The Men Who Made Us: 'Take Time for Yourself' — a Conversation with my Father-in-Law.
As men, we were never meant to drift through life. We were never meant to be alone.
We are made to be links in a long, eternal chain; we are made to be connected with other men; we are built to belong to something bigger than ourselves...
First and foremost, we are meant to be fully rooted in our own personal heritage — and fully connected to the men who have gone before us: our fathers and grandfathers. Like each link of a chain, we 'hang' on them, depending on them in more ways that this shallow world would have us believe...
Granted, a true connection to those men does not come easy; it is by no means 'natural' — unless of course, like many men have sadly chosen, we are willing to be blind to the full truth about our roots, and to our own wounds.
The wound that we all carry — the father-wound that cuts off one generation from another and prevents men from fully embracing and honouring their own masculine essence — must be addressed; I have said this many times and will never stop saying it...
But this resource is not about that. This is for those who are open to all things that masculinity have to offer. This is, perhaps, for those who have already done the inner work and are now choosing to be curious. This is for those to be willing to become boys again, to learn the world anew and rediscover it, and find their own masculine hearts in the process.
This is for those who are free to become men at last — to seek manhood and long for it again whether they are seventeen or seventy — and seek all the wisdom, advice, and goodness, that the world of men can offer.
A man's connection to his father — and therefore, the world of men that his father belongs to and then, yes, his own innate masculinity and its full potential — is purely spiritual.
Fathers, teachers, trainers, mentors — every man needs them; and every man needs to have a healthy relationship to the world of men that he is born to belong to...that he, subconsciously, is still longing for, no matter how old he is on the outside.
Why am I saying all these things? Why am I wasting your time and have not let you jump straight to the conversation? Why over-complicate things? Won't this be purely focused on the physical? Why bring the emotional and the spiritual into this?
Because these things are far more complex than we think. Because I know well the shame that for years prevented me from entering freely the arena, the training-ground that the world of men is.
Because I know that, had it not been for the years of hell I have had to endure in order to begin feeling free inside and able to explore what being a man really is (or should have been) about.
Because topics such as 'health', 'fitness' and even 'self-care' don't come naturally to all of us; this is true. But what is also true is that we all have a body, and no matter how much things such as physical dis-ease and emotional pain (the two are very often interconnected, in my experience) are preventing us from being fully embodied and move through life with the ease that we desire.
And finally, because I know that, having grown up as a painfully insecure, shy and introverted boy with an awkward, stiff body that just wouldn't obey me, I would have found it impossible to submit myself to any teacher, trainer, and yes 'father', who would be able to teach me how to make the most of my body, develop its abilities, learn to defend myself, play sports and be fully able to participate in life through it.
I would be too self-conscious, too afraid of being laughed at, too terrified of being mocked...
Such fears tormented me for decades and for most of my life, they were barring the door to a world that I needed most — the world of men, with all its rough edges and experiential wisdom.
I know well the price that has to be paid by a boy who grows up away from that world...
This is why I attempt to shed some light on what is unseen, in hope that I would help you benefit from what is seen: namely, your own body and the journey that might still be ahead of you with it. And so, even if you're not into health and fitness, even if this whole concept is not even available to you for reasons that you might feel that you don't even have any power over — such as severe disability, for example — please take time to watch this and hear this man's story and advice. No matter how healthy or unhealthy you feel you are, you have tremendous power over your body; whether you mean it or not, you make a hundred choices about how to treat your body every day. It is, therefore, never too late to learn something and adopt new ways of taking care for your body.
Your relationship with your body is first and foremost spiritual; then it is rooted in emotions. Then, and only then, does the physical element come in. I make this statement with hundred-percent seriousness and absolute confidence in its validity and truth. We would all do well to take this on board, if we are serious about developing a better relationship with our bodies and improve our physical condition and abilities.
I will say it again: this is not based in the physical at all.
Having stressed the importance of a deeper, all-encompassing approach, I will now move on, for it it is the physical that we will mostly address in this conversation, along with snippets from the story of a man who, though is too humble to admit it, has lived a truly extraordinary life...
This is Vanyo Peev, my father-in-law. He's a martial artist and a highly-qualified sports coach who runs martial arts- and fitness classes for young people, and also trains people privately in sports and fitness.
He was born in 1952 in the small but pretty spa town called Varshets, where he lives to this day.
Vanyo grew up behind the Iron Curtain, in the heyday of Bulgarian Communism; yet unlike many less fortunate than himself, his experience of the regime is not altogether negative; indeed he readily admits that, since sports have been his focus in life, he had been a lot more free to grow and develop himself in that field than he would have been later, in the murky years of the transition toward democracy that followed...
But I won't spoil it for you; it's all there, in the video — for which I have provided English subtitles, of course.
In our late-night conversation, we spoke about how, from childhood, Vanyo trained hard, studied hard and worked hard to learn and become an athlete. We spoke about his time of military service in an elite parachute regiment of the Special Forces during the Cold War...
In our chat, we paid a quick visit to those two-and-something years of his army service, but even a fleeting glimpse of that life — the cold showers in the morning before the routine three-kilometre run; the exhausting 'loaded' marches; the harrowing parachute jumps — makes one realise how many barriers would need to be broken in one's mind and body, if one is to survive and even thrive as a part of such a structure...
He lived and breathed sports, and in his post-army years, he got the chance to gain top-level education and, subsequently, make a living doing the things he most enjoyed doing.
Years later, having been a professional coach in various sports for most of his post-army life — a profession which paid very little after the fall of the Communist regime — Vanyo spent many months each year travelling to Greece, where he made money by doing building work, which had basically taught himself to do. He did that, not only pursuing honest, hard work but also refusing the offers of easy money...you see, back in the nineties, the murkiest times of Bulgarian democracy, many men with background and connections in sports, had the opportunity to make a lot of money on the other side of the law...which existed more or less only on paper and applied only to some.
He did not join the ranks of organised crime, and he could have easily done it. He did not accept the offer of the local party chief who approached him one day, when the end of the regime was in sight, asking him to create his own group of enforcers from the strong young men he trained in his Judo club...
He stayed oin his own path and simply remained...himself.
He chose to work honestly, and worked very hard.
Needless to say, he remained strong and healthy throughout the lean decades that followed after the collapse of the system which, though oppressive and tyrannical, had a very large budget for sports and took care of the professionals involved in it.
In the photos below he is in his forties, an immigrant, working as a builder in Greece.
Unlike many Bulgarian men of his generation, Vanyo is a person who, even after his own share of hardships and the frustrations that were once (and, I would add, still are) a part of daily life in that part of the world, he remains childlike at heart. He is open to different things and different people; at the age of seventy-one, he still has big dreams; he also has a body which, though aged, still serves him faithfully and keeps him comfortable and fully engaged in life. He has no chronic aches and pains and is not on any medication. He also eats pretty much everything, drinks alcohol and enjoys coffee and tea. Yet, never over-eats...he is a man who is strangely comfortable with the lack of comfort — he eats when he can, sleeps as much as the situation allows for, never complains about his physical needs and is grateful for everything. He can make do with whatever life offers him, in pretty much every situation. He is comfortable enough in himself and so, is always ready and free to put others first; he is especially fond of children and young people.
Today, he still leads classes and trains young people in various sports or general fitness. In his training approach, he does not treat them as 'clients' — in fact, many of those people he trains outside of his working hours, and sometimes even takes home for a meal afterwards! Having grown up in a small town, during a poorer, simpler time when people and relationships meant far more than they do now, his sense of community is still untouched by the cynicism of the modern age. To him, life is not compartmentalised and divided between the physical, mental and spiritual; life is just...life.
(you can perhaps see now, why I wanted to record one of our conversations and share him with you...)
Although he trains and has trained many who have gained wonderful achievements in sports, his name has made the local news columns quite a few times but, because of his humility, his face is rarely under the spotlights.
He trains people with passion and seeks no recognition — to the point of even hiding from any form of exposure, as much as he can.
This is why there are very few photos of him doing what he loves the most.
He is a quiet, humble man...
But he is a maker of champions.
The young man on the photo is named Ivan Todorov; he was a boy who grew up under Vanyo's wing and trained with him, often staying in the gym long after closing hours. I myself, during my family's summer breaks in Bulgaria, have watched them both training, year after year, doing things together and helping each other in a relationship very similar to that of a father and a son. Their training sessions, were, I remember, quite intense...and they helped young Ivan turn into something quite impressive. A child who once struggled with obesity and poor health, he slowly gained not only amzing new levels of health and fitness but also, after having being exposed to various martial arts by Vanyo, developed an ambition to become a boxer. And so, still under Vanyo's wing, he went on his first national championship in 2020, and won a bronze medal!
As I got to know my father-in-law, I started to see him as he really is — a man who is as gifted and knowledgeable as he is humble and even shy: a man who has been known in his time and is still known both for his toughness and his good heart: a real 'neighbourhood guy' who always delighted in helping others, knew everybody and everybody knew him; didn't hold grudges and didn't use his connections to benefit himself in any way...
Below, he is with his young friend Ivan; the man in the middle is none other than the famous olympic medalist Yordan Yovchev — a beloved star of Bulgarian gymnastics.
Yes, Vanyo loves the world of sports and he loves helping people break barriers and achieve things they had previously thought impossible...
But where his heart truly shines, where he is most free, most expressive and most childlike, is when he is with children...
Nothing is more beautiful than a strong man who is in touch with the child in himself and so, can freely connect with the children outside.
Nothing is more impressive than a man who, though he he had many chances to do it, has not lost his heart and has not allowed himself to be desensitised by the tough reality of life...
Nothing is more refreshing than a man who is not a stranger to play; this is what makes Vanyo such a wonderful grandfather to our girls, whom he is always willing to go the extra mile for!
Without losing any more time, I would invite you to click on the video below and watch my spontaneous, unscripted late-night conversation with a man who, although very humble, quiet, and camera-shy, clearly has a lot of wisdom and advice to offer every man who is serious about cultivating and maintaining a well-rounded life.
In this video me and Vanyo touched on things such as:
growing up behind the Iron Curtain
the rigors of serving as a paratrooper during the Cold War
the decline of sport and fitness after the fall of the regime
the rise of organised crime in post-Communist Bulgaria
how does Vanyo maintain his body today
Vanyo's fitness advice for men in different stages of life
sports, politics and personal ambition during Communism
the importance of self-care and the relationship with one's body
I hope you enjoy this conversation, and I hope that it is the first of many to come!
Note: if you want to read the full transcript of our conversation, please scroll down and find it below; a small portion of the video was cut out of it due to confidentiality reasons, but I am making the full conversation available in written form, for the readers of this blog. The part that's missing in the video is a short segment after the seventeenth minute.
06.01.2022. George Stoimenov, Eastbourne, Great Britain.
A Conversation with Vanyo Peev.
* * *
GS: What year were you born?
— I was born in 1952.
GS: How did you get started with sports? How did you decide...
— Well, from childhood. Everything was organised then. Many of us got started with gymnastics, wrestling...I started with volleyball.
GS: So that was your first sport.
— Yes, as an actual sport; but my first engagement with sports was in wrestling and gymnastics; we all got started with those.
GS: How old were you then?
— About 10 years old.
GS: So you started with wrestling first, around the age of ten; then went on to do gymnastics?
— Yes, then gymnastics. Wrestling, gymnastics and then volleyball. Volleyball was doing well in our town; we often became first in the country.
GS: Your team?
—Yes, we would become national champions, and even our primary school teams would defeat the big national teams, 'Levski' and 'CSKA', on tournaments in Sofia. We trained outside, often in the snow, and still became champions.
GS: You didn't have the proper conditions...
— No conditions at all, no gyms, nothing — everything was done outside.
GS: None of your family members were into sports, were they? There was nobody before you?
— No, we had no sports people in my family. Mostly, their education was from the Seminary. Most of them were, well...priests!
GS: They were all priests, and you decided to be something different. But, do you remember what made you want to become an athlete? Or were you just naturally drawn to it?
— Yes, I was just drawn to sports. In fact, pretty much all of us were drawn to it; we were all training something.
GS: Your peers?
— Everyone: friends, peers. From my whole school, everyone was training; it wasn't like now. Now everything is...
GS: So, during the Communism, the people in general were physically fitter?
— Yes, and there were all those sport-schools, where children could enrol after their fifth year. There were a lot of opportunities; every town had a sport-school and the world of sport was thriving.
GS: And now?
— Those olympic champions we had... Now, there is nothing. Now, we go to the Olympics with five people. It's nothing like what it was back then.
GS: How old were you when you did your Army service?
— I was eighteen.
GS: And how long was the service then?
— Two years and two-three months.
GS: Where did you serve? Which town?
— in Sofia, as a paratrooper.
GS: In Sofia...
— In the Parachute Regiment In the Gorna Banya district.
GS: What was that like? Being a paratrooper?
— Oh, it was great.
GS: You liked it?
— Yes, very hard training; early mornings, beginning with a three-kilometre run — every morning! And the colonels were always next to us, watching how we were running...
— In the morning, we showered with cold water. The colonels even came into the bathroom to see if we had showered.
— That's how it was, yes.
GS: So the colonels were watching...
— Yes, it was a hard training.
GS: But what if they didn't like how someone was doing?
— Ah, no. We all trained hard. All of us were selected; we were tough. We often went on field-training exercises in other places. We would get taken there by several planes, and do these jumps, a hundred people at a time. That was some army, back then...
GS: So who 'selected' you for the parachute regiment?
— Yes, they did. We had to take all those special tests, to be rotated in those devices, there in the Military Academy. They had to inspect us to see who would get dizzy, who could handle it.
GS: So, something like pre-army inspection?
— Yes, not everyone could become a paratrooper. All the soldiers who got accepted were trained. They were all sportsmen. That's how it was. We trained hard there. We trained combat sports as well.
GS: Describe one day in your parachute regiment. You woke up the morning, then what did you do?
— We'd wake up at half-five, six in the morning; we'd go for the mandatory three-kilometre run. Then breakfast, after which we'd start the training. In the afternoon we'd have the military exercises...
GS: What was that 'training'?
— The usual army training...disassembly and reassembly of the rifle...
We would also study things such as economy, etc. And then, in the afternoon on most days, we would have a loaded march after which we would have to jump. It was fifteen kilometres and we had to have the full gear on — gas-masks and everything.
GS: Fifteen kilometres?
— It was a fifteen-kilometre run, really. With all the gear on, gas-masks and all.
GS: How many kilos would you say it all weighed?
— Well, around ten kilos, I guess. The rifle, all the gear, the flask, everything...
GS: Since you've completed all those jumps, did things sometimes go wrong? Did the parachute fail to open, for example?
— Well, it did happen to me once.
— Oh, yes. It did happen to me. We had swapped once... You see, in a jump, the heaviest soldiers go first. The last one is always the lightest. The idea is for the heavy ones to land first and the lighter ones to follow them in a kind of procession, in a line. But on that day we had swapped and a heavier man had to jump after me. And so I jumped, and there was this heavy guy who I had swapped places with. He came right on top of me, breaking through one of the panels of my parachute. He got down to my ropes and we began landing together and his parachute started to open together with mine. And when we were about five-hundred metres away from landing, I cut my ropes off and we both landed with his parachute, with me holding onto his waist.
GS: You landed with him?
GS: So your parachute stopped working?
— Well, it had to be cut loose because both parachutes were starting to separate in the air and it could've been dangerous for both.
GS: Really? So both could've stopped working?
— Yes. So that's what happened to me. And the whole company were waiting for us with a huge piece of tarpaulin to land on. They had seen that we were falling too fast through the air. But we ended up landing on our own, while they and the tarpaulin were at least two-hundred metres away from us. They couldn't catch us! But we came out of it alive and well, everything was alright. This is a true army story. Things like that don't happen often.
GS: Alright...I also wanted to ask you about the training you called SRB (free hand-to-hand combat). Was it just like today's MMA?
— Yes, but we also used weapons such as knives, etc. Its basically a mixed martial art training that had elements of sambo, judo, boxing — most of the martial arts, really. You had striking, you had defence, everything.
GS: Who created this training, do you know?
— It was developed in the army...some general.
GS: A Bulgarian one?
— Yes. Abadzhiev, or something...he has developed it and we had to go through it. There was a lot of blocking, taking down, striking, locks — pretty much like the MMA of today, but we trained with clothes. It was very practical.
GS: Is it no longer being practiced?
— There's no army service anymore. But the paid (professional) soldiers are probably still training it. It's been created for that purpose. It's not a martial art in its own right but it's a good option.
GS: So you began with wrestling and gymnastics, as a boy, as a very young man. What sports did you do after your army service?
— After the army I enrolled in the Sports Academy with judo as a specialty. I started training people in judo and became a judo trainer; now I also lead kickboxing classes.
GS: So, the sport of judo was your specialty? Your number one sport in life?
— Yes, definitely my number one sport.
GS: OK, if there had been such a thing as...actually, let me go back a bit: you recently told me that in Bulgaria at that time, there was no professional sport.
— Yes, professional sport was not allowed. We were allowed to be amateurs.
GS: So nobody could make a career and make a living as a professional sports person.
— Yes, the state did all that. The state paid for everything, for the competitions. Now, however, there is professional sport, for those who want to go in that direction; boxing, for example, as well as other sports.
GS: If professional sport had existed then, would you have tried to go in that direction?
— Well, yes, I have thought about it, of course. But to do that then, I would have had to run away from Bulgaria and compete for another country. A Capitalist country, of course, because they had professional sport; we didn't. Even things like wrestling; even that didn't exist as a professional sport.
GS: Have you thought of running away?
— Well, there was such a thing in the past, but it didn't work out.
GS: Ah, so you have actually tried?
— Well, yes...
But how? How did that happen?
— Well, I tried to run away and go to Australia...but they sent us back when we were in Singapore. It didn't work out.
GS: But how did you actually leave the country?
— I went on a holiday...
GS: What was your first destination?
— Singapore, and from there we had planned to reach Australia, but it didn't work out.
GS: They caught you?
— Yes, they caught us.
GS: How did they catch you? Did you try to cross the border, or...
— We tried to get visas, and stayed more than our current visas allowed for; but they found us out and sent us back. Everything was so limited then; if you had a ten-day visa, you couldn't stay more.
GS: Why was it even allowed to go to Singapore? What was in Singapore then?
— It was an open country, for tourism.
GS: So from Bulgaria, there was no problem in getting to Singapore?
— Yes, it was allowed. And from Singapore, we wanted to go to Australia but it just didn't work out. They sent us back and that's how it ended...our adventure! Then, when the democracy came, we could go wherever we wanted.
GS: Speaking of which...you, having been a trainer in various sports all your life — how did democracy affect you? How did it affect the people involved in sports?
— Well, for one thing, there was almost no sport.
GS: Did it happen suddenly?
— It was sudden. The sports in Bulgaria just stopped, and all those really good sportspeople ran away, and many of the trainers did, too. Nobody wanted to work in Bulgaria; there were no money. But now, slowly, gradually, things are improving. Its still difficult for sports,
GS: It's happening slowly, I guess...
— The budget for sports is still pretty small. And the children don't want to play sports. It's difficult.
GS: Were children more keen on sports then?
— Yes, the gyms were full of young people then. We couldn't keep get them out of the gyms; they trained until midnight. Things like nightclubs and mobile phones, weren't really a factor then.
GS: Was there any pressure from the state, in terms of training in sports?
— Well, no. There were many government-ran sports clubs, with trainers who went from school to school and picked children for their clubs. The children trained hard...there were many healthy children. Now is different...the smartphones, the coffee shops...it's not like before. It was a lot better back then.
GS: There was government pressure to work, though, wasn't there? If you sat in a coffee shop as a youngster (during the working hours of the day), they would come and inquire...
— Sure. But even then you could still go out and have coffee; but people trained then, and they loved sports. The children back then were more...village-like, rural, and trained hard.
GS: Yes. Bulgaria in its roots, is a rural country...
— The children also worked hard then; children worked in vineyards, and things like that.
GS: What, even town-children?
— Yes, even town-children. Nowadays the kids just get everything handed to them and...that's it.
GS: You have been training people from youth. What ages of people have you been training? Children?
— I started with training children, and have mostly been training children, actually.
GS: How old were you when you started to train children?
— I was twenty.
GS: You were twenty? What did you train them then?
— Wrestling, in the beginning.
GS: First wrestling...
— And then volleyball, when I became a volleyball coach. Then judo, and now I run these kickboxing classes...
GS: When did you start training adults?
— I train adults on a one-to-one basis. I work with people from the police...
GS: When did you start doing that? Back then?
— No, more recently. During the democracy. 4-5 years ago, actually. I do offer that additionally. But I mostly work with children under eighteen.
GS: Get them early...
— Yes, young ones.
GS: You also have a few champions...
— Sure, I do...I have table-tennis champions, a couple of boxing ones,
GS: Given your experience with all those youngsters, would you say that you have seen something in common between those who have gone on to become successful? Do they have more desire for success, for example?
— Well, those who have the desire, tend to be more able to develop the discipline, the confidence, the physical strength...those who don't tend to be more timid and lack courage. For them, life is different...its harder for them.
GS: Does it matter what families they come from?
— I'd say, yes. Well, it depends...most educated families who are familiar with sports, want their children to train something.
GS: So, its about discipline..
— Yes, discipline is everything. You need to set up a routine for your children, to make sure they go to every session and keep to the appointed the times.
GS: Now, about you personally...you know many sportsmen. Many of those sportsmen later became gangsters. You witnessed that process, didn't you? You witnessed their transformation...
— Sure. The Communists just created those 'power groups' and made sure that their own people took control...they took over many businesses. Many formerly government-owned enterprises had just become available for privatisation. They were then bought off by those gangsters. The Communists gave the sportsmen money, they bought it all off, and that's how it began. At the time, there were such offers to many sportsmen...one to take this enterprise over, another that. Of course, you would have to eventually pay back the people in the higher places...
GS: Pay back the real bosses...
GS: So in actual fact, Communism never really went away?
— And years later, the white-collar guys came and took it all back. The gangsters were left with nothing again — apart only from those who had managed to legalise their business. The others were finished.
GS: So the aim of the regime was to never leave but to remain in power behind the scenes, and make the gangsters terrorise the population and appear as if they are the ones in power.
— Mainly, for the gangsters to buy out all the government property. Because there were many nice hotels, lots of government companies...and they were sold for almost nothing.
GS: Did some of your friends go into that? People you knew personally?
— Of course. I had many friends...some wrestlers who...but some are now gone. They ended up getting killed.
GS: They did?
— Many friends...they were pulled into that business. They were given money. They built petrol stations, hotels, but...
GS: But those men themselves...would you say that they were bad people, or were they just...aggressive?
— No, they were not bad...aggressive, yes, and very very poor...it is the poverty that creates that aggression.
GS: And they were offered something...
— Yes. Not that they were bad. They were sportsmen, strong, tough boys.
— Real tough guys...
GS: Were you offered to enter that world? You did mention something before...
— Well, yes. I did have an offer...to create a group.
GS: A power-group.
— A power-group. With my judo students. But I refused.
GS: It's dirty work.
— Yes, dirty. Not for everyone. You need to be more...forceful, and unscrupulous.
GS: Right. Now, since you've trained in all those sports — not only as a trainer but also as an athlete yourself since you were a child — could you tell me, at your age, what still works best for your body and your well-being? What is your workout?
— At this age, the best thing is to work on flexibility and have a lot of movement. For the joints, flexibility is needed, and lots of movement. Its no longer about heavy training...
GS: Right. And what advice would you give to men, in general, who are in their twenties? Everyone is different of course, but in general — what advice will you give them, in terms of fitness?
— To be honest, the best thing for them would be to practice many different sports. Not just one type of movement. Good health requires a variety of activities.
GS: For the whole body...
— Yes, to play basketball, to move, to play football, to go to the gym...everything together. Not, for example, to focus only on pumping iron, taking all those steroids and do nothing else. Movement is needed. Playing all kinds of sports is needed, and they will be strong and healthy. To swim, to move...
GS: Like you guys used to do, back then.
— Well, yes. A person must go through many sports. Not just one thing. The training for one sport is a certain type, one type. You get tired of it.
GS: And the pressure on the body is only one type.
— Yes, change is needed. A bit of swimming, a bit of basketball, volleyball...those kind of sports.
GS: So, in the twenties, more focus on movement, less on muscles.
— Yes. Of course you can focus on one sports but generally speaking, variety of sports is best. That's it for me. Have more movement. If you do just one thing, train in the gym for example, you can be there all day and then go out of the door, breathe in all that oxygen and collapse!
GS: You can't deal with life, in other words.
— Yes, you have low lung capacity. Breathing only indoors, in those gyms — what's that? Nothing. It's different when you combine the muscles with the outdoor runs. I've got some friends who are really 'pumped', but when we start going through the forest, they can't even walk! and if you look at them, they are strong, muscular, but... For me, unless you're a professional in some sport, you need to change the activities. That's it. That's life. Today, for example, you go swimming, tomorrow play basketball; after tomorrow do some boxing, then lift some weights.
GS: What about sports that are good for confidence? For self-defence? Is there a single sport that you think is best for that, or is it just a matter of personal preference?
— Well, I would personally recommend judo, kickboxing...they are good sports and one can practice them, just for confidence.
GS: So that's for men in their twenties...
— Yes, if they are not professionals, of course, and have to focus on one activity.
GS: And what about men who are between forty and fifty?
— The same for them.
GS: Less muscles, more movement?
— Less muscles, more movement outside, more oxygen, more things like swimming, hiking...
GS: When do you think, should a man start building his muscles and prevent the loss of muscle that happens later in life? Everyone is individual of course, but generally speaking.
— You begin to lose muscle mass after fifty. You no longer have that same strength and your joints aren't the same. It's harder to build muscles then, so you can start working on that.
GS: So when you get past fifty, you can start thinking about weightlifting a bit more...
— Yes, then you can. Because the muscles are weakening with age...depends on what you do for a living, of course; but most people have sedentary jobs. Very rarely would a man still be doing hard physical labour past fifty.
GS: True. I myself am thinking about this, after you first shared this with me. I was thinking to never go back to weights, ever. I don't really do much training at the moment but when I do start again soon, I am thinking to stay with the things I have been doing recently — pull-ups, dips, etc. But you told me that once I start getting older, it would be good to go back to weightlifting, at least to a point, because of the loss of muscle.
— Yes, you begin to lose muscles and things like walking won't help you. Weightlifting tones the muscles and builds mass that is needed at that age...
GS: And weightlifting is good for the bones, too.
— Of course. You don't have to overdo it but its good. Even if you do machines, and not put that same pressure on your muscles...
GS: What's very interesting about you is that, what you do for yourself, like when I asked you to show me the other day, consist of at least half an hour of stretching only. That for me is a whole training session but you take that time and use it only for stretching!
— Well, yes, yes. That's the foundation. With the years, the joints are becoming tighter and you need a lot more stretching. It's just that, the range of motion becomes limited, as you walk, and after fifty and sixty, a lot of stretching is needed.
GS: How often do you yourself stretch?
— Almost every day.
GS: So, even if you don't train, you would still stretch. You would prefer that to training?
— Yes, if I can't train, I'd just stretch. I'd do various stretches, swings, kicks, stretches on the ground. Not yoga but very similar.
GS: Dynamic stretches...
— Dynamic, yes. And the walking is brisk. It has to be quite fast, to keep the pressure up. That slow-paced, monotonous walking, does nothing.
GS: You need to be out of breath...
— Yes, with the fast walking, you take a lot more air in. Faster is better.
GS: More aerobic.
— More aerobic, yes.
GS: What advice, then, will you give to men in their eighties?
— Walking and swimming. These two are just great. With swimming, the water massages your body; there would be no varicose veins, your body is in a horizontal position...you can swim until you die.
GS: And if they can lift weights? Things like squats and deadlifts?
— Of course, they can still do it. Slow and easy with the weights, it's healthy.
GS: So, there is no excuse! Age is not an excuse.
— Of course not...but sometimes, as you get older, you don't feel like doing anything; but there are people who look after themselves and train, and are strong.
GS: Like you do. You don't overdo anything.
— Sure, you mustn't overdo it. You don't have that same joint flexibility so can't lift the same weights as you have in your younger years.
GS: Going back to the Communist times, you have witnessed the laying of the foundation of those sportsmen, the men who later took over the country. You saw how their physical power and attributes were built. Were there steroids?
— In the big sports, perhaps. There's no other way. But the way they steroids are used now by kids, in all the gyms — that was not there. Until we were twenty, we hadn't even heard of steroids. We who trained didn't even know what steroids were until then. We didn't even take vitamins. The big sportsmen, they definitely took steroids.
GS: So, not in your time...
— Now you have fifteen year old boys taking steroids. It's everywhere. That industry is very advanced now, everyone is on steroids.
GS: It's horrible. It's such a plague... So in your time, not only did you not have steroids, but didn't even have vitamins, let alone supplements like protein-shakes and such...
— Nothing. Who knew about vitamins then? We didn't take anything.
GS: Nowadays, those youngsters in the gyms, the first thing they ask is 'what shall I take?' And you didn't have anything like that? Just average diet and lots of discipline.
— No, everything was normal. We didn't think about steroids or anything like that...we just trained, and that was it.
GS: How long were your training sessions then?
— We trained pretty much every day. Weekends and all.
GS: And what of those sports-people? The ones who competed? Did they train six days a week?
— Twice a day.
GS: Twice a day...six days a week.
— Yes, there were going to those training camps all the time, places like Belmeken.
GS: Those wrestlers...
— Wrestlers, yes, we had great wrestlers, and boxers we had, everything. Now...
GS: Have you been to many of those camps?
— I have, many times. We used to organise training camps for judo. We'd take all those young kids there...
GS: You've been there as a trainer?
— As a trainer, yes. They used to pay us to organise training camps. Now there is nothing like that.
GS: Did some of those people you trained go on to become something?
— Sure, there were boys who I used to train and then became national champions in judo.
GS: In those times of Communism, were there foreigners who came there? Russians, for example?
— No. Well, yes, there were groups who came to Belmeken. Russian groups, wrestlers who used to organise training camps with our wrestlers.
GS: Like that Russian wrestler that my dad knew...
— Yes, and from East Germany. Mostly from the Eastern Bloc countries.
GS: Very interesting. I still can't believe that there was no professional sport.
— No, there was not. That's how it was. Communism.
GS: So, do you think that the ambitions of those sports people were a bit dampened? Because threw was that knowledge that, whatever you might become, you would never get past a certain point? Or were people still as fierce and ambitious as they would've been anyway?
— No, they were still ambitious. They were fierce. They trained hard, they loved their country. That's how it was.
GS: There was patriotism then?
— Yes, there was patriotism. Many of them chose to stay in Bulgaria. They had been outside, they had seen what it was, but still chose to stay. But also, it wasn't that easy to run away and go to another country. You then became an enemy of the state. People were afraid of that.
GS: So what would have happened if, let's say, you had succeeded in escaping?
— Nothing, if you escaped, you just had to stay where you were.
GS: But would there have been any consequences for you?
— Well, once you escaped, you could never come back to Bulgaria.
GS: And for your family?
— I guess there would've been some persecution, yes.
GS: I have heard stories like that.
— Yes, some persecution, definitely.
GS: So interesting...like we are speaking of a different era.
GS: So what was good during Communism was the discipline, the better physical condition of the people...
— And the organisation behind all those sports.
GS: And what was the bad?
— The bad...you couldn't get out of the country.
GS: And you couldn't have your own business?
— Yes. They should've loosen things up in the country, to give the people the freedom to go wherever they wanted.
GS: Toward the end of the regime, did it loosen up a bit or did it all just collapse, all of a sudden? I don't remember too well...
— It just came down, suddenly.
GS: Did you expect it to fall? Because I have heard from people of your generation who said that they never expected it to fall?
— That's true.
GS: Because of all the lies on the radio, that said 'we're doing great', and suddenly, boom.
— Well, lies and deception were plentiful. That's how it was.
GS: So you didn't expect it to fall when it did.
— No, it did so suddenly.
GS: And what was the good of the democracy that came afterwards? In terms of health and fitness?
— In the beginning, nothing. Now things are beginning to get better.
GS: So the first decade wasn't good.
— Before the European Union things were pretty bad. People all ran away abroad, everyone went to look for work, nobody wanted to stay in Bulgaria. The young people left, only the old remained. The country fell to ruin. Young people are needed, to work, to make progress...
— The capable people all went abroad. The useless ones remained. That's how it is.
GS: That's the global situation, I guess. But let's go back one last time to the individual situation: a man like myself, for example...a busy guy with a young family who has very little time in this stage of life — what advice would you give me? It doesn't need to be about training only...it could also be about incorporating good habits into one's life. Like, for example, me and you talked earlier about cold showers...if you could give me several helpful advices like that?
— For me, a man in this position should take at least one hour a day and use it to train himself.
GS: For his body?
— For himself. You see, every day is your last. You need to organise it in such a way that this one hour is always available. It might have to be in the morning or in the evening, but he needs that hour to focus on his own self. In that hour, you need to focus on yourself only. You need to separate yourself from all people, from everything, and work and focus on yourself.
GS: That's so important.
— It is. You just have to separate yourself from others and focus on you, work on yourself. You just have to.
GS: How important it is in life for one's body to function well, to move well and be well?
— This is the whole life: the movement of your body. That's everything.
GS: Yes, because if you are not comfortable in your body...
— If you are not comfortable in your body, everything around you would be a problem; you would take that frustration out on other things. Everything around you will feel somewhat...
GS: That's very interesting. So, do you think that people who are not comfortable in their bodies, have some physical discomfort perhaps, could be more prone to looking for an outlet for that physical frustration? And are more argumentative and grumpy in general?
— Hundred percent.
GS: That's what I have found, too. So, the more you take care of your own body, the more you increase the chance to be at peace with those around you.
— The more time you set apart for your own body and health, the better everything is...you feel better about living life itself. Its so good when the body feels trained and moves well. And the older you get, the more you need to train your body. You need to train twice as much as you have done in your younger age.
GS: So, you need to train more?
GS: Well, that's interesting. Because the opposite is often true: we push ourselves when we are young and let our bodies go when we get older...
— The older you are, the more time you need to set apart for yourself. That's life.
GS: Breathing, things like that?