Claire Dunn | Out on a limb

MOVING DISPLAY: Some eager primates get a grip on their range of movement.
MOVING DISPLAY: Some eager primates get a grip on their range of movement.

I virtually had to be peeled out of bed this morning, every joint aching and stiff, sore in muscles I didn’t know existed. Although uncomfortable, it was a delicious kind of tiredness, an aliveness despite the discomfort. And I had good reason. The past two days I have spent in urban parklands rolling, tumbling, climbing, balancing, swinging and generally being a monkey in human form at an Ancestral Movement workshop.

“In modern life our arms aren’t used as legs anymore, but we have hundreds of millions of years of using arms as legs in our heritage,” our instructor Simon Thakur reminds us. 

I drop to all fours, forward roll followed by joyous leap and then reverse, squat and jump sideways, circle, squat jump to the other side and leap, and drop straight into a sideways roll into a squat. The 20 of us attracted a passing crowd in the grassy amphitheatre, as if we really were primates in a zoo.

On the park’s wooden fencing we balance – forwards, backwards, eyes scanning the horizon, belly down on the beam and up again, all in one fluid motion. At the stone-hewn steps we ascend on all fours, opposite hand and foot in synchronistic motion like a lizard. Alighting the narrow metal railing of the stairs, I grit my teeth and grip with strong toes that propel me upwards, as if I do indeed have pads on hands and feet.

It’s not all action stations. Simon steps us through the anatomy of the spine with subtle manoeuvres, proving just how much movement is available to us.

“The linear movements you do at the gym or even in yoga and pilates don’t train for the full range of human movement,” Simon says. “Compare weightlifting to the many natural movements that were essential to our families living as foragers and hunters as recently as a few hundred or thousand years ago: things like walking, running, climbing, crawling, lifting and throwing, digging, jumping, balancing, moving silently, and being still.”

Especially in affluent countries, homo sapiens have converted from a species with a very active lifestyle spending large amounts of time in outdoor environments to a sedentary species that spends much of their time in indoors and seated. Ancestral or natural movement is an antidote to this, rediscovering patterns of movement and awareness that are part of our species’ history and recovering strength, agility, balance, grace, joy and ease of movement.

“We have been gifted – by the hard work of our ancestors – with the keen eyesight, grip and pulling strength, agility and spatial skills of a primate; the undulating spine, powerful neck, arms and explosive hind legs of a quadruped; the grasping fingers and toes and locomotor pattern of a reptile,” says Simon.

I’m not exactly graceful as I haul myself onto a horizontal branch. Dropping one limb, I hang like a sloth and smile at the other primates similarly suspended from tree branches, swinging and laughing.

Claire Dunn is the author of My Year Without Matches.