Movement practices like animal flow, primal play, and yoga asanas teach us to be fully human.
“I’d like to invite you into your body. Because disembodiment can block our compassion,” advises interspiritual minister Erika Allison as she stretches her arms up high. “We’re going to take a moment to do some animal movements. You may be inspired by the giraffe and stretch your neck up. Maybe you want to be a bird and extend your arms out. Move in ways that feel good to you. Check in with yourself.”
It’s halfway through our monthly Sunday service at Compassion Consortium, and we’ve been sitting a while. This quick 90-second break reminds us that we do indeed have bodies. It also underscores why we have gathered—to help spread compassion for the animal kingdom of which humans are a part.
Of course, we aren’t original in linking animals to movement. (Anyone recall Mr. Miyagi’s infamous crane kicks?) Surely, squirrels “invented” parkour, navigating branches by assessing their flexibility and distance. And rhinoceros beetles win the strength-training prize, able to carry more than 30 times their weight. Then there’s that cheetah speed that could leave marathon runners in the dust.
Inspired by other species, humans are getting in touch with their animality in some very creative ways.
As animal movement practitioners draw on strength-based attributes from the animal kingdom, quadrupedal movement training (QMT) is trending in gyms, grassy parks, and concrete parking lots. This bodyweight training style flows between animal-inspired poses and crawling patterns to improve range of motion, strength, endurance, and cognitive function.
"The way we treat our bodies now will dictate how we experience our bodies down the road," offers Animal Flow (AF) developer Mike Fitch. “I stopped training for now or to look a certain way, and really started thinking about how I could inhabit my body better.”
Although Fitch admits he’s never studied animals academically, his animal movement program does draw on generalized images of them. For example, “animal traveling forms” such as Crab Reach, Forward-Traveling Beast, and Side-Traveling Ape are used to create fluid transitions between held poses.
As a result of the movements, AF practitioners describe a feeling of “being in flow” with themselves and their environments. Some describe this state in spiritual terms, such as an expanded state of consciousness. Others suggest the state feels energized or high-octane. Fitch defines flow as “acting and reacting instinctively without thinking.” He suggests this ideal state comes after mastering individual movements through repetition. At that point, the practitioner no longer needs to think about what move comes next and enters flow.
I’ll note, as someone who does study animals, that Fitch’s characterization of animality being based primarily on movement and instincts feels unnecessarily reductionist considering all we know about animal cognition. But, admittedly, AF doesn’t seem to be interested in animals. Instead, the practice is intended to get people in touch with their “animal selves.”
Also check out:
- Capoeira: Beyond animal moves, AF draws heavily on legacies of break-dancing and Capoeria, an Afro-Brazilian martial art developed by enslaved Africans in Brazil at the beginning of the 16th century.
- ZUU: A cardio-intense workout that also takes cues from the animal kingdom, initially developed in Australia by Nathan Helberg for use by elite sports athletes and armed forces personnel.
It’s understandable why humans take movement inspiration from wild animals. They move a lot more than we do—flying, fluttering, climbing, swimming, jumping, galloping. Some seem almost constantly in motion!
In contrast, many human animals sit in front of screens all day. (Come to think of it, does that explain why we work so hard to conserve koala bears and three-toed sloths, two of the slowest mammals on earth?)
Some of us have to work hard to reclaim physical activity. That’s why Darryl Edwards quit his sedentary desk job and developed Primal Play. Designed for people who think exercise is tedious, the method focuses on fun through “functional and challenging movements that can be adapted for all.”
What makes Primal Play distinctive is its eschewing of ideas such as “No pain, no gain” and “My sweat is my body crying for mercy.” Edwards is not interested in attracting elite athletes. He wants to get us off our couches so we can get healthier, fitter, and stronger. Especially families. So, he provides easy-to-use card decks for different age groups and a picture book for young kids titled My First Animal Moves.
While the animality of Edward’s animal movement program also relies on generalized movements such as Bear Walk, Crab Walk, and Crane Pose, his framework can inspire us to think broader about play. There’s widespread evidence that many species play to develop creativity, increase coordination, and improve social bonding.
I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that the word “primal” has been implicated in controversial statements. But, be assured, Edwards uses the word as intended according to the gospel of Merriam-Webster—to mean original or coming from an earlier time. What’s more, he also creates thought-provoking parallels between physical activity and social justice movements.
Also check out:
- Wild Rituals: 10 Lessons Animals Can Teach Us about Connection, Community, and Ourselves from behavioral ecologist and elephant expert Caitlin O’Connell.
- You Are a Lion!: And Other Fun Yoga Poses by award-winning Taeeun Yoo for your kids or grandkids.
Hatha yoga abounds with animals. We stretch our backs and necks by moving seamlessly from Cat pose to Cow pose. We mirror the moves of balancing bears (merundandasana) and intoxicated snakes (gagani madasana). To date, I’ve collected over 60 animal-named poses.
Some suggest there are so many species included because ancient yogis observed their natural environment in great detail. They watched an individual animal for hours or days to experience interconnection and see what message an animal might hold for them. As these lessons were passed down through the ages and we took yoga indoors, these connections were often lost.
[Expore S&H’s Animal Wisdom collection.]
Reflecting on animals while engaged in animal movement practices can help us reconnect to nature and grow our respect for other beings as teachers. Bee Breath (Bhramari pranayama) instructs us to breathe with a vibrating hum in order to withdraw from our senses and concentrate. Camel pose (ustrasana) is not just a valuable stretch for the front of our bodies; it’s a recollection of our ability to survive in extreme conditions. It can remind us how to tap our energy reserves.
Considering interconnection during our practice attunes us to animals in more profound ways. For example, we may live more fully into the often-forgotten yogic principle of ahimsa—avoiding violence towards other sentient beings.
“Yoga has grown so rapidly that, in the majority of its centers, only pieces of the full system have kept up: Om shanti, namaste, Headstand, Downward-Facing Dog,” reflects Victoria Moran, a registered yoga teacher and compassionate eating advocate. “The yamas and niyamas, traditionally studied before any other aspects of yoga, tend to be discovered by only the most serious students, and then often rationalized away.” The result is that a commitment to nonviolence remains unexplored. While many yoga teachers connect ahimsa and animals, resulting in plant-based diets, many yoga students are resistant to making the connection. According to Moran, that’s how we get the paradox of “the yoga student with the chicken wrap.”
Animalia Asana seeks to put the animals back in yoga. A nonprofit dedicated to raising the profile of the multi-faceted animal element in yoga, their website offers free resources for yoga practitioners and teachers. Run by volunteers, their profits go to animal charities FIAPO and International Animal Rescue.
Also check out:
- Yoga and Veganism: The Diet of Enlightenment by Jivamuki Yoga co-creator Sharon Gannon. Read for more on the links between yoga, food, and nonviolence to all beings.
- Yoga Tales: Asanas & Animal Fables, an ebook from India by Nisha Arya and Susie Magee-Billson. It pairs animal yoga poses with animal stories from the ancient Panchatantra tales. All proceeds benefit http://www.interfaithpeacewalk.org.
Becoming Human Animals
Above all, these animal movement practices challenge us to consider the distinctions we have created about what it means to be human or animal. To be fully human is to acknowledge the beauty and benefits of our animality. Perhaps the greatest “animal” practice we can engage in is recognizing that each individual in the vast animal kingdom is worthy of not only our admiration of their movements but also our respect, concern, and compassion.
Want more animal-inspired practices of compassion? Check out these interspecies healing practices.