Embracing the Exuberant Animal

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Frank Forencich is one of the few people I know who’s putting it all together when it comes to forging a new narrative for our human predicament. His Exuberant Animal project aims to help humans carve a healthy path through the modern world by integrating movement, storytelling, play, meditation, practical neuroscience and more. I cannot recommend Frank’s work more highly.

A few weeks ago, I spent an amazing weekend training with Frank and an awesome group of people, mostly trainers in the outdoor fitness/ancestral health mold, for one of Frank’s first Exuberant Animal trainings.

I wrote a piece about the experience over at Paleo Magazine; it’s also shared below.


This is a story of mismatch.

On a mostly sunny Friday in mid-October, a dozen souls convened at the home and dojo of Frank Forencich, the man behind Exuberant Animal. Frank had been kind enough to extend an invitation to us to serve as guinea pigs for his first Exuberant Animal training. I knew Frank through his fantastic Paleo Magazine columns, and although we hadn’t met in person before the weekend—just a few phone calls and emails—I felt a strong kinship with Frank and his project.

The weekend would be a mixture of meditation, presentations and outdoor group training, plus some occasional downtime and a fantastic selection of food, in large part thanks to our food sponsors, which included EPIC, Tanka, EXO, Barefoot Provisions, YAWP!, Wild Mountain Paleo Market, Wild Zora and Arizona Grass Raised Beef Co.

The nature of Exuberant Animal largely eludes sound bites. What Frank is after is a holistic and authentic response to the human predicament. As he pointed out early on in our weekend together, we live in “ancient, aboriginal bodies” that “are struggling to adapt in this modern world.” Our environment is alien to us in so many ways: physical, nutritional, circadian, microbial, acoustic, sensory, thermal, social and narrative. We’re dealing with a mismatch—and Exuberant Animal is all about finding a way through this predicament.

This is a story of finding a new-old way.

Frank is well known in the ancestral health community. And although Exuberant Animal draws heavily on what we can learn and emulate from our hunter-gatherer past, Exuberant Animal is not about a return to some Paleolithic ideal. It’s rather about merging the best of our past with the best of our present.

If you look across many traditional cultures, you see a qualitative, circular conception of time, one that aligns human activities with the dictates of the environment—not with rigid notions about when we think things should happen. The world we live in obviously operates largely in the latter way. But it’s also the world we live in, and this is not something we can just ignore, says Frank. Thus, we need to find a way to bridge the old with the new—a new-old way of doing things.

This applies not just to our concept of time, but to every aspect of our lives. We should look to the past and traditional cultures for clues to aid us through our predicament, but we can’t simply turn back the clock and expect to thrive as hunter-gatherers in a rapidly changing world far removed from that ideal.

This is a story of stillness and movement.

Meditation was a recurring activity throughout our weekend together. The modern world overwhelms us with information, and as a result, “we fixate on some things and omit other things, and our scan breaks down.” One potent antidote to this is meditation—or as Frank calls it, the practice of “athletic attention.” This idea of athleticism and practice weaved its way through many of Frank’s presentations, emphasizing how, as author and professor Richard J. Davidson says, “well-being is a skill, not a state.”

The focus on meditation also squared with another issue: the problem of stress and our modern reaction to it. The human body evolved a stress response to survival threats, but that response has morphed into a default, chronic reaction to lesser challenges—and even imagined ones—with dire consequences for the health of the human organism.

Movement was another core aspect of our training. Each day, we trained outdoors as a group, using creative, collaborative routines to build strength, flexibility and athleticism, as well as social bonds and non-verbal communication skills. We varied tempos and strengths, paying attention to our limits and moving together in ways that were playful and fun. We all became more aware of how training together can expand our possibilities for growth, both as bodies in movement and as social creatures.

For Jared Archbold, an integrative health and lifestyle coach, the training routines provided “so much inspiration and access to new realms I can explore with clients!”

We also explored movement indoors, particularly the connection between movement and neuroplasticity—the brain’s capacity to change. As a counterpoint to our vigorous outdoor training, Andrew Heffernan, a writer, personal trainer and Feldenkrais practitioner, led the group through a gentle but powerful movement lesson that gave attendees a chance to “reset” their nervous systems and focus on the nuances of some basic movements.

On Saturday, we hiked a hill in Icicle Canyon, a few miles away. The weather was perfect, and for three hours we navigated up and down the hill, Frank’s dog, Mojo, pacing us as we scrambled over rocks and through brush, even encountering a rattlesnake early on.

This is a story of deep ecology, of public health, of our long bodies.

“Where do you draw the line on your identity?” Frank asked us at one point. In the Western world, we typically draw that line at the barrier of our skin, but this is not how traditional cultures have perceived the “experienced self.”

The long body is a notion in Native American and other traditional cultures that obliterates the Western conception of the body as a discrete organism separate from the rest of existence. Frank discussed the many ways in which our bodies are intrinsically connected to the rest of life on earth, and how we must start thinking about health in the widest terms. The health of the planet is literally our own health. According to Frank, “You may not be interested in public health, but public health is interested in you.”

How can we shed the cultural myopia of rugged individualism and start seeing ourselves as inextricable members of the tribe of the earth, as bodies without boundaries? How can we become interested not just in recycling and conserving resources, but in being proponents and practitioners of a deep ecology that revels in the diversity and connectedness of life on earth?

This is a story about the stories we tell.

As the weekend neared its end, the narrative that guided our time together also wound its way toward a central conclusion, one unifying idea. On Sunday, as part of Frank’s final presentation, we came to this motif, arguably the centerpiece of Exuberant Animal itself: the idea that we’re not telling the right stories to help navigate our human predicament.

Stories move us—they literally change the flow of information in our bodies. Borrowing from terminology common in a training setting, Frank discussed how “stories are reps,” actions “that etch grooves in your nervous system and in your life.”

The ways we frame our experiences and the meaning we accord them—as individuals, families, tribes and cultures—have immense power to direct our health, and the fate of our species. As Frank argued, we need to help people understand the power of story in shaping our human experience, and we need to start telling better stories if we want to thrive in this postindustrial world.

This is a story of challenge, of grace, of fitting in without opting out.

The Exuberant Animal training was an incredibly powerful experience. I didn’t come away mesmerized by some small batch of insights, or with a pocketful of magic bullets. I left, instead, with a deep sense of calm and connectedness. Our newly formed tribe had spent three intense days living, eating, training, learning, meditating and playing together—acknowledging and forging that connectedness.

Attendee and movement expert Skye Nacel found the experience “completely fresh and invigorating”—even though he’d already known and trained with Frank for several years. Tanner Walker, a personal trainer and health coach, recognized “the rhythm of how we moved, meditated, socialized, learned and rested” as “something that must be experienced, not simply read about.” And Alia Joy Shaw, the youngest participant at 13, delivered maybe the most essential line of the weekend: “This should be what school is.”

As Frank himself told me several days after our time together: “Our experience made it clear that people are hungry for a narrative that makes sense of our predicament in the modern world. We’re looking for a meaningful context, better health and a whole-body approach to learning. And, we want to have fun doing it.”

Frank’s ambition for Exuberant Animal is to expand it to leaders of a wide range of constituencies—a group that includes, according to Frank, “trainers, teachers, medical professionals, managers and visionaries.”

This is a story.

The other night, my toddler son was in a tough mood. His mom had left earlier that day for a work trip, and he was upset and indecisive. Nothing I said or did gave him much comfort. But when we sat down on the couch together to read some of his favorite books, his anxiety dissolved. We sat engrossed in the tales on those well-worn cardboard pages. This simple act—of telling a different story—changed everything for him almost instantly.

Want to learn more about upcoming Exuberant Animal trainings? Check out exuberantanimal.com.

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