Today I’m continuing the thought from last week about types of movement other than the rapid, explosive ones often fetishized in modern exercise culture. I started by talking about gathering-type movements—slow, sustained, varied, and long-duration—in contrast to quick, high-power hunting and fighting movements like running and powerlifting. This time I’m examining the hunting-movement paradigm, but recognizing the other, just as important, aspects of the practice which I don’t see people training either: the practices of both complete stillness and the appearance of stillness while in motion.
I’ll begin by saying I’ve never done actual hunting of any sort, although it’s on my list of skills to acquire. Many of these thoughts come out of my recent experience in going through a class on scouting—the art of remaining hidden for either hunting or information-gathering—while attending the Firefly Gathering.
I’d already had many years of practicing various stealth steps, thanks to an early and lasting obsession with ninja and their techniques. In hindsight I realise I was expecting the first section of the class, which focused on silent movement, to be mostly review, but I ended up learning quite a bit about several new steps and gaining a fuller understanding of the context for ones I’d done before. The step pattern I was most familiar with is typically referred to as the fox step: you touch the outside edge of the forefoot down first, then gently roll weight towards the big toe before slowly bringing the heel down last. It’s my default for walking barefoot through the forest, as I can avoid committing weight to any step before I’m sure that there isn’t something sharp underfoot. After I learned a few other stepping techniques, it became apparent that the fox step is most useful on softer terrain, whereas the rock step resembles a normal walk, but dialed back until you can feel the subtle change in pressure in every millimeter of skin as your weight presses into the ground. Another one I hadn’t seen before was the mongoose step, which has you walking just on the ball of your foot to minimize the size of your footprint. Try it out—and if you want a real challenge, try it backward!
More than pure technique, though, what I got from this section of the class was an emphasis on slowness—extreme slowness. We played a game where one person would sit on the ground, eyes closed, with a metal water bottle placed in front of them. The rest of the group was arranged in a circle around them. Silently, the instructor would choose one person to creep up and steal the bottle without being heard. When I was in the center, everything seemed to get louder: picking up the tiniest rustle in the grass, dry as it was from the hot summer weather, was simple. The challenge was to differentiate and isolate the ambient noise from those sounds with intent. Was that just the whisper of a sudden breeze? Or the sound of a foot grazing a blade of grass? To further complicate matters, the challenge was not just to note the sound, but to point towards its source. It might sound fiendishly difficult, but the listener was most often the winner that day—even our instructor got during his first few steps towards the bottle.
As the bottle thief, I needed to move far more slowly than I ever had before—practically at a glacial pace. The only way around this was to immerse myself in the sounds around me and align faster movements with louder moments. But I didn’t find an opportunity use a burst of movement underneath a layer of noise, I didn’t get far at all. I was also caught within the first couple steps, despite my full attention to the nuances of each laborious step as I raised the foot up, scanned the ground visually for the patch of grass least likely to stir from contact, and gently lowered my foot, being ever-ready to pick the foot back up to re-adjust. Maybe I should have even gone even slower, at or near the speed we had practiced earlier in class—the rate necessary to not be noticed by deer, sixty-six seconds per step. Yes, per step! At that rate it you appear still, but you’re certainly in motion. It’s incredibly challenging to maintain that minute per step pace with your weight all on one leg and quite possibly positioned in some unusual way to avoid branches and other foliage—as capable of foiling your attempts at stealth as what is underfoot. Even practicing at that speed for a couple of steps gave me immense respect for the actual scouts doing this for half an hour, or longer.
The ninja had similar practices, and one demanding requirement of their training was the development of the capacity to freeze immediately and remain motionless until the threat had passed, whether that was thirty seconds or thirty minutes later. While it wasn’t addressed in the class I took, I imagine scouts trained with similar goals in mind. That sort of training requires incredible body control and endurance to accomplish.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen this type of movement emphasized in conventional training, except perhaps in yoga. Yet whether you’re trying to round out a hunting skillset or are interested in a more holistic approach to human movement, this kind of intensely slow movement, laden with intention, is as important as anything else we classify as exercise or training.