What is movement?

Lately movement has been gaining strength as a new tendency in the physical world. After having experienced trends like Zumba, TRX and Bootcamps, it is normal to feel that it is just another one of those things that becomes a mania and then fades away.

Nevertheless, historically there are many reasons to think the contrary.

Let’s start doing an overview of the history of exercise. Before the path of Civilization started, we used to live as hunter-gatherers where living was synonymous of moving. Whether it was to build settlements, manipulate tools, defend ourself, locomote or hunt, there was not a separation between daily needs and movement. There were also less utilitarian moves, like dancing or catharsis practices like the ones from the Zoé, in Brazil. Movement was complex in its practice because it was the reaction to an everlastingly changing environment and a nomadic way of life, but simple in its technique and planning because the very notion of “exercising” didn’t exist. The two principles of this way of life where practicality and adaptability, and movement was something as constant and necessary as breathing itself.

After this period of broad movement came the Neolithic Revolution and with it the sedentarism of big societies. In Mesopotamia the first cities came to be and with it the specialization of labor, something that would bring a more elitist view of movement. The people who worked the land had to move in repetitive and exhausting patterns day in and day out, and those who started to have more power were soon to become the inventors of sports.

In this manner, sports were born as an intermediary to a daily reality as movement was. As humans we needed movement, but our way of life each time asked less and less of it. That is why ancient civilizations like Greece and Rome developed the sports as a mean to an end, which was usually the war. Physical exercise was starting to become more of a social need that a physical one. The spirit of the Olympics gave root to gymnastics, weightlifting, athletism and the arts of war. Also, in countries like China martial arts were infused with practices like Tai-chi, and folk dances and yoga served as practices that also carried spiritual, social and artistic functions to movement, not just for survival’s sake.

Greece became the place were the body and its development were a fundamental part of the philosophy and way of life, as a requisite to achieve mastery. That is one reason for the classics serving as a bridge to understand prehistory, because there was not a clear division between the body and the mind, and sports where just a reason to move with a multiplicity of functions like health, social engagement, leisure, art, virtue and expression.

After all this time, we would come to the Middle Age. Even though this period only occurred in some european countries, it represents an important part of the western spirit. With the repudiation of the body and all its sins, like the sensuality and beauty represented by women, the catholic world ignored physical exercise.

There was a social division between the plebs, that had to bear the arduous physical labor of working the land but also kept important traditions in their vernacular dances; the nobles, that trained to be knights but also had more structured practices like the futures Waltz; and the priests, who had covered their weak and non vital bodies. The more physical the activity for survival was, the more it started to felt wrong, because an strong body could meant a lower life, closer to the animal kingdom. What this period show us is that physical practice cannot be separated from the religious believes and paradigms of an era.

With the rebirth of humanism in the Renaissance, the body became interesting again like da Vinci’s drawings show.

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From this time on, the systematization of the study of exercise like a way to strengthen the body and have mental health started to grow. People like Vittorino da Feltre, Cristobal Mendez, Mercurialis, Johann Bernard Basedow and Guts Muths started to promote working in the body to achieve physical health and virtue. Also the Age of Enlightenment saw the first exercise machines, a tradition that proved to be important when Nautilius exploited in the XX century.

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Gymnasticon, created in 1796.

The more industrialized a society was, the more movement it needed to feel that it kept its connection with the body. That’s how around the world many competitions started to appear to keep the sporting spirit alive, like the Highland Games in Scotland, Rope climbing events in Slavic countries, or the Stone locks competitions in China.

On his part, Georges Hébert would come to create the precedent for Parkour. After observing that in tribal societies people kept optimum body composition and performance only by moving as hunters, he created the “Natural Method” where he emphasized the use of locomotion, jumping and equilibre to shift in urban environments.

This need for movement would have a great rise with the Industrial Revolution. People where moving from the countryside to the cities, but many where not ready to loose their physical vitality. Strongman culture where born with circus man beating feats of strength, twisting steel bars with their hands or pulling heavy trucks with their teeth. This spirit of a movement culture would be reborn sporadically during the XX century, giving birth to the Golden Era of Bodybuilding and figures like Charles Atlas, Vince Gironda, Franco Columbo, Louis Cyr, Jasper Benincasa, Arthur Saxon, Eugen Sandow, Paul Anderson, Bill Kazmaier, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dorian Yates, Frank Zane and Jack Lalanne.

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From 1934.

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After all this movement explosion, something strange happened. Exercise started to become odd. While ordinary people in the past used to move thanks to the physical labor, work started to become more intellectual and the only people in the cities interested in movement where the athletes or the soldiers preparing for war. With the coming of the Welfare State during the second half of the XX century, sedentarism started to become a public health problem.

It is in this context where movement comes in. The 60’s represented a revolution against all the traditional culture, exploring the past to solve an existential crisis. The realm of the physical had suffered the same phenomenon as communication or economics, where an intermediary like language or money had came to totally replace what it was meant to facilitate. A means like sports had become an end for and to itself, each time more specialized and divided in different practices without a sense of functionality for its main purpose: movement.

For example, it is very different to say that we humans do sports than to say that we move. While the first concept is anthropocentric, technical and focused on the few, the second one includes not only humans but also animals and all of life. That is why the intermediation phenomenon that sports had created was one of Separation, where we had divided man from nature, art from function, body from mind, play from work, strength from flexibility, performance from aesthetics and movement from philosophy. For example in Gymnastics, which still is the sport that probably guards the best movement quality, in the words of the champion Kōhei Uchimura has increasingly lost its artistic part to become a technical world without notions like improvisation.

That is the reason for movement to simply be the strive to overcome the barriers of an intermediary like sports to recuperate some concepts that our culture is giving more value to, like non-separation or spontaneity.

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The squat is an example of a basic movement that we have reduced only to a position to get stronger and forgotten its basic function: to rest.

There are two main branches in the world of physical exercise. On one hand, there is the Fitness culture born in the 80’s from Jane Fonda writings, that is guided by principles of reductionism of the self to its appearance and according to conditioned standards of beauty, the 5 minute solutions and an increasing emphasis on the use of machines and technology to create specific results.

On the other hand, we have the nostalgics of the culture who believe that moving has many benefits beyond what a body fat analysis or an Instagram picture can tell. In this culture, Crossfit represented an important milestone in the sense that it looked to unify different sports to create an efficient movement machine. From here, many disciplines like Calisthenics or Breakdancing started to recuperate the movement potential of human beings, without explicitly trying to.

Nevertheless, Crossfit is still not movement. Crossfit rest under cultural values that are typical of Civilization like quantification, capacity and efficiency. Even though it prepared the road for movement, it is important to understand that movement has an important political and philosophical background that corresponds to the 60’s, and could be defined like the overcoming of Separation. Like Charles Eisenstein tell us, this shift of consciousness is universal and not exclusive of movement, as it’s happening in very different fields like economics, activism or nutrition. We can no longer stand the eminent Separation that has permeated all of our lives, and we try to culminate the project of the 60’s to overcome it.

At the same time, inside this second branch in the physical world there are two visions of movement, which is also true for many fields. On one side, there are the people who feel that all this was a mistake, and try to recover what was lost in the mist of trees and cascades. The biggest representative of this is MovNat, that promotes movement in nature, with groups and without much more equipment than oaks to carry and stones to lift.

On the other side, there are the people who are trying to adapt the primitive spirit to modern tools. They do not live in a dichotomy between the organic and the synthetic or at least try to surpass it, and in my eyes its biggest proponent is Ido Portal. That is why the movement culture around Ido Portal tries to recover the best of everything that we as a species have created (plus evolutionary and nature inspirations), but with criteria from the counterculture like play, improvisation or sensation. It is similar to what Bruce Lee was trying to do in Martial Arts when he spoke of overcoming the division between styles to simply adapt to the demands of the moment, but on a macro level with all physical disciplines.

This is why to be a movement practitioner means first and foremost a change in perception. It is imposible to practice every kind of sport that exist and has existed, but the effort must always be towards cohesion. While sports where part of an isolated realm of life, movement is always there. To move means to have an awakened eye to movement quality in the daily life inside and outside the gym, to be open to the possibilities of exploring disciplines, to get inspiration from animals, a huge commitment to study and develop, to shift the focus from goal to process, to strive to practice disciplines that generate longevity, complexity and versatility, and a direction towards overcoming the separation in the physical. It means, on top of everything, to create kinesthetic intelligence, which is the capacity to adapt to what is, focusing on developing capacities over techniques, to generate malleability of the self.

If you’d like to know more about these topics, I recommend the work of Ido Portal and Erwan Le Corre


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