A slight drizzle drums against the skylight of the rooftop studio in Indiranagar, Bengaluru. Inside, two people sweep across the rubberised floor, their bodies, serpentiform and twinkle-toed like that of animals. Sometimes, they are on all fours; at other times, they are on their hands, their feet slackly suspended somewhere in the sky. They say they are flowing.
“If yoga, parkour and gymnastics had a baby, it would be Animal Flow,” says Swetha Devaraj as she picks herself up from the floor after her routine. Her partner, Devrath Vijay, smiles and agrees. “Yes, that is one way to put it. The easiest way to describe Animal Flow is thus – it’s a bodyweight movement discipline where you’re essentially working with just your body and flow.”
The two master instructors of the discipline throw more light on the nuances of the ground-based fitness form that was introduced to the world by American fitness educator and movement coach Mike Fitch almost a decade ago.
“The idea is to get on all fours. And since we are bipedal animals who walk on two feet, there are a lot of advantages to just getting down on all fours. Your palms and feet have a lot of nerve endings or sensory neurons. There’s a lot of communication that comes from the floor which is then transferred up to your body to your brain, your central nervous system and the rest of the muscles,” says Devrath.
Swetha points out that there are six components to Animal Flow: wrist mobilisations, activations, form-specific stretches, travelling forms, switches and transition, and flow. And as the name suggests, there’s an animal influence in the patterns followed, including movements of animals like the ape, the beast, the bear and the crab. “Mimicking animal movement patterns help enhance the performance of the human animal, in terms of correcting posture and improving performance and efficiency of movement,” says Devrath.
Nevertheless, Fitch is quick to point out that Animal Flow is often misapprehended as a discipline that is solely about imitating animal locomotion. He says it is more than that. “People think that Animal Flow is all about acting like animals when in fact it is designed to improve the connection, communication and function of the ‘human’ animal. It’s really about how we inhabit our bodies and move them through space,” Fitch tells Happiest Health in a telephonic communication. It was to better the movements of the ‘human’ animal that Fitch started Animal Flow. After ten years of being in the industry as a fitness trainer, he switched over to bodyweight training with gymnastics, calisthenics and free movement training like parkour and breaking (breakdancing.)
Fitch is unvarnished as he talks about why he decided to switch over from traditional fitness methods to bodyweight disciplines. He admits that in the initial days when he was training, he had two goals: to be bigger and stronger. But after training like that for a few years, he realised that expressing just two abilities was dishonouring the complexities of the human body. He wanted to do the exact opposite. So, he put down the weights and started exploring body-weight skill acquisition. “Instead of training for what I wanted to look like tomorrow or a month down the line, I started to train keeping in mind the experience of the body when one is 50, 60 or 70 years old,” says Fitch.
During his journey with bodyweight training, some of the things that he enjoyed were animal locomotion (which he learnt in parkour as a warm-up sequence) and quadrupedal movements (in breaking) and flow. “For me, it was abundantly clear right away that there was something very powerful about having hands and feet in contact with the ground. I knew that intrinsically and intuitively. But I also knew that I had just scratched the surface of my exploration. So, I started introducing some quadrupedal movement training to my clients and their response was very positive. I was so inspired by this concept of not needing any other toys, tools, weights or gadgets. All you needed was your body and a little bit of space. Because that was so influential to me, I decided to create this thing that is now called Animal Flow,” he says.
The system of Animal Flow is built upon the understanding of anatomy and biomechanics. “When people exercise, they are either standing or seated. It changes the loads in the joints no matter what they are doing. But when you place your hands and feet on the ground, emphasising the quadrupedal position, whether you are prone (facing the ground) or supine (where your chest is high, like in a crab), you are experiencing more load variability at all the joints. Because you are holding your body off the ground in these four points of contact, your body is experiencing a very unique load which is varied from traditional training,” Fitch says.
He echoes Devrath’s observation about activating the sensory receptors that are abundantly found in the extremities and reiterates the mind-muscle connection that the discipline provides when compared to traditional workouts. “You can think about those [sensory receptors] as satellites that are sending information from our skin, joints, facial tissue and connective tissues to our central nervous system — the spinal cord and brain. Whenever our hands and feet are on the ground, we are connecting our body to itself through the floor. We are also encouraging the conscious mind to re-facilitate itself to the body. It is very difficult to think about anything else in our lives aside from what we are doing at that very moment. There is a very high amount of consciousness that goes into this practice,” he says.
The vocabulary of Animal Flow might confound a newbie, but Swetha says that this is a practice that anyone can follow — a child or an older adult. “Animal Flow can be made accessible to anyone. Since there is no external load on the body, it can be practised even by a 90-year-old,” she says. She also points out that Animal Flow can particularly benefit athletes who are in pursuit of a holistic discipline. “I am a runner. And I also lift weights. But before I started Animal Flow, I was very stiff. At one point in my life, I developed an ankle injury and I couldn’t run anymore. After doing Animal Flow, my mobility became better and I could slowly start running again. I also became more flexible,” says Swetha, a vascular radiologist-turned-fitness professional. “As a doctor, I was in disease care. But now I prefer being in a place where I can show people how not to get there,” she says, adding that it is also important to have fun while working out. And through Animal Flow, she says she has found that.
Devrath, who was also once a computer science engineer, believes that fitness has changed his life. At the Academy of Fitness studio in Indiranagar, he teaches unconventional fitness techniques like ninja workouts and wall climbing apart from Animal Flow.
He is sprightly as he heads back to the rubberised floor with Swetha. It is raining cats and dogs outside, and indoors the duo are rolling with the ape, the crab and the beast. They seem blissful since they have found their flow.
Watch the full interview here: