Philosophy of human movement, Health, Wellness

Human Rewilding: A modern teaching approach to achieving optimal health and wellness

January 07, 2022

By Damien Norris

Often I feel like a hexagonal peg trying to fit a round hole. And that is completely okay with me. I’m a fitness coach with a penchant for philosophy, and when I talk about philosophy of human movement, I’m neither expertly scientific nor flawlessly philosophical. I am very practical.

Few philosophers of movement actually move for a living, and few movers think deeply, philosophically, about their practice. What I bring to the discussion about human movement, sport, and exercise is that I’m engaged with movement in practical ways and determined to understand my experiences philosophically.

How did I get here?

In December 2016, I was at the end of a process of outdoor physical training that is, perhaps, as old as the human body itself. But the process found written expression in a book called La Method Naturelle (The Natural Method), published in 1912. It described a physical education program that eschewed the indoor gymnasium in favour of seeking optimal physical fitness outside. In nature.

In the snowy woods of Newfoundland, I found myself standing on the other side of an obstacle I had just overcome using the ‘method’: an obstacle of some consequence where failure could have meant hypothermia or worse. But as I stood, elated by my success, weighing the gravity of failure and overwhelmed by the beauty of my surroundings, I felt fully alive. Very human. And very wild.

I’ve been trying to make sense of that experience ever since. A teacher once said to me, “Don’t have the experience and miss the meaning.” So down the rabbit hole I jumped to explore human movement. I discovered the tunnel was way deeper, way more interesting than expected—and of such value that it is now the subject of my PhD thesis.

What is my bodied-mind / minded-body up to?

I’m pursuing an idea. Or maybe I’m inventing a useful myth (the two overlap) about something I call human rewilding. The deliberate and methodical re-turn, or re-discovery, of the human body with its most primal, accessible, and most essential of human abilities: the ability to move. I don’t mean movement as sport or exercise, but movement as a whole-body, sensory mode of being that is intimately in relation with self, others, and the environment that shaped it and in which it finds itself.

In general terms, I’m engaged in a practical philosophy of human movement, or what it means to be a moving, expressing, running, jumping, leaping, risking, tracking, sensing human body: one of the most expressive and inventive creatures in the animal kingdom.

The primary data for my thesis is my experience of a movement-practice called nature parkour. I seek to understand it through the theorizing of scholars like Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, David Abrahms, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among others. These theorists suggest that we each have a unique, sensing organic body and a reasoning mind that collects, curates, and augments our sensory experience to make sense of the world. Western academic circles have valued the latter over the former—knowledge of mind over knowledge of body—so much so that we have learned to trust our bodies with everything but what it might have to say to us.

We trust our body to wake up, to drive a car, ride a bike, or grasp something on command. But we are practically deaf to the language that exists in the viscera of our organs. Organs that pay very close attention to the relationships the body has with the world within which it floats: an interoceptive world of 'knowing' informing every decision we make and influencing everything we can learn.  

Since the publication of Spark in 2008 by John Ratey, we've known that 30 minutes of daily physical activity promotes the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF—a protein molecule key to brain plasticity and integral to learning and memory. BDNF primes the brain to acquire new information. Movement, it seems, helps the body learn math! But that is just the tip of the movement iceberg.   

The literature on embodiment argues that the body itself has a language that is instructive. An intriguing idea referred to in embodiment literature as the “corporeal turn.” But I argue that the ‘turn’ is more authentically described as a ‘revival.’ We never actually left our bodies, but we have lost touch with how to be one; how to move our bodies through the full range of its human potential and to hear what it has to say.

This is where I see human rewilding and nature parkour augmenting, among other areas, the paradigms of physical fitness and physical literacy. Human rewilding is not sport. Nor is it exercise or fitness per se. It is an outdoor movement practice as old as the human form itself and vitally important to optimal human functioning: sensory, intellectual, and physical.

Over centuries we have tamed our bodies and created urbanized environments of concrete, shade, and comfort in which to house them. We are wild creatures recently domesticated. The question can be asked, “Was that a good thing?” And if not, could that process be reversed? Could we re-wild the human? And if we could, and if we wanted to, what would we need to do?

About the author:

I’ve experienced many iterations of myself: civil and criminal lawyer, elite gymnast, philosopher, human rights consultant—and father, desk worker, happy sedentary human. In 2016, I experienced an epiphany of sorts, described in a 2018 TEDx talk: It’s time to rewild your body. I quit my job and founded two companies promoting lifelong movement for all ages. Here at SFU, as a PhD candidate in Philosophy of Education, I seek to understand why moving in nature is so good for us and how best to do it.