In the last post I finally started telling the story of how I got into this whole “Ancestral Movement” thing in the first place. In the next few posts I plan to go through some of the many ancestral patterns of movement and behaviour which I am exploring in my movement, meditation, and skill acquisition practices.

Today I want to talk about wrestling. Partly because I’m obsessed with wrestling at the moment, and partly because it’s going to be a bit easier and less academic.

Let’s begin with this:

If you haven’t seen it before, watch a bit to get a feel for it, then when you’re ready skip forward to about 4:20 and you get to see a kangaroo strangle another one until it passes out, using what’s called a “rear naked choke” in Brazilian Jujitsu.

Maybe I should have started with a less violent video. How about this one?

Ahh that’s better! A lot less brutal, even though there’s a lot more biting going on, it’s pretty clear that they’re not trying to kill each other. That’s a good start. Wrestling! We (humans) have these traditions, in just about every culture across the world, of semi-competitive semi-cooperative “fighting”, according to some sort of rule set which reduces the chance of serious injury, with combative techniques which could be used to kill.

As with all of the other examples of what I call “ancestral movement”, it’s something that all children do, without being taught:

Rafe Kelley, who does some wonderful parkour and seems to be branching out into even more interesting stuff, recently wrote a great piece on “Roughhousing”, which I totally recommend, and which contained the fantastic catch-phrase for children “less ritalin, more wrestling”.

When it comes to “natural movement” for a human being, wrestling is right up there with crawling, walking, and eating. Kids do it naturally, and through it they learn many essential life skills – purely physical skills like balance, coordination, strength, stability, falling and getting up, breathing under pressure, three-dimensional or spatial problem solving, dealing with pain. But also social and emotional skills like competition/cooperation, how to deal with dominance and aggression (in oneself or another person), how hurt feelings arise (in self and others) and how to deal with them. Think about the skills required: every part of your body is moving through space in all three planes, turning and going upside down, under constantly changing unpredictable pressure from another moving body, with emotions, thoughts and strategies and which is also trying to get you, and with which you have a relationship. These aren’t small things, they are fundamental, which is why all kids wrestle, unless they are prevented from doing so by the adults around them.

Wrestling is also massively therapeutic! For myself, I can say for sure that wrestling is far more helpful than any motivational, self-help talk or psychobabble. It’s right up there with meditation. Kind of like really vigorous hugs, but also a safe environment where (if you have good training partners) you can go more or less all-out without fear of getting injured. I might get moody or frustrated or confused about life, but an hour on the mats or even a few minutes with a willing friend and I come back into my body and feel infinitely better, every single time. I’ve spent years practicing traditional martial arts and I love them still. My daily and weekly practice is still very much influenced by the traditional arts that I’ve studied for most of my life, but unfortunately most of those arts have degenerated to the point that there is simply not enough concrete, competitive or semi-competitive physical feedback. This inevitably leads to weird forms of passive-aggression, where everyone is busy imagining themselves using their ultra-deadly elite skills to defeat all opponents, including their classmates, but without ever actually testing them. Then when it comes to physical play they feel intensely humiliated because the deadly skills don’t work exactly as advertised: physical play is inherently messy and unpredictable so techniques are rarely picture-perfect. So then people become even more afraid of even engaging in physical play in the first place, and think they need to spend even more time in solo training, developing the really, really deadly skills. I spent years in these kinds of headspaces. For myself I am very glad that I was able to learn some Judo as a kid, a little boxing and Muay Thai in my teens, and lots of Capoeira Angola in my adult years. All arts with plenty of straight up physical and spatial interaction.

So obviouslytaking up freestyle wrestling and Brazilian Jujitsu (after first rehabilitating my many lingering injuries) has been a wonderful experience. Lots of physical contact. Far less ego. Lots of hard, extremely satisfying work. Massive improvements in my Tai Chi, Xingyi, Bagua, and even Capoeira. Huge discoveries of deep, inherent, primal movement patterns.

Wrestling traditions are ancient and appear on every continent, with some variation present in many, most, or possibly even all societies. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wrestling:

According to a friend of mine who runs a facebook page dedicated to all sorts of wrestling worldwide, the picture above, from an Egyptian tomb dated to 2000 BC, was analyzed by a group of modern wrestlers who found that all of the techniques depicted in this 4000 year old mural are still practiced today.



All over Africa (read here for a great long piece from the African Wrestling Federation of Australia, describing African wrestling traditions)

In Australia, New Zealand, and all over the Pacific

Let’s just paste the list from the wikipedia page on Folk wrestling:

A folk wrestling style is any traditional style of wrestling, which may or may not be codified as a modern sport. Most cultures have developed regional forms of grappling.



So it certainly seems like there is some sort of wrestling going on everywhere.

At a workshop I attended recently, Ido Portal referred to a fantastic point made by Frank Forencich (of “Exuberant Animal“) that play is older than humanity.

Play is “human nature”, but is much older than humanity. Wrestling is a form of “play fighting”. A kind of physical interaction which develops essential life skills and physical traits in a way which is as safe as possible, and which we have thus evolved to find inherently rewarding – just like eating, sex, moving around, climbing, exploring new places and novel activities, or cooperating and socializing with others.

But how old is wrestling? If we look for examples in species still alive today, we get all sorts of examples of what can broadly speaking be termed “wrestling behaviour”. There’s some sort of continuum with “pure play” at one end, and “pure fighting, with the intent to murder” at the other:

Some good schooling going on here:

Whereas in other species it may not be so friendly:

Two worms fight for position.

So we’ve got primates, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, cephalopods, crustaceans, insects, and worms. That’s a pretty clear sign that the evolutionary origins of wrestling behaviour are ridiculously ancient.

What’s really interesting, to make this even less abstract, is that the fundamental movement patterns are the same across so many species. In the previous post I mentioned the whole world of mouth directed movement patterns displayed by all creatures with a head. In all forms of wrestling positional dominance is of key importance.

The basic principle involves the head: if one side manages to get their body positioned and aligned such that the head, spine and legs can drive through the opponent’s body with the force of the whole torso, they have a huge advantage in terms of biomechanics, muscle recruitment and use of the limbs (whatever limbs they have), which allows them better leverage to unbalance and move their opponent easily while the opponent is much less able to move them. This principle remains true for wrestling (and actual fighting) behaviour in all of the other species shown above and it has everything to do with mouth directed movement, since this dominant head position is also what allows one participant to bite the other while ideally simultaneously preventing the opponent from biting.

So there you go. Wrestling. It’s great. Everyone does it, I seriously wonder if it’s somehow present in every culture and every species. Maybe in every species of creature which has a head. Once again, the more familiar your body is with these movements, the more it will respond when it sees those movements in the outside world. As with all of the other ancestral movements, when we observe it in other creatures – the ape, the eel, the parrot, the lizard, the beetle, the worm – we get clear feelings in our own body of recognition, that I also know this, I do this, and enjoy it, this is in me, a part of what I am. I am related to this this creature, to all of these creatures. The growing sense of kinship! Being able to relate not just to the apes but even to our beetle brethren through the felt sense of our own bodies, because they too know the joy of wrestling. It’s a nice feeling.

Sometimes I think I’m pretty weird, but I still reckon that, 155 years after Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species”, the true implications of his theory are only just beginning to sink in.


  • Rafe Kelley
    Posted at 05:54h, 19 January

    Simon this is brilliant article, I am super excited for when we get a chance to chat. Wrestling has been on my mind too write about lately too just wanted to grab some footage of my own practice before I touched on the subject.

    I love the all videos of various animals, putting humans in their context as animals is such an important part of really understanding ourselves in an ancestral context.

    When I take on the subject of wrestling I will be able to go deeper because this article has established a ground work for thinking about this subject in the ancestral movement community in my opinion. I hope you don’t mind if I highlight it for the movement inspiration of the day.

  • simon
    Posted at 08:23h, 19 January

    No worries at all, thanks man! Yeah now that I’ve blasted out the last couple of posts, I think the “ancestral movement” concept should hopefully start to become clear and even useful as a way to explore ourselves, through movement.

    Maybe we can start calling it “embodied ethology” or something?