What makes a human a human? What can we learn about health and happiness from studying anthropology, evolution and cell structure?

many ways into a tree
many ways into a tree

There is a current of thought that questions modern approaches to fitness that places the human body and mind in a deep historical landscape. To some extent Crossfit does this by advocating a paleo diet.  

However the implications go far beyond diet, and beyond sports performance. As an ex biologist this is a field that fascinates me and has  been a part of my life for a long time consciously.  It's been a part of your life too,  even if you're not aware of it.

This subject is important for lots of reasons, for example it may solve the riddle of why the more health clubs exist the greater the proportion of people tend towards obesity, it touches on depression, anxiety, back pain, inappropriate aggression and much more.

These ideas are have been actively researched and developed by teachers and Rafe Kelly is one of them, he calls what he does Evolve, Move, Play.

I just had the pleasure of spending a gorgeous weekend at his evolve move play seminar in the woods fields and lakes of that fringe the coast of Holland.  

Rafe is the son of a West coast American hippy,  an anthropology graduate, martial artist,  gymnast and Parkour teacher who took the art of urban deplacement (is deplacement an English word?  Well it is now) from concrete right angles to the more complex geometry of the trees.

Rafe describes his work as teaching people to move like humans - balanced,  resilient,  mobile, and strong.  He uses movement in natural environments as his tool, since natural environments are what we are evolved for and because they make demands on us in ways that no gym can.

Our weekend began with a score of us gathered in a quiet wooded meadow, twenty or so curious people some trainers others just interested in learning more about natural movement.  Rafe explained his ideas and methods, the importance of play in learning and socialisation, the metaphor of movement as nutrition, the value of exposure to ‘natural’ environments, and the tricky definition of what we can consider ’natural’.

The first exercise we did was movement play - a great game called Zen archer,  we used it as a gentle warm-up and way for the group to start to get to know each other.

We continued the practices by working with an often neglected part of the body- the feet.  I'm lucky to live a lot of my life barefoot and also in minimal footwear,  however it is culturally normal to fix feet into shoes.  The effect of this is that the feet themselves become weak,  uncoordinated and fragile.  The entire body loses a kind of sensory information that helps with balance and overall orientation in space.  

Rafe gave us exercises to help recover toe function and build foot arches.  From there we moved through the body with a simple approach to develop mobility through strength that comes from Dr Andreo Spina, Kit Laughin and Ido Portal.  Throughout the seminar Rafe was careful to give the sources of information to credit teachers and influences. I always think that's a good thing.

The mobility and prehab work moved into breakfalls connected by the idea that all forces condition the body and a breakfall is a way to distribute forces so that they do not damage the body.  

While the falls themselves have a lot in common with martial arts methods they are more informed by Rafe’s Parkour research - and the lessons were peppered with stories of how Rafe, his friends and students had used these skills.

From breakfalls we were ready to  start to rough house.  Rough housing is a concept that Rafe works with that provides a great perspective on martial arts. Other authors have noticed that combat is not something you can engage in sustainably with your friends. People get badly hurt and worse.  

As a result all martial arts divide combat into manageable chunks, ways you can learn aspects of combat while avoiding injury. Without formal training children love to scrap with each other and adults.  It is a way to develop coordination and understand how to scale the use of force.  

Roughhousing combines these two ideas, to create games so that the players understand how to deal with external forces,  how to control their own force and to develop different combative qualities. When I first read about Roughhousing a couple of years ago the developmental description led to an ‘aha moment’ that has informed how I teach ever since.

Our second day started with variation of how Rafe likes to start his own practice, in meditation,  breathing and awakening his joints.  This led into floor seated transitions which in turn moved into a contemporary dance inspired floor flow designed to help understand how to conserve momentum.  I was impressed by how fast some of the participants picked it up.  

After the flow we hiked to some carefully chosen and magnificent trees. The trees provided different problems and opportunities.  We were given different tasks to help us learn how to make our way up the trunk and through the canopy.  Lots of fun, plenty of challenge that could  be scaled to the capacities of each participant.  

There is something deeply satisfying about discovering new ways to use your  body.  As I climbed one bough that I was not convinced I would manage I shifted from pushing with my toes to cradling the branch in curve of my shin and ankle.  I felt a moment of profound recognition ‘Aah the shape of my leg was evolved for this’.  These moments can make gyms seem as nonsensical as using a screwdriver to hammer in nails.

We finished with some more Roughhousing after which Rafe was careful to state that what we were doing is not self defence,  but rather an approach to develop skills that could  be used in combat but are more about being a more complete human being.

So that's the content overview.  Well done if you made it all the way through my description.  These things are meant to be lived,  not read.

The weekend was great.  I learned a lot and had the pleasure of much failure amongst a supportive group.  I also enjoyed some nice moments of success,  it's just that the failure is where the learning opportunities richest and it’s great to have an environment that supports this. Rafe demonstrated many impressive moves through the weekend aided by his student Rutger Van der Zee. Refreshingly both of them did not only show safe polished movements, but took risks in front of the audience of attendees.

Good chunks of the theory and practice were known to me because as I said this stuff interests me and I think it's important.  I already use many of the drills and concepts that Rafe showed. But there is much more to learn than a collection of drills.

For example Rafe has taken my happy but hesitant tree climbing, built a method to teach it and he has made an art of the practice.  The thousands of hours he has given to this show in his careful teaching and I know that there is much more to learn beyond the weekend’s content.

Fortunately the thousands of hours don't show too much because Rafe is as down to earth as he is arboreal.  This is a man who wants to bring people together through play and he's too intelligent to be an authoritarian play expert! He is a man who wants to cultivate healthy community,  and has the wisdom to understand that this will always be the work of more than an individual leader.

I'm very curious to see how Evolve, Move, Play develops in the coming years and I look forward to the next chance I'll have to learn with Rafe.  If you have the chance I recommend it to you as well.

It might be a while before I train with Rafe again,  but I'll be in a tree again today. The trees in the park across from me are very different to the ones in these video, the more I explore them the more I appreciate the opportunities they provide, and now I see trees in new ways. Can you?