The word primal is bandied around a lot these days—used to describe movement, diet and lifestyle—but what does it actually mean?
The word itself stems from primary, that which came first. So "primal" can mean "original" in terms of our evolution either as an individual or as a species.
This can relate to how humans evolved from primitive sea creatures to four-legged mammals and up to primates, and still possess the types of motions such animals exhibit within our range of movement.
Humans also progress through these same patterns of movement within our own lifetime, from our fetal shape within the womb to becoming an upright adult.
Along the path of life, various experiences, stresses, traumas, criticisms, judgments, comparisons and other factors come along to support or interrupt how you stand upright.
Feeling that you may need to protect yourself or keep yourself small can affect your whole-body expression. A common trauma (and shame) pattern held in body tissues, for example, is a collapsed chest and hunched posture.
In his book Emotional Anatomy (Center Press, 1985), body psychotherapist Stanley Keleman explains: "Human uprightness is a genetic urge, yet, it requires a social and interpersonal network to be realized . . . What nature intended as the development and expression of human form is influenced by personal emotional history."
When you view movement not as simply something you do, but rather how you make your way through life, then you can begin to see it more as gesture than mechanical form. This helps to break away from moving in tight, hard and limited motion ranges that can be far removed from the reaching, pulsing, spiraling, shimmying, shaking, swaying, pushing and pulling gestures of natural motion.
If you sit rigidly on chairs all day and then limit your movements to a similar set of exercises at the gym or via fitness activities like running and cycling, then you are limiting the scope of your potential adaptability in tissues, leaving you more prone to injury.
Even by following the same set routines in movement systems such as tai chi, yoga or Pilates, you can become "set in your ways"—literally set into those shapes and capabilities.
Changing body movement habits and including all of those animalistic forms in human evolution supports basic functions, such as cardiovascular, respiratory, nervous system and endocrine (hormone) balance and health.
Primal movement as pleasure and play
Babies and small children simply move and play. There is no specific purpose to this beyond moving to explore, reach for what is needed or gesture for what is wanted to express and respond to the present moment in ways that give joy and a sense of freedom. Play is creative and not limited to a specific endpoint or goal. But this spectrum of possibility becomes narrower as movement and 'games' become more focused on specific rules, competing with our peers and getting the form right for best performance.
Many adults continue to bring this mindset to the gym, running or other fitness regimes that target specific areas to fix what is perceived as 'wrong' in their bodies. Exercise forms with more play and responsiveness, such as climbing, explorative forms of yoga (like Scaravelli yoga), water sports and rough-terrain hiking, involve the whole body and a myriad of movements, responding moment to moment.
Stepping away from counting and fixating on numbers of steps, calories, minutes and repetitions helps shift your viewpoint from what you 'should' be doing, to how to listen in and respond.
Of course, all activities run the risk of becoming purely goal-oriented, and people do derive motivation from challenge. It is not 'bad' per se to want to walk a certain number of miles or feel more physically able in a yoga pose, but if that takes over as the primary focus, it can quash your enjoyment and create the idea that you must punish your body toward physical ideals or comparison with others.
When you trust your instincts (primal messages), you can move in ways that are playful and curious instead. Parts of you that have previously felt stiff, sore, painful or shut down can begin to loosen, open up and soothe signals of distress.
Playful movement is known to promote adaptability, injury prevention, strength, balance, agility, coordination, speed, skill and mental focus—and a little can go a long way.
Indeed, movement coach and author Daryl Edwards has developed a method called Primal Play to inspire others to make physical activity fun while getting healthier, fitter and stronger. "Primal people danced, celebrated, competed, hunted, walked, dealt with nature—and played," he says.
"You can still see our human past in what we do today. Music, drumming, hiking, camping, fishing, swimming, gardening, sports, laughter, even dancing in dance clubs, all tap into the primal part of us."
Dance and group games are often the most accessible modes of play for adults, where embodiment, fun, joy and laughter can promote the release of feel-good chemicals such as beta-endorphins and other endogenous (self-produced) opioids.
These increase our feelings of wellbeing and social inclusion and are known to help relieve depression, anxiety and stress-related symptoms such as inflammation and chronic pain.