of accents in German and English as I walked over to the bench where I could take off my shoes and chat with other students. I was feeling a hell of a lot better with some money resting in my wallet and my mind began to wander over to Dmitrij and his Systema massage training. If I was here for the full meal deal, I might as well go for the full meal deal, right? Besides, I was just too damn curious to not investigate just what the hell "official" Systema massage was. Wouldn't you be?
I managed to chat with my Austrian colleagues a bit before training and found out that Daniel hadn't been so lucky with his bank account. While the Easter Bunny had relinquished his hold on my funds, he had kept it over Daniel's after the holiday. On top of that, my friends were starting to complain about how bad it was to sleep on the floor of the training hall. Cold floor, farting and snoring men all around, having to go downstairs to use the bathroom, so on and so forth. All I could do was think of my bed at Xiaoyou's place and snicker.
It wasn't long before Andreas announced the beginning of training. He started us off with a stretching exercise. Sitting down with our legs extended in front of us and spread from each other, with the inhale he had us sit up straight, and with the exhale we were to sink forward to the floor. Particular attention was to be paid to our hips and our rears—this wasn't just slouching, it was finding our way to the ground by allowing our muscles to release and to optimize the multitudinous degrees of rotation within our bodies. No forcing. The goal wasn't to see how far you could stretch, the goal was to see how much you could relax and how many individual muscles you could release to aid in this relaxation.
I love exercises like these because I feel like I'm finding keys to unlock a thousand little doors. After stretching my legs out and straightening myself with my inhale, the first exhale down to the floor is always met with the stiff retention of your body telling you, "Woa! Hold on there partner! We have to figure this out first." I took the time to look inward at my structure, through the muscles, tendons, joints, ligaments, sockets; what simply needed a decision to be released in order to allow me closer to the floor? I searched down around my back and my hips, finding one little muscle here that I was holding and one little joint there that didn't need to be so tense, and I focused on allowing them to release. With each unlocking I moved a little closer to the floor. Inhale and straight, exhale and dive down again for another try. With a little practice, it doesn't take much to go from barely able to lean over to hugging the ground, comfortable enough to fall asleep.
Andreas switched up the exercise but kept the principle the same. Next we did the exercise cross-legged, then once again extended by the legs spread as wide as they could possibly go, with toes pulled back and heels extended forward. You can think that you're really flexible until you start making a few modifications. Once legs are extended as far as they can go (without straining), whereas before you could lean over and snuggled with the ground, now you could barely roll your hips forward.
We did the same exercise with one leg forward and one leg tucked in, switched, and moved forward to the standard Systema warm-up: walking in circles and breathing. However, today we walked with the stick. In my prior martial arts training, we had always worked with sticks. However, all other arts come up with a special name and a special shape for their sticks. Bo, jo, quarterstaff, whatever—all have to be made by special artisans from a particular type of wood, and you're looking at a a minimum $80 price tag if you want anything decent. Through my history of Taekwondo, Kung Fu, and Aikido, each time I started a new art, I had to cough up the cash for a new specific form of stick. Not in Systema! Remember, we're doing things the Russian way. When we say stick, we mean a fucking stick. Go buy a cheap old dowel from the hardware store, cut it up at more or less random lengths and call it good!
Andreas had enough sticks in the training hall, roughly four feet long, for everyone to work with. Sending us around in a circle, he had us hold the sticks horizontally in front of ourselves, stretching as far left and as far right as we could, alternating the tension in each shoulder. While maintaining a very short breath sequence (each step was one breath in or one breath out), the goal was to introduce a large amount of tension to one shoulder while keeping the other relaxed, then alternating the tension and relaxation. The induced stress followed by relaxation causes the muscle to "get exhausted", allowing it to drop the level of tension below where you started. The goal of this exercise was to get the shoulders relaxed, as that is one of the main tension points which prevent Systema students (and really any martial artist) from really advancing his biomechanics.
"If you find that your shoulders are still not relaxing," Andreas said to the swirl of students around him, "walk even faster." I took his advice and it wasn't long before I was hyperventilating. The movement from walking, tensing, and un-tensing my shoulders kept my blood acidic enough to stop me from passing out, but I became so light-headed that it wasn't long before I felt like I was floating across the floor. I could start feeling the tension melt out of my shoulders; the stress from the movement with the stick and the lightness of the hyperventilation put down my instinctive defenses.
The exercise continued and Andreas had us put the sticks behind our backs and wrap our arms around them, puffing our chests out and stretching them. This opened up the ribcage and released tension in the torso.
When Andreas called the exercise to a halt and had us gather around him for further instructions, I was a few moments in getting myself back to familiar consciousness. As I mentioned before, the walking had prevented me from passing out while breathing so quickly, and now that I was just standing and listening, I had to hold my breath in hopes of re-acidifying my blood and not collapsing to the floor.
The rest of the first half of training proceeded with standard Systema exercises, fortified with Andreas' super teaching ability and method of continually building up complexity. We did a partner exercise where one searches for spot to push his partner that causes the partner to lose balance, and this other partner works on allowing himself, without resistance, to move out of the way. After several minutes of this, Andreas told the person pushing, once unbalancing was established, to follow the movement through by taking a step toward the person he was pushing and keep connection with his hand.
The final exercise before lunch was, using this idea of finding a soft spot in your partner's structure and extending through it to unbalance him, to keep the connection with your unbalanced partner and continue following and unbalancing him until you could bring him to the floor. This has to be done very slowly and the partner on the receiving end has to be very forgiving, because for a new student (or even an intermediate student), it is not always easy to find these "soft spots" in another person, and it's even harder to keep a person unbalanced all the way to the floor. For the person being brought to the floor, it is difficult to give the person pushing enough leeway that he actually has a chance to accomplish the unbalancing, while at the same time giving enough resistance so that he has the opportunity to learn. One cannot do such a movement quickly if one cannot do it slowly first. After doing this a few times, one also gets a sense of the idea of how potent and devastating it would be to be able to quickly bring a person to the ground with such movements. This is, of course, what we're here to learn and why we traveled so far to train, right?
I didn't have much more time to struggle with learning the movement before Andreas called the lunch break. I went off down to the corner of the street to get myself a Turkish kebab—something quite unlike anything I had ever experienced in the US and was typical fast food fare in Europe. I wolfed down my food and made my way back to the training hall. There were a couple of students mulling around, doing things like stretching and chatting about martial arts and different Systema exercises. Through the front archway I saw Dmitrij hanging out in the lobby by himself. There was still a good chunk of lunch time remaining and I figured if I was going to try out this Systema massage thing, now was the time to do it. I approached him and started up a conversation.
We went through a brief moment of him trying to switch to me English as soon as he caught my accent, but I prevailed at keeping the conversation in German. Despite him looking as strong as a gorilla, his voice and his demeanor were very soft. We exchanged a little information and about who we were and where we were from. Dmitrij was Russian by birth but had moved to Germany when he was 11, growing up naturally bilingual and equally comfortable in both worlds. I managed to skip explaining the long story of who I was and just exactly how the hell I had gotten where I was standing at that moment by switching the conversation back to Systema massage.
"Okay," I said in German, "So obviously I train with the Systema guys back in Vienna. We do a lot of 'massage stuff' during training. Things like pressing deep into people's tense spots, whether it's with fists or other implements like sticks, and keep the pressure just at the level where the other person can barely stand it, slowly letting off as the person relaxes the tension in that area of the body. Is what you're doing anything like that?"
"Well..." he smiled at me, "Yes, something like that, but a little more involved."
I was not dismayed. "Where do you learn something like that? I mean, did you just hang out in a lot of Systema classes and absorb a lot of knowledge, or are you actually certified through a Systema massage school or something?"
The increase in his smile was just above indecipherable. "I'm certified. I was trained in Moscow."
Oh well THAT makes me feel better! Trained in fucking Moscow? Anyone reading this who isn't familiar with the way Russians are known for doing things, precarious is one of the few words that come to mind. Just check out a few videos on youtube of Russians driving trucks or practicing fire drills and you'll start to get the picture of the way things are done around there. The way they tackle every day activities simply screams: "Life is hard and the way to redemption is through suffering. So... fuck it!" What sort of brutal experience awaited me, I could only glimpse through the veils of my imagination.
Whatever. I had just hitchhiked 500 kilometers in the cold with 40 euros in my pocket, successfully planned a way where I could stay an entire week in a different city for free, and reigned victorious over a Chinese iPad. I wasn't about to let my imagination hold me back now.
"How much do you charge?" I asked.
"Forty euros." He replied.
"And how long does the massage last?"
"About an hour. It can be a little more or less depending on the person." Forty euros for an hour? That wasn't too bad. It was about what you could expect to pay for a normal massage, and quite a bit cheaper than a more professional one. The 80 euros in my pocket shined forth, leading the way for my decision-making process. I dug out the money from my wallet and handed it to him, and he told me to come downstairs with him.
What I was in for I can barely describe to you in words. Alas, I shall try my best.
Dmitrij had taken over the girls' changing room and had set up his massage table along with various instruments. I glanced at the counter in front of the mirror to see a large glass bottle of oil, various short stubby sticks, and something big, long, and black before he told me to take off my shirt and lie belly-down on the massage table. I complied and was still adjusting myself to get comfortable when he put a towel over my back. He walked over to to counter and retrieved the big, long, and black thing I had noticed before. No, it's not what you're thinking: it was a whip.
Yea, yea. Let the BDSM jokes fly through your mind. I'll give you a second. The reality is that it's much worse than you're thinking. When I say whip, I don't mean no pussy little horse whip that you apply to a rear-end to encourage a slightly faster trot. I don't mean no Indiana Jones vine-looking thing designed for swinging across quicksand pits and bottomless ravines. No, this was a Cossack whip. Made from braided leather, the handle end of the whip was nearly an inch thick. The whip extended only about three feet, tapering the whole way down to about half a centimeter in thickness, where a tip was to be found consisting of a flat piece of steel surrounded by sewn leather. This wasn't for horses, BDSM games, or even dungeon masters. One half-way solid strike to your temple with this thing and it would kill you on the spot.
Dmitrij created a loop in the whip by holding both the handle and the tip in his hand. I will never forget the words he spoke as he walked over to stand beside me, his voice and presence just as calm as they had been when I had been talking to him upstairs: "Wir fangen gemütlich an."
We're going to start off easy.
WHAM! The first collision came to my back through the towel. The blow was far from full force. If anything, he was just using what was provided by gravity with a little extra oomph. It didn't matter—it was painful enough. Alarms went up and down my nervous System and I kicked into Systema breathing. Stay relaxed, I told myself. Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth, and as quickly as you need to in order to keep the body relaxed.
WHAM! He hit me again. I began breathing faster and put my self-defense suppressant into overdrive. I was getting the inkling that it was going to take all the will I could muster to not curl up into a ball and not to hit him back.
WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! He worked all over my back and moved down my to legs. I began to cry out and growl, catching myself mid-spasm, stopping myself from turning over and grabbing his wrist, freezing mid-attempt from tightening my muscles up (which would have made the blows worse), and commanding my muscles to relax down back onto the massage table before another blow would come and I would do it all over again. I grabbed the table and snarled like a bear, holding my knuckles white just trying to keep from kicking him in the face. Each strike splattered the local nerve clusters and scattered sparks of pain like a yellow-hot piece of steel hammered by a blacksmith. With the pain came a sensation I had never experienced before and I am wanting to describe with words. My reflex was to focus my attention on the spot that was struck. This created a strange form of vulnerability, as even though I knew a new strike was coming, I was so absorbed in the pain center of the last strike that I was unable to tense up or "get ready" for the next one, ensuring that each Dmitrij-sponsored impact was on unexpected skin. By the time he moved to my legs. my whole back was hyper-aware and hyper-sensitive, gasping in relief to have the punishment directed somewhere else.
It was a rather... unique method of inducing relaxation. Or should I say a rather Russian method?
Dmitrij was down at the other end of the massage table by now and the next whip strike landed on the sole of my foot. Along with the pain of the blow, a relaxation sensation went up through my body from my foot like a rocket. WHAM! He hit the other foot and a second rocket went up through to my head.
He took the towel from my back and moved over to the counter with the rest of his implements. I was still breathing quickly, trying to regulate my blood pressure and prepare myself for whatever was next. He grabbed the big glass bottle of oil and, after applying some to his hands, rubbed it all over my back, focusing going up and down along my spine. He put the bottle back on the counter and retrieved two little sticks. They were about six inches long and a little less than an inch thick on one end, and from the middle they tapered down to a rounded point on the other end. In essence, sharp enough to focus force on a small point, but round enough to not cut anything. He came over to me and stopped at the base of my back on my left side. Still at peace, he said, "Schreien und alles ist okay."
Screaming and everything is okay. God help me.
When I tell people this story in person, after they've gotten over all the BDSM and dominatrix jokes, when I get to this part, their eyes go wide, their jaws drop, and almost without exception they demand from me, "Why did you let him do that?!" First of all, I had already paid for it. Second, I could see that what he was doing was going to have a profound effect on me. I had already experienced many profound effects from people in my Systema classes who didn't know what they were doing, and now I was working with a guy who did. Besides, for all the people out there who asked me this or are thinking the same thing now, are you such a chicken as to not see the thing through to the end after getting this far?
Oh yes, I haven't even told you what Dmitrij did with the sticks.
Holding a stick in each hand with the points extended down and away from his thumbs, he placed them nudged up against both sides of my spine down at my sacrum. Then he induced screaming. I want you to imagine holding a small stick in your fist that extends downward away from your thumb, then with your arm moving down and forward, bend your wrist on a plane such that your thumb pulls toward your wrist. Now look at your fist as you do this and you notice what looks like a digging motion. Imagine that digging motion going right into the flesh on both sides of my back, nudged up against my spine. Now imagine torturous screams.
I break down pain into two different categories: surface pain and damaging pain. The difference between these two is the knowledge whether something has been seriously damaged or not. I can take a lot of surface pain. I'm usually very vocal about it, but I can take a lot. After years of hiking through the temperature jungles of western Washington, doing martial arts and parkour, and playing with multidinous sharp objects, fires, and explosives, pain doesn't bother me as long as I know that something hasn't been injured. I'm quite adept at just "walking it off". Injury, on the other hand, is devastating even when the immediate pain isn't apparent. Spraining an ankle, slicing open a finger, separating a shoulder—these things are all recipes for real bad days in my book, regardless of the amount of surface pain that goes along with them.
At this exact moment in my life I decided there was a third category of pain: torturous. Torturous pain is simply surface pain crosses the line where you cannot simply tell yourself, "Okay, I know this hurts, but I can tell that nothing is getting damaged, so I'll just deal with it." Torturous pain demands that you do everything in your power to stop it. It demands that you turn over and knock Dmitrij's hands away and punch him in the face as you get off the massage table.
Well, in theory it does. In practice, I was paying for this and I knew it was going to have a profound effect on me. At least, those were my thoughts until my own screaming drowned them out.
Dmitrij got up on the massage table above my thighs and, with one knee one each side of me, he slid up my back with his torture sticks, one vertebrate at a time, digging deeper and deeper. He was bound and determined to find any last ounce of tension hiding in the deep, dark recesses of my musculature. My screams became animal-like and any thought of keeping myself relaxed and prostrated on the massage table was equally drowned out. I was gripping the sides of the table to keep myself from turning over and knocking Dmitrij away from me. The frequency of my breath had increased to its limit. I was no longer breathing to meet the level of intensity of the massage, I was just breathing as fast as I could because I couldn't think of anything else to do. Dmitrij's technique was a vicious assault, an unforgiving ambush. It was judgment without mercy. When he finished with a vertebrate, he would slide up to the next one—not simply just moving on to the unit to destroy, but feeling with his two little sticks of hell where the tension, and therefore the most pain, caught him. It was here where he would focus his efforts. For each new vertebrate he would dig so deep it felt he was reaching to the deepest recesses of the earth. I would scream in protest, snarl and bite like a dog being held down for its shots, wondering through my agony how he could be so heartless. Then he would retract and dig deeper. By the time he was done with a vertebrate, my initial defenses of tension were utterly laid to waste, leaving the soft tissue underneath unprotected and exposed to his onslaught. The whip had simply been a primer.
My breathing was becoming delirious and frenzied. I had lost control over my own sensations and the only thing I could muster was to focus on getting my breath in and out as fast as possible. Halfway up my back, Dmitrij paused. While I was gasping and trembling in respite, he leaned over to me and asked, "Why are you breathing like this?" I found this question strange. One of the first things you learn in Systema classes is how to breathe. The breath needs to come in and go out quickly without any tension, and the speed needs to match the level of intensity of what is being experienced, whether that is doing push-ups and being struck by somebody else. Of anyone, he should know that. Struggling to get myself together, I explained this to him.
"I'm trying to breathe to meet the level of intensity and pain from the massage."
"Yes," he said, "but how you are breathing now is uncontrolled and wild. This is not helping you. When you breathe, try to breathe to where I'm working on you. This way your breath can help you where you are experiencing such intensity." Huh. Breathe to where the pain is? I had never thought of that. Taking the opportunity of not being in searing pain, I sent my focus down my spine to where he had his sticks last. I then sent the intention of my inhale to this spot, and then focused on the relaxation of this spot with my exhale. I immediately felt more in control.
I looked down and saw my knuckles still white and clutching the sides of the massage table. I took in a deep breathe and let go of the table with the exhale. I prostrated myself again and put my arms down at my sides, my head resting on its right side. I took a few more slow breaths then said, "Okay, I'm ready."
My prostrated position lasted all of about 2.7 seconds before I was growling and snapping again, knuckles white and holding the edges of the table just to prevent me from striking out. But he was right: I wasn't able to alleviate any of the pain, but I was able to regain some control of the situation by sending my breath to the point of pain—which I suppose is a useful piece of information if I ever find myself on the rack.
Up and up he went along my spine, leaving nothing but gasping muscles in his wake, distraught in the wastes of Dmitrij's annihilation but unarguably more relaxed than before. My screaming continued and over and over again I was brought to the brink of what I thought I could handle, asking myself at what point was I not going to be able to take anymore? At what point was I going to hit him off of me?
After an eternity, Dmitrij finished right below my neck. He had been creeping up my back throughout the affair and now had his knees roughly alongside my abdomen, leaning over and extending his sticks into my back for one last, long exhale. Then with a sharp breath inward he pulled the sticks up and extended them towards the sky (or more like towards the ceiling), holding his breath in completion, leaving my trembling body and taking with it any last remnants of tension at escape velocity to the voids of space.
The effect on me was humbling. I had been screaming and wrestling in revolt up until the last second, especially as Dmitrij went farther and farther up my back and I had less and less room to writhe. His final extension into my back was a blast of penetrating pain, and I would have expected to have my level of agony slowly trail off after he had removed contact. But instead my urge to continue convulsing and crying out were zipped up to the stratosphere with his inhale and his movement upwards, leaving me battered but strangely at peace. My breathing slowed down to an "oh my God I just survived that" rate and Dmitrij got off my back and moved down back to the floor.
"Roll over, please."
He returned his sticks to the counter. The fucking guy worked had just worked me over like a dungeon master then spoke to me like a monk. I suppose that was the only way he could keep people on the table.
When I had seen Dmitrij the day before standing in the doorway before the seminar began, I mentioned that under the soft smile and gentle tone that he was made of steel. Having found whips and pointed sticks superfluous accessories to appetite, Dmitrij laid his hands on me and I realized my steel metaphor was hardly hyperbole. If urge to hit him was overpowering while I was on my belly, now that I had a clear shot it was all I could do to grip the sides of the table instead of his neck and his offending hands. His touch was devastating, his judgment unyielding; every contact of his hands knew exactly where two muscles met and, without the need for second guesses, would dive between them. No one, no massage therapist, no martial artist, no fellow student of Systema, had ever been able to access the vulnerable areas of my musculature without having to search for them first. When I work on someone, I have to fumble around, dig, pry, and ask questions in order to find the proper places to massage. Every movement from Dmitrij was a bullseye, a homing missile going straight to the source of tension, and consequently straight to the source of torment. Resisting was like arguing with a steel work table: unforgiving and uncaring. He went over my chest and down to my thighs, his fingers slipping between the large muscles of my legs as if he were simply flipping through folders in a filing cabinet. I screamed and twisted in pain, my breath going hundred miles and hour, with the trace of focus left to me trying to send it down to the pain.
He came back up to my belly and reached in like he was going to pull something out of a stream. My internal organs went mad in panic, having had no time to prepare either resistance or flight. I shot up from my lying position and grasped his wrists, gagging and unable to cry in protest. Saying nothing, he paused long enough for me to regain control of my breathe and my focus. His eyes met mine and I loosened my hold on his wrists, then regained surface area contact with the table. He resumed reorganizing my organs as he saw fit. My screams of agony had now turned into gurgles and heaving sounds. He worked as calmly as a librarian, blissfully unaware that he was a medieval doctor gone rogue. With my intestinal tract properly in place, he moved further up along my body and reached the bottom of my ribcage. I thought my eyes were going to pop out of my skull when he reached in and under my floating ribs, curled his fingers to grab them from the inside, and began to pull them downward.
I want to pause for a second here and let that one sink in. With his fingers extended and palm up, he pushed into my belly right below my floating ribs (he would do this on both sides), up and under the same floating ribs, curled his fingers upward so he could catch said ribs from the inside, and pulled them down and away from my ribcage. If you were to ask me if I had experienced more pain or more shock, my only response could be to stare back in bewilderment. At what fucking point does this interaction become surgical?
I survived, of course. My gasping breaths came out like a bleating sheep finally prepared for sacrifice. However, no ritual knife came forth and Dmitrij told me I was to get up off the altar and lie belly-down on the mats he had set up on the ground. Dazed and dazzled, I collapsed onto the mat and sunk into the hard foam, limp and with no complaints. I didn't even have enough energy to anticipate whatever the hell was next.
Dmitrij began walking on me. On its own, this doesn't sound all too bad. I'm sure many of the people reading this have had some sort of experience with another person walking on them, whether it was a massage situation or not, and it probably wasn't all that bad. If anything, it wasn't even remotely in the area of what I've just described about here. However, if Dmitrij's hands were devastating, his feet were even worse. When he focused his weight on his heels, it felt like I was getting impaled on a spike, and when he extended his strength through his toes, it felt like he was using a spear to leverage things around. We were right next to the wall and he was using his hands against it to maintain his balance as he walked on me. Just as before, every contact he made with me felt perfectly situated between my muscles; places that couldn't resist. He stabbed his toes right into my ass cheeks, prying the muscles apart like two slabs of stone with a crowbar. His heels came down through my thighs, threatening to crush the bone beneath. Deciding he had enough balance, he switched both feet to my left leg, concentrating the same amount of pain in half the area.
My parasympathetic nervous system decided it had had enough. The threshold had finally been crossed and the lower areas of my brain gave the overriding command to retaliate. My howl this time was no longer anguish; it was a battle cry. As Dmitrij was already applying weight to my left side, I had the initial momentum needed to allow my left hip to drop, roll towards my left, and kick him with my right leg.
Now, for the few of you reading this who have had the opportunity to tussle around with me, you might know that I'm pretty good at doing things like knocking someone off of me. I have always been really skinny and I've never gotten heavier the 155 pounds I achieved at 18, but throughout my life I have regularly been told in surprise that I was much stronger than I look. Knocking a guy off me who was already off balance should have been no problem at all. I had decided, body and soul (my mind was still catching up), that Dmitrij needed to get off me and that kicking him was going to be the way to do it. Thus I can hardly express my shock when, mid-kick, Dmitrij met my leg in the air with his foot, absorbed my momentum by moving with my kick a short distance instead of against it, and thrust my right leg back down to the mat, pinning me there. Pinned. No joke. I struggled to fight him off again, but his heels were like nails driven through my thighs. I couldn't even create space by extending in Aikido-fashion. He did this entire motion while balancing on my left leg without missing a step in his massage. Nope! I'm going to get what I paid for!
No longer having a purpose to serve, the battle cry returned to its initial scream of anguish.
After walking on me awhile longer, he got off and retrieved his sticks again. Standing on the upper end of my thighs, he once again began to work up my spine with me screaming and howling along the way.
He worked his way up to the top of my back and, after having stepped off my thighs, he moved on to the most sensitive spot on my body: my shoulders.
The absolute outrage of my nervous system went off. Alarms bells, sirens, pans clattering and banging, war drums, frantic screaming, burning buildings, dropping bombs and tsunamis, poison gas clouds and meteor strikes—there was nothing left of my awareness to tell me to focus on breathing or to hold on to something else as his demonic sticks dug their way through the traumatized layers of my shoulders. Not even this massage devil, this golem of steel and sinew, could muster the skill to hold me down. I rolled my shoulders and rolled my torso with his movements and threw him off of me. He rebounded quickly and dug his sticks back in, but it was to no avail. Time after time I twisted out of the way and threw him off. Time after time he returned with renewed vigor. After several attempts at this, Dmitrij must have decided that he wasn't going to get anywhere and that the torture was in vain. He stood back up.
Sticks still in hand, he re-positioned himself above my sacrum, this time holding the sticks with the points extended in the direction of his thumbs. He leaned over and gently made connection with the sticks against my lower back. I barely had enough strength to cringe. He was going to do the spine thing again? I was wondering if I was going to have to tell him to call the rest of the massage off when he did the most surprising thing yet.
Ever so softly, he dragged the tips of the sticks against my still-oiled back, slowly along the sides of my spine until he felt the slightest resistance. At this, he adjusted them back down toward my sacrum just the smallest bit, and then slid the tips of the sticks back and forth like a diminishing sine curve, gracefully falling into the gaps of my muscles around my spine. When he was satisfied he had found the correct point, he leaned over and carefully put his weight behind the sticks.
The vertebrate between the sticks adjusted itself down with the sound of stick being snapped in two. There was no pain involved. With the same technique, he slid up to the next vertebrate and let his weight down. CRACK! One by one he glided up the length of my spine. CRACK! ...CRACK! ...CRACK! I observed this in fascination. Not only was I amazed (and thrilled) that he was doing something that didn't hurt like hell, but never in my life had I experienced every single vertebrate in my back get adjusted like that. He didn't have to work at it either. Each vertebrate was eager for its turn and popped right into place at his first suggestion. Not one was missed from my sacrum to the base of my neck. Incredible.
Before I could wonder if we were finished, still monk-like, Dmitrij said, "Roll over." It took much effort to comply. I was hoping for something as elating as the back adjustment to come next, but my hopes were quickly dashed when I saw him approaching with the whip.
The blows came and, in all honesty, they were pretty damn easy to deal with after everything else I had just endured. Yes, they hurt, but the pain came and left, which is more than I could say for the rest of the event. He worked up and down my legs, my belly, and my torso. I breathed in conjunction and accepted the blows with gratitude—I could handle them. I couldn't handle the sticks.
Finished with his whipping, Dmitrij moved back over to the counter. We had to be approaching the end, I thought to myself. Hasn't it been an hour already? What the hell else can he do to me that he hasn't done already?
He knelt over me and I caught a glimpse of what he was carrying. It was a machete. A fucking machete. I had heard others upstairs earlier calling similar ones on the wall "sabers", but it looked like every other machete I had carried out with me into the woods. You can make BDSM jokes all day about the whip, it doesn't take too much effort to make them about the sticks, but a machete? Where do you even go with that?
But more importantly, where was Dmitrij going to go with it? Lying on the floor I was already shaking. Not in anticipation for whatever the fuck he was going to do with that piece of steel, but in completion of the ordeal until now. I had no will to resist, I had no will to even talk. I certainly had no will to get my shaking under control. My body burned and my head swirled like a maelstrom. Were we fucking done, yet?
Dmitrij brought the flat of the blade over my face and placed it on my forehead, setting the hilt on the ground to balance by itself. Immediately, the sensation of the cold metal grounded my whirling mind and sucked the confused, battered energy from my body, all the way from my toes. It drank the energy in like bull at a trough, sucking the need to tremble from me and leaving me at last in peace. I inhaled deep with innocent lungs free from pain. I couldn't move and wouldn't have wanted to; my only desire was the lie there and sleep.
Dmitrij took his towel from before and laid it across my bare chest. He picked up his whip, which he had left on the floor, and before I could think to cringe in terror, he wrapped it in a circle and simply laid it onto my chest. The effect was extraordinary. The whip felt as if it weighed ten-thousand tons, and I felt it ooze into every crevice of my form. It settled in snugly, seeping deep down to my back, making it ooze likewise into the mat. Far from unpleasant, it made me feel cozy. It made me feel safe. Dmitrij had beaten every last bit of tension out of me and the weight of the whip acted to discourage me from tensing ever again as I lie there. Combined with the cold steel on my forehead unscrambling my mind, it may have been the closest I had ever felt to coming to bliss.
Just then I felt the weight of the whip change and it slid from my chest onto the floor. If the reaction of placing the whip on my chest had been unbelievable, this was even more so. As soon as the whip left contact with me I began to shake uncontrollably. Not the slight tremble I had been experiencing before, but quite literally shaking as if I had been shivering naked in the snow. My whole body screamed in protest. My mind instantly was on the verge of madness and I could feel that within seconds I would be trying to crawl out of my skin.
"Oops!" Dmitrij picked the whip back up and was more careful to ensure that it was placed on me so it wouldn't fall off. Immediately, the shaking stopped and the cozy and safe feelings returned. Dmitrij stood, looked me over and, satisfied with his work, told me, "Stay there and sleep for 10 or 15 minutes." Then he walked out and closed the door.
Cuddling with my whip and blade, vanquished beyond my wildest dreams, I dozed off into the sweetness of serenity. I slipped in and out of familiar consciousness, held immobile by the weight of the whip and calm by the wet, cold song of the steel. I occasionally heard Dmitrij walk by the doorway, and eventually heard the murmur of a conversation from the mens' changing room. It occurred to me that I must be approaching the 10 or 15 minute mark, and I began to get anxious that Dmitrij would want me to move to get the next guy in. I wasn't even sure that I was able to talk, let alone stand up and walk out. I heard footsteps coming toward the door and Dmitrij opened it, "How are you doing?" he asked.
As of writing this, I have no idea what the hell I tried to say to him in reply. However, this fault in my memory probably is of little importance, because I think even at the time I had no idea what the hell I was trying to say. I lifted up my neck and a garbled mess exuded from my mouth, followed by another garbled mess attempting to clean up the first one. Dmitrij chuckled lightly and smiled. Holding up his hand, he said, "It's okay. Just stay there. Sleep." He closed the door behind him and headed back towards the mens' changing room.
My head collapsed down to the floor. I heard Dmitrij laugh in the other room and say, "He can't even talk!" The other man's laughter met his.
I slipped back into sleep. Blissful, blissful sleep.