I told my doctor I was a rower in college. We were sitting across from each other at his mahogany desk. He was wearing a sweater. He was that kind of doctor. The wool knit kind who worked on his bedside manner and tried to laugh at my jokes. I told him I was a rower. “Oh that’s f*cked up,” he said. I’ve never felt so seen at a doctor’s office.
Don’t get me wrong, rowing is fantastic. Rowing is magic. Rowing is figuring out a way to get your oar in the water at the exact same time as seven other women in order to lift a 62 ft long shell out of the water until it feels like you’re flying. But the end game of a rowing race (besides winning) is pain. You have not worked hard enough if at the end of a race you don’t feel a little bit (and when I say a little bit, I mean a lot a bit) like death. So great, but a little f*ed up.
For years, that’s what I thought movement had to be, or at least movement that ‘counted,’ movement that was a ‘workout,’ movement that made me a better, and stronger, and tougher human. The kind of human I was supposed to be. I was scared to do anything else. I wasn’t sure how to calibrate success if it didn’t result in pain.
It’s a curious thing, changing the way we relate to movement. It’s quite literally the way we move around in this world, and so it becomes less a question of how we might move in a gym, and so much more about who we are and what we believe. To be good, does something have to be hard? Is suffering inextricably linked to growth or change? Maybe. Sometimes. But also…
What about play?
What about curiosity?
If you’re reading this, there’s a chance you’ve been to an Animal Flow Jam. If you haven’t, a) welcome to the party, and b) in the Animal Flow community a “Jam” is an informal get-together of other Flowists. It doesn’t have a set structure. We practice Call Outs, the Animal Flow language. We drill out some transitions. And then we design a Flow together. It usually lasts a couple hours. Longer if someone (cough, cough) brings treats. And it’s FUN.
Regional Leader, Tania Ikeda, and Flowists at an Animal Flow Jam in Osaka, Japan
It blew my mind the first time I walked away from a three hour jam. I was exhausted. That tingling kind of exhaustion where you aren’t sure if you want to lie down for the next twelve hours, or run a marathon because every cell in your body has been turned on and is wondering what to do next.
I was still new to Animal Flow. I equal parts love and hate being a beginner. I love the potential, the excitement, the delight when something clicks. I hate that I might fail or feel silly.
Mike Fitch, the creator of Animal Flow, was leading the Jam, and was trying to convince me that no, no I would not face-plant if I jumped from a left leg Front Kickthrough to a right leg Front Kickthrough.
I couldn’t get it. That failure fear began to creep up my spine and into my brain. I wanted to be good. I wanted these people to like me. What would happen if I were bad?
Like some brain magician, Mike was there with a regression, or as we say over and over again in the Level 1, a step back to take a step forward.
Eight hundred attempts later I had it.
Animal Flow is made up of this sneaky kind of physical and emotional work. You’re presented with a movement problem that exists somewhere of the scale of the seemingly impossible, and then the whole session revolves around making this thing not impossible.
The end isn’t pain. You haven’t done more or done better if you’re needing to scrape your wasted form off the ground. The end is a gift of discovery. It’s your world, and your sense of self, and what is possible–all getting a little bit bigger.
And that other fear, the fear about being judged or not being good enough for the cool kids Animal Flow club. Well, I’d figured out that ‘Jump to’ transition alongside ten other humans trying to figure out the exact same thing. In Animal Flow we are only ever on the same team because there’s always something to figure out. No one is ever done, so no one is ever judging where you are, because no matter what their experience level, they too are deep into the process of figuring it out.
It’s taken me years to navigate my relationship with movement and pain. And that journey will continue because it is complicated and because I have been raised in a culture that links the two. But something shifted that first Jam. I’d played. I’d laughed. I’d (almost) fallen on my face. And I’d worked super duper hard. But never, ever, was the goal to end in pain.
Now, not all pain is bad. Nor is it avoidable. But it doesn’t need to be a requirement. What happens when we seek out curiosity as a goal, instead of suffering? What happens when we meet up with our movement humans not to destroy ourselves, but to surprise ourselves?
I can’t answer that for you, but for me it means I look for those things everywhere, not just at the gym, not just in my movement practice, but in how I move around my life. I strive to have my life threaded-through with joy, and intrigue, and drop-you-on-your-butt kind of giggles. And I’m reminded of that every time I get my hands and feet in contact with the ground and start to Flow.
Maddie Berky joins Mike Fitch and other Flowists at an Animal Flow Jam in Boulder, CO, USA
Ready to join a Jam in your area? Our Community Groups on Facebook are the perfect place to connect with likeminded Flowists. Join a Jam, find an instructor or sign up for a workshop in your region.