Chances are, if you’ve ever taken a Systema class you will have seen at least some form of massage. Frequently described by its most senior instructors as a critical aspect of proper training, massage is used to encourage proper breathing, posture and relaxation. With its practitioner’s use of everything from their hands and feet to wooden rods and even whips however, it can also be something of a daunting prospect.
I first meet Aleksej Sapronov while in Osaka with Daniil Ryabko for a two day seminar. One of the foremost practitioners of Systema massage having learned directly from Mikhail since 2009, he is kind enough to talk to me while working non-stop for the whole of the event. A stocky, rather intense looking man, he soon turns out to be friendly and approachable, with an infectious enthusiasm for his work, which he describes as an ancient Russian technique, for healing and rehabilitation.
His subject as we talk is a young man, maybe still in his teens. I can see the pain on his face, hear it in his shallow, staccato breathing as Aleksej works down his spine with what appear to be a pair of horns.
‘You see this is hard, because not symmetrical’ he grimaces, as the horns sink impossibly into the space just above the young man’s hips. Is he working with the spine? ‘Not only spine…also the inner muscle, organs. Everything is connected.’
I ask him if there’s any truth to the stories of relived traumas, intense emotional responses. He nods. ‘When the tension is released…sometimes there is much emotion. Some cry, scream, laugh…’ – A conspiratorial look – ‘some have orgasm.’
Putting the horns aside, Aleksej sets to work on his subject’s shoulders with short wooden batons, digging into the muscle there with deep, scraping movements. The pain is almost tangible as we watch ripples of tension shoot through the prone body. ‘See! there, the hands!’
As he works, Aleksej keeps up a kind of dialogue with his patient – ‘Your shoulders! the left one! relax here…breathe…don’t forget to breathe.’ Now he is working up and down the back with his fists.
The treatment ends with a series of light but somehow deep blows with a coiled whip, travelling from the soles of the feet to the shoulders and back again. Finally, he lays it on the body and sweeps it lightly across, as if flicking away the last tension from inside. ‘Now, he is empty inside,’ he grins, ‘he has nothing.’
Finally, Aleksej lays the whip on the man’s back in a curiously tender gesture, and leaves his patient to rest for about five minutes. I ask him what hurt the most, and he frowns. ‘The shoulders.’ What about the lower back? ‘Yeah, that too!’
As he gets gingerly to his feet, I ask how he feels now. ‘Fine,’ he tells me, and looks bewildered for a moment. ‘Yes…very fine.’