Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Reviewing MOVEMENT: An Overview of Ido Portal and his Philosophy

Before I start my essay, first I'd like to explain my background: I have met Ido Portal specifically 3 times. The first time was in year 2012, presumably his first trip to Singapore where he conducted his Upper Body Strength "Certification" Course (NB: There was no certification, and Ido is not interested in such business for the right reasons, which I agree and will explain later). The course was a weekend course, and though not physically taxing like a weekend bootcamp fitness course, the seminar was chock full of damn useful information, and to me, a catalyst to spark some inspiration to go in his direction. It took me almost 3 months later for me to start implementing the information obtained at the course, because I was so uncertain and yet unsettled about my own beliefs in regards to health and fitness (concepts by now which I feel are not adequately explored in-depth).

I then met Ido the second time earlier this year (2013) for a Movement-X experience, which was a few months before the Movement Camp. By the time I attended Movement-X, I was becoming familiar with the philosophy and the principles behind his approach, and had a great time reviewing my training during the weekend. Then, of course, came Movement Camp, an intensive 7-day long, 6 hours of movement training per day, experience which totally transcended anything I've come close to an educational awakening. I don't mean to exaggerate but it's true, there are very few social and/or educational outings which will demand you to be immersed into a practice for this long, and without outside contact during the whole time. In addition to that, the Movement Camp is, at best, an accumulation of varied movement practices squeezed into a week, and at worst, an examination of how "well" or "poor" your movement abilities are. You can leave the camp either inspired or devastated, but no matter what, you will get a rude awakening of how well you think you know your body.

Although I haven't been training under Ido Portal for a long time, but because Ido has become such a sensational figure, and his reputation continues to soar (rightfully), I hope to accomplish two things with my essay: i) provide a brief overview for those who are new to him, or still (in my opinion) unaware/uneducated about his philosophy, and ii) explain why it makes so much sense (to me and hopefully, to you), and review some important philosophical insights from Ido's point of view regarding movement practice.

*NB: I will not review the material of the Movement Camp comprehensively, as that has already been covered by other great articles. See Basic Training Academy's Review and Courtney's Review

"You don't need a reason to move"

This one-liner from Ido Portal is an especially important one, and exposes a lot of misguided beliefs and myths surrounding the marketing within the fitness industry. At the start of the camp, Ido said this to the participants in the orientation (paraphrased): "It doesn't matter how strong, how fit, how flexible, how much stamina you have. What we are interested here is how you move. And you can be all these things (i.e. strong, fit, high endurance, etc), but you can still move like shit".

Movement is more than just an expression of strength, cardiovascular endurance, stamina, and whatever other fitness attribute you wish to stick in. For Ido, there are countless other variables in place (e.g. timing, rhythm, contraction vs relaxation, etc). Consider this: Every second, minute, hour and time of your life, you're constantly moving in some degree or another (i.e. sitting, squatting, pushing, climbing, etc). At no point, did you need a self-justifying reason to move in whatever way you're doing (do I need a reason to squat to rest? Must I justify raising my hand at 90 degrees to grab a book off a shelf?). This is a kind of truism which doesn't need to be answered, but yet, from a specific discipline perspective (e.g. dance, martial arts, yoga, fitness, etc), a multitude of reasons are given to move and organise our bodies in a specific way. This isn't to say that it is wrong, as artistic practice and refinement is a discourse in itself, but what if you were to throw away all the labels (e.g. martial artist, dancer, yogi, etc), and honestly look at yourself, how would you then look as a mover?

This is an important barrier to overcome, because for most people, their pursuit of any fitness- or discipline- endeavour is usually with a reason (or goal) in mind: "to lose weight", "to be strong (e.g. squat 250kg)", "to kick someone's ass", etc. But ask them to perform a movement which goes outside of their realm of specialty and you get dumbfounded looks or accusations that this is "not what I do". No doubt, we all can't be good at every movement pattern (and this was especially revealing at the camp), but such defensive rebuffs are missing the point: do you mean to say that just because you can squat, deadlift and bench press well, you will never need to jump or climb? Or because you only enjoy relaxing into passive yoga postures, you don't need to use your muscles, strength and body to defend yourself one day? Movement is an all-encompassing concept, and as Ido said, one day, today, tomorrow, next month, next year, whatever, you will have to move your body in some way which has been unfamiliar to you before (jump, climb, break fall, etc). But due to your specific isolated movement practice, you may have lost an integral piece of your human movement repertoire, hence as Ido puts it, you "shit the bed".

"I have no dogma, except to movement itself" 

This then leads to a troubling but perplexing situation, namely, "how does one become a good mover? And what are the hallmarks of one?". In addressing this question, this is where I feel Ido Portal has truly filled a gap which nobody has truly attempted before. Ido is a very intelligent person, and obviously wanted to go beyond discipline-specific circles of thought. What exactly has Ido found which nobody else has? (By now, he has an exposition of 13 principles which can be easily broken down or expanded into more; needless to say, it has been very well-covered in his Facebook postings and articles.)

Namely, a system and principle-based educational process in covering general movement practice. For instance, Ido makes reference to the statement constantly, "Isolate-Integration-Improvisation", one of the many concepts that most people in the fitness industry have missed. On my part, I was first confused as to why Ido seemed to explore and understand this practice much better than most other fitness "experts". As some people will know, there are fitness systems out there who believe in teaching progressive movements akin to something like this, e.g. teach a squat first, then move to teaching a Clean, then perhaps teaching a Jerk or Snatch, as if this is a road of moving from simple to complex.

To some degree, it resembles the process, but it's also missing an important piece of the movement puzzle. This is simply teaching three distinct but fundamentally different movement patterns, and further there is still a lot of room to improve on each particular aspect. Another important thing to consider is that while it reaches some level of integration (add squat, add Overhead position, add weights, etc), but it never reaches to the stage of improvisation. Even if you consider bodyweight style calisthenics, some fitness systems consider the pistol squat, 1-arm pushup, or some other variant as the final goal to be achieved, after which it's just about adding more weight or repetitions. Even more crucially, it also implies that there is only one way (linear thinking) to achieve a certain movement pattern, and ignores that the body is an organic object which can be twisted, contorted, rotated to meet a similar movement goal (get from Point A to point B). This is where improvisation (the ability to integrate concepts/patterns and improve on them freely) comes in.

In order to reach this stage, though, is a grand task. And as discussed at the camp, perhaps not everyone can meet this high level of sophistry and direction (after all, as in art, not everyone can dictate and take control of their own work, and some artists prefer to follow instructions). This is where Ido comes in with a huge variety of tools and methods to tackle such difficulties and to give a person's ability to move. Another example: One of Ido's most dramatic illustrations at the camp was when he brought out a Crossfitter on stage, had him sit on the floor in a straddle while answering questions about his fitness achievements. After showcasing his fitness numbers, Ido then mentioned, "Another 15 minutes more, and this guy's hip flexors will freeze, because he can't even sit properly".

So the key question here, we need to ask ourselves is this, taking aside that perhaps you can squat an impressive number, or you can complete a CF workout to great record, but what's the extent of your movement abilities? Can you squat for 30 minutes without cramping (i.e. Ido is fond of relating his story of seeing a China man squatting down to wait for his bus for 30mins)? Can you put your hands on the floor and lift your toes off without falling over (another favourite illustration from Ido)? There are a multitude of ways which you can move your body, and if you find yourself short in more areas than one, then that's your answer. You are either a great or poor mover, and you need movement-based training, NOT specific-discipline training which can exacerbate your pre-existing conditions.

This is what Ido has founded. That's why he has no specific loyalty to any particular fitness-oriented training (e.g. kettlebells, clubbells, bodyweight, barbells, etc). There is no "ONLY" added behind his methodology of training, and crucially, the tool doesn't become the master (i.e. you become ruled by your PR figures, than by your own body's ability to move). The master still remains your body, and that is the standard to hold in regards to the efficiency of your training. Not how well you perform with a tool, or even with a certain protocol or under a certain workout; when you are given an empty room with four walls, how well can you move and express your vessel (as some religious people put it)?

"Move. A LOT" 

Ido has a rather peculiar online reputation. To some, he is regarded as an iconoclastic figure who speaks truth and cannot be doubted. To some, he is an egoistical bastard who derides the common folks and refers to 99% of the world as Homer Simpsons. Of course, this may seem rather conceited and unsympathetic (and personally, I understand the reasons for such anger at his cuss remarks), but I am not here to defend his personality. Instead, I think it is important to put his comments in perspective.

The sad truth for most people nowadays, is that we do not move much. Not even a lot. Ido bases part of his philosophy on evolutionary biology (and we had the honor of having Frank Forencich discussing multi-disciplinary approaches to health and performance informed by evolutionary science at the camp), which points out that Man has evolved from a species of hardy and capable movers to sitting down, key-board typing rounded back, and pretty much a weaker species in general. Yes, this doesn't discount the fact that we are a highly intelligent evolved species, but it also doesn't deny the fact that our movement capabilities have de-evolved to a great degree (Ido has a funny video on de-evolution. See here). So this is one hardy fact that we must swallow first.

As discussed earlier, our forage into specific fitness- or discipline-practice is not the answer to our movement conundrum. Doing more -this- or -that- doesn't address such a general ability; hence, the only answer we are left to find ourselves with is to do more movement. Move way more. In fact, Ido recently put up the solution of having a better squat form. His answer? Squat more. 30mins a day minimum. Sounds almost nonsensical and idiot-proof but sadly this is the hard truth about our bodies.

We adapt specifically to whatever we engage our mind and body in. Spend 80% of your time in bodybuilding, and 20% of your time in running? Of course, you will have more stamina posing on stage than running in a marathon. But if all we do is sit 80% of the time, and 20% of the time in the gym doing a typical routine of squat, bench press and deadlifting, we are still nowhere near to being a better mover. All you have developed is being a better "squat, bench and deadlift" mover. Under Ido's system, there are a multitude of ways to categorise movement (e.g. squat, locomote, hang, brachiate, climb, etc) but of course, the list can literally be endless. Nonetheless, it makes it very clear that we have an infinite number of ways to practice movement, hence showing that we got a lot of work cut out for us.

So, as cold and hard-nosed as Ido may seem, he's really espousing a truth which is bitter to swallow. We really can't be better at inverting ourselves (handstands), moving on the floor (squatting and locomotion), jumping and falling (acrobatics and tumbling), if we don't spend enough time practising them. Now, let me be honest, this is exactly why I am sympathetic to most people because just like most other folks, I am not a movement teacher with the luxury of training myself 6-8 hours a day, and find myself almost at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. As a father with children and job responsibilities, this is an especially difficult challenge, but to quit now and to shove it aside is besides the question. I am simply avoiding the fact that I am not moving enough (and believe me, it is still an uphill task for me).

"Don't just talk the talk. Walk the walk"

Consider this analogy: you are involved in a theatrical performance. And your director comes up to you and criticises you on part of your performance. Now you could respond by saying, "Oh I didn't know that part" or "I didn't practice this part enough". If you answered the former, that's perhaps a sign of mis-education or ignorance as you never knew that movement was important. However, if you answered with the latter, that's like a way of saying, "I didn't work hard enough".

When it comes to movement practice, Ido routinely discusses why people should not be made of sugar and not be afraid of criticism (interestingly, Ido has theatrical stage performance experience which may explain his views). This makes sense because like a good art director, the criticism is not to be taken personally (or it can be, if you reflect on yourself thoroughly). Instead, it is rather a form of feedback to improve your performance (should you wish to do so). This point isn't really hard to accept; further all, under a good teacher, we readily allow ourselves to be scrutinized and corrected meticulously. However, I believe the reason why people take offense to Ido's remarks is because they are under the misguided belief that they are already "good movers". Like an actor who thinks he is already magnificient and charming under the camera due to pure talent, he believes he is exempt from criticism and guidance.

Such attitudes aren't exceptional in any field, but perhaps reaches a certain height of egotism especially in the physical and fitness domains (hence, Ido would regularly issue challenges to detractors on showcasing their movement abilities). However, if we were to take the role of a humble student, then you'd come to the point of realising that in practising movement, you will face a lot of your own weakness. However, do not be confused here: This is not the kind of weakness espoused by certain fitness circles (typically due to not finishing a workout which is a narrow concept of endurance), but the inability to perform a certain movement pattern that is currently alien to your body.

For instance, if you never back flipped before, it doesn't matter if you squat at an elite standard, you got a lot more to worry about (not just balance, coordination, fear of heights, etc). During the camp, I was especially bad at acrobatics and tumbling even though I loved seeing people move this way. And though I may also have been taught the progressive drills to obtaining it, but it doesn't mean shit. I got to do the backflip, and get on the mats and do the dirty work. So just like anyone else, and as I learned at the movement camp, it isn't enough to know or presume to know how to move. You really have to do it. And do it enough times till your body gets it totally.

At first glance, this will seem overwhelming and unrealistic (how I can possibly achieve mastery of every movement activity in the world?). However, there's also a silver lining under this cloud of confusion. On some level, we must accept that this will be an extremely long journey (and probably with no end goals in sight). In this instance, I am reminded of a saying from legendary Bruce Lee, which I will paraphrase here: Bruce Lee is noted for deriding red-belt martial artists, or Grand-Master Martial Artists, who proclaim to turn students into deadly weapons in weeks or months. But to Lee, this is a ridiculous concept because there is so much to learn in the martial arts that it would take more than a lifetime to master every aspect of it. Like Bruce, Ido understands this very well, and also decries industry titles and rank calling of "guru's", or even worse, "Master Trainer". And that's why you will never see a "Certification" course at an Ido Portal event.

Movement is exactly like that, and unlike martial arts (whereby someone can choose deliberately not to undertake it), we are always moving. So unless you are diligently mastering your every movement every second of your life, relax and acknowledge that we have a lot more walking to do.

"Movement is more than this and that. Movement is BIG."

As alluded to earlier, if there is one unavoidable insight that we obtained from the movement camp, was that our strength and weaknesses were exposed. Yes, the martial artists moved better when there were martial-based movement patterns; the gymnasts moved best when there were the hand stands and acrobatics; the yogis, dancers or soft art-style practitioners moved most gracefully. But yet within each group, there was always a "This sucks" moment at an unfamiliar movement.

A lot of people have made reference to the expensive pricing of the movement camp (or other Ido Portal-related courses), and asked variant questions which amounts to this, "is it really worth it?". I do not presume to be able to answer this question for you, but let me put forth that if you confine yourself to narrow spheres of thought, you will never think it would be worth it. Let's take the Movement Camp for instance,

- Are you expecting to increase your squat numbers?
- Are you expecting to finish the CF Games faster?
- Are you interested to find out ways to get six-packs abs faster?

If these were the key concerns on your mind, then yes the Movement Camp or Ido Portal as a teacher himself would disappoint you (but I'd argue that you still will find indirect answers to these questions). But this is exactly why Ido Portal called the fitness world a "polluted world" (in his interview with RahBrahs), and necessitated that attendees of the Movement Camp be "big-picture people". Now imagine this,

- Do you want to learn how to crawl and move gracefully on the floor or do you think it is dance bullshit?
- Are you too inhibited to move like a dancer or Taichi artist because you only know how to play rough sports and are too "macho" for this shit?
- Do you want to learn how to do one-arm chinups and front levers even though it will take years (not weeks, not months) to achieve them?
- Are you okay with standing still and raising your hands for 10mins straight? With no movement at all?

These are the kind of scenarios and pictures that were presented to us at the Movement Camp. There were an amazing assortment of movement practitioners there (of which, I am one of the poorest, God Honest Truth), from acrobatic performers, dancers, champion martial artists, elite Crossfitters, but consider this. Everyone of them did something outside their comfort zone. I watched with amazement tough "macho" guys dance to soft music; I observed hyperactive movers tone their movements down to the gracefulness and slowness of a Taichi form; and I continued flipping myself on mats and floors, fighting against vertigo and dizziness knowing that I was hitting the mats like a lame duck.

So when someone asks if the price is worth it, let's be honest here: it will never be worth it if you aren't able to step outside of your comfort zone. If you don't want to play (and with a certain degree of dangerousness and acceptance of the unknown), this will be an adventure not worth taking.

But for those who participated wholeheartedly, and engaged in movement with open arms, willingly to embrace whatever came their way (or was elicited from their bodies), then they really paid a price more worth than any monetary value. They paid a price their bodies deserved in a priceless way.

They made themselves move like no other. That's how big movement is.

"No End to Movement" 

I conclude my essay with this simple axiom: no matter what we do, there are always ways to improve ourselves. Sure, there are a multitude of attributes to discuss, not least intelligence, maturity, and in the physical domains, several dozen fitness attributes. But Ido has narrowed down one broad and yet general concept which has been ignored, and for the wrong reasons. Namely, in our pursuit for some gold trophy of strength, conditioning, toughness, or some invisible masculinity award, we haven't looked ourselves in the mirror and ask how the heck do I look and feel when I move?

Like a stiff robot? Like a ship captain from Wall E (the film)?

Or put it simply, someone totally in control of his/her body?

In writing this, I hope I have delineated the key concepts behind Ido's philosophy. Honestly put, there is so much more for me to write, but I am not Ido, and can't presume to write his book for him. However, what I hope to outline chiefly is this: You can ignore Ido Portal. You can ignore dance, martial arts, weightlifting, yoga, etc. You can even ignore anyone outside of your own hermit world.

But you can't ignore movement. You can't ignore how you moved before, now, and in the future. And you can't ignore that you will move alone, with people and along with friends, loved ones and family.

So given how important that is, don't you want to move well enough to keep up with the rest of the human race?

Here's to Ido Portal, his team (Odelia Goldschmidt, John Sapinoso, Victor Gathing, and many others from his Israeli Team), Jozef Frucek, Frank Forencich, and not to mention the countless other movers from all sorts of disciplines from the Movement Camp and seminars who continue to preach the message of movement. It's truly a revolution in the making.