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The Meaning of Movement: Ancestral Movement & Evolve, Move, Play

I recently spent 9 days in the bush with a tribe, most of whom I’d never met. It was called the Ancestral Movement Retreat hosted by Simon Thakur and Rafe Kelley from Evolve Move Play. I’ve attended a lot of seminars, camps, and retreats in the last eight years. For me, this was by far the most profound.

 

What interested me about this retreat?

 

I had attended a day-long workshop with Simon six months prior and was impressed by his ability to blend his experience and study of the East and West. What was more interesting to me was that, as a teacher, he was surprisingly not well known amongst the “fitness” community for someone so talented.

 

In eight hours or so he completely expanded my field of view from the mundane to the awesome, covering topics such as neuroscience, exercise rehabilitation, evolutionary biology, psychology, martial arts, yoga, qi-gong and more. It was entirely practical and mostly required getting dirty in the Darebin Parklands.

 

Rafe had sparked something in me when I saw his Return to the Joy video that Simon had shared about six months ago. I knew I had to meet this guy. You can see for yourself why I felt this in the video below:

I didn’t have many expectations going into this experience. I had just completed 3 weeks in Thailand and Bali attending other movement camps with Ido Portal, H.E.L.P., and Jungle Brothers. I think I was just feeling that it would be nice to spend a week in nature, something I hadn’t done since I was 15 years old.

 

So I arrive at the camp on a private property outside a tiny NSW town called Araluen after driving eight hours from Melbourne with two new friends. We take in all our belongings for the 8 nights: camping equipment, clothes, food. We meet some new faces and set up. The next morning we were to begin.

 

It was interesting how quickly I fell into the natural rhythm. Upon waking each morning I answered nature’s call, swam in the stream, put on the same clothes and walked up to the main camp where there was a fire, hot drinks and inspiring conversations to be had.

 

At some point, after everyone gathered around the fire, it was time for our first session. Simon and Rafe generally alternated teaching sessions and built upon each other’s lessons throughout the week.

 

So there we were. Standing in a circle, barefoot in the sand. Soft knees. Eyes closed, gaze slightly lifted. Fingers spread toward the earth. A glimmer of a smile on the face. The morning birds were singing, the nearby stream streaming and the sunlight peering through the tree canopy. The air was cool.

 

I was home…

 

We gently moved the body, mostly in circular and wave-like patterns. These rhythms woke the body from sleep and prepared it for the day ahead. Sometimes we focused on the most minute detail, like the space between two vertebrae or a tiny grain of sand between our feet, other times we expanded our awareness to the entire cosmos, drawing that expansiveness within ourselves.

 

Simon brought his deep research into yoga, qi-gong, neuroscience, biology, and biomechanics into each morning session. This was heavily grounded in first-hand experience and evidence-based science. Simon built on a well-researched concept of a body map. All of us have an awareness of our body in relation to the outside world as well as with itself.

 

Much of our practice was centered around increasing our ability to hone in on tiny parts of the body, thereby waking them up and increasing the resolution of our body map. He suggested that with the help of mirror neurons, this may increase our kinaesthetic empathy. So now when I watch a lizard crawl of a monkey swing, I have a much better understanding of how that might feel within me. Perhaps this enables us to better communicate with each other and learn new, movement patterns with increasing complexity.

Discussing body maps and mirror neurons

Another key lesson in Simon’s teaching is the cultivation of the “Water Dragon Body”. Imagine a dragon in eastern mythology, usually limbless, flying through the sky – perhaps an eel might be an easier image. Nevertheless, imagine this and gain a sense of what this swimming, slithering motion through the spine might feel like. Now just for a moment, realise that humans have evolved from animals that do exactly this. Everything from a tiny bacterium swimming around to fish, then snakes, then lizards, then crawling mammals, then apes, then us…

 

It’s a real trip when you really think about it. Here’s an old video of Simon demonstrating one variation of spinal patterns – skip to 7:15 to witness the history of biomechanical evolution in just 2.5 minutes. If you’re intrigued, explore Simon’s blog in detail. He goes deep.

 

 

So, here we are, standing in the bush, swimming around in space pretending we’re dragons. What is the point of all this? Mobility? Strength? Coordination?

 

For me, it was… Wonder.

 

Simon had an uncanny knack to encourage one to feel immense awe and appreciation for our ancestry, for where we come from and where we are now, but without being overly “spiritual”.

 

One morning, after some light qi-gong-type movements, we were invited to gaze down at a single point between our feet, observing the tiniest spec of gravel, then asked to sense the insane amount of seething life within that small fragment of awareness. All the tiny micro-organisms that were wriggling, feeding, sexing, etc. I thought to myself, “Holy shit! I never really considered that.”

 

Then, without warning, he encouraged us to maintain that sense of wonder, and slowly expand our focus outwards while lifting our hands and eyes. By the time I was gazing at the sky with palms together, I had the biggest smile on my face with the feeling of “WOW!” bursting from within me. It was actually slightly overwhelming but felt unbelievable.

 

It’s interesting to recognise how many of us take the wonders of the cosmos for granted. I know I rarely think about it. I suspect this would be a pretty effective antidote to depression and nihilism. Actually, just the act of spending time out in nature has been shown to be one of the most effective methods of alleviating depression or anxiety.

 

In Simon’s words:

 

“As we explore, we find that the body is full of layer upon layer of extraordinary, ancient, ancestral power – four billion years of adaptation and embodied knowledge – and we start to anchor this understanding of shared ancestry and vast evolutionary timescales in the actual feeling of the body itself. Our perception of time and space shift: we feel the fact that we are giant organisms of mind-boggling complexity, made of water, rock, and air; and more and more we sense and feel the immensity of past eons right now, in the present moment. Our deepening sense of ourselves, our minds and our bodies, grants us a deepening sense of the living world and our continuity with it, and eventually, at a certain point, we come back to a very simple and natural form of worship of life itself.”

 

After our morning practice, if we weren’t lost in riveting conversation with someone, we’d wander to the main camp to cook and eat breakfast together. The food for the whole camp was outstanding. I fully expected to be surviving off dried cereal and nuts but we managed to store and cook delicious meals throughout the entire week with the odd trip to town for more ice.

 

Rafe taught the first post-breakky session, leading with ball games to warm up the mental, emotional and physical body then some practice in break-falling. How many of us know how to fall confidently and safely? Not many I realised. We spend most of our lives trying not to fall over, which actually prevents us from attempting daring feats. If we become masters of falling or breaking the fall, then we become much more equipped to take on life’s physical challenges, whether that be wrestling your child or in Rafe’s case, jumping 7-feet from one tree branch to another, 25-feet above the earth’s crust.

We translated this break-falling into dive-rolling and then rough and tumble play. Through this, I realised that my 4+year shelter inside a gym had made me unconsciously afraid of the outside. Intellectually, I knew there are incredible benefits of being outdoors and actually getting dirty, such as increasing diversity of intestinal microbiota, but emotionally, I was unusually hesitant about getting covered in dirt while wrestling someone else to the ground.

 

It was dusty.

I could get sand in my eyes.

I could get a scratch.

I only have three pairs of clothes.

There’s no shower here.

 

I noticed it took a few days to go from 80% uncomfortable with the dirty ground to about 20%. In fact, by the end of the retreat, I actually began to like it.

 

Other than Parkour, or what Rafe calls “Tree-running”, he was also a huge advocate of martial arts, roughhousing or rough and tumble play. My (and evidently, Rafe’s too) recent deep dive into Jordan Peterson’s lectures has revealed an incredible amount of literature that supports roughhousing as a fundamental to human culture and therefore the human psyche.

 

Rats who are deprived of roughhousing display symptoms of attention-deficit-disorder, which can be treated with Ritalin, like humans. Interestingly, Rafe recounted his childhood that was cursed with learning disabilities in school (despite being a voracious reader at home) until he encountered martial arts, to which he devoted an incredible amount of time to over the next decade.

 

It makes sense, that when we take roughhousing away from children, especially boys, then ask them to sit still and quiet while they’re caged in sneakers and a plastic chair that most of them rebel, some a little more than others. Rough and tumble play has also been shown to increase children’s ability to develop delayed gratification, which we recognise as one of the most important factors for determining one’s success in life.

 

Rafe told us that a lot of his students have returned to seminars and claimed that rough and tumble play has also profoundly benefitted their sexual and romantic relationship. Roughhousing, we would learn, is an incredibly effective method of getting out of our heads and into our bodies, something which most of us need to do on a much more frequent basis.

 

Throughout the retreat, we explored many different methods of physical (non-sexual) play. From contact improvisation to dance to wrestling, I really began to see the benefits that these practices have, not just on the physical body but also the psyche. It reminded me that for years I’ve heard from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners that performing this form of grappling martial art has helped them more in their social skills than in their physical power.

 

Dance and roughhousing are two movement practices that are fundamentals to almost all traditional cultures on earth. In fact, roughhousing is older than humans. Most animals engage in some sort of jostling for social communication from wolves to lobsters (as Jordan Peterson popularised).

 

It’s interesting to think how few of us actually engage in either dance or roughhousing and question what kind of effect this has on us individually as well as culturally. Are we more anxious, arrogant, depressed, inflated or deflated because of it? I suspect so. If anything it means that most of us aren’t as physically gifted as our tribal ancestors.

 

The beautiful video you saw at the start of this blog was Rafe doing what Rafe does best. As a former parkour athlete, he’s now dedicated his efforts to flipping through nature instead of the concrete jungle. This has offered up a whole platter of unique and unusual environments to engage with. No tree branch is exactly the same. No rock. No waterfall. No weather pattern is identical to the one before it. This makes for some very interesting physical practice.

 

I wrote about this interaction with nature quite a lot in Man Alive and highlighted the incalculable amount of benefits that unfold when we immerse in nature to such a degree. While my acrobatic talents are not as well developed as Rafe’s, I can appreciate his intense devotion to nature as a canvas for the art of movement. I for one am inspired to work on my brush strokes.

 

Gratefully, I was exposed to some fundamentals for enhancing my natural movement practice. One memorable session, Rafe invited us to the Jungle Gym (everyone needs a jungle gym by the way) to work on some arboreal locomotion… errr moving around in the trees.

 

Another tribe-member, Emma, brought some music to the class, which led us to discover how to dance with the structures around us. We played with a few parkour techniques, but mostly it was intuitive improvisation. We then transitioned from a stationary position to moving throughout the entire jungle gym, interacting with other movers, as well as the gym, as well as ourselves. The music added an element that could not have been foreseen by Rafe. It was unexpected and spectacular for both teacher and student… for lack of better words, here’s a clip:

 

 

Much of my experience throughout the whole week was quite ineffable. Spending eight nights in nature is profound just by itself, let alone immersing deeply into the world of “Ancestral Movement” with twenty or so other sapiens.

 

Toward the end of the retreat, I was waking up just before the first bird chirped – a sign that I was now in sync with the circadian rhythm of the earth.

 

I started moving slowly, thinking less. Time seemed to disappear, or at least become inconsequential. Once, Rafe mentioned that it was 9:40. Immediately, Simon declared “He knows the time. Get him!”

 

There’s no doubt that most of us are experiencing some form of Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD). Let’s not forget that we have evolved over hundreds of millions of years with the rhythm of the earth, where natural light slowly fades into darkness over many hours. Now, only in the last hundred years or so, we have artificial light. Thanks to digital technology, that light is on the same spectrum as the sun is during the middle of the day. Good-bye, restful sleep…

 

In a world where every bit of information is available at a click of a button, we rarely hear our own answers. As the mind began to quiet, I felt more introspective, more connected to my own ideas and beliefs. Despite there being much less to ‘do’ out there, I had a lot more meaning.

Cold mountain water is good for your soul

 

When I first met Rafe around the campfire, he was studying Jordan Peterson’s academic behemoth, Maps of Meaning. He’d been reading the greats of mythology, anthropology, and psychology from a young age and had a unique ability to frame complex ideas in an easily understandable way. Telling stories around the campfire, he taught us the meaning of certain ideas with the great Hero Myth creeping up again and again.

 

I discovered these words from Rafe after the retreat:

Why do you we train?

 For most of us, there is no direct necessity for movement capacity. We can get by in life without being able to run fast, jump high, hit hard, or solve complex movement problems.

 So why train?

 We train to confront the dragon of life’s potential chaos, we train to be more capable of solving any physical problem and through that to improve at solving all the possible problems life can throw at us. And we train for the meaning we gain from this process.

Training is a Hero’s journey.”

 

This obviously resonated with me. Training to achieve a one-arm handstand or a double bodyweight back squat is pretty useless in today’s society. In fact, doing almost any other training than walking and light postural exercises is unnecessary. So what’s the point?

 

Meaning.

 

Again from Rafe:

“In mountaineering, there is an old saying: “It is not what the man does to the mountain it’s what the mountain does to the man.” This is the fundamental realization we train: To experience what our body and mind can be; To experience moments of epic adventure; To make life more deeply meaningful.”

 

A big thank you to Simon, Rafe, and all the other tribe members who made the week an unforgettable experience. I highly encourage everyone to adventure out with either of these great teachers and blow your mind into a state of awe and wonder at the magic of life. I’m deeply inspired by the work these two are offering in the world of… being human. So much wisdom shared. So many lessons learned. Since returning, I have been enjoying putting these new tools into practice and integrating such a powerful experience into my life.

Jungle Gym. Source: https://ancestralmovement.com/

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The 5 Keys to Employee Wellbeing

The working environment is becoming increasingly complex to manage. The lines between working and non-working are blurring. There is a constant pressure to perform, and this is having a dramatic impact on the health of millions of Australian workers.

 

According to DHS, in 2016, absenteeism increased to 9.5 days per employee, at an average cost of $3608. (1) For an ASX-200 organisation, this could mean tens of millions of dollars paid to absent employees every year.

Furthermore, a national survey from Comcare found that “the healthiest employees are almost three times more effective than the least healthy, with the healthiest employees working approximately 143 effective hours per month compared to 49 effective hours per month by the least healthy.” (2)

 

It’s not merely sick-leave that damages organisations, it’s also health-related inefficiency.

 

A simple understanding of physiology makes this finding obvious: An unhealthy brain (and body) functions less effectively than a healthy brain.

 

The Solution

 

To improve employee wellbeing requires more than just motivational posters and a fruit bowl in the lunchroom. Optimum health and fitness require a specific program designed by trained health professionals – one that educates staff on nutrition, exercise and lifestyle.

 

The evidence for large-scale wellbeing programs is coming to the fore. Comcare also reported “There is a wealth of emerging evidence indicating that successful health and wellbeing programs provide an excellent return on investment. For instance, one meta-evaluation looking at the economic return of worksite health promotion programs found on average programs (2):

> decrease sick leave absenteeism by 25.3%

> decrease workers compensation costs by 40.7%

> decrease disability management costs by 24.2%;

 

They concluded: “Global research has found that when employee health and wellness is managed well the percentage of engaged employees increases from 7% to 55%. This research also found self-reported creativity and innovation increases from 20% to 72%.” (2)

 

Considering the above findings, it’s clear there is a strong link between company success and the wellbeing of its employees. This is why I’ve partnered with my old cronies at 5th Element Wellness, to build the corporate world’s first holistic 12-week health and fitness program, The Ultimate Reboot.

 

 Let’s dig deeper into the most important factors that promote employee wellbeing.

 

  1. Nourishing Food

 

No topic on health is more controversial than the food we eat. The combination of emotional bias mixed with fad diets and marketing gimmicks means that navigating the world of nutritional science is more complex than ever. It’s important to receive advice from professionals who have achieved results with clients thousands of times.

 

The purpose of a nutritional program is not to starve the body with the old adage, calories in versus calories out. A well designed nutritional program attempts to increase nutrient density of the body’s tissues, which creates a much better environment for optimal physiology to occur.

 

Counterintuitively much of the time, the more nutrients we eat, the more body fat we lose. This is because we experience better hormone function, optimal neurotransmitter balance, enhanced blood flow and digestion and much more.

 

The primary focus should be on the right types of food, not just on how much.

 

With the perfect meal plan, we can expect to experience a focused mind, positive mood, better digestion, improved sleep, consistent energy levels and of course a trimmer waistline. The importance of good quality nourishing food is essential for optimal health for Australian workers.

 

Tip: Beginning a working day with a nutrient dense breakfast containing high fat and protein with minimal carbohydrates will ensure stable blood sugar levels throughout the day. Eating this way leads to enhanced focus, productivity and mood.

 

 

  1. A Focused Mind

 

A focused mind means a worry-free mind. We know this intuitively. When someone is worried or troubled at work, it’s near impossible to achieve any major goals for that day. This is due to a critical survival hormone known as cortisol.

 

This corticosteroid hormone actively shuts down the prefrontal cortex and instead diverts blood to the amygdala and muscles of the body. When we are in a state of constant fight, flight or freeze, we experience an inability to make clear decisions or even communicate effectively. This can have a catastrophic effect if compounded in the workplace.

 

According to Medibank Australia, “Stress-related presenteeism (employees showing up to work when they aren’t psychologically fit) and absenteeism equate to 3.2 days lost per worker per year.” (3)

 

This means that on average, an employee will have over three days of zero productivity, simply because they have too much on their mind.

 

Often, this can result in poor sleep and a compromised immune system leading to further sick-leave or ineffective working.

 

There are many useful ways to manage stress including:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga, Qi Gong and Tai Chi
  • Spending time in nature
  • Maintaining a regular sleep pattern
  • Eating healthy food
  • Daily exercise
  • Listening to music
  • Being around loved ones
  • Writing in a daily journal

 

While it sometimes may seem like a chore, it is essential for employees to engage in non-work activities they enjoy so that they can be more engaged and fulfilled in their work environment.

 

 

  1. Human Movement

 

We have evolved over millions of years, interacting with nature, swinging from trees, climbing rocks and swimming. Today, however, we’re far removed from our natural human environment. We now sit in a chair, hunched over a desk, under artificial light, breathing stale air, wearing restrictive clothing and experiencing a cascade of stress hormones. Our food is grown, harvested, processed and packaged for us, often hundreds of kilometres away. Our need to walk hundreds of kilometres each week is outsourced to motor-vehicles and other transport. We no longer move how we use to.

 

Our society believes that spending three hours per week dedicated to movement is healthy.

 

However, this is not enough. Our best client results have come when they have moved more often. The more often someone is moving, the more body fat they lose and the more energy they have. It has become evident that the more movement you integrated into the day, the livelier you become.

 

So how do you approach including more movement into your life?

 

Start by walking more. Walk to work and back home; Walk to the supermarket; Walk while taking a phone call; Walk to pick your kids up from school. By walking more, you will stimulate your metabolism, flush blood through your body, open your lungs, deliver nutrients to every one of your cells and most importantly, take a little time to stop and smell the roses.

 

Insight: When you’re not moving, your blood flow slows down, which creates an oxygen deficit in your brain. Increasing the amount of movement, you perform each day can dramatically improve neurochemical balance, resulting in enhanced cognitive performance and feelings of positivity.

 

 

  1. A Sound Night’s Sleep

 

The key to health is the circadian rhythm or our sleep-wake cycle. We have evolved to fall asleep just after sunset and wake up just before sunrise. In today’s modern world this normal rhythm has been altered, and we either don’t get the right sleep or don’t get the right amount of sleep.

 

How much sleep do you need?

 

Sleep regulates about 15-20% of your entire genome, meaning your genes can turn on or off with sufficient levels of sleep. When you deplete your body of sleep over the long term, you can experience severe ill effects ranging from lethargy and depression to psychosis and death.

 

Research has shown that a minimum of 7-8 hours is required for optimal brain function, sex hormone production, fat loss and prevention of certain diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. (4)

 

To support proper sleep rhythms one can implement the following:

  • Spend 5-10 minutes meditating or listening to quiet music before bed
  • Ensure adequate exposure to nature to promote healthy brain waves
  • Eat adequate amounts of food to stabilise blood sugar levels
  • Avoid social media, television and other forms of blue light exposure at night
  • Exercise and move often

 

 

  1. Purpose and Engagement

 

87% of the world’s workers are disengaged. (5)

 

As humans, we have a sincere desire to feel needed and purposeful. Believe it or not, this adds to our sense of wellbeing and can dramatically affect our health. As we discovered previously, our health and wellbeing affect our engagement in work-related activities.

 

After years in a role, we may feel a sense of stagnation or lack of growth, which can affect our motivation and productivity. Thankfully, working toward any goal boosts our motivation in all other pursuits. This makes optimum health and wellbeing a worthy ambition for employees of large organisations.

 

To generate engagement, it is essential to focus on setting goals and measuring results.

 

This can be done with a daily journal coupled with moments of deep introspection. With a clear goal, or path, we have a direction and feel purposeful. By measuring our results, or progress, we continually remind ourselves of our ambitions and further increase motivation. It’s a positive feedback loop.

 

Case Study: The Ultimate Reboot partnered with Telstra to deliver an employee well-being program across many sectors. The program produced excellent results and lessons for all participants however the sector that performed the best had a greater sense of purpose and engagement. This high-performing group was led by an executive director of staff at Telstra. The team had a much more significant sense of program engagement because their leader was highly engaged and highly committed. It’s clear that leadership positions in the workforce play a substantial role in the decision making that impacts the rest of the staff. To ensure greater employee engagement, focus at the top.

 

Find out more how to improve your employee’s wellbeing and engagement at The Ultimate Reboot

 

References:
  1. https://www.dhs.net.au/insight/2016-absence-management-survey-results/ 
  2. https://www.comcare.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/99303/Benefits_to_business_the_evidence_for_investing_in_worker_health_and_wellbeing_PDF,_89.4_KB.pdf
  3. https://www.medibank.com.au/Client/Documents/Pdfs/The-Cost-of-Workplace-Stress.pdf
  4. Cappuccio, F. P., D’Elia, L., Strazzullo, P., & Miller, M. A. (2010). Sleep duration and all-cause mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. Sleep, 33(5), 585-592. 
  5. Gallup. The worldwide employee engagement crisis. 2016

 

 

 

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So, How Does Yoga Really Work?

The tradition of yoga has advanced humankind for thousands of years. Originating from India, the lineage of yoga can be traced back to the Vedic Tradition, around 5000 B.C.E. Then, ancient rishis and sages would practice simple forms of yoga, mainly seated meditation and breath work (pranayama). They were the first human guinea pigs and used their bodies to experiment and uncover the full potential of the human being. Now, approximately in the 21st century, Western Science is unveiling the healing powers of Yoga.

Yoga comprises of 5 primary practices: Asana (postures), pranayama, meditation, chanting and philosophical inquiry. The majority of the research explores the effects of meditation and asana. However, the benefits of chanting & breath control are now slowly being uncovered.

This essay is a brief review of the effects of yoga on different systems of the body. I have attempted to find peer-reviewed literature to support the claims made, however, due to the lack of research available in some areas, I rely on my own experiences of practicing yoga for 6 years as well as the experiences of my teachers who have been practicing for several decades combined.

 

Cardiovascular

Cardiovascular disease is one of the most significant causes of death in the Western World. We know, both through science and experience, that the cardiovascular system is closely linked with emotional stress. When we are stressed, our heart beats faster, or it might even palpitate, our face goes red and blood pressure elevates. Shockingly but somewhat not surprisingly, the most common time for a western man to sustain a heart attack is at 9:30 on Monday morning, just as he enters the office and sits down for work. This one example illustrates the powerful link between the heart and emotions.

The practice of yoga, through stress reduction, has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. As this illness is multifactorial, many parameters are usually measured, including cholesterol levels, blood pressure, heart rate, inflammation, blood vessel damage. To quote one study in particular:

“After one year, the yoga groups showed significant reduction in number of anginal episodes per week, improved exercise capacity and decrease in body weight. Serum total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels also showed greater reductions as compared with control group. Revascularisation procedures were less frequently required in the yoga group. Coronary angiography repeated at one year showed that significantly more lesions regressed and less lesions progressed in the yoga group.”

 To have such a profound effect on the most significant cause of death in the West makes me believe this should be mandatory for companies to implement for their staff. The downstream impact on the economy from fewer healthcare costs etc. is also worth noting.

Fortunately, another study measured heart rate variability and blood pressure during chanting. “Both prayer and mantra caused striking, powerful, and synchronous increases in existing cardiovascular rhythms. Baroreflex sensitivity also increased significantly.”  Baroreflex sensitivity refers to the body’s ability to control blood pressure, a parameter highly associated with cardiovascular disease. Heart rate variability (cardiovascular rhythms) is associated with positive mood and reduced anxiety levels, which we will now explore further.

 

Neurological

Our neurology is the least understood system of the human body. Every day we discover something new about how our brain and it’s chemicals work. Despite this, the research describing the benefits of yoga predominantly involve our nervous system. What’s undeniable for any experienced practitioner of yoga, is the feeling we have after practice.

The effects of yoga on the neurological system are profound. From balancing neurotransmitters to increased levels of grey matter. From changes in brain waves to permanent physical rewiring as a result of neuroplasticity, our brains are an incredible organ that allows us to feel the full spectrum of emotions, something unique to the human species.

Our primary stress hormone cortisol directly destroys neurons in our hippocampus, which leads to a reduced ability to integrate short-term memory to long-term memory. When we meditate, we gain much higher control of our HPA-axis, which governs cortisol secretion. This act of meditation undoubtedly leads to greater memory and concentration through the attenuation of the sympathetic nervous system. As for our Limbic system, it not only regulates our emotion but is also the centre for autonomic breath control. This is why we may experience a release of emotions during intense sessions of pranayama.

Brain waves are the result of and control our state of being in the world. We have 6 activity levels of brain waves, measured in hertz (cycles per second):

  1. Gamma 38-42hz
  2. Beta 12-38hz
  3. Alpha 8-12hz
  4. Theta 3-8hz
  5. Delta 0.5-3hz
  6. Infra-Low <0.5hz

As Steven Cope suggests in his book The Wisdom of Yoga, brain waves can be altered through the practice of yoga. 

 “Brain wave activity begins to shift from the “beta waves” of regular wakefulness to somewhat longer, slower “alpha waves”. We feel what its like to inhabit a truly calm body. New research shows, too, that meditation produces identifiable changes in the brain. Meditation increases activity in areas of the brain associated with positive feelings, reduction in anxiety and faster recovery after negative provocation.”

 Cope expands further

We know that

 

[meditation] promotes states of equanimity in several ways: The levels of stress hormones – epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol – are ratcheted down, calming the nervous system. Heart rate and blood pressure drop and the breathing rate slows as the body’s need for oxygen is reduced. Metabolism slows. Muscle tension is relaxed significantly.” All of this is achieved through the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. When we practice meditation, chanting and diaphragmatic breathing, we activate the vagus nerve, which is responsible for the ‘rest and digest’ functions of our body.

Yoga also affects our neurotransmitters. Through deep breathing, we can produce dopamine, which stimulates the reward centres of our brain. This suggests that yoga could potentially have a positive effect on people suffering from addiction. The calming effects of yoga are very noticeable. Part of this reason is the increase in production of GABA, a neurotransmitter that governs our feeling of calmness as well as our ability to sleep for 8 hours unbroken throughout the night.

It’s clear that yoga positively affects our neurophysiology, which as we will now see, results in greater feelings of happiness as we navigate this beautiful thing called life.

 

Mood & Spirit

Suicide is the most significant cause of death in Australian men under the age of 50. This statistic is alarming for anyone who has gone through depression and knew what it means. Yoga played a significant role in me eliminating depression. The central area of our brain that governs fear and anxiety is the amygdala. It’s been shown that meditation can reduce the activity and size of the amygdala after just a few weeks of beginning.

One study involving depressed men of military service said:

“Subjects who participated in the yoga course demonstrated significant decreases in self-reported symptoms of depression and trait anxiety. Changes were also observed in acute mood, with subjects reporting decreased levels of negative mood and fatigue. Finally, there was a trend for higher morning cortisol levels compared to the control.”

The effects are equally positive for healthy women:

“The yoga group showed markedly higher scores in life satisfaction and lower scores in excitability, aggressiveness, openness, emotionality and somatic complaints. Significant differences could also be observed concerning coping with stress and the mood at the end of the experiment. The yoga group had significant higher scores in high spirits and extravertedness.”

It’s been suggested by various teachers that yoga and meditation allow us to tap into deeper levels of creativity and awareness. Cope wrote poetically in his book:

“Concentrated states [of awareness] give us access to the right hemisphere of the brain, which is the sphere of symbols, dreams and archetypes – where a special quality of nonrational, nonlinear wisdom resides. Loss of linear sense of time. Distortions in the proprioceptive sense of the body. The body may seem to get very large, very small, or parts of it disappear altogether.”

These states of consciousness are associated with permanent changes in areas of the brain that enhance equanimity. By practicing yoga, we can experience these profound shifts in happiness, awareness, neurological health and creativity.

 

Immunity

Yoga has been developed to enhance the feelings of wellbeing experienced by the mind but also to strengthen the resilience of the body. Somehow, yogis explored their internal physiology so profoundly that they began to understand the raw power that it can display.

I have written previously about my encounter with the Dutch man Wim Hof and his breathing techniques. After spending 5 weeks at an ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas, I understood that Wim had adapted his methods from the yogic tradition.

Wim’s philosophy is that the spectrum of human existence in geographical terms would have forced some of us to march across arid deserts and others over frozen lakes. Through these disparate climates, our physiology evolved to withstand these extreme environments. Yes, they would have used different clothes and shelter, but the survivors of these tough times may have developed sophisticated breathing and meditation techniques to withstand these climates. It is only through the comfortable modern lifestyle that we have forgotten that we are capable of such feats of resilience.

Wim is fortunate to have the following of Western Science behind him as recent journal articles have come from Europe detailing Wim’s incredible ability to control his immune response to the injection of E. coli toxin lipopolysaccharide (LPS). Wim and his 10 students who learned the technique over 4 days were able to suppress the symptoms of the toxin, while the control group suffered from intense fevers for hours.

The Wim Hof Method (WHM) has been helping sufferers of severe allergies, autoimmune conditions and chronic inflammatory diseases like arthritis. These incredible results are due to the breathing techniques controlling immune regulatory cytokines. Pro-inflammatory cytokines, TNF-α, IL-6, and IL-8, are significantly lower in people performing WHM, while anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10 and epinephrine are increased rapidly during “intermittent respiratory alkalosis”. The researchers conclude “we demonstrate that voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system results in epinephrine release and subsequent suppression of the innate immune response in humans in vivo. These results could have important implications for the treatment of conditions associated with excessive or persistent inflammation, such as autoimmune diseases.”

Other studies outside of WHM, in typical Hatha Yoga practice, have demonstrated increased levels of antioxidant enzymes & glutathione activity and also an enhanced regulation of white blood cells. From this, we can assume that we are less likely to get sick from the common cold and suffer from chronic illness. It is evident, yoga and it’s associated practices have an incredible effect on the body’s immune system and tolerance of extreme environments.

Respiration

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that something that focuses so heavily on breathing could enhance your respiratory system. But to dive into some of the how’s is still interesting. In yoga, there is a focus to lengthen and deepen the breath rather than using short, shallow breaths like we do when lifting heavy weights. The focus is on expansion and softness, rather than tension and tightness.

The many ways yogis breathe.

  • Abdominal breathing
  • 3 Part Yogic Breath
  • Anuloma Viloma (Alternate nostril breathing)
  • Kapalabhati (Shining Skull Breath)
  • Kumbhaka (Breath retention)
  • Bhastrika  (Bellows Breath)
  • Brahmaree (Humming)
  • Ujayi (Conquerer’s breath)
  • Chandra bhedi (Lunar breathing)
  • Surya bhedi (Solar breathing)

Pranayama is a Sanskrit word we use for breath work that means life force without restraint. Yogi’s believe that breath is life and the way in which we use our breath can dictate so much about the way we navigate through this world. If it is short and fast, our mind is quick and agitated; If it is deep and slow, the mind is calm and content. There are a few simple explanations for this. Firstly, when our diaphragm contracts and pushes our abdominal organs down and out, this triggers our major parasympathetic nerve, the Vagus nerve. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) comprises of our rest and digest facilities, making us calm and relaxed. Secondly, when we breathe deep, we deliver more oxygen to the tissues throughout the body and in particular, the brain. When the brain has oxygen, we are happy.

Another way yogi’s increase oxygen delivery is, counter-intuitively, by holding the breath. The Bohr Effect says that when carbon dioxide levels rise in the blood, there is faster delivery of oxygen from the blood into the surrounding tissues. To capitalise on this, we breathe a lot for a short period (1-5 minutes), then hold the breath. After increasing oxygen levels, we increase carbon dioxide and force more oxygen out of the bloodstream and into the tissues. Side note: To trigger the PNS, we hold the breath out; To trigger the sympathetic nervous system, we hold the breath in.

By drawing out the expiration, we also feel a more profound sense of relaxation through the PNS. This is one of the reasons we perform Ujjayi breath throughout the class. Yes, it sounds like the ocean, or Darth Vader, which is nice, but this foundational technique is used to create presence, focus and calmness throughout the entire yoga practice. If you don’t do it because it feels silly or uncomfortable, I highly encourage you to go all out for just one class and notice if you feel any different. Another way of drawing out the exhalation is by humming. Brahmaree pranayama is used to soften the mind and muscles through the release of nitric oxide. We breathe in deeply and hum like a honey bee for as long as we comfortably can. In more advanced practices, we can hum for the entire class. It’s a trip!

Through breathing techniques, we can strengthen the breathing muscles, namely the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, which can allow us to breathe deeper and more comfortable at rest. If you have ever felt short of breath or tight in the chest due to stress or even anxiety, you have lost full control over your respiratory muscles… you have lost control of your life. Get back in control by first focusing on the breath. Practice these techniques until I tell you to stop.

 

Digestion

According to Dr Mario Martinez, author and longevity scientist, 75% of busy executives have gastrointestinal disorders. You don’t need me to tell you that’s a lot. What is the likely link? Stress.

Your central nervous system interacts with another nervous system located in your gut: The enteric nervous system. Yep, your gut pretty much has its brain. You have experienced this connection before – those butterflies in your stomach are caused by an emotional response. To separate the mind and body would be ridiculous.

Cortisol affects the gut in many ways.

  • Decreased nutrient absorption
  • Decreased oxygenation of the gut
  • Reduced blood flow – as much as 400% less
  • Reduced enzymatic output – as much as 20,000 fold

A chronic elevation of our primary stress hormone, cortisol has been linked to many chronic gastrointestinal disorders. Crohn’s disease, IBS, Ulcerative colitis, Bowel cancers to name a few. Stress affects the gut in many ways, including disruption of bacteria & gut hormones and increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut).

How then does yoga prevent this damage from occurring? By interrupting it at the source. By affecting the neurochemistry, we jeopardise the gut chemistry. This does not mean we can eat a whole pile of gluten, sugar, alcohol and conventional dairy products. With a healthy diet, yoga can help alleviate many chronic digestive conditions. I know from experience, whenever I’m more stressed, my guts don’t function as well.

If you’re taking care of your nutrition, pay attention here. A simple yoga practice incorporating backbends, forward bends, twisting and side-bending, coupled with breathing and meditation could be the answer to your unhappy guts.

 

I have explored nearly the entire human body and its relationship with the ancient practice of yoga. The research doesn’t stop here. As the West aligns more and more with the East, studies will continue to pop up and prove that what was developed thousands of years ago may be all we need to be happy, healthy and robust.

I hope that what I’ve illustrated is reason enough to practice yoga. With the reduction of many of the most significant killers in the Western World as well as the increase in feelings of happiness and general life satisfaction, it is evident to me that yoga should be a lifelong practice for most people. I wonder if the entire world could maintain a regular yoga practice, what kind of place it would be.

References:

  • Cope, S. The wisdom of yoga: A seekers guide to extraordinary living. (2007). Bantam Publishing.
  • The Art of Living. The Science behind Yoga (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.artofliving.org/yoga/yoga-for-beginners/science-behind-yoga
  • Woolery, A., Myers, H., Sternlieb, B., Zeltzer, L. A yoga intervention for young adults with elevated symptoms of depression. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine10.2 (Mar/Apr 2004): 60-3. Retrieved from http://crawl.prod.proquest.com.s3.amazonaws.com/fpcache/344413c890b7f879f2e9bd0d71586c18.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJF7V7KNV2KKY2NUQ&Expires=1476610487&Signature=6hDqV%2F2MjfaBq6Bu%2BcDdC5rlsz0%3D
  • Manchanda S.C., Narang R., Reddy K.S., Sachdeva U., Prabhakaran D., Dharmanand S., Rajani M., Bijlani R. (2000). Retardation of coronary atherosclerosis with yoga lifestyle intervention. The Journal of the Association of Physicians of India 48(7):687-694
  • Bernardi L., Sleight P., Bandinelli G., Cencetti, S., et al. (2001). Effect of rosary prayer and yoga mantras on autonomic cardiovascular rhythms: Comparative study. British Medical Journal, International edition. 1446-9.
  • School F.J., Allolio B., Schonecke O.W. (1994). Physiological and psychological effects of Hatha-Yoga exercise in healthy women. International Journal of Psychosomatics : Official Publication of the International Psychosomatics Institute 41(1-4) 46-52
  • What are brainwaves? (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.brainworksneurotherapy.com/what-are-brainwaves
  • Sanchari S., Som N.S., Monga Y.P., Uday S.R. (2007). Improvement of Glutathione and Total Antioxidant Status with Yoga. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Vol. 13, No. 10: 1085-1090
  • Koxa M., Van Eijka L., Zwaage J., Van den Wildenberga J., Fred C. Sweepd G.J, Van der Hoevena J.G., Pickkersa P. (2013). Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1322174111
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The Great Ocean Road Retreat | 24-26 Nov 2017

There’s likely to be only a few moments in your life that you realise you are doing what you want to be doing. A potent mix of nervousness and excitement leads you to be entirely in the present moment and you feel joyful that everything is just the way it is.

 

This is how I felt on the much anticipated weekend retreat that I led along with my fellow men, Mark Kluwer and Kane Johnson.

 

Truth be told this project had been in full swing since April – but on a much grander scale. We were sincerely considering buying 200 acres of World Heritage land in Northern New South Wales to build our retreat facility. Mark was a builder, and we had some life savings – what could go wrong?

 

At what seemed to be the very last minute, we had hesitation and decided we should try run a few retreats beforehand. Thankfully, we listened to the anxiety in our guts and agreed to take baby steps together.

 

Almost every week after that, we carefully and excitedly crafted what would be our first retreat, held at the historic Seacroft retreat centre on The Great Ocean Road: A characteristic old monastery, surrounded by the wild ocean of the Bass Strait.

 

25 men, 1 weekend. This is our story.

 

 

Once we all arrived and settled into our rooms, at 6:00 pm we gathered into the tastefully restored chapel for a meet and greet. Kane made the introductions to the group and highlighted the purpose for this weekend. He articulated our intentions perfectly, and I was so grateful to be sitting beside him as a friend and a teammate on this journey.

 

A little about Kane: After retiring from a 15 year AFL career, which included two premiership wins with Adelaide and captaincy at Richmond, he embarked on an exploration to find a balance between the physical, mental and spiritual, leading him to travel to China to spend time with Shaolin Monks. While there he found his new passion: studying and practising the ancient self-healing practice of Qigong. It’s clear that Kane is now inspired to create a space for others to develop themselves on a physical, personal and spiritual level.

 

We passed the footy around and each of us articulated who we are and what we were seeking by attending the retreat – it was an honour to witness so many blokes immediately open up from the heart. There were some nerves, as most of us (including Mark, Kane & I) didn’t know what to expect for the weekend. But we felt an immediate sense of trust and a lot of excitement about what was in store for the next couple days.

 

Some of us were seeking profound personal transformation, some wanted to test themselves, and others just wanted a weekend away from the busy churn of emails and phone calls.

 

As for me – I wanted to fulfil a dream I’d had for over five years: To create a profound weekend for a group of human beings to reconnect with themselves, with others and with nature.

 

Kane, with his deep understanding and complete presence, led the team through some Qi Gong to help us and settle into the area. With some light movement flowing with the breath and the energy in the room began to thicken.

 

Already we felt a connection to one another. Whatever happens this weekend, we are brothers. We stood there, breathing; some stillness and calm before the proverbial storm of tomorrow.

 

The boys were hungry, and it was dinner time, so Henry – our star chef from the Fitzroy famous restaurant, Industry Beans – delivered with incredibly healthy and delicious food, not just for this meal but the entire weekend.

 

A few of the stand-outs were slow cooked beef and Korean kimchi lettuce cups for dinner; pulled lamb with slaw and quinoa for lunch; eggs with field mushrooms and sautéed spinach on paleo toast for breakfast; all meals were gluten-free with vegan options and Man Alive approved. Bellies were full, and smiles were broad.

 

We then celebrated our first meal together by walking down to the beach for a twilight swim. The tide was out and the clouds were putting on a show. There was intense excitement as we all felt like this was already a spectacular weekend to be. Some tribal circle war cries and a few fist bumps ensued before walking back home for the next activity.

 

 

Before sending the men off to a restful sleep, we recollected into the chapel for a session of Yoga Nidra. I sat there in a candlelit hall, with soft music playing as the men walked in and laid down on their mats. I had an enormous grin on my face and was so appreciative of this moment.

 

Some collective breathing and bringing the attention to specific points of the body encouraged the frequency of brain waves to drift from beta to theta. Calmness entered the room and then the Swedish masseuse, Lars, began to snore. Mark giggled. Then the whole room erupted in laughter – full belly howling laughter – for several minutes. We settled back down and then some more snoring and laughing and then sleeping. It was time for bed.

 

The next morning we woke up to some Hatha yoga with breath (pranayama), posture (asana), sound (mantra), and meditation (dhyana). It was my first time teaching only men, many of whom had never done any form of yoga before. Everyone seemed to enjoy the effects of breathing and moving the body as a group, especially first thing in the morning. After 90 minutes of yoga, my body feels open and free while my mind feels more centred, calm and happier. It was a great way to start the day, before breakfast and a morning swim in the ocean.

 

 

Anticipation grew for the late-morning activity when Mark took over. Mark attended a Wim Hof retreat in 2016, which changed the trajectory of his life. Wim’s motto of Strength, Health and Happiness lit a fire in Mark, and now he is on a mission to do the same for others. Since then, Mark has become a certified Master Wim Hof Method Instructor and has been dedicated to helping people from all walks of life experience the innate power they hold within them.

 

It was now time to go deep together with a full hour of The Wim Hof Method, led by one of the most passionate people on the planet.

 

After a brief introduction to the method and the man behind it, the boys laid down and made themselves comfortable to go within. The music started playing.

 

Four rounds of 50 breaths deep and the energy in the room was palpable. Kane and I were there to help the men if needed but found ourselves becoming quite emotional. Even without doing the breathwork – by just being in the room with others who were – we too were ‘getting high on our own supply’. Mark did an incredible job at creating a safe space and ensuring correct breathing technique, so no one was at risk.

 

On the sixth and final round, and 55 minutes later of controlled hyperventilation, the boys took a deep inhale and rolled over to perform as many pushups as possible to generate heat through the body and witness how much oxygen had been packed into every cell of the body.

 

A big exhale, and the room fell still… The music softly played, and for many minutes, we lay there – just feeling.

 

Bringing that moment to mind now makes me emotional as I remember how powerful it felt to be there. It was indeed humbling, and words really cannot describe it.

 

 

After an inspiring and motivational speech from Mark, it was time to test ourselves and jump in the ice. Two hundred, 5-kilogram bags of ice sat outside and needed to be put into an eight-man pool.

 

It was a cold day, and the wind blew from the Antarctic, which didn’t help the confidence, but the men were ready and eager to see what they were made of. The majority of blokes had never experienced a one-degree ice bath before, and so after some instruction, the first group jumped in. It was a huge success with everyone sitting in cold water for at least 2 minutes, most reached the 5-minute mark.

 

The mind is the weakest link while immersed in near-zero waters.

 

Once you start to let the cold creep in, you’re done. To allow yourself shiver in the first few minutes is a choice and a dangerous one at that. If you wish to take on the ice, make sure you have someone trained in guiding people through it. Permanent nerve damage, hypothermia and drowning are real threats so please don’t do it by yourself. Mark is now offering private sessions in Melbourne if you’re keen to experience it for the first time, or are merely wanting to go deeper than you could by yourself.

 

 

After lunch, we gave the boys free time to rest and reflect on the experience of the morning. Some journaled and read, others chatted and drank tea together deepening the relationships that were naturally unfolding.

 

At 5:00 we ventured down to the beach for a movement practice. It had been raining heavily but sporadically for most of the afternoon, but we decided to chance it and embrace whatever came. With lightning sparking out over the ocean we walked along the sand to get moving despite Nick’s concern that “the beach is the worst place to be in a thunderstorm.”

 

First a little bit of lower body mobility training to remove the fear of getting sandy. We partnered up and played a few games before Kane and Mark brought a 20-metre long rope for a championship round of Tug o’ War with Kane’s team taking out the title. Better luck next time, Mark. We then played some Ido Portal inspired contact improvisation to develop a better sense of communication through movement and understanding of one another and our limitations of movement. This was a favourite for many of us as we freely moved in the rain and sand along a vast expanse of beach with no one else around and a free light show over the ocean. To finish with meditation, I invited the men to stand ankle deep in the water to gaze out over the ocean, completely still, just observing nature in its rawness.

 

 

As we wandered back to Seacroft, I received a few comments about how incredible the last few days were. I agreed with them that it had already been an epic experience for me too then reminded them that it had only been 23 hours since we arrived. I believe that time began to slow down as we formed meaningful connections with complete strangers, learned to breathe, meditate and move our bodies and of course, disconnected from our mobile devices to reconnect with nature. All these things together allow us to be much more present, which makes it feel like time is stretched out. I wondered how we could bring this state of being back home when we departed.

 

That night we huddled away from the rain in the chapel to participate in one of our now famous Man Night’s. We split off into three groups to connect on a slightly more in-depth level by going around the circle and simply answering the question “What’s going on for you at the moment?”. It’s a beautiful thing that happens when a group of men trust and listen to each other for a few hours.

 

After doing this for over a year, I’ve found that I receive the most clarity and benefit from listening to other people’s stories, rather than sharing my own. One of the men on the retreat was a good friend, Josh Komen, who has an incredible story of battling cancer and graft vs host disease for the last seven years. Josh is currently writing a book about his journey, and I encourage everyone to check it out when it is released.

 

Ultimately when you hear Josh speak, you remember that your health and your loved ones are all that matter. It strips away the competitor bullshit that so easily creeps into our lives, and you’re left with what makes you happy.

 

It was great hearing everyone’s story – their wins, their struggles, their dreams and their past. We find these conversations to be so enriching and so we allowed some time for everyone to write down some insights and reflections from the group conversation into their journal. We concluded the evening with a meditation, before walking off for a sound night’s sleep.

 

We began the next morning with another exploration into hatha yoga, this time picking up the tempo and going a little bit deeper into the body and the breath. I wanted to encourage the opening of the body and the lungs, preparing them for the next breath work session with Mark.

 

It was the first time we’ve ever moved from 90 minutes of yoga straight into an intense session of The Wim Hof Method – but we’re all about exploring the boundaries and what was the worst that could happen anyway?

 

This time, Mark laid the mats beside each other to encourage a bond between us all. It was his most intense session ever. Afterwards, he invited all of us to hold hands while we were lying down to feel the connection between one other. We continued to breathe while visualising who we could become as our strongest, most authentic self.

 

 We then all stood up and it was time for a group huddle with all the men, arm in arm, entirely focused on Marks heart-felt words. Looking each and every one of us straight in the eyes, his central message was to feel love for self, others and the world around us. With raw emotion, the whole group started jumping and repeatedly roaring the word ‘Love’.

 

With hearts open and smiles from ear, to ear, we ate our last meal together. Spirits were high as we shared our experiences of the weekend and what life was going to be like once we left. We felt empowered to take on any challenge that lay before us back home.

 

We felt excited and supported to venture back out into our own lives and have the impact that all of us desire to have in the world around us.

 

As a group, we sat together one last time in the chapel to reflect as a group. The closing circle was ceremonial and at the same time a celebration. In one weekend all of us felt reborn into a stronger, more fully alive self. We passed the footy around and shared our most memorable moments of the weekend and what we wanted to take back home with us. Some of us wanted to continue the breathing practice, some wanted to start moving more, and others felt a greater appreciation for their family – to return home to be a more loving father and husband.

 

It was amazing to me that so much change could happen in less than 48 hours. It’s a testament to the energy of the people there as well as the profound effectiveness of the techniques and practices that we explored.

 

Mark, Kane and I were truly blown away by the willingness and openness of all the men who joined us for such a life-changing weekend. A brotherhood had formed, which I believe is so essential for the physical, spiritual and mental health of all men in this generation. This type of connection is in desperate need among so many of us, myself included. These connections contribute so much to what gives our life purpose and meaning. They support and encourage us to be our best selves in all of life’s situations.

 

This weekend was indeed a dream come true for me. After many thoughtful conversations with Mark and Kane, it’s clear that it was for them too. We are currently working on our next venture together, and after much discussion about what was great and what could be improved, we are excited to announce we will be delivering an unforgettable retreat experience in June 2018. Who’s in?


To join us for the next adventure June 22-24 on the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, visit: https://www.humanitix.com/event/mornington-peninsula-mens-retreat-iluka/

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9 Traits to Look for When Hiring A Coach

The personal training industry has one of the highest staff turnovers in any industry. All reasons aside, this illustrates how important it is for you to choose the right coach to help you embark on your fitness journey.

 

I’ve distilled the exceptional personal trainer into 9 definite traits. Here they are.

 

  1. They Walk the Talk

 

A coach that tells you to eat chicken breast and broccoli without the dressing is poor. A coach that says that & eat McDonald’s on their lunch break is even worse. Every waking moment for a coach is a chance to be a role model for the public. We are responsible for helping people reach their health and fitness goals, which you achieve through proper nutrition, mindset and movement. If us coaches were to be visibly fit & healthy yet not train consistently or eat nutritious food (yes, this is possible), then what kind of example does that set for our clients and potential clients?

 

  1. They Perform a Comprehensive Assessment

 

We are legally required to ask you health-related questions to determine if you are fit enough to exercise. This is the bare minimum! If your coach does not perform a biomechanics assessment to determine your tightness and weaknesses in your body, how can they really design a ‘personalised’ program for you? Does your coach go the extra mile with the help of a doctor and get your blood tests done? There are so many variables to consider when designing an exercise and nutritional program. The best coaches will collect as much data on your body & mind as possible to make sure they are making the right decisions.

 

  1. They Get Results

 

This doesn’t only pertain to body composition. Before and after images are great but it makes sense that a coach would ask you about your goals considering the full spectrum of health and fitness. Ask yourself, if your coach has a six pack, but they suffer chronic anxiety, would you trade places with them? Their results are not only for themselves but also their clients. Be aware that most coaches will have one or two customers with incredible results but can they consistently get their clients from where they are to where they want to be?

 

  1. They Have Great Communication Skills

 

Humans communicate their thoughts and feelings in very complex ways and the gym is an environment where interpretations can be skewed even more. It’s important that your coach makes you feel safe, so you express yourself… and they listen. There is plenty of information online on how to get fit and healthy. So then, why is it so hard? A strong relationship is created between coach and student and this can only form with excellent communication skills.

 

  1. They Are Inspiring

 

I’m not interested in being put up on your wall muscly, oiled up & wrapped in a leopard print rug. I’m talking about a combination of walking the talk and allowing you to align with your vision correctly. You don’t need a guilt-trip into behaving properly; you need to be inspired to do so.

 

  1. They Consistently Educate

 

A Certificate III & IV is just the beginning of becoming a great personal trainer. There is a myriad of upskilling courses available for fitness professionals, so it’s important their certifications line up with your interests. If you only want to learn gymnastics, don’t go to a kettlebell instructor. Your coach needs to attend a professional development course at least once each year and is also reading, listening and researching the best literature in the world in their spare time.

 

  1. They Have A Sound Moral Compass

 

Taking shortcuts is rife in the fitness industry. A collection of before and after photos on a website is the be all and end all for some coaches. The question remains, how did they achieve these results? If they require ingesting dangerous fat-burners, starving themselves or performing countless burpees then maybe that’s not the long-term approach you’re looking for. A coach should also not lose themselves in gym politics or gossip, and they should not try to ‘win’ you from another trainer. Ethics is important if you’re going to be on a journey of vulnerability and trust.

 

  1. They Embody Professionalism

 

Embodying professionalism means being punctual. It means having respect for your personal space, your body and your emotional state. Professionalism is dressing correctly and leaving foul language outside. It means communicating properly through email & phone and not scrolling Facebook during your personal training session! I’m talking about being able to give 100% of their attention to you and your needs in an honourable manner. Professionalism is a character trait that’s hard to teach so choose your coach wisely.

 

  1. They Care

 

All of the above traits culminate into this. Do they really care that you achieve the results you want on a safe, respectful and fun journey? When you come to them after a stressful life situation, you want them to have empathy and compassion. You want them to wear their heart on their sleeve and have a real human connection with you!

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7 Reasons to Move that Don’t Include Getting Jacked

Since homo sapien first saw it’s reflection in a body of water, it’s been obsessed with its self-image. Now that body of water is our phone, and we carry it everywhere we go, on standby for the perfect selfie to upload onto the ‘gram. The fitness industry is the worst culprit for self-obsessed image-manic mind games. From bodybuilding competitions to before and after photo marketing campaigns, we take the crown for body dysmorphia exploitation.

 

I’d like to change all that by giving you some reasons to move your body and forget about how to make your abs visible, arms to grow larger or thighs to become skinnier.

 

  1. You meet incredible people

A community is paramount. From plunging into an ice bath to practicing movement, I encourage people to get to know each other through a little bit of adversity. After all, that’s how great bonds are formed, when you and I go into battle together, we share a connection of trust and admiration. As I describe in my book, Man Alive, a community is one of the most powerful ways to increase your health span (the length of time you are healthy). So use your exercise routine as a means to strengthen bonds with someone you care about or find a way to meet new people doing something you enjoy!

 

  1. You feel unstoppable

After a hard work out, whether it be a 5km swim or lifting a personal record in a workout, the sense of achievement is immense. The combined psychological and physiological effects of exercise on your brain are very noticeable. Science has shown that just 1 week of not exercising reduces dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain. You begin to lose motivation and feel a general lack of fulfillment. By moving your body in vigorous activity, you commit yourself to a routine and enhance vital neuro-chemicals in your brain.

 

  1. Your body functions better

From your digestive system to your lymphatic system, there isn’t one physiological system that is not affected by exercise. It’s well known that exercise enhances your cardiovascular system and respiratory system, but just as profound (and probably more noticeable) are the benefits to your digestion, immunity, and brain function. Instead of scaring you into exercising by touting the obvious consequences of stroke, heart attack, Alzheimer’s disease, I feel it’s important to articulate how GOOD your body can feel if you do exercise.

 

  1. You live longer

A US study examining 654,000 people showed that a healthy population who exercise on average live 7.2 years longer than their overweight non-exercising peers (1). That could be the difference between being a great-grandparent or not. There is no pill on earth that can boast that kind of effect on longevity and it’s free.

 

  1. You become smarter

Exercise can help you learn faster, be more creatively and solve problems more efficiently. Much of this effect is due to a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) (2). This chemical causes new brain cells to grow and prevents older ones from dying! This increase in BDNF is also accompanied by improved cognitive performance scores. When we exercise, we get an increase in blood flow and oxygen to the brain. Learning new movement patterns have been shown to be one of the most effective ways to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. As I have mentioned before, a dancer may learn up to 400 new movements in an audition setting. These new neural networks create a much faster and more efficient brain.

 

  1. You become more physically able

There aren’t too many better feelings than lifting 100kg off the floor for the first time. This level of strength is available to almost anyone with a little practice. If you have strength, maybe it’s time to work on mobility. If you have both, begin to use your abilities in more creative ways such as dance or calisthenics. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is never a finish line with movement. There is always something to develop or refine in the quest to create your best body. These abilities translate into real life. Can you carry 30kg of grocery shopping home without a car? Can play with your kids in the backyard all afternoon? These are very real scenarios that require you to be fit and healthy.

 

  1. You sleep deeper

One of the most common complaints I hear is that people have problems sleeping soundly. Exercise has been shown to balance the circadian rhythm and improve neurochemicals that aid in sleep, like serotonin. It’s best not to exercise too late in the evening as the creation of epinephrine and norepinephrine may keep you up. One my favourite ways to combat jet lag is barefoot yoga in the park. If you find yourself a night owl or even someone with insomnia, try to exercise at least 4 hours per week and see if that makes a difference.

 

If you want to base your happiness on the aesthetics of your decaying body, then you are destined for failure at some point. It’s best to control what you can, like your strength, health, and happiness to live a more fulfilling life. Whether you’re in the gym, on the track, in the pool or on the mat, don’t compare your looks against the person next to you. Just remind yourself why you are really there – because you enjoy it!

 

References:

Moore, S., et al. (2012). Leisure Time Physical Activity of Moderate to Vigorous Intensity and Mortality: A Large Pooled Cohort Analysis. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001335

Ferris, L.T., Williams, J.S., Shen, C.L. (2007). The effect of acute exercise on serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels and cognitive function. Medical Science Sports Exercise. Retried from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17414812

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Is Yoga The Only Solution?

I have practiced Vinyasa and Hatha Yoga for 7 years and during that time I have learnt a lot about my body. When I say a lot, I mean at age 19 I could barely touch my knees in a standing forward fold, rest in a deep squat or sit in Hero’s Pose without a mountain of bolsters behind my back. I had no idea how to breathe and chanting Aum at the top of my lungs was extremely uncomfortable. But here I am today, able to move my body as my vocation and lead a class breathing intelligently and singing all sorts of unusual sounds.

So my passion for yoga is greater than ever, but I am going to tell you why this practice is not enough.

(To be clear, I am speaking of the Western adaptation of Yoga, typically Power, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Iyengar (or anything else after the beginning of 20th century) moving between Lululemon mats and infrared heating panels.)

Stereotypes aside, here are my 5 reasons.

1. Lack of Movement Complexity
Once you have learned the Surya Namasakarasana (Sun Salutation) and standing postures like virabhadrasana (great warrior), ardha candrasana (half moon), or even parivrtta trikonasana (twisted triangle), the level of movement complexity is quite low. Unless like me you were fortunate enough to have your first teacher that was also a dance instructor, it is unlikely you will be stringing together complex sequences and moving the body in non-linear patterns.

One of the best ways to develop the brain is to learn new movement patterns constantly. Contemporary dancers will learn 400 new movements in an audition setting. A typical yoga class may repeat the same 20-50 movements for the next 3 years.

In the beginning, a yoga practitioner can only move as well as their teacher and the movement patterns of most Australian yoga teachers is well… pretty poor. For example, the advice for handstands “Kick up against the wall and start to balance away”. I spent years “Just kicking up” and that got me not very far, very slowly. A solid handstand in a yoga practice is the top of the top. In gymnastics? Well, you’re just a neophyte.

 

2. It Is So Serious
Yoga in 5th century BC was serious and deserved to be so. These Yogi’s starved their body, manipulated their internal organs, meditated for months on end and lived in isolation all in an effort to liberate themselves from suffering. Modern Yogi practitioners, however, spend 1 to 5 hours per week making pretty shapes with our bodies and drinking cold-pressed juices all to fit into our colourful leggings. We have it pretty darn good!

So next time you’re in warrior 2 with that stern look on your face or disgruntled that your teacher is talking about the esoteric benefits of a gratitude practice, maybe just flick yourself a smile and lighten up. It will be ok in the end. My yoga teacher in India wouldn’t go many minutes without laughing from deep down in his belly. He is one of the most joyful people I have ever met and would always make us smile in class.

3. Minimal Human Interaction
Humans are social creatures. We have evolved and become top of the food chain because no other animal can communicate and work together as well as we can.

I was lucky enough to have an incredible studio culture where I started yoga. Everyone knew everyone and we’d hang out outside of classes. In most studio’s however, the students live busy lives and so the usual plan looks like this: Get in, get it done, get out, go home. You may wave the teacher a thank you and goodbye but that’s all the social interaction you get.

Yoga has always been a solo practice, but where’s the fun in that. Humans play together. Even animals play together. Play is a method of learning about each other through games. Partner activities allow me to learn your movement strengths and weaknesses, your personal space, your body language and it also forces me to consider and develop mine. This social interaction is an essential part of movement development.

4. It’s Too Soft
Yoga was designed by men for men. It was compulsory for Indian Warriors. These Warriors would perform hours upon hours of Sun Salutations to strengthen their bodies and their willpower. Modern yoga increases your level of “juiciness” alongside Chet Faker’s latest album but would leave those Indian Warriors dead on the battlefield in seconds.

It is always enjoyable for me to see the realisation that a modern Yogi has when they understand that yoga is not enough. Usually, after 4 weeks of strength training, there is a newfound solidness & stability in their body, their testosterone is back to normal (good for you too, girls) and they carry themselves through this world with more confidence.

Every yoga practitioner would benefit from lifting heavy things and every weightlifter would benefit from yoga. There is a balance that needs to take place in order to feel your optimal self. The two practices enhance each other and both enhance your body, mind and spirit, but not as much if done in isolation.

5. It doesn’t prepare you for real life
There is a law in Sports Science called Specificity that says something along the lines of “Your practice must be relevant and specific to your challenge.” Unfortunately for yoga, there is nothing else (except for yoga championships in India) that replicate it in real life.

Of course, opening up your body and being able to control it with more awareness is a necessary life skill but there are many things that are left unturned. For example, what happens when my brother invites me to play basketball with him and all I have been doing is getting sweaty on my mat. I’ll have no hand-eye coordination and that ball will leave a red mark between my eyes. If I’m asked to help my friend move house? All of a sudden I have an awkward heavy couch in my hands and I feel my lower back take the full load.

If I always have to keep my knee outside of my little toes in Warrior or my elbows never extending past my body in Chaturanga, what happens when my body is asked to do that in real life? Not good things. We need to diversify our movement practice and develop real-world strength and coordination.

 

So what’s a Yogi to do?

Don’t stop your yoga practice. 

However, as a human being, we want to continually develop our skills. We are the most complex movers in the animal kingdom and so we must exercise this ability.

We must develop our strength capacity. Tools like strongman training are incredible for developing real-world strength. We must play on the bars and the rings to develop pulling strength and balance. We must be able to crawl, flip and slide on the ground in non-linear complex movement patterns. And we must be able to manipulate objects and other people around us to develop coordination, confidence and a sense of play.

To be monochromatic is to be bleak and boring. Diversify your movement skillset. Lift, juggle, dance, flip, invert, fight, dance, create, improvise. You are human and if you want to taste the full experience of one, that’s up to you.

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9 Life-Changing Lessons From The Ultimate Coach’s Camp

We all believed, at one point in time, that we could change the world. Over time this zest for success fizzles away with societal pressures and under-achiever cultural paradigms. A small minority of people, have managed to keep that zest.

In August 2016, I spent four days living, breathing, eating, training and exploring with nine other coaches from around Australia at the RealMovementProject Intensive Camp. The founder and facilitator of the four-day event is Keegan Smith, an ex-NRL strength & conditioning coach, who left a decorated career in coaching professional athletes to do something greater.

He has a big vision and thrives on giving influential talks that make the audience think bigger.

Over the four days there were a tonne of big wins. Among them were nine hugely positive messages I took home from the combination of inspiring conversations and physical challenges.

Find a large enough problem and dedicate your life to solving it.

This message has been forgotten by many people working jobs they don’t find fulfilling. It’s hard to question whether there’s something you could be doing that would influence the world around you in a more meaningful way. It implies that we’re not living up to our full capacity and hiding our shining light.

Few people have solved a great problem by stumbling across it in the daily grind, especially in modern times with the six million distractions we have each day. No, these people set aside time to work on a problem they were passionate about until they found a solution.

Some of you may be working in your dream job or on your chosen problem – but there is a call to action for you who is not living up to your full capacity, and hiding your shining light.

The world needs you!
You are your only limiting factor.

The first exercise we did was to write down all the things we would want to achieve, do or be if we were enough. If we were smart enough, strong enough, wealthy enough. If we were taller, shorter, thinner, more flexible – fill in the blank of your desired characteristic.

Then we wrote down all the reasons why we can’t achieve, do or be these things. With the right mindset, these all seemed like a bit of an excuse, so we tore the paper up and threw it out.

I quickly realised that I am my only limiting factor in doing what I want in my life. It is my self-belief that holds me back, not my current life circumstance. Certain influential people have overcome great adversities in their life to be remembered after their gone. They all felt fear and inadequacies but managed to silence them for a moment and dedicate their lives to something greater.

What is your excuse for not connecting your dreams to reality?

Experiencing new skills is better than watching experts.

Keegan asked the group, “What do you enjoy more – nailing your first handstand or watching a cirque du soleil performance?”

Unanimously we voted on nailing our first handstand!

Our culture loves to passively watch the top performers in their field. Most people at a sporting event are overweight and unfit. Instead of putting in a little sweat equity to achieve their desired body or physical skill they prefer to watch other people do it.

Yes it is magical watching LeBron James slamming a ball into a metal ring soaring many feet through the air but I assure you it is more magical to feel your own brain working hard to get that first 10 seconds of juggling 3 balls.

You can do anything if you put the work in.

The difference between you and Tiger Woods is not genetic potential (while it may be in the case of LeBron James). It is simply that by the time Woods was 2 years old and hitting the ball on national television he had already logged thousands of hours of practice into his movement diary.

We often assign the words prodigy, gifted and genius to these individuals. I view that as an insult as it undercuts the tens of thousands of hours these people have put in to master their craft.

To be in the top 1% in something, you must decide to do so, then back it up with focused practice. But it begins with a decision. I have decided that I am going to do a one-arm handstand by the end of the year. Now I just need to put in the work and it will happen.

There is a simple formula to success in any field – it’s not whimsical like some of us hope it to be. (Click to Tweet)

Surround yourself w people who believe in you and who are better than you.

One of my biggest wins at the camp was doing a standing back sault. Prior to this, I had zero flipping experience and was soon hurling myself through the air with only 90 minutes of practice.

There are two reasons I had the courage to make the attempt.

The first reason is that I had seen Keegan do it in the flesh a few minutes prior. This breaks the mystical spell of any daunting challenge. Once you see someone else do something, it becomes a whole lot more possible for you to achieve the same thing.

The second is that Keegan and the rest of the coaches there believed that I could. This uplifting energy was palpable during the whole four day camp. We all wanted to see each other succeed, and that inevitably forces us to do so.

There is an old adage, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.” Who you surround yourself with has a massive impact on your belief systems. These belief systems affect how long you will live, in what state of health and what you will accomplish in that lifetime.

Embrace Stress.

While at the camp we practiced a powerful breathing technique popularised by a Deutsch Man named Wim Hoff. This breathing technique is not something you would find in a soothing yin yoga class. It is very stimulating and very intense.

There were many breakthroughs using this technique but I’ll save that for a later post when David, Joel and I attend the 5 day retreat with Wim on the Great Ocean Road in August.

Mr Hoff’s philosophy of our modern stress is compelling. He believes that because we no longer run from predators, need to chase down prey or endure unfavourable weather conditions to survive, we are perpetually stressed by non-life threatening situations.

If I put a gun to your head, all your BS for the day immediately disappears.

So in an effort to reduce the daily stress in our lives, we actually need to embrace more physiological stress. Things like cold showers, hot saunas, intense exercise, breathing techniques and playing sports can all be effective at ridding you of your woes.

The goal in life is to be happier, healthier and a better person.

This one is painfully obvious but mostly overlooked. If your actions are not in alignment with improving at least two of these three characteristics then I believe some questions need to be asked.

At the age of 21, I stopped drinking alcohol. While I didn’t consciously recognise it, the reason behind this was that drinking alcohol wasn’t fulfilling any of the these requirements.

We need to constantly assess whether our actions are bringing us closer to or further away from our goals, because it is not possible to remain stationary.

Ask yourself the hard questions.

The quality of your life is dependant upon the quality of questions you ask yourself. If you are not inspired about your life, it may be because you are not asking yourself inspiring enough questions.

When asked if we should be barefoot or wear shoes while learning hacky-sack, Keegan bluntly replied “if the question you ask won’t directly improve the quality of your life, don’t ask it.”

After the camp I set aside some time & spent a few hours asking myself some confronting questions. This created space for me to return home inspired and ready to take action toward embracing life fully.

Here are a few difficult questions that may help you make positive changes or feel more enlivened on your current path:

  • What problem am I trying to solve?
  • Why am I here?
  • What makes me happy?
  • What am I grateful for?
  • How did this experience – positive or negative – serve me?

You can create any life you desire.

It was evident that all the coaches at the camp were inspired by Keegan’s lifestyle. Tucked away in the hinterlands of Byron Bay, he eats amazing food, learns exciting new skills, reads empowering books, builds an impressive body and travels the globe teaching passionate people how to be better at what they do.

The point is that he created this life for himself. He made a decision that this is the lifestyle he wanted to live and went to work creating it.

You and I can create any life that we want within the laws of the physical universe. Once again, self-belief is our only limiting factor.

I want you to leave this article with one key action step. Whether that be implementing a daily cold shower, asking yourself some hard questions or redesigning your social life.

My hope is that you make just one positive change in your life. This has a ripple effect to the people around you.

Dream big, work hard and live passionately.

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The Wisdom of Ido Portal: Inside the 5-day Internship

“Movement Is Life”… These were some of the first words uttered by our new teacher, Ido Portal… “No movement? No life!” I knew I was in for a life-changing week.

I had stumbled across a self-professed “Movement Teacher” in 2014 when searching for fitness courses in Melbourne. This teacher had a strange name, he was polarising, had new ideas and enough charisma to put Barack Obama’s tail between his legs. Enamoured with his story, movement philosophy and teaching style, I checked the course price tag; $1200? No way!

Little did I know I would be spending nearly 8x that just 2 and a half years later…

So there we were. 7 students and 2 teachers in an intimate 5-day, 40+hour training camp in Bondi, NSW. Nervous smiles we briefly get to know each other and then straight into a talk that set the energy for the rest of the internship. A lot was mentioned, from The Myth of Sisyphus to the impact of cultural restrictions on our movement capacity, there was no time wasted in impressing the importance of a movement practice and what was about to unfold.

Our new teachers, Ido Portal & Odelia Goldschmidt, have been travelling the world for the last seven years teaching everyone from children in Israel to UFC 2-belt champion fighter, Conor McGregor. Their movement skills are impressive but equally as captivating is their ability to convey abstract concepts of movement and life to inspire and develop their students.

The foundation, what Ido terms “Movement Terminology”, is a practice that develops our ability to articulate our spine in non-linear patterns. Your spine has roughly 50 joints that allow you to move in complex ways. Unfortunately, due to a sedentary lifestyle and lack of movement complexity, most of us have lost full control of our spine. Thankfully, I had a smooth learning experience, and Dave had been practising for an entire year since his last internship in 2016.

www.idoportal.com/

For the first hour each morning, we moved the spine through transverse, sagittal and frontal planes. We massaged and nourished the facet joints, intervertebral discs and nerve channels that flow through the spinal column. As the week went on, we woke up sorer and stiffer, but incredibly, the practice of Movement Terminology soothed our pain. (Be forewarned, while learning this you will look & feel ridiculous. A few driver’s, stopped at the traffic lights, were caught staring in awe at the erotic repetitive motions of my hips).

The purpose of this foundational practice is many. Aside from the obvious fact that more range of motion is usually better than less, Movement Terminology prepares us for life. Life is non-linear. It is unchoreographed and chaotic. If you are hit in a car accident with a neck of 60-year-old, you are much more likely to sustain a serious injury than if you had the spine of a supple leopard.

Furthermore, when we train in the gym, most exercises are done with a neutral spine. Deadlifting, squatting, machines, dumbbells, etc. all promote strengthening the spine in a neutral plane. But what happens when we need to lift an awkward object like a couch or an atlas stone? Does a heavy load during spinal flexion, extension, rotation or side bending suddenly make you as weak as a butterfly? This complexity is an added benefit of strongman training.

Now we were ready to put our new spines into practice through a game called Zen Archer. A version of Contact Improv, the Zen Archer is partner play used to develop each other as movement practitioners. You need to dodge my attack, and I aim to touch you, without the intention of touching you. It is similar to a slow-dance style of Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art.

It is a mindset that makes this game special. Unlike tag, where my intention is to win, here my intention is to explore your movement restrictions and to teach you new ways of movement. It is a form of play. If done properly, play is one of the most efficient ways to develop movement. Animals play, therefore it is a phenomenon that is older than humans. It brings people together and teaches us about ourselves and each other. Through the Zen Archer, we further opened up our body through new, unusual and unrepeatable movement patterns. In a 3 minute round, you will squat, flip, crawl, invert, backbend, sweat and move in ways you never have before.

Research is still uncovering how much of the brain is devoted to movement. One of the best ways to prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s is to learn new motor patterns. The fastest way to develop neural networks is through movement. Ido was adamant that we have evolved because we are the most sophisticated movers in the animal kingdom. We can mimic most animals, but no other animal can mimic us. When asked on the LondonReal Podcast Why should we move? Ido answered, “Because you can”.

Anyone who is familiar with Ido’s work has seen footage of him crawling on the ground like a lizard. Animal locomotion is something that we have implemented heavily into the programs of our members at 5EW. We have seen improvements in mobility, strength, body awareness and even body composition in every one of our students that performs these movements regularly.

With that said, Ido took it to the next level.

After some basic bear crawl patterns on the first morning, we initiated the session by learning foundations of the Lizard, Dragon squat, QDR hold, Cossack squat, Crow pose and Shinobi step. These 6 patterns would be repeated over and over for hours on end throughout the week. First, we learned the movements by themselves: Isolation. Then we began to sequence them: Integration. Once practised enough, we moved to the 3rd and final step: Improvisation. For the last 20 minutes of practice, Dave & I commanded each other to flow. “Crab!” “Lizard 3 steps!” “QDR!” “Shinobi!” Covered from head to toe in sweat and dirt, we looked like we had been trekking the rainforests of Indonesia.

Ido was like a machine gun however rather than bullets; he peppered insights. There are no handouts, no notes, and definitely no recordings. It is up to you to catch as many insights as you can from the experience. One that I wrote down immediately: “When this is all finished, can you play on the beach for an hour and not repeat yourself?”

An interesting request indeed.

We are so accustomed to learning specified sequences and movement patterns, we have lost the ability to improvise. He gave the example of telling a yogi to just flow for 5 minutes. Most would gravitate toward performing some Vinyasas, a couple of hand balances and probably an elegant form of a warrior. The movements are beautiful yes, but where is the creativity, where is the complexity and where is the real-life application of such a practice? It is only applicable on the mat. On the other hand, tell a contemporary dancer to flow, and you will see hundreds of complex movement patterns pieced together as if the entire universe was moving through her.

This is a sign of a good movement practitioner.

Another sign is muscle size. Not of traps, pecs and quads but of unusual and sometimes ‘vestigial’ stabiliser muscles in the calves, feet, forearms, and in the webbing of the fingers. Do you have flat feet, internally rotated shoulders or weak knees? Perhaps you are not moving in agreement with your biology.

Those of you that know me are aware of my handstand obsession over the last few years. Despite having a 60-second freestanding handstand, given my time spent practising handstands, this is rubbish. According to Ido, with structured training, someone who has never inverted before could perform a 60-second handstand in 12 months. It was time to learn handstands under Ido Portal. First things first, destroy the idea that handstands are important. Huh?

“If I give you a cup of water to drink, don’t start chewing on the cup. Don’t mistake the cup for the water.” What Ido meant by this is that a lot of people in the fitness and yoga world have been obsessed with the handstand, not realising how blind that was. Understanding this from a movement perspective, we have been trapped in what Ido termed a “Prison of Gold”. By being obsessed with the movement pattern, we have missed the movement language that is written in that pattern. Your Instagram posts and profile pictures are impressive, but what can you do with your handstand? Can you flip and flow into a back bridge or QDR? I certainly couldn’t.

“If you lose your arm as a movement practitioner, the practice continues. But as a hand balancer? Game Over!”

Ido was a wealth of paradoxes. Often coming back to The Myth of Sisyphus (look it up), he would say your movement tricks don’t mean shit!… But they mean shit. Be obsessed. But be disconnected”. This is the message for our practice.

Once my handstand universe had been flipped on its head, it was time for us to flip upside down. We quickly learned that our work capacity was very poor as was the case when training muscle ups on the rings. Ido and Odelia train for many hours each day and there was no chance we could keep up with their demands. Over the week we drilled handstand body alignment and strength development, then transitionary movements to make the skill more useful. Isolation to Integration then Improvisation.

Ido often spoke about the difference between a success mindset and a development mindset. In life, you will fail. We are human, and we die. Often not suddenly but after a long and slow decline of decaying bones and muscles, atrophying brain and the whittling away of our senses until we are deaf and blind and have to yell for attention because we need someone to feed us. As humans we tend to ignore this, it makes us uncomfortable, but failure is a certainty. Why then do so many of us base our existence on success? Physical performance, beauty, career and financial worth are all useless when we turn to dust.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to succeed but that we should not be attached to success. Don’t start a cosmetic surgery addiction. Don’t start pumping anabolic steroids because you’re double bodyweight back squat is starting to fall apart. Don’t base your self-worth on how straight your handstand line is in your profile picture. The point is to do your very best but with humility, knowing that you will become food for bacteria one day. Be obsessed, but be disconnected.

Since returning to 5EW, many people have asked me for one thing I took out of the internship. Each time I have replied with “Move more.” Ido spoke about the method of programming used by the elite, world-class performers: The Bulgarian Method. It is a style of training that is renowned for burying some of the hardiest Olympians. Think training as hard as you can as often as you can. This is the method that Ido uses, however with a slight twist. Ido is not a specialist; he trains hand balances, ring work, jumping, coordination, balance, dancing, and many many disciplines. Therefore there are no rest days in a movement practice. He views this as a genetic upgrade.

So, for those of you stuck in a chair for 8 hours, I implore you to re-examine your values. If you are reading this far, you probably value movement, learning and therefore life.

 

https://londonreal.tv/e/ido-portal-move-or-die/

On the evening of day 3, we trained on the sands of Bondi Beach, continuing our fight training. Similar to boxing, but instead of laying one in between your eyes, I tap your shoulder. The purpose is to develop speed, rhythm, timing, accuracy and footwork without the added risks of boxing. Using my reach to my advantage, I sometimes caught myself in the success mindset, thinking “I must win”, rather than the development mindset that says “Let’s enhance our movement capacity”.

Coming away with minor scratches on the body and face, we then developed lower body mobility and strength in extreme ranges of motion. The simple practice of getting up and down from the floor through lunges, squats, figure 4s, kneeling, cossacks, etc. highlighted our weaknesses & became a real challenge for some. Everybody needs to be able to get up from the floor with ease, from Grandma to Conor McGregor. It is an area of movement that is grossly overlooked.

After movement, it was time for stillness. The instructions: “Walk into the surf and stand still. Don’t fidget. Don’t swallow. Don’t even blink. If you think someone is stealing your bags, let them.” So all 9 of us were lined up in the surf break, gazing out onto the ocean. It was overcast and began to rain. I became acutely aware of the sensations of the waves, the shifting sand under my feet, the salty wind on my face and the voices inside my head. Ido is a spirited advocate of stillness, and in a society that rarely moves but is always on the move, I believe stillness is a practice we could all implement for a happier, healthier existence.

Ido and his students practice something they suck at every day. This keeps them honest, in a student’s mindset and constantly evolves their brain. On the final afternoon of the internship, we used the obstacles around us as gym equipment. For 2 hours, we practised balancing on a fence that surrounded a sporting oval. It was fascinating to observe the development that occurred over this period. In the beginning, I could barely hold myself mounted on top of the railing with both hands and 1 foot. As the session was called to finish, I was walking backwards for 10 metres on the freshly painted fence. Dave, on the other hand, had not listened to instructions and was still stuck on Step 1: Hold a 60-second squat.

The internship closed with some fun but challenging jumping drills and unilateral leg strength and then a closing discussion. We thanked and shared with each other the good times and our lessons learned. As a group, Ido said we weren’t the most talented, but there was a certain cohesiveness that is rare amongst strangers. I would agree. Over the 5 days and 40 hours of training, we challenged, supported and inspired each other towards becoming better movement practitioners and therefore, becoming better human beings. I hope we can stay in contact and meet again soon.

The exercises and techniques we learnt over the week were incredible, but it was the wisdom of Ido Portal that had the most profound effect on me. It was evident he had devoted himself to a movement practice, but also to a life practice.

As Ido said, a Movement practice and a Life Practice are the same. It’s deeper than martial arts, rock climbing, yoga, dancing, etc. It’s a way of being in this world that forces you to reach your full potential as a human. Of course, this final point does not exist. There is always more to accomplish, more to develop and more to learn.. and so, just as Sisyphus was banished to eternity to push the rock uphill, only to watch it roll back down, the hunt for this human perfection is beautifully endless. Join me if you wish.

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Yoga: A Westerner’s journey to the source

Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Five rings of the bell… It’s 5 am at Anand Prakash Ashram in the holy city of Rishikesh, India. My roommate stumbles to the bathroom and turns on the light so we don’t fall back asleep. I chug some water, throw on my white T-shirt & shorts and turn the fan up to hurricane mode. Inhale elbows back. Exhale squat deep. 40 Chair breaths to wake up the body. I chug some more water, grab my mat and walk upstairs to the Yoga Hall.

The room is dimly lit. Candles in every corner. Incense burning. Tired bodies are scattered all around the floor. I roll out my mat towards the front and get myself comfortable. I sit quietly for a moment. The bowl sings. For the next 30 minutes, it will be a battle between thought and awareness as I sit, learning how to meditate.

I have just read about ‘The Noble Failure’, a realisation that every beginner meditator experiences: A realisation that their mind is incessantly conjuring up thoughts – oscillating between clinging and aversion – and is incredibly difficult to quieten. It is described as Noble because it is the first step on any seekers path and requires a certain inquisitiveness & willingness to continue. So here I sit, silently laughing at how terrible I am at quietening my mind. I catch myself in thought; sometimes a good few minutes have past. I had been doing yoga and feeble attempts at meditation for years. How could I have missed this?

This is my experience of journeying to the source.

It had been a dream of mine to complete a 200-hour yoga teacher certification. Whether or not I wanted to teach yoga was not the question. After starting yoga when I was 18, I knew I needed to deepen my understanding of this ancient practice. Six and a half years after that first class in Perth, Western Australia, I found myself living in an ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas.

There were 32 of us from all over the world plus 5 teachers who were equally diverse in their life experiences. It seems obvious now that, over the next 30 days, we would become one big family, capable of living the rest of our lives in our own secluded commune… like The Beach… but with less murder.

I could have chosen to do my 200-hour YTT at a retreat centre in Bali, surrounded by a smorgasbord of coconuts and Lululemon sports bras. Instead, I wanted to go deep. I wanted to experience the real deal. So the birth land of Yoga it was – complete with rice & Dahl and girls covered in baggy white clothing.

“Yoga is not workout. It’s work in.”

Every morning, after the 30-minute confrontation with the mind, Yogrishi Vishvketu, the founder of Akhanda Yoga, would lead us through a 1hr 45min yoga class. Each day, we learnt from this Himalayan Yoga Master. How to command and create a space for inner transformation. How to bring joy and celebration to every moment in life. How to connect to and love your Self.

Akhanda has a few principles to guide us inward toward the Self. Throughout the practice, we integrate the 5 elements of motion: Grounding, Uplifting, Centering, Expanding and Joy. While the West mainly focuses on the physical asana practice (with maybe some Ujayi breathing) in every Akhanda class, there will be an eclectic blend of asana, pranayama (literally meaning life force without restraint), sound, meditation and philosophy. Vishva-ji’s zest for life gave us permission to smile, laugh and feel endlessly grateful for simply existing. He believes that this state of fearlessness, gratitude and bliss is our true nature – our birthright. I would agree.

Under the Akhanda banner, there are several different class formats including Akhanda Level 1, 2 & 3, Kundalini, Hatha-Raja, Five Koshas, Pranayama & Yoga Nidra. Each class is taught for a particular purpose, and unlike in the West, none of those is for recreation or a hot toned body. According to Indian tradition, Yoga is an intensely disciplined practice for the purpose of the liberation of one’s mental and emotional disturbances that cause suffering. As indicated by Patanjali’s second sutra of Yoga (comparable to the second verse of The Yoga Bible), “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” When these fluctuations in mental and emotional states are quietened, we can find real peace, beyond conception. We can find bliss, not the transient type of ecstasy, but the feeling of love, gratitude and contentment. When you peel back all the layers, you find that this is who you truly are.

A more palatable explanation for the West could be in the sphere of the autonomic nervous system. As one deepens their yoga practice, they realise that, for the most part, ancient yogi’s had an incredibly accurate understanding of the body’s physiology. Science is now articulating how these ancient practices affect our body. Mindfulness meditation is the obvious example, but lesser known methods include the Brahmaree Pranayama – creating a loud, elongated ‘Mmm’ sound that vibrates the head. We now understand that humming releases neurotransmitters, namely nitric oxide, that relax our muscles and calm the mind. Another example is chanting. While I felt some resistance to chanting verses praising Hindu deities in a foreign language, I later learnt that chanting activates the vagus nerve, which is the main parasympathetic nerve – our rest and digest function. Breath retention also inhibits our sympathetic nervous system, as well as enhances the Bohr effect, which increases oxygen transfer from the blood into the cell. As for Vastra Dhauti – the swallowing of 21 feet of cloth to purify the digestive system – I will leave that for someone else to explain.

Naturally, we wanted to know how the name Akhanda came to be. When Vishva arrived in Canada 16 years ago, he barely spoke English. Despite running away to an ashram at the age of 8 and a PhD in Yoga from its birthplace, he couldn’t get a job teaching. He eventually earned a ‘Power Yoga’ slot at the local YMCA. He attended a few Power Yoga classes that week and was quite unimpressed. So he taught what he knew to be yoga – Hatha Yoga from 7th century India…

Luckily, the only two people in his class had never done any yoga before. Over time he grew a following, and people were asking what style he taught. He didn’t know that yoga had styles. Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Power, Yin, Iyengar, Bikram, etc. were all Western adaptations of Hatha Yoga. His PhD never mentioned any of these. After some frustration, he realised he needed to give his class a name. With a lot of meditation or “downloading” as he likes to call it, he came upon the name Akhanda, which literally translates to ‘whole’, ‘complete’ or ‘indivisible’ – much like the word Yoga. In effect, he called it Yoga Yoga. Clever guru.

While Western adoption of Yoga has certainly fuelled it’s popularity, there has been a shift in the intention of the practice. Completing an Akhanda Yoga class gave me the feeling of balance, hyper-awareness and being connected to myself. I have finished several ‘Yoga-lates’ classes with a sense of being depleted, out of breath or overstretched. The chaotic jumping-pumping to hip-hop music in a Power Hour topped off with a 90-second savasana does very little for the ‘cessation of the fluctuations of the mind’. This type of practice only exaggerates the ego or ‘I’ – the feeling of separateness that floods our Western culture. When this sense of separateness is strong, happiness and contentment are very fleeting.

Happiness is all that there is.

With every decision and action that we make, our ultimate goal is to be happy. Sometimes you have to go through a whole universe of fear, anger, jealousy and despair – but if you dive down deep enough into the motivations for what you say and do, happiness will appear. Taking this back to our mat, if we attend a yoga class for the purpose of increased flexibility, a better-looking body, rehabilitation, injury prevention, or an emotional high, all these reasons are what will think will make us happy. However, the fastest but sometimes scariest way to achieve this state of pure bliss is if we fall into love. If we love ourselves and other beings – pure, open-hearted love – then we can never feel unsafe, scarcity or fear.

This can only be achieved beyond the level of the mind as the mind is always creating separateness. The mind is what says that he/she is better than me or I am better than him/her. The mind is what says I could never do that or I deserve more. The mind is what holds onto depressive memories of the past and projects fear and anxiety into the future. We must transcend the mind by letting go, and open our hearts to the present moment.

When I enrolled into a 200-hour YTT, I didn’t think I would write a blog about love. In fact, when I first heard myself thinking this way, I was a little taken aback. But this is a blog about Akhanda Yoga, and this is the Akhanda approach. By taking our yoga off the mat and into the world, we are achieving what ancient yogis practising in caves could hope for. At the time of this writing, less than 24 hours ago, Donald Trump was elected president and the Western World is more than ever in a state of fear. This memoir is not about a journey to Rishikesh, India. It is about a journey to The Source – your true nature. Open your heart. Reside there.