Over the almost five years of my children’s lives so far, I’ve sat through many kids’ films. Some of them are tedious beyond belief (bloody Barney the Dinosaur!) but many of the Pixar/Dreamworks etc films are excellent fun. One of them, “Madagascar”, details the adventures of a bunch of animals from New York Zoo as they make a bid for freedom and somehow end up in Madagascar. From their pampered lives in New York they find themselves ill equipped for survival in the wild and comedy ensues as they slowly discover what it is like to be wild animals back in their natural habitats.
Through a series of magazine articles, I’ve recently picked up on the notion of “the Human Zoo”, a term first coined in his book of the same name by Zoologist/Sociobiologist Desmond Morris back in the late 1960s. He drew remarkable similarities in humans with captive zoo animals and looked closely at the aggressive, sexual and parental behaviour of the human species under the stresses and pressures of urban living. The theme of the Human Zoo is also picked up by Frank Forencich – a human movement and health expert who heads up his own movement known as the “Exuberant Animal”. Take a look at this article. It’s clearly a fictional, sociological and political commentary, but it highlights the absurdity and dangers of what we’ve largely become – urbanised animals, detached from our natural environments, conditioned and unable to move the way nature intended and eating processed foods that are far removed from what we evolved to exist on. Forencich promotes exercise through play and drills such as this (taken from Jiu Jitsu Brotherhood) are perfect.
Once you start digging into this philosophy that we have unwittingly become captives in this “Human Zoo”, you start to uncover a wealth of complimentary viewpoints and movements that subscribe to this outlook.
First up is the “Paleo Diet”, created by Professor Loren Cordain, based on his own, and others’ scientific research into the diets of our hunter/gatherer ancestors. Cordain hypothesises that our modern western diet which contains high proportions of processed foods and cereal grains has only been with us since the advent of agriculture, which, in human evolutionary terms, is the blink of an eye. Simply, we have not evolved to cope with the modern diet and should, in the interests of health, return to a diet closer to that of our ancestors. This diet, not touted as a weight loss programme, but a healthy way of eating, follows simple rules such as, if you can pull it off a tree, out of the ground or kill it, then you can eat it, or lean protein and as much fresh fruit and non-starchy vegetables as you want. In his book, Cordain sets out the scientifically proven advantages of this way of eating, dispels some myths (such as those surrounding eating fats and red meats) and makes a compelling case for how and why we should make this diet part of our way of life once more. I’ve been following a self adapted version of this diet for about a month now and have found that I always feel full, have plenty of energy and, considering I’m eating almost all day (mainly snacking on fruit and nuts), my waist line is dropping! I’m eating tasty lean meats and fruit in probably greater quantities than at any time in my life. It just makes sense…to me at least.
Sharing some ground with Forencich and linked to the “back to basics” approach of Cordain is Erwan LeCorre and his MovNat concept. Central to the MovNat philosophy is the need to be “fit to be free”. LeCorre’s training methods involve natural, functional movement, lifting, running, jumping, fighting, swimming, bounding - anything that intertwines your movement to the world around you.
It’s a philosophy that, once again, makes perfect sense. Our ancestors, who created the evolutionary need for our bodies to become what they are today didn’t stand in front of mirrors, in rows of treadmills, weights machines and MTV in order to become physically fit, they simply got on with the things they needed to, using their bodies as they were designed. Sure, the world has moved on and we do not hunt for our food or fight off wild predators, but there’s no reason that we should not get outside, connect with nature and get our bodies working in the myriad ways that nature intended. Gyms have constrained our fitness by limiting the body to a collection of named exercises, range of movement limited by pulleys and pivots, done under fluorescent lights in sweat-tainted air conditioned rooms, headphones on and no social interaction. (recent research has shown that exercising in groups is more effective and boosts happiness). The futility of the gym is borne out of in own experience. BMF puts my body through tougher workouts, more ranges of movement and is infinitely more enjoyable than the gym ever was. And how about Jiu Jitsu? A raw physical workout that’s often more like play, with friends and some crazy body movements that challenge even the most accomplished. It’s no coincidence that LeCorre has studied Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Forencich is an accomplished Martial artist including studying Aikido.
Even what we wear holds us back. There’s growing evidence that training shoes have changed the way we run and actually cause more damage than they prevent. How many hunter-gatherer tribes do you see wearing trainers? Those that do have footwear have little more than rudimentary foot coverings. Trainers change our natural running motion, decrease sensitivity and feedback to our bodies. Even Nike are in on the act with their Nike “free” – an attempt to reduce a trainer to the minimum and allow the foot to move as it was designed. I’m not in any place to ditch my trainers, but I find the evidence presented by people such as John Woodward, Mick Dodge and Ken Bob Saxton among many others, compelling. Do we wear trainers in Jiu Jitsu? No! We need the use and sensitivity of our feet to both attack, defend and give us feedback on our base and balance.
In Jiu Jitsu, a form of conditioning has evolved and is taught at The Jiu Jitsu University under Alvaro Romano, known as Ginastica Natural (I’ve mentioned it before, here); a blend of gymnastics, yoga and Jiu Jitsu movements, using the body as a tool and minimal equipment. Once again, it’s a back to basics system of exercising the body and rejoicing in the possibilities of human movement.
I’ve recently been reading “The Last Wrestlers” by Marcus Trower and, as I sat at my desk, vegetating and ruining my posture as an exhibit in the Human Zoo, the following words resonated like a clanging bell:
"I couldn't really believe that people really took office world seriously, that this was where they really wanted to be and what they fundamentally wanted to do..."
"I thought everyone knew that the real route to happiness was through the body..."
As a society, we marvel and celebrate the physical courage and achievements of the select few “professionals” as if full and effective use of our body is reserved for an elite minority. I’d argue that it’s a shared inheritance and one that we all need to get back in touch with before it’s too late. We’ve become conditioned by the confines of the human zoo, obsessed with rules and what is deemed to be “safe”, sleepwalked into a shockingly unnatural way of moving, eating and living.
Jiu Jitsu shares a lot of ground with the philosophy of those trying to find ways to escape the zoo, but we need to keep an eye on what Jiu Jitsu is really about. For me, it’s simply the joy of human movement and possibility – an effective method of self defence is an added bonus. The rest is frippery.
Let's get back to basics and just move.