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By on 21.5.2014

Frank Forencich: Beautiful practice

Frank Forencich
I´ve been a fan of Frank Forencich ever since one of my friends mentioned I should check out his blog. It was love at first sight, each of the posts seemed to come with a refreshingly warm philosophical viewpoint to whichever aspect of fitness or life he was discussing. He now has a new book out called Beautiful Practice, and on the day that I received it in the mail, I decided to give Mr Forencich a shout in case he would like to do an interview, to help the people up north get to know him better. Indeed he did!

Hi Mr Forencich! Please introduce yourself – what is your background and what is it that you do?

– I first got involved in martial art training back in the 1970’s, before the personal training industry really took off. I had a good sensei and I was really impressed by the depth and power of the experience; martial art was the most concentrated and effective educational experience I’ve ever had. I studied karate and aikido for many years with some outstanding teachers.

– At the same time, I was studying human biology at Stanford and got really interested in human evolution. That led me to make a few trips to Africa where I was fortunate to see the Hadza Bushmen in Tanzania and the bushmen of the Kalahari. I also visited the wild chimpanzees at Gombe, Tanzania. Later, I went to massage school and followed some early advocates of functional training, including Gary Gray, Paul Chek and Vern Gambetta. Now I write books and lead seminar trainings about health and performance.

Just received your new book in the mail today, haven´t had time to delve into it yet, just got through the introduction.. What themes did you feel you wanted / needed to touch upon with Beautiful Practice? What is it´s target audience and / or purpose?

– Beautiful Practice is about putting all of our training efforts together into a single experience. Knowledge is essential of course, but there must be an actual doing. We need a sense of integration to our efforts. Physical training is obviously important, but meditation, food, stress relief and perspective are also vital. “Practice” is a theme that comes up frequently in yoga, martial art and athletic training, but it’s also relevant to how we live our daily lives. The book is for trainers, coaches, classroom teachers, yoga teachers, martial artists, workplace managers and parents. We’re all doing the same thing: helping one another to lead healthier, more functional lives.

What in your view are some of the biggest issues with the so-called fitness culture of today? And do you think they correlate with larger societal issues as well? The russian doll metaphor from one of your blog posts came to mind..

– Today’s fitness culture is a difficult, mixed bag. On one hand, there are a lot of people doing really great work in individual settings. But as a whole, the culture of fitness has some real problems. The most obvious problem is the drive towards narcissism, individuality and self-interest. There’s very little conversation about big-picture ideas or public health; it’s almost always about individual weight loss and athletic performance. The trend is towards creating “health islands” in the form of corporate gyms in affluent communities.

– The influence of technology is also problematic. Wearable technology, combined with electronic monitoring of client behavior, turns personal trainers into a kind of “lifestyle police.” We monitor how much people move their bodies, how much they sleep, what they eat and so on. We become “Big Brothers” to our clients. In a corporate and workplace setting, this begins to feel truly invasive and creepy. When our every move is tracked and manipulated, we begin to lose our freedom and our wildness. Paradoxically, this becomes a threat to health in itself.

– Our industry is also becoming incredibly one-dimensional. Biochemistry and biomechanics get the most respect; it’s all about what can be measured. We treat people like lab rats in cages. Corporate management of fitness tends to drive out the rest. We ignore things like dance because it can’t be measured. We ignore holistic practices because they’re messy and challenging.

– Things like “green fitness” and “natural movement” are promising trends, but we need to go further. Most of all, the fitness industry should be stepping up into a leadership role, not just in matters of personal health, but in matters of public health and the health of the environment. The challenge should be obvious: no habitat, no health. If we don’t protect the fabric of the living world, it’s not going to matter what your sets and reps look like. We need to start speaking out on behalf of the body and our life-support system. And if this means going against the grain of the corporate gym and glossy magazine culture, so be it.

Just re-read Change Your Body, Change Your World and one thing stuck with me in particular, also kind of related to the above question. It was the thought that our current widespread illnesses may be a micro level manifestation of an illness on the macro level, i.e. the biosphere / natural world as a whole. Could you expand on that thought a bit, as I think my readers may be intrigued, too. Have you developed the theory any further?

– Yes, this is the personal-planetary connection and the idea that individuals simply cannot thrive or remain healthy in independent isolation. We are literally embedded in the natural world and we utterly depend upon that world for our health. If you’re living in a diseased habitat or culture, your body-spirit-health is going to suffer. Native cultures have known this for thousands of years, but we seem oblivious.

– We experience the consequences of habitat destruction in two ways. The first is direct and physical. When we destroy habitat, we simultaneously poison our food, water and atmosphere. As Chief Seattle put it, “Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” Or, to put it another way, “whatever we do to the earth, we do to our bodies.”

– We also experience the destruction psychologically, in the form of stress and fear. The dominant narrative of our time is “Looming Planetary Catastrophe.” We know what’s happening to the planet, but we try to retreat into the gym and hope everything will be OK. But it’s not OK. And it’s not somebody else’s problem.

Do you believe there will ever be a renaissance in the fitness culture, which could change the current appearance / bodybuilding-focused parody of ”fitness” into it´s original roots, i.e. being synonymous with an individual´s joy, the ability to move and generate energy / power that can be used when needed. It seems that spirituality, intelligence and philosophical aspects are sorely lacking from current-day fitness, instead the focus is on the development of individual muscles, bodyfat and so forth. What would be needed to change this dire situation?

– The problem is that we are so ignorant of history. In the modern fitness industry, we’re trying to re-invent the wheel of human health. We’re trying to build up programs and curriculums from scratch, as if we were the first culture in history to grapple with matters of training and health. We build up curriculums beginning with anatomy and physiology, biomechanics and biochemistry, completely ignoring the work of people who have gone before us.

– In fact, there is a vast, ancient tradition of training, one that began in the East, some 2,000 years ago. Yoga is the obvious example, but many Eastern arts followed the same model of apprenticeship, full engagement, discipline and a holistic orientation. It’s all been done. We know how to train people. Traditional approaches worked. The dojo model is a fantastic model for community-based holistic education. Traditional senseis and teachers didn’t know anything about biomechanics, biochemistry or anatomy, but only a fool would suggest that they didn’t get results. In fact, just the opposite. Traditional methods of fully-disciplined engagement and participation actually changed people’s lives in dramatic and profound ways.

– Instead of going deeper and deeper down the rabbit holes of biomechanics and biochemistry, we need to learn and experience what happens in the dojo environment. Textbooks and multiple-choice exams are a poor substitute for actual experience.

What, in your opinion, could be the best practical solution for increasing people´s internal motivation to improve, develop and diversify their physicality and movement skills?

– I am mystified by the modern “motivation problem.” Many people report having poor motivation and believe that a trainer can supply it. Or, we resort to hyper-normal stimuli like loud music to get our bodies moving. Or, we sign up for boot camps so that coaches and trainers will force us to get moving. But this is all based on a flawed assumption: that physical movement is inherently unpleasant. We see this assumption at work all across the medical-fitness-public health world. In many cases, public health leaders have simply given up. Exercise sucks, so we’ll have to apply more interesting carrots and more fear-based sticks to get people to move their bodies.

– This, of course, is nonsense. Every child and every dog knows that movement is inherently pleasant. They move, not for some ulterior motive, but because it feels good. That is, the motivation is in the movement, not in something external. The art lies in finding movements that make you feel good, not in being driven by externals.

– As trainers, we need to offer more interesting and pleasant movement experiences. The reason that people hate exercise is that we give them too many rigid, single plane drills. We’ve forgotten the bounce and the dance that animates our bodies and our lives. We’re so busy calculating numbers and tracking results that we forget how much fun we can have. So put down the clipboard (iPad), grab a few medicine balls and start creating. Free yourself from the notion that your clients have to suffer. Instead, help them to fall in love with movement.

Any final thoughts / ideas you would like to leave the readers with?

– Don’t quit your day job (ha!). Seriously, our profession is extremely difficult. Modern culture simply does not value the body, nor do we value those people who work with movement or health. In the West, PE teachers are at the bottom of the pecking order and trainers aren’t much higher. Unless you live in an affluent region, you’ll find it hard to make a living. The solution, I believe, is to reach higher, further and deeper. Get out of the rut of sets and reps and start speaking out for a broader vision of healthy human experience.

– Start creating new models based on old traditions. Above all, maintain discipline and engagement. Follow the Dojo Rules and promote full engagement. What we’re doing is not just important, it’s one of the most vital things on the planet right now. By promoting health, we also promote improved cognition, improved awareness and improved performance in the face of planet-scale challenges. This is about far more than weight loss and muscle sculpting; this is about the fate of the biosphere.

More from Frank:

Exuberant Animal home page
Exuberant Animal blog
Dojo Rules
Beautiful Practice
The Exuberant Animal Play Book

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