The Communion of Play; A Day of Natural Movement on the River

communion movnat play

Last month, I spent a day enjoying a river park that runs past my home in Korea. While the exercise itself was freeing, what really struck me was how simply being playful and exercising like this seemed to connect with other people, even those I couldn't communicate with. The natural, playful movement intrigued people, brought them joy, even inspired some of them to try it themselves. It was as if seeing an 'adult' playing let them believe it was okay for them to engage with their own bodies in ways they normally left to their kids.

The sun was up, the trees were full, the air was cool with the first whisperings of fall, the river beckoned, and I had the entire day to myself. I grabbed a pair of shoes (which I kicked off as soon as I got to the park) and headed out to play.

This would be the first real exercise I'd had since I'd injured myself a month ago. I was eager to move, but also a little worried that I'd find the experience uncomfortable. My feet and legs were fine, but I hadn't been out running in my bare feet for a very long time.

I didn't need to worry. As soon as I found the trail, I was carried by the wind and sun, flowing down the valley like the river beside me. I flashed past trees, bikers, people playing volleyball and exercising on the outdoor fitness equipment (certainly better than machines in a gym). As I found my rhythm, and the weeks of limited activity fell off like rust, I let my pace increase until I was out of breathe, smiling like an idiot.

I stopped when my tender feet could no longer take the rough concrete trail. After that, I walked along the footpath that paralleled the river trail along the sides of the little valley. I soon came to a treasure trove of natural movement...a basketball court.

An Archipelago of Bounding

This was no ordinary basketball court. The rubber flooring had been patched up in several places with different colored rubber. The result was an archipelago of blue islands on a sea of green. Each island was a different size and distances between them varied from nearly adjacent to the limits of my running jump.

While an old Korean grandma watched with amusement, I started hopping from island to island, first with two legs, then with just one leg. I eventually settled on the most challenging circuit I could figure out, and set out to complete it as fast and smoothly as possible. Every time I missed a jump and ended up rolling on my back, I could sense my audience chuckling. I was laughing pretty hard myself, when I had the breath to spare.

After I'd mastered the speed element, I tried to do it all facing one direction, so I would have to use sideways and backwards jumps. This brought on many more falls and it wasn't until I was finished that I realized how much my legs and calves were burning from the exertion.

As I headed off, I heard clapping and turned to see the grandma cheering my performance and sending me off with smiles and a wave. I waved back.

Just Sit Back and Enjoy the Ride

My feet were really raw now, and my soles felt like they were on fire. So I did the only logical thing and tried to ford the swift river at the next crossing, which was simply a series of large flat stones with about an inch of water rushing over their algae-covered tops. Of course, I didn't realize they were covered in algae until I was about halfway across and moving much faster than I could control.

I saw the glistening on the rock an instant before I put my foot down. There was no time to consciously adjust; I had to trust my body's innate reflexes and balance. My foot slipped out as I knew it would, but my weight shifted and my arms flew out to compensate. I knew I was moving too fast, and the next rock was under me. Desperately, I shut off my mind and withdrew my thinking brain to simply observe as I let my body handle this situation.

I must have looked totally absurd splashing, jumping, reaching, and flailing my way across the river, but I didn't fall in. Like one of those silly-looking lizards that can run across water, I wheeled my arms and legs and found myself on hard dry ground. Looking up, I saw a family of Koreans holding back guffaws. I nodded at them and started laughing with relief and recognition of how dangerous that was and how silly I must have looked. I started down the trail heading home, but when I glanced back, I saw the father of that family making his way down to the river to try the crossing himself.

That's No Sculpture Garden...It's a Playground!

I stopped to stretch in some grass and did my wrist rehab exercises, enjoying the sun and letting the nature-induced relaxation aid with the stretching. My feet were numb from abrasion and the cold water at this point, and when I tried to run, my calves sent the clear message that they had had enough for today. So I ambled slowly down the river back home...until I found an interesting sculpture garden.

In a grove stood a collection of pillars, each at different heights, arranged in the outline of a square. The lowest were only ankle-height and the tallest were out of my reach, all flat-topped and about 6-inches in diameter. So, naturally, I tested how high I could just and land safely. I didn't get very high with my sore calves and ankles, but it was fun balancing on the narrow pillars. When I got tired of jumping, I grabbed the top of one I could hang from and pulled myself up, carefully setting my feet on the top and standing. No Koreans were around, so I stretched tall and enjoyed the height and the exhilaration.

The above video was not taken on the day this post is written about, so this is just to give an idea of what I did. The first time was much sunnier and it was not raining.

Individual Play, Community Health

Climbing down, I made my way home. I had set out for a simple run--just a way to move and get some fresh air with my injured wrists--and had found much more. Calling it exercise would diminish the experience. This was pure artful play, mentally and physically stimulating, even socially engaging. I found that just by expressing physical playfulness, I could inspire other people and make them happy.

What gym routine or workout in the traditional sense has ever boasted that? How often do you see someone on a treadmill and think, "That looks fun! I'm gonna try that!" NEVER! But watching me try my balance and skill in crossing a river, a father was so engaged that he gave it a shot himself. I held an old grandma captivated for a full fifteen minutes and earned an ovation.

I never realized the potential for community-building of this kind of healthful movement until I sat down to write this post and looked back over that day on the river.

This isn't the fitness method that will solve your weight problem. This isn't the exercise program that will get you beach ready, chiseled, ripped, or toned. Oh no, this is much more. This is the movement artistry that will reawaken your inner child, that will cut through the overcast of sedentary living to spill sunshine down into your day. This is the exercise program that will give you the courage to go anywhere and try anything, to smile at a stranger and to love nature by engaging with it.

Looking back, I'm even more determined to bring this to more people. It's about so much more than personal health. I've seen the potential to create relationships and to foster connection and community. This goes way beyond helping people be at peace with just themselves. It promises to actually promote understanding between people and with the natural world.

I want to thank everyone who has helped me make this dream a reality by downloading my book and offering donations, all of which are going to a MovNat trainer certification. I've made almost enough in donations for my book and t-shirt sales to cover the cost of the MovNat trainer certification. If you'd like to help me get a step closer, please consider downloading my book for a donation or an amazingly comfy, carbon-neutral, sustainable, pesticide-free bamboo t-shirt.