Frank Forencich, Change Your Body, Change the World: Reflections on Health and the Human Predicament. Exuberant Animal; 2010.
Stumptuous interview with Frank Forencich (right-click to download in mp3 format)
“Exuberant animal” is one of the best phrases I have ever heard to sum up a holistic approach to movement and wellness.
Animals, like us, live and die within a complex ecological and social context. Animals, like us, are their context — their bodies, as ours do, respond to light-dark, seasons, temperatures, and other environmental conditions. Animals, like us, are born with innate knowledge and instincts, and a finely tuned set of biological systems that depend on close interaction with the natural world.
Exuberance implies joy, play, and a zest for existence.
Likewise, Frank Forencich’s Exuberant Animal approach captures the best elements of being an animal — the pure, physically experienced joy of life, health, and movement.
I first heard of Forencich’s approach when I stumbled across a ruthlessly brilliant EA blog post decrying what I call the fitness-industrial complex, or the mainstream commercial fitness industry, which has become increasingly preoccupied with narcissistic, fragmented, isolationist pursuits such as “6 packs” and “core training”.
Forencich adroitly captures the nihilistic, authoritarian, quasi-militaristic nature of the modern fitness industry, and leaves one wondering why anyone but a total masochist would willingly participate in such an endeavour. Indeed, I recall a moment of similar existential horror: looking out on to a commercial gym floor and observing 15 parallel treadmills, each with its occupant plugged in to a headset, staring at a bank of parallel televisions.
No wonder nobody wants to go to the gym.
How did we somehow stumble off the savannah on to a moving belt a few feet long and constrained by railings, our attention fixed on the hypnotic blinky lights, bowing to the deity of calorie burn?
“Treadmills are boredom machines,” says Forencich in his new book, Change Your Body, Change the World, and our “somatic senses” (our physical experiences such as temperature, position, movement, pain etc.) have atrophied in overly-comfortable environments where we stare straight ahead into the picture box. We barely need to move our feet; a mechanized device will handle that job for us.
“Movement deprivation is also a form of sensory deprivation,” argues Forencich, and “sensory deprivation is widely recognized as a serious challenge to psychological well-being… by living sedentary lives of sensory deprivation, we effectively torture ourselves.”
We have mechanoreceptors — neurons that sense pressure/touch, movement, position in space, pain, temperature, etc. — throughout our entire body, and these are stimulated by movement. Thus, when we do not move, our senses work less. When we inhabit unchanging, controlled environments, we gather no new physical input. We become floating heads. This has serious consequences.
“Without a sense of body,” says Forencich, “our minds and spirits begin to wander.” Conversely, “the more we move, the more information we gather, and the more integrated our bodymind begins to feel.”
Forencich’s premise is simple, yet elegant. We evolved to be complex, interconnected beings who respond dynamically to our environments, each other, and the natural world. We, like our ancestors, are wired for response, for movement, and for play. We are not a brain in a container: We are our bodies, and our bodies are us. Moreover, our bodies exist in a social and environmental context — we are walking ecosystems embedded in other ecosystems, food chains layered on food chains. We are we rather than me.
The more we strive for isolation, the more ill we become. The more we separate ourselves from our natural environment and from one another, and the more we fragment our experiences and bodies into “parts”, the worse off we are.
It’s hardly a coincidence that we’re experiencing chronic ill health when we are poisoning our environment… and at a time in human history when we should — healthwise at least — be feeling invincible. We’ve figured out sanitation and surgery, so why the hell are we still so sick and depressed?
One clue, says Forencich, lies in the divorce of our physical bodies from our natural worlds, and our cognition from our somatic senses. If you think of a time when you felt most nourished, exuberant, alive, and positive in your body, it was probably some moment when all your senses were working together in harmony with your natural physical abilities — perhaps hurtling along on your bike with the wind in your face, or hiking a trail, or playing in the surf. You were flowing — experiencing what Forencich terms zanshin. You were feeling and sensing and thinking, together instantaneously. You certainly weren’t worrying about your 6-pack.
Thus, in order to achieve optimal health, we have to understand two key ideas:
- We are ancient bodies in a modern — alien — context.
- We are connected: within our bodies, to each other, and to the land/environment.
- Ill-health and malaise stem from mismatch between our ancient bodies and our modern world.
- We can, through joyful and primal movement choices, through connecting to one another and the land/environment, re-acquaint ourselves with our “exuberant animal” powers.
To many of you, this undoubtedly sounds a bit woo-woo. Maybe you envision some kind of cheesy hippie orgy, or a call to return to an imaginary primal harmony when cavepeople held hands and sang to the Grateful Dead and bongo drums. However, Forencich’s claims are based in sound science.
For instance, the field of psychoneuroendocrinology explores the relationships between our environment, our hormones, and our cognitive-emotional states. Chronic stress, for example, fundamentally “rewires” neurological and hormonal connections. We put ourselves under chronic physical stress by eating fake food, by smoking, by forcing our bodies into schedules that conflict with natural light-dark cycles, by remaining immobile for long periods of time. These effects are real and measurable. Yet recent studies demonstrate that simply getting out into more natural environments (such as a park) and being physical can reverse these deleterious effects — the more we walk, the smarter we get.
And Forencich isn’t going to take away your iPod just yet, though he’d probably argue that you should try to leave it at home more often. When was the last time, after all, that you listened to things in your surroundings that weren’t aural assaults? Close your eyes for a few seconds as you walk — notice how other senses immediately jump to be more relevant? Hear those birds that you were ignoring a few moments ago? Feel that breeze?
One of the core concepts of EA is joy — joy in our birthright of movement. We all have this birthright. We all know how to play, though many of us have forgotten. We are born with movement in our bodies. (Ever seen a baby dance? Hilarious, and informative.) Movement is not a chore, or an obligation. It is who we are and what we do.
Forencich’s prose is beautiful, simple, and compelling. Change Your Body, Change the World is both an argument against a fitness-industrial complex who has tried to steal our playfulness and physical selves, and an argument for embracing the richness of human experience as the foundation of our physical practice.