Even as adults, we enjoy the cognitive and spatial freedom offered by video games and virtual reality. But we don't explore the physical and tactile world with the same enthusiasm as a child. Babies are born free to explore in 3-Dimensions, but soon develop a bias for bipedal movement. The modern world pushes us to move for material benefits, not just for exploration. Ancient cultures never treated physical development apart from mental learning. Today however, we have a 'nerd vs. jock' dichotomy. As my friend Michael Dean eloquently describes it 'You either train for the Olympics & read New York Times best sellers, or you learn how to program computers and go to the gym twice a week.' Consider this, what if you moved your body, just for the sake of exporing it? Animals reach a state of peak genetic ability through play, not exercise. How can we relive our youth, incorporate movement in to our daily lives without it feeling like yet another activity to checklist?
Let's go back in time, 300000 years ago. An infant then would have to hang on to the parent with all the strength he can muster. Today, infants are cradled and carried around by parents. The baby may not possess even the strength to hold its head up. Limbs maybe weak but the truth is that babies are capable of holding on tight. This is developed even before birth. The Palmar Grasp Reflex 1 allows a baby to support it's entire body weight. The young human body is capable of a lot more than is assumed or is the social norm.
Babies suspended in the amniotic fluid of the womb experience a sense of gyroscopic freedom in all planes and angles. Post birth however, the spatial freedom is now limited by gravity, structural integrity and front facing binocular vision. Their first challenge to learn to support their own weight by holding on is not allowed. So they proceed to moving the neck and limbs from a supine position. This is where the baby turns her head left and right while lying on her back. Her arms and legs are flailing in the air as if riding an imaginary upside down Peloton. Skill mastered, she attempts to roll over, so she can now switch between being supine and prone.
Photo by Jordan Rowland
Rather excited about this new prone perspective, she now has a new challenge to hold her head up as she surveys her kingdom. The previously developed limb-flailing skills now come in handy. She now attempts to move her arms and legs to propel herself forward. Voila! She can now move. This landmark is however unappreciated in the human realm. We save the applause for when she finally lifts her hands off the ground and stands up on her feet. "Her first steps!" we say, tears of joy welling up.
As a young growing human, forward bipedal movement garners the most social reward. Any other form of exploration is dismissed or even discouraged. Yes, we are creatures capable of effortless bipedal movement, but we're not limited to it. The beauty of the human body lies in its ability to execute complex movement patterns. Unlike other species that are limited to their original programming, we can choose to program and reprogram various movements. We can choose to swim, climb, run and walk on two feet as well as four.
And that's exactly what the young human body seeks to do. Explore every possibility of capability with curiosity. The physical structure is ideally balanced between strength, agility and healing ability. It's easy to look at this phase as high energy that must be released, but the explorative challenge is what the child is looking for. Modern spaces lack the environment that would both stimulate and satiate the mind and body. It's vital to understand that movement involves both cognitive and musculoskeletal activity.
Travelling back to ancient Greece, we see the gymnasium was a center for socially exploring both the intellectual and physical. Young men not only received training in physical exercise but also lectures and discussions on philosophy, literature, and music. We infer that a young man's development placed physical pedagogy as equally important to instruction in morals and ethics.
No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable. - Socrates
Today, there's a divide in development as young adults choose to focus on either intellectual or physical pursuits. Perhaps the nerd vs jock war is not as obvious anymore. However looking deeper into the individual's psyche, we see a dichotomy, an affinity towards one and merely a tolerance towards the other. So you may see scholars engage in long distance running or professional athletes pursuing higher education degrees for the purpose of filling in the blanks. But it appears most are missing a holistic and integral understanding of development. We need a genuine appreciation of both aspects being indivisible for growth.
If you were expecting some sort of circus freakshow, sorry to disappoint you. This is just a comparison between the average human adult and an animal in the wild. As ageing adults, physical activity is usually relegated to household chores or a weekend game. Some may imbibe a regular workout habit but most are ritualistic and restrictive unlike the playful experience of non-competitive sport. Either way, most humans never experience a sense of deep connection to their physical self. Tune into Nat Geo wildlife documentaries and you'll notice all wild animals use their bodies expertly, keenly aware of their capabilities. Why is it in the human kingdom, only a small percentage of adults develop their bodies to an elite level?
Photo by Picsea
The answer is obvious really. Expert or elite athleticism is a result of totalitarian training regimes and the mental drive to endure the journey. A healthy sprinkling of good genetics wouldn't hurt. But even then, preparation is an elaborate affair with years of training and weeks or months notice for professional competition. There is an elaborate warm up prior and an extended cool down ritual after. But in the wild, we can see an animal sprint after it's prey from a state of complete rest. How do animals oscillate between a state of repose and heightened action with such ease?
More importantly, how are all animals expertly capable of physical prowess, till the very end of their lives? What is it that makes an average animal better than an elite human?
The answer lies in effort. Or rather, lack thereof. No animal in the wild exercises. No animal struggles to develop it's physicality through strenuous repetitive movements. And yet you're unlikely to see an animal incapable of running, fighting or hunting. They reach the peak of their genetic abilities through play. Yes! That silly thing that children do. Let's break it down further.
Observe common urban animals around you. Both cats and dogs often play animatedly by themselves. They may chase their own tails or involve objects in their immediate environment. You will see them chasing a ball or playing with a string. Jumping up to catch a fly or sneaking up on a mouse. All of this activity is done with the spirit of play.
As children, we begin in much the same way. Playing irreverently. It's time to return to innocence. Relive and replay the games of your youth. I'll leave the level of difficulty and complexity to you. Explore your environment and interact with it. You don't have to be a parkour expert. But next time you're walking in the wild, climb the rock in front of you instead of walking around it. When you run around the block, maybe hop over the fire hydrant or jump over the park bench. Make your routine movements playful.
Hey, buddy, don't you be no square. If you can't find a partner use a wooden chair. - Elvis
Movement does not have to be intense or confined to activity. Walk into a kindergarten class and you'll see no one sitting at a desk. Rekindle that juvenile proclivity for quadrupedal capability. Squat in front of your laptop instead using a chair or a standing table. Walk around on all fours maybe? Do try this at home. Sit on the ground when you read. Jump up and kick your heels together while walking down the street. Break into a jig when you see a beautiful skyline or hear your favorite song.
Remember even if you run 10 miles, you've only stressed your ankles, knees and cardio-vascular system. Look to incorporate complex movements that involve as many joints as possible. It's more helpful to move actively in low intensity through the course of your day with spurts of high intensity2, than to box all physical activity into one strenuous session.
Everything's better when shared. Physical activity is no different. Even if all your partner does is laugh as she's recording you walking across the room like a duck. Eventually everyone joins in the fun!
Movement is an exploration of your own ability. A partner can do the same, while sharing the same space, without engaging with you. If your comfort and capability levels are in sync, you can attempt a coordinated playful exploration together. The best examples of this are sport and dance. If you want to keep it simple, go back to the games you loved to play as a child. Remember, the goal is to involve as much of your body as possible. To engage with a playful spirit. Enjoy the experience. And share that joy with your partner.
A word of caution. The more the merrier, but also more the likelihood you hurt each other. As humans we may pride ourselves in our ability to empathise. But children rough-housing in the park often end up hurt, either physically or psychologically. Supervising adults oscillate between molly-cuddling or not giving a damn. Young animals though, grow up, constantly play spar with each other, rarely hurting each other. That level of aggressive contact without cut-throat competition is difficult to simulate, so instead we have rules. Make sure you play by them.
To know oneself is to study oneself in action with another person. - Bruce Lee
All stimulation must be followed by relaxation. You can consider relaxation a part of movement, if you see it as moving from a state of relaxation to and vice versa. You may have understood the importance of activity to both mind and body, but don't forget to relax into recovery. Just as mental stress can reflect in physical symptoms, muscular tension can result in mood changes. Of course you could engage in relaxation routines using Yoga or Pilates and the like. But if you want to keep it playful and effortless, let's look to the animal kingdom again.
Animals are ready to explode into intense action from a state of supple rest and back, transitioning almost effortlessly. If you observe them carefully, you'll notice they're stretching and yawning through the day. This reflex called pandiculation3 is rarely called upon by humans. You can change that by including a lazy stretch, for just a few seconds, every hour on the hour. This will improve your state of both physical and cognitive readiness to spring into action and back into relaxation.
If you've read this far, make time to engage your body in a simple, yet effective way. Remember, we're not just physical beings with a mind or mental beings with a body. Rediscover the mind-body connection that every other animal on Earth enjoys. Explore your body for the sake of unity, not just as a vehicle for vanity. Make movement a part of your daily activity, independent of your specific workout or training regime. Keep it light and easy, but frequent and you'll rock the habit effortlessly.
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Disclaimer: The views expressed here are for contemplative purposes only. Do not rely on this information as a substitute for, nor does it replace, professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Do not disregard, avoid or delay obtaining medical or health related advice from your health-care professional because of something you may have read here. The use of any information provided is solely at your own risk.