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.” 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.’  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.”  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…)
 “‘First Do No Harm’ Revisited,” British Journal of Medicine, Vol 347 (2013)