Words by Lou Boyd
The animal kingdom is perfectly designed so that each creature has the tools it needs to survive, leopards can run fast, hawks have eyes that can spot the tiniest prey, rabbits can communicate silently. Every animal you see is perfectly trained in the natural features it has evolved to rely on.
Human beings on the other hand, have evolved to design tools and technology to take off the load. We no longer have to rely on our physical body to get us through the day and our own natural talents lay unused. What were we like before we forgot our physical powers? What is the human body capable of when used properly?
Wild Fitness is a company founded by a woman called Tara Wood that sets out to discover just that, it explores the full capabilities of the human body and believes that by awakening these skills and movements, we can be all by stronger, healthier and happier.
In the UK we all follow the same repetitive types of movement, some of us move more than others, but overall we share a routine of sitting, walking and a little exercise when we can will ourselves into it.
For this reason, we marvel at the people among us who run to work and back every day, people who train every night and all weekend, or even just seem to have a lot of energy. They get called superhuman, action men, wonder women. Wild Fitness believes that instead of superhuman, these people are simply being more human.
Around a year ago, I attended a launch for running mogul and sports journalist Christopher McDougall’s new book in central London. At the event, Christopher’s talk was lined up after another talk by Wild Fitness founder Tara, and it was here that I first heard about the idea of primal fitness.
Tara explained that the idea of Wild Fitness is quite literally to gain the kind of physical skills that a wild animal has, the animalistic athleticism that all creatures learn naturally from birth, in order to survive in the world. This kind of fitness isn’t taught in schools or forced in a gym, but comes so naturally to all creatures when they’re allowed to thrive in their natural environment.
"Hunting, connecting with nature, connecting with one another, celebrating, playing, sharpening ourselves mentally. These are the wild motivations that our wild mind understands"
“All wild creatures are animated by purpose, and this industrious activity that we see in nature makes up the symbiotic relationships that then feeds into eco-systems" explained Tara. “The biggest dampener on the natural human urge to move and to eat healthily is if you motivate someone from a fearful or contrived place. There are far more interesting reasons to move than the health benefits that ensue."
Hunting, connecting with nature, connecting with one another, celebrating, playing, sharpening ourselves mentally. These are the wild motivations that our wild mind understands, but they’re pushed down and never experienced as we focus on modern goals of losing weight or lowering our blood pressure.
Wanting to find out more and try this theory out for myself, I signed up for a two hour Wild Fitness Movement Jam in Hampstead Heath, curious about how wild I could get in a couple of hours, while still in Greater London.
Before I tried it for myself however, I wanted to find out more about the theory behind this primal approach to movement, so caught up director of Wild Fitness Eric Walters about the human body and why we need to remember how to move.
“The human body and mind has evolved over a long period of time to be reasonably good at a lot of things and very adaptable to address a changing environment." says Walters.
This idea of tension between environment and natural instinct seems to be at the centre of the Wild Fitness ethos, it’s as though we built ourselves these cities yet we don’t know how to live in them.
“Our Philosophy is divided into three pillars of live, move and eat" explains Walters. “In terms of food we’ve gone from locally sourced food to mass produced synthetic, genetically modified, with all sorts of ingredients in that you would even recognise as food. In terms of living, it’s a matter of stress, sleeping and rest. We’re always on the go, we’ve forgotten how to really rest."
Movement definitely seems to be the main pillar holding Wild Fitness up, you can see it in the devotees, they move – well – better than the rest of us.
Watching a wild fitness instructor move around a natural space there’s a swiftness and ease that we all lack and there’s no struggle because it’s natural. We used to throw, swing, carry, jump, crawl and run on instinct, then we stopped needing to and our bodies simply forgot how, these people have woken up those physical memories once again.
“We all do lots of a small amount of movements" says Walters. “The stereotypical example is sitting at a desk and a computer, but even outside of that we don’t have the varied amount of movements that we did when we had to run through savannas and climb trees."
“In the modern western world people do a lot of sport, but they focus on say, running, or on triathlons – which is great for those specific muscles but it means that you only train those specific set of muscles and only move your body in that specific way. You’re not fully stretching your body out and creating resilience, you’re becoming a specialist, wearing down certain muscles, ligaments, and bones, but totally neglecting many others."
“You’ll see on Saturday that it’s all about varied movement and fun. We play a lot of games, if you spend two hours playing around in a gang you’re focused on the game and your attention is in the moment, then you realised two hours later that you're knackered."
The morning of my Wild Fitness experience I’m excited to see how this thinking plays out in real life.
At the meeting place, we’re surrounded by Saturday morning exercisers. People jog round the paths, friends power walk past holding water bottles, in an old park bandstand a group of people are doing a boxing class. I wonder how different our workout could be to theirs.
Our instructor Uju immediately leads us off the path and up the hill towards the trees, carrying long sticks over her shoulder. Stopping under a tree, she tells us to take a stick each, hold it over our head with both hands and try walking around. As we walk around she explains how this helps to align our posture and straightens our spine, she tells us to focus on the way the ground feels under our feet.
Next is a series of games that move our bodies into positions they wouldn’t usually attempt, using laughter, play and fast reaction time to stop us overthinking and get us out of our own heads. Then we do a one minute hang from a tree, I already feel limber and more awake.
“I always get my groups to hang in every session" says Uju. “It’s something that we should all try and do regularly. Think about how you are hanging, the human body can relax, it can retract, it can adapt. Think about the surface of the tree, it’s not smoothed off like everything that’s man made around us, you have to work with it and readjust to fit its texture."
Over the next two hours, I get a workout like none I’ve ever experienced before, but it never feels like a workout, we’re just playing.
We run with our eyes closed, putting trust in total strangers, we play in the forest, jumping from tree roots, balancing on branches, crawling in the dirt and getting our hands working on both the ground and on the trees around us.
It’s strange how easily our group gets along, within the first hour we’re totally relaxed and laughing like we know one another well.
“We’re creating bonds at a simple primal level" says Uju. “We feel like we’re getting to know each other, but without having to chat about life, politics or anything else, it’s simpler than that, we’re a tribe."
"I’m feeling the best kind of tired there is, real playing out in the sun all day as a kid, kind of tiredness. It’s years since I last felt it."
By the end of the two hours I’ve carried heavier logs than I would have said possible, become wholly more comfortable with moving across the forest floor on both hands and feet than I would have ever been earlier in the morning, and I’m feeling the best kind of tired there is, real playing out in the sun all day as a kid, kind of tiredness. It’s years since I last felt it.
Leaving our little oasis of wilderness and walking out of the heath, Uju tells me about the different retreats that Wild Fitness has and how you can spend a whole week moving in Zanzibar and other exotic locations. During her time in Crete, they stayed in accommodation built into the cliffs, ate fresh produce from the island and spent every day on the beaches and in the countryside, moving, running, climbing and swimming, before relaxing in the grounds. It sounds like paradise.
As we talk, I think about how chatty we all are and how light and awake I feel, it’s pretty remarkable.
My body feels tired from being worked properly for a few hours, but there’s something also about being covered in dust and mud and feeling like I’ve interracted with the nature around me for a morning. According to Wild’s ethos, it’s not just moving and playing that will change you, it’s simply being outside and in nature.
"In the modern world people have their world and nature is something else, we look upon nature, instead of feeling that we’re a part of it" says Walters.
“Without getting all tree hugging and hippy, there have been plenty of studies that proved that you do feel happier simply by being nature, you don’t have to be doing anything in particular."
“There’s one great study that had people taking an exam in a room with no windows, they had another group of people take the same exam, having just been for a half an hour walk in a park, and the second group did better. A third group just looked at pictures of nature and still did better, it’s lovely in that it’s tangible."
So is Wild Fitness on to something? Most definitely. It’s an idea that seems so simple and obvious, but an idea that gets ignored by most of us. Move your body, move it properly, move it regularly. Is it possible to move in a wild way when living a city based urban lifestyle? How do we get started?
“Whether you believe it or not and whether you’re conscious of the impact it has or not, it’s not going to do you any harm to go out and walk around a park" says Walters. “When it comes to movement, don’t do it in a gym, get out and climb a tree."
“We’re not for one minute saying that life was brilliant 50,000 years ago before technology. We’re recognising that we’ve evolved to do loads of stuff that we’re no longer doing and that’s causing chronic diseases, it’s causing diabetes and back pain."
“We’re very flexible, we’ve evolved to be very adaptable human beings and here is a list of some stuff we should be able to do! We should be able to run, we should be able to crawl, and we should be able to lift stuff, climb trees, swing from trees and have a lot of fun!
“That’s the thing that gets missed a lot of the time in western culture, you have your life and then you have the burden of going to the gym as a separate part of that life. All mammals play and humans play more than any other, so when did we lose that? What we really strongly advocate is that movement can be fun."
Do It Yourself
Retreats run within the UK and major cities, as well as in Zanzibar, Spain, Kenya, Crete, London and the Isle of Wight.
Check out the different retreats available and find prices and dates here.