Punching and Huffing: Systema Comes to Town (and I Tried it Out).

Dan Colageo wants me to punch him hard, right in the abdomen. He tells me to give it all I’ve got. I have some reservations, but I do it anyway and slug him in the gut.

He doesn’t flinch. In fact, he doesn’t move at all.

Stop holding back, he says. Do it again. Harder.

So I hit him, and then I hit him again, first in the stomach and then in the chest. He seems unfazed. I worry about the bruising this activity might leave. Later, I consider the ethical grey area of pummeling an interviewee for The Weekly. He did ask for it, literally.

This all started when I told Colageo offhandedly that I’ve never hit anyone before. For Colageo, it's all par for the course. For the past eight years he’s been studying Systema, the Russian martial arts discipline that prides itself on exploring and overcoming personal limits. Recently, he’s begun teaching it at Kishintaikan Dojo on Central Street in Bangor.

Dan Colageo. Photo by Matt Chabe.

In recent years, Systema’s been practiced primarily by the Russian special forces. Only in the past few years has it gained popularity in western cultures. Like other martial arts, it’s undeniably combat based. Systema, however, prioritizes relaxed, fluid motion and leverages the body’s natural inertia to strike and disarm. There are no belts, rituals, or shows of deference and respect like bowing. To an observer, Systema looks almost laid-back and matter-of-fact.

But it’s not laid-back. It’s intense. Systema demands peak physical as well as mental fitness. Training routines are performed slowly and deliberately with a very specific breathing pattern. Literally, it’s called “Systema Breathing,” and its purpose is to “stoke the fire,” says Colageo.

To demonstrate, he drops to the floor and does a pushup. It’s on his fists. He doesn’t pump out 20 in a row. Instead, he slowly lowers himself for 30 seconds, breathing quite literally like bellows stoking some massive boiler. And then, at the bottom, he reverses—a slow, steady raise, always breathing to feed that fire.

I try it, miserably. You need to develop focus for this.

Colageo discovered Systema after years of practicing karate in the Bangor region. The turning point came when he discovered videos of Systema online. He was fascinated, he said, and began practicing it on his own and taking lessons. He eventually studied under Vladimir Vasiliev, a Russian-born expert who moved to Canada and founded the first Systema school outside Russia in 1993.

He said Systema’s all about exploring your personal limitations, and to hear his own story, you believe it. A few years ago, while in Russia working on the independent film “Colossus,” he studied with an expert that subjected him to trials like fighting while balancing atop monkey bars and enduring controlled surprise drownings. While these techniques aren’t part of Colageo’s Bangor classes, he said they were important to his own relationship with Systema, as well as with himself.

“There’s a huge physical component, and you're feeling all types of stuff that maybe you’ve never felt,” said Colageo. “But when you're coming up against a limitation, your mind is starting to explode. It’s saying, ‘Look, this is your limit right here.’ Your mind is freaking out about it. What Systema does is bring you to the limitation, and then step just past it, and then maybe come back.”

Colageo believes Systema has the potential to transform those that commit to it. He said it’s changed his own trajectory, his social relationships, his relationships with family. He said the changes aren’t just physical, they’re mental, almost spiritual. He hopes his students in Bangor have the same experience.

“As tough as Systema can be, and as intense as [my training in Russia] was, it really made me start to trust myself,” he said. “I think it’s a big issue with a lot of people in general, that feeling like ‘I don't feel like I can trust myself in this area of life,’ and I feel like that's what I took from Russia. How to work on trusting myself more. And I feel like that's something that's really a golden thing that can be passed to people here in Bangor.”


This article originally appeared in The Weekly, May 2018.