Reflections of the 2016 FightClub Winter Master Seminar

by Michael Mekhail

My training experience at the 2016 Fight Club Winter Seminar took me to the edge of my humanity. I was able to have a better understanding of myself as a person, and who I want to be for other people.I’ll explain. The training took place in nature. Among rivers, meadows, and forest.

My psyche was calm from being immersed in nature. The sky was clear and expansive. The air was clean and crisp. Nothing out there was fighting for my attention. There was a natural synchronicity that I started to line up with.

Physically, I was relaxed, through working with my partners. Everyone had a positive attitude and worked with attention. The body contact on uneven terrain and moving through the forest loosened my muscles. I was ready and eager for learning.

Emmanuel and I participated in a demonstration in the forest, where I attacked him. He bypassed my grab with a confident strike to my chin. I rolled. I thought to myself that I need to be more conscious of how I make contact with the ground. All his strikes were strong and precise. As I escaped, I started to tire out faster than usual.

On top of escaping from Emmanuel’s strikes, I was trying to catch my breath and navigate my falls. The forest floor was uneven. There were logs and debris everywhere.

I didn’t feel safe to just throw myself onto the ground.

Post Comment

Finding Space IV

This is the fifth part in the third chapter of an ongoing series entitled Know Thyself. You can find the first chapter collected here. The second chapter is collected here. Previous entries in the third chapter can be found using the ‘Chapter Three’ tag below.

I am tempted to conclude that the next drills were drills of correction, designed to improve the class’ performance while running in a swarm. Perhaps you will agree. The first drill involved the triangular breathing exercise described earlier in this chapter, everyone laying on their stomach. One second breathing in, one second breathing out, and one second holding; two seconds breathing in, two seconds breathing out, and two seconds holding; etc., etc. From the outside, nothing is happening. I know how hard this drill can be, however, so it is especially interesting to note that, from the outside, it looks like nothing. The work is internal, like most breathing exercises. As an observer, without prior experience, it is difficult to sympathize, to imagine yourself in the role of the spectacle. No one is acting out the drama of a struggle, either in their gestures or facial expressions. I am stuck on the outside, reading the faint signs of a silent, largely invisible war of all against their own selves.

After everyone had suffered long enough and it seemed that the class had reached its limit, Emmanuel instructed students to begin to move on the ground at a pace a little faster than they felt comfortable with. The objective was to move “in order to restore yourself.” They could move however they wanted, rolling, stretching, crawling—on their stomachs, on their backs, on their sides. Whatever their choices, the movements should somehow remove tension from the body. I can speak from experience, saying that this drill is subtly difficult. First, you need to scan your body successfully, isolating areas that have increased in tension during the previous drill. If you have lost track of your heart rate, the speed of your breathing and the sensation of your racing pulse will interfere with your ability to scan yourself. Second, you need to scan your body while moving continuously, without the benefit of a peaceful moment at rest. Finally, if you have managed to isolate your tension under these conditions, you need to figure out how to move in such a way, with breathing, as to return your body to its baseline relaxation. Students were additionally encouraged to, while moving, occasionally get up onto their knees and go back to the ground softly.

Tagged , , , , , , | Post Comment

Know Thyself – Finding Space III

This is the fourth part in the third chapter of an ongoing series entitled Know Thyself. You can find the first chapter collected here. The second chapter is collected here. Previous entries in the third chapter can be found using the tag below.

Two days later, I returned to observe a class in the hopes of seeing some of the exercises from Monday repeated. As mentioned before, you can gain a lot of information about your own practice this way. If you are willing to see yourself as someone in need and also capable of improvement, you will see in the successes and errors of others your own successes and errors. Some of what I have to say about my fellow unnamed students may, if I am not careful, appear judgmental, as if I am without flaws. Rest assured that anything that I report here is first and foremost for my own benefit. I am either describing obstacles that I need to circumvent or actions that I ought to perform but do not.

The class began with walking. It is customary, an informal ritual, to walk the perimeter of the gym in a counter-clockwise direction. Emmanuel instituted this regular activity a few years ago. He explained its purpose at that time but I have since forgotten his words. I have come to see it as a way to build energy in the room prior to training. Imagine the gym space as a pot of water. You need to warm the water before you can make a soup. You accomplish this by agitating the water’s molecules, causing them to bounce off one another. Walking in a circle at the beginning of class is akin to putting the stove element on its lowest heat—part of a gradual warm up. During this time, as partners naturally form through conversation, the room prepares itself for work, leaving behind the rhythms and habits of the street, or at least signaling a willingness to try to do so.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Post Comment

Great Moments with Emmanuel Manolakakis

A video memory of the great moments shared with Emmanuel Manolakakis during the course of 22, 23 and 24 April 2016 in Nantes. Thank you to him as well as the numerous participants.

Memories of great moments shared with Emmanuel Manolakakis during the April 2016 seminar in Nantes.

Thank you all.


(Music: “The Escalation” Kevin MacLeod (

(Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License)

Post Comment

Know Thyself – Finding Space II

This is the third part in the third chapter of an ongoing series entitled Know Thyself. You can find the first chapter collected here. The second chapter is collected here. Previous entries in the third chapter can be found using the tag below.

You need a lot of space for this drill. On one side of a large room, stand with your partner face-to-face. One partner holds their breath and the other, using fists, pushes the breath holder across to the other side of the room with a series of comfortable pushes. Once at the other side, the two partners switch roles; one holds their breath, the other pushes. Eventually, when the two partners are comfortable, the person holding their breath can begin to offer resistance to the partner who is pushing, either by playing with the distribution of their weight, moving slightly, or offering tension. Whatever happens though, the person holding their breath must measure accurately the amount they can handle. How much you suffer (or not) is up to you. Again, when this is comfortable, and both partners are ready to move on, they can begin to bring in short, targeted, intention-driven strikes. Your punch should be able, somehow, to make the other person exhale their breath-hold without hurting them. Those holding their breath can be stubborn if they like, but note the consequences. Pressure tends to build in the neck and head.

I am not sure why Emmanuel next had us stand in line, each facing him like a collection of goofy soldiers. He said something that I forget, and then went down the line striking us with the good-natured intent to knock out our breath. Standing in these lines is interesting; you get to practice waiting for something unpleasant. This is a valuable skill in a life of dentist appointments. It is even more valuable for a fight. Fighting involves a lot of posturing. You need to be able to stand there calmly even if you know a punch is coming. The sound of your classmate, that series of soft thuds followed by tight exhale, that wave of laughter and talk which precedes the strike, you find yourself pulled into it against your will–after you’ve been hit, you too are talking or thinking about what’s just happened, evaluating your performance to yourself or to others.

Now that we had absorbed the feeling of a good punch, Emmanuel had us break up into partners again. This gave us a chance to really think about how one punches past the skin of your partner and into their lungs. To repeat, this does not mean with the intention to hurt your partner. In an interview found on the Systema HQ website, Vasiliev issues this dictum to those who wish to teach Systema: “First – ‘do no harm’ is our fundamental rule. We have to understand what we are teaching and ensure that it does not damage the individual physically or psychologically in any way.”[1] Although the phrase ‘do no harm’ is popularly associated with the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath, understood to issue from the writings of the ancient physician Hippocrates, the dictum is a nineteenth-century abbreviation of the original message. A more accurate abbreviation would be to say, following the Latin translation of the original Greek, ‘above all, do not harm more than succor.’ [2] You are going to make mistakes working with your partners. Sometimes these mistakes will result in harm. Sometimes the harm you do someone will be in the interests of provoking healing. Things will become complex. But when performing this exercise, or any other, be mindful of the effect that it produces. How does your partner respond? How do you respond? Have you done more harm than good?

The above attitude, and it’s explicit evocation of the Hippocratic Oath, albeit in a nineteenth-century form, helps us to further locate Systema in the history of therapeutic methodologies. Medicine was once primarily considered a regimen. Before medicine or surgery, one changed the way they lived their life if they wished to heal themselves. The Oath-taker states that he or she “will, according to my ability and judgment, prescribe a regimen for the health of the sick; but I will utterly reject harm and mischief.” [3] Systema, even in its martial practice, understands itself as a medicinal regimen. In my opinion, those who practice the art with the sole intent to win ‘street fights’ misunderstand Systema’s fundamental nature. As we saw in Chapter One, Systema was, in all likelihood, derived from nineteenth-century European physical culture. If it’s method of training produces bodies capable of efficient violence as well as healing, that is a potentially beneficial side-effect.

After we had practiced striking one another, we moved on to pushing, and thereby potentially striking, our partner’s spine. What is involved in this? Put your fist against your partner’s chin. Be comfortable there. Now, slowly, begin to push into their chin with the intent to lock up their neck–not so far that their body moves; just enough to bend the spine below the head. When tension accumulates in that point, change the direction of your push downward. The results, if carefully handled at first and with confidence later, are dramatic—most relaxed bodies will fall to the ground awkwardly. Again, the partner being pushed gets to choose how stubborn he or she wishes to be. Is tension in your neck something you want to be stubborn about? Maybe enjoy the stretch and the sensation; you’ll learn more and have more fun.

This was the end of the class. We sat in a circle afterward (another ritual action of which more should be said), sharing our thoughts and feelings regarding the class, thanking our partners. It is customary to thank everyone. I am sometimes forgetful of this courtesy. This, if I recall, was one such occasion. My mind was racing. The training was good, but I was trying hard to hold it in my mind all at once so that I could write these words. The next day I knew that I had to see this class from the outside if I was going to understand its deeper lessons. (to be continued…)


[2] “‘First Do No Harm’ Revisited,” British Journal of Medicine, Vol 347 (2013)



Tagged , , , , , , | Post Comment