Movement is Medicine: Connecting Back to Our Ancestral Roots

Brian Tunney
Brian Tunney
5 minute read
March 23, 2023
Image of a woman carrying a log, practicing ancestral movement techniques in the process.
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Many years ago during a CrossFit warmup, my class was presented with a unique kind of movement warmup: Animal Flow. It wasn’t anything like normal warmups: No jogging, no PVC pipes, no fitness bands. Instead, we were instructed to kneel on the floor and progress through a series of floor-based movements that mimicked animals in the wild, including the “ape,” “beast” and “crab.”

By the end of the warmup, which consisted of new-to-me movements such as one-armed crab reaches, I realized that although I was making an effort to move each day, my overall sedentary lifestyle had shaped my body into a tight ball of stress and anxiety. My shoulders were weak, my wrists were incredibly tight and my hips only knew one way to move. 

It was eye opening and required no weights or equipment to humble me. Instead, by mimicking the movements of primal animals, animal flow was combining elements of yoga, stretching, strength and core work into a mobility routine that increased flexibility, relieved stress and potentially avoided injury. It also demonstrated to me that I had been shaped by a sedentary lifestyle. 

Move Your DNA

After having my brain and body destroyed by Animal Flow, I got curious, really curious, about natural movement. If my body was already a tight wreck in my mid 30s, how was I going to essentially undo the damage I had already caused? I stumbled onto a book entitled “Move Your DNA” by a bio-mechanist named Katy Bowman, and again, she spoke of primal, animal-like movements that humans should be engaging in to increase mobility and engage with nature, like carrying logs, walking barefoot (or in minimalist footwear) over natural terrains and ditching chairs to sit on the natural ground. 

Move Your DNA explained the science behind our need for natural movement – right down to the cellular level. It examined the differences between the movements in a typical hunter-gatherer’s life and the movements in our own. It showed the many problems with using exercise like "movement vitamins" instead of addressing the deeper issue of a poor movement diet.

Bowman went on to write more books, teach more classes and continues to espouse the many benefits of nutritious movements through her blog, podcast and social media

The Align Method

Meanwhile, in California, Aaron Alexander was on a similar journey. A manual therapist and movement coach with over 16 years of experience, Alexander’s journey took a revolutionary approach to alignment of the body. By combining Eastern philosophy with Western mechanics, he was able to outline steps to control body language and discover new vitality. He compiled these five principles into a book entitled “The Align Method,” and again, it’s not the equipment heavy exercise routines you’d expect from a blog about movement. Instead, The Align Method focused on simple techniques that we’ve evolved away from, including floor sitting, hanging, hip hinging, walking and nose breathing. And he asks the reader to think of movement more like drinking water than exercise. 

“What would happen if you drank all your water of the week on Monday morning at Gold’s Gym in a 45-minute hydration session,” he asks. “It wouldn’t look pretty is the answer, and it’s a similar story with the biological staple we call squatting,” he continues. In the not too distant past, we would squat at water sources to gather water to drink. It wasn’t exercise; it was natural movements done for survival. And in modern times, with our desks and portable water bottles and tight hips, that’s not always possible. 

Katy Bowman and Aaron Alexander took different paths to arrive at the same destination. Yes, modern amenities are nice, but as a species, we’ve moved so far away from our ancestral, movement-based past that our bodies aren’t as naturally strong as they once were. And because of that, things like Animal Flow warmups don’t always come so easy to desk-hardened office employees like myself.

Primal Movement is The Fitness Trend of The Year

This year, according to the Pinterest Predicts 2023 report, primal movement–or moving our bodies in the manner they were built to–is the fitness trend of the year. The back-to-basics approach to exercise focuses on movement patterns humans have naturally been doing for thousands of years, like carrying firewood, farmer’s carry and squatting. Primal movement encourages moving away from the sedentary life we’ve become accustomed to by practicing fundamental movements the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors did to improve our physical function, just as Katy Bowman and Aaron Alexander have been espousing on for over a decade now. And in a recent article on The Every Girl, Restore’s chief medical officer Dr. Rich Joseph gives his seal of approval: “We’re born to do these movements naturally. We see kids do them with ease, but as we age they can become more difficult to do. These movement patterns can become restrictive in certain ways over time, and if they aren’t done properly, there’s a higher risk of injury.” (He might be referencing me doing Animal Flow…)

The article breaks down the types of movements (squat, lunge, push, pull, twist, hinge, gait) and encourages readers to ditch the high intensity interval training for hikes in nature. As with any new wellness trend, talk with your doctor if you’re unsure if primal movement is right for you. And if you get the go ahead, consider 2023 your chance to connect the dots between exercise, natural movement and a return to our ancestral way of living. 

To learn more about Animal Flow, watch Aaron Alexander of The Align Podcast run through mobility exercises with Coach Mike Fitch of Animal Flow.

To learn more about Katy Bowman, hit up The Nutritious Movement website.

To learn more about Aaron Alexander, hit up The Align Podcast website. And listen to his 9 Elements Podcast with Eric Hinman here.

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