We don’t move too much. We just need to move better.
A friend is asked what her style entails. She replies honestly—dynamic flow, meditative focus, an exploration of the possible. These all befit her classes. The asking party turns to the man beside her, inquisitive brows and upturned lips. He responds—differently.
“We move too much as a culture as it is. My teaching is rooted in stillness.”
I was born in a suburb just outside the beach town featured in “Jersey Shore.” We moved when I was one, though my youth included biweekly summer trips to the shore, because if you grew up in Jersey there was no need to preface it with the obvious, just like the “New” in the state name is an unnecessary appendage. I’ve never actually watched the show because I lived through it—a survivor, I’m told. And the only word that perfectly captures that long strip of boardwalk hugging Ocean Terrace is douchey. It’s not a popular word, nor one of high art, but that’s the thing about language: you’re looking to frame the right sentiment. You use the tools at your disposal.
So back to the douchey statement about moving too much as a culture. Not only do we not move nearly enough, we move in ways that are at odds with our biological inheritance. Our survival for the first 250,000 or so years of development depended on a keen observation of our environment. It meant moving safely and efficiently through dangerous and uncertain terrain, grappling with animals stronger and smarter than us.
While there are many definitions of intelligence, complete awareness of your surroundings ranks high on that list. Walk down any street today and you’ll witness the opposite, a complete obliviousness to the space we’re moving through, eyes glued to devices. We don’t move too much, we don’t know how to move within the space we inhabit.
Adaptability is one of our hallmarks as a species. Many animals adapt, but the diverse climates and terrains humans survive and even thrive within are in large part the reason we dominate as a species. Add a few anatomical and neurological upgrades—bipedalism, barbecuing—and a recipe for success was in place. Over the course of a quarter-million years, we’ve refined our relationship to our environment, extending life spans, creating vaccines and medicines to help us over the hump of infancy and to combat diseases, shipping strawberries around the globe to enjoy daiquiris during winter.
Yet as the Greeks knew when they started honoring humans as gods in sculpture and story, humans really fell hard—for ourselves. The terrors of the natural world succumbed to our prowess. We got cocky. Sure, even today we’ll be shocked by the earth shaking or microbial ecosystems, but the diseases we experience today are more chronic than sudden: obesity, diabetes, anxiety, depression, suicide, all increasing, all affecting younger and younger populations. The blame is on endless preoccupations, but one mantra persists: We don’t move too much, we just no longer understand how to move through our environment.
In our hyper-focus of the genetic consequences of “nature,” we’ve brushed “nurture” aside. Sure, coddling children is part of it—dismantling wood and metal playgrounds to install plastic slides never allows one to learn their lesson—yet today parents too are glued to their screen while their kids run around the padded theme park. No one needs to pay attention because everyone is somewhere else.
Sadly, that translates into one of the few sanctuaries for us adult children remaining: movement classes. Without the need of trudging pails up riverbanks or thatching roofs, the dynamic potential of our peculiar hinging of joints goes unused. We work out in the frontal plane, we (sometimes) transition to the lateral plane, we rotate one way, then we rotate another, it’s all quite pedestrian, like the hard angles of cities stuffed into grids.
Yoga, in particular, has fallen victim to this utter lack of creativity. Instructors spend more time coddling the adult mind with wistful fantasies than discovering the potential of those bodily articulations. “Body-mind-spirit,” an old YMCA catchphrase that’s infiltrated mainstream thinking, misses an essential point: they’ve never been separate. By focusing on “spirit” to the detriment of “mind” (and especially “body”), the yoga industry relies on the same marketing mechanisms as the “natural foods” complex: invent what sounds good and is certain to sell and don’t worry about the consequences.
Don’t misunderstand: any movement is better than none. Better to step on a treadmill than not at all; better to bicep curl over and over and over than never pick up anything heavier than a quarter-pounder. Movement is our birthright, but more importantly, diverse movement is what empowered us in the first place. And if you think “mind” is another domain entirely, the very act of thinking fires motor neurons—thinking is an internalized form of movement.
We all know the dangers of limited thoughts; we’re watching it play out in our national politics daily. The inability to break out of a bubble solidifies ideas that decimate cultures. The same is true of our physical activities. It’s all movement, or worse, right now, it’s all stagnation.
We don’t need stillness; too many are paralyzed by indecision as it is. Yes, I understand the bigger sentiment, that meditation is what’s needed. Meditation, however, is not stillness; our brains never stop producing thoughts. Motor neurons are relentless. It is, rather, a very directed and focused form of movement, an articulation of clear thoughts in the midst of a turbulent society.
For our so-called “spiritual” practices to be effective, they must address the time we’re living in now. Yoga has somehow been wrapped into this category, unique among other movement disciplines. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s all just movement. We don’t need less of it. We just need to do it better.