I like to exercise in the woods. There! I’ve said it. I’ve said it aloud too - so there’s no going back. Truth be told, I’m much happier here among the trees than the squeezing between the pec-decks and stationary bikes at my local globo gym. I even prefer it to pounding the streets or hiking through the fields. In fact I prefer it to pretty much everything.
There’s something primal about the woods. It’s not just the smells, the sounds of the whispering trees, the presence of birds and other wildlife, or the dappled sunlight effect that the forest canopy casts on the ground. I think it goes further than that.
It’s a place where human beings seem to instantly feel at home; an environment that at once welcomes and intrigues. For me, being in the woods puts humans back where they belong, back where we started before the first of our species walked out of the forest on two legs and into the African savannah.
Of course you could argue that other environments could be thought of as just as natural for humans - the desert or the mountains, for example. What’s different about the forest though is that you can’t see it all at once. Upon a mountain top, you can gaze out over acres of terrain at one glance. In the Sahara you can cast an eye over mile-upon-mile of undulating dunes if you stand on top of a high one. In a forest however, only as you walk through it are its secrets revealed to you. You stumble from one little discovery to the next with a surprise around every corner.
I don’t just walk in the forest though. That’s enjoyable enough but there’s so much more fun to be had. No, I use the forest as my gym. There’s far more to do there than there is at your local LA Fitness centre. You just need to know how to use it.
There’s no end of challenges when you learn how to spot them. Can I jump that log? Can I vault that broken stump? Can I balance on this branch – or hang underneath that one – or move hand-over-hand along it?
Now you might be wondering what any of this has to do with posture or the Gokhale Method? What’s easy to forget is that posture is just a snap shot of movement. If you can move successfully between a range of different but correct postures, we can say that you ‘move well’. The challenge of moving well only becomes real when we are asked to engage in real, complex and unique movement patterns.
Ok, so you’ve used the Gokhale Method to improve the way you stand, sit and lie down. Maybe your back pain has cleared up? Maybe you no longer feel like a hunchback when you look in the mirror? That’s great! But that’s not the end of the Gokhale Method or your quest to make the most of the body you’ve been given.
The next test is to use your new-found sense of balance, posture and grace in an increasing number of more challenging ways. And, to my mind, there’s nothing outside of the woods to beat this.
As you walk through a forest you’ll notice the floor beneath you is uneven. Can you keep your foot arches nicely intact and your ankles, knees and hips in alignment? Or do you allow your knees to pitch inwards, your shoulders to pull towards each and your head to be pushed out, grimly, in front of you? If you can learn to control your posture while moving in a complex environment like this, you’re well on the way to mastering your body. It’s both the training and the test. You’ll move with greater efficiency and grace, be protected from injury – and certainly enjoy yourself a whole lot more!
There’s something to look for with every step. When you notice you’re going to have to duck under a low branch, do you find yourself rounding your back and tucking your head into your shoulders? Or do you hinge neatly at the hips, while keeping your back straight and true?
Another example: try walking along a log. You’ll find you’re much more balanced if you engage your inner corset and ensure you’re using your rib anchor. In fact, the extra stability you gain from appropriate use of your abs and obliques will extend into every movement.
If you try to lift a sizable log from the ground but don’t do it from a healthy start and end posture, your body will tell you about it. You might get away with reaching for your toes badly under ordinary circumstances – but try it before lifting a heavy weight from the ground and suddenly all Esther’s teachings make sense. (In fact many powerlifters and strongman competitors unconsciously employ the skills and positions that Gokhale Method student practice – that’s what makes them so successful.)
Whether you’re jumping, crawling, climbing, lifting or carrying, these principles will all still apply. You can’t really break the rules. You can only break yourself against them.
When I take new clients into the forest to train I find there are two things that make them feel pretty darn stiff the next day, even if to my conventional gym goers it appears that they’ve only done a light workout.
Firstly their bodies go into positions that they would otherwise never find themselves in. Joints will go through a much wider range of motion that they are used to, making this excellent mobility work. (If you’ve tried taking a huge first step to get off the ground and onto the first branch of a tree, you’ll know what I mean.)
Secondly, every movement is unique. Because each inch of a wood is different, individuals must adapt their movement in complex and subtle ways each time. Every muscle and every joint has a part to play. There's no machine isolating muscle groups as there will be in your local LA Fitness center. Movement faults or postural issues have nowhere to hide.
The mind-body link has a large role to play here too. To respond to this environment fully, you must be highly alert: alert to the branch you might walk into; alert to the shifting terrain under your feet; alert to the position of your body in space; and alert to how you’re controlling your body in this ever changing landscape.
The overall benefits of a workout like this are entirely holistic. Because we never use sets and reps, improvements are harder to measure yet easier to feel. We’re simultaneously addressing mobility, strength, speed, stamina, balance, movement skills - and, of course, bodily awareness in the form of the Gokhale Method.
The better you apply your refined awareness skills the more quickly the other benefits will follow, all the while protected from injury by the balance, alignment and stability that the Gokhale Method confers. Twenty minutes on a stationary bike while staring at a LCD screen just doesn’t compare!
My hope is that one day we will all return to moving, standing and sitting as humans have for thousands of years (and as some indigenous people still do.) I hope also that we will reject the artificiality of gym exercise and get back to performing authentic human movement in the sort of environment in which our bodies and minds have evolved to thrive.
By Oliver Selway
Author of Instinctive Fitness
Book available from Amazon: http://amzn.to/2vPiIA8
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