The world is a watercolor of indistinct blues and greens around me. My heart is hammering from a short but intense swim and even as the saltwater stings my naked eyes I feel I haven’t grabbed enough air before diving. I can see Vic beneath me, barely, unconscious and sinking. His body is limp, his arms drifting, and he looks like he may already be dead. I kick harder, diving deeper, trying to catch the drowning man even as my lungs burn and the water pressure pushes daggers into my ears. I break the strata of warm, tropical surface water, entering a chilled current, just as I reach Vic and lunge again for the surface. As I kick backward to the boat, towing Vic to safety, I keep his neck locked firmly in my elbow, as he himself taught me. He warns me; “Remember to calm your breathing, as we spoke about on the boat.” You can’t rescue a drowning man if you, yourself, cannot breathe. It’s one of many practical lessons I will gain this week.
“It appears that some former human species were stronger than we are today, stronger than the strongest athletes,” Erwan Le Corre, says back on the beach. “When you are a kid, you’re always told, ‘don’t yell, don’t move’…whenever we have this primal exuberance, this expression of this energy that we have in ourselves, it’s repressed to the point that it’s suppressed, like you have to stand right, be polite, be silent, then you’re a good kid”. Erwan speaks with great passion in these cases, I quickly learn. “You’re not supposed to be a good animal; you’re not supposed to be powerful.” In short, says Erwan, “We become civilized, domesticated, and I believe that makes us weaker.” I, and a half dozen Europeans, Americans, and an Australian, have come to this tropical island in Thailand’s Andaman Sea to find out what exactly, is the exercise trend called Movnat.
MovNat, as you may surmise, is a system designed around the concept of natural movement, but what does that mean? For Erwan, MovNat founder, and Vic Verdier, his longtime friend and ex French Special Forces officer and instructor, it means looking at our contrived, orderly world and how we fit into it, not as the humans we think of ourselves as, but as the human-animals we are. “You don’t see stiff animals in nature; they are all flexible, they all can move,” Vic says one day on the beach after a particularly difficult obstacle course involving running, lifting and carrying rocks, then crawling underwater till your lungs beg for merciful oxygen.
“Some (animals) are very feline, and we like that because they are so supple, so flexible in their movement.” Vic says. This is where the practical, fitness face of MovNat verges into philosophy, where we learn how wild hominids become “zoo humans”.
On the first day of the week-long MovNat course, preceding introductions, the group were hauled out of our bungalows and set on an obstacle course of sorts. Pure, tropical sunlight was just filtering through a jungle canopy made vibrant with birdsong and equatorial blooms. Vic took our shoes away. I wanted coffee. For the next week there would be no coffee, Vic informed the group, neither would there be shoes, he said, pacing, his face hard. “None of these funny little habits.”
So we lifted; logs, rocks, one another, jumped on to, off of, and over things, threw stuff, walked and ran. Everything was recorded on video because at the end of the week we would do it all again, and looking back, the improvements were shocking. We were getting fit not by going to the gym, but by going back to basics, way back to basics.
The principal ideology of MovNat, if it is possible to narrow it down to one, is adaptation. We begin our training one morning sometime mid-week by partnering and throwing and catching a light rock. Everyone is sore, so this light exercise seems like a designed mercy, but it’s not. “You do not throw kettle-bells, you swing them, clean them…it is a closed kinetic chain.” Vic tells us, as he instructs us to change angles, look away, and begin walking. “Throwing the rock trains the muscles to be more explosive.” We get bigger rocks, and our movement patterns grow more complex. “The movement is adaptive, and so it gets harder.” Erwan later explains. “When you throw to a partner, the angles change; the distance; and a rock is not like a kettlebell, with a nice handle, so you can close your eyes and swing, and know what to expect. Here you have to let go, and catch; that requires a higher level of adaptation, therefore a higher level of alertness, responsiveness, and accuracy.”
Ask any knowledgeable trainer though; a fitness plan is only as good as the diet which accompanies it. We made a bad turn, Erwan and Vic feel, at the agricultural revolution. Before that, humans existed only as hunter gatherers. We evolved over epochs to eat only what we could find or catch, and our bodies were fine tuned to perform exceptionally well under such circumstances, thus the advent of sedentary life is a perversion of our nature. It’s also recent. That’s why we see so many overweight people, so many with health problems; glutinous grains just aren’t good for us, and we haven’t had time to adapt. Because of this, the MovNat course I experienced was paired with another health phenomenon; the “Paleo Solution” which cuts gluten intake completely and seeks to replicate, roughly, a hunter gatherer’s diet.
It was the advent of agriculture which allowed a few to produce food for many, and thus for the idle to develop science, governance, religion; virtually everything defined as human society which has occurred over the last ten thousand years or so. “It’s easy to emulate the healthy diet and lifestyle of our Paleolithic ancestors” says Paleo Solution creator Robb Wolf, on his website, “with a very simple shift we not only remove the foods that are at odds with our health – grains, legumes, and dairy – but we also increase our intake of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.”
“What is the difference between the wolf and the dog?” Vic asks me, metaphorically. “The domestication process.” I look around, at the thick, enveloping foliage, the roaring waterfall. This is our gym. We came here barefoot, running through the jungle like characters from a white Apocalypto.
Erwan drops a massive log he had just lifted; “It’s a good analogy, because all dogs come from wolves, even Chihuahuas, and some people have become Chihuahuas.” He smiles, “I don’t know about you, but I don’t like Chihuahuas. I think human Chihuahuas need rehabilitation.”
Whether or not I am a human Chihuahua, I don’t know. I do know that at the end of my week with Vic and Erwan, bruised and slashed and sore though I was, I also felt good. After a day of recovery, I felt stronger than I had previously, and my body fat had dropped to around five percent. MovNat has opened my mind to new ways to be strong and fit, especially while travelling, but will it replace the gym for me? Probably not. Even for Erwan, who finds the linear movements of common workout apparatus laughable, a traditional gym can still offer a good workout; “I just climb over the machines, under them, naturally move around them.”