Stephen Opper

B.A., NCLMBT #2955

Stephen Opper practices Structural Bodywork, and teaches Therapeutic, and Natural Movement Systems in Asheville, North Carolina

Ancestral Movement Patterns: Following the Trail

                I’ts always good to find friends you didn’t know you had.   As a kinesthetic person, I have always moved, stretched, and tended to my body at inappropriate times, unusual ways, and without warning. For decades, this was typically met with looks of disdain and embarrassment from those nearby.  In the last few years however, such uncivilized behavior is increasingly met with camaraderie and familiarity. 

                     Much of this is the result of the increased global communication and open sharing of information across geographic borders. The blurring of traditional boundaries of secrecy have revealed the methods and madness from movement  sub-cultures from every corner of the globe. 


                One of the areas which has delighted me the most to see become common place within physical culture (and among feral humans) is quadrupedal locomotion i.e. getting on all 4rs and moving like an animal. This has a special place in my heart and in my journey of exploration, and so I am going to share a bit about the intersecting roads which lead me there personally. I must first acknowledge that mimicry and drawing inspiration from nature are universal human traits, among both civilized and uncivilized cultures. One only needs to watch children play and you will see them imitate animals and run around on all fours. Or have even a passing familiarity with virtually any indigenous culture, or of any civilized tradition old enough to remember that its roots grew from the natural world, and you will find dances, postures, fighting styles, and attitudes, all named for animals or other aspects of the natural world -such as the elements. In fact, it is only the brief amnesia of western civilization regarding our connection and relationship to the natural world which can be considered remarkable.  

            As Plato states, acquiring knowledge is simply remembering what is hidden in our soul.

             My personal introduction to quadrupedal locomotion was at the Northern Shaolin Academy I attended in 1995. At the end of our “warm up” (read: dizzying workout), we would do “bear walk”, to gain the strength and power of the bear. One posture, one gait pattern, but it was enough to plant the seed of possibilities in my mind. I find it noteworthy that none of my other Shaolin Gongfu teachers, either Northern or Southern, included any animal walks in their curriculum. I am still not clear if this was a particular training method of that Shaolin lineage, or if it was due to the influence of one of the many other arts represented in that school.

        Fast forward to 1998-2000, and I am spending an irrational amount of time at The Tracker School , with Tom Brown Jr., and with Jon Young.  As the name implies, we spent a good deal of time and effort on tracking animals. Most of my friends there seemed to have developed the mystical ability to glance at a disturbance on the forest floor and clearly see that it was caused by animal X, using gait pattern Y, on its way to Z, and that it was in a bad mood, hungry, and pregnant. Meanwhile, I am trying to decide if the disturbance was caused by a Rhinoceros, a mouse, or a raindrop…and wait- that is the rear foot? Not the front foot-are you sure? How on earth does an animal end up with it’s front foot touching down HERE, and it’s rear foot touching THERE? I couldn’t make sense of it, so I had to get down on all fours and mimic the animals gait patterns. Now, this is nothing remotely new, as all trackers and traditional hunters employ this same type of mimicry, at least on occasion, to get a better feel for the movements and mindset of the animal they are trailing. This approach is beautifully represented in The Great Dance, a documentary of traditional San hunters of the Kalahari

           This is a very practical but awkward approach to animal mimicry, as our limb/torso/limb relationships are very different from most other animals, which means that if you want to reproduce the footfalls of a bobcat, your body is going to have to contort in a most “unnatural” way to accomplish this.  Being a particularly slow learner of the art of tracking, I found myself spending a great deal of time on all fours.  And being a bit lazy, I eventually abandoned the parameters of producing accurate footfalls, in favor of moving with efficient and relaxed biomechanics-the same attitude which animals generally adopt.  In trying to catch the feeling of moving like another animal, this approach made it immensely easier to, well, FEEL like another animal.  This opened a new world of possibilities, both in the effects on my own body and brain patterning, as well as in my experience moving through the woods on all fours.

         Not only did the animals in the woods respond to me differently when I was on all fours compared to when I was bipedal, but there was something so strikingly familiar about moving this way, as if not only my flesh and bones were designed for it (which they were over hundreds of millions of years according to accepted evolutionary theory), but as if parts of my brain and nervous system were designed for it, and had been starving in the absence of moving this way.  Was this a personal or an ancestral memory? And did it matter? As Ernst Haekel was both revered and ridiculed for saying “Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny”…meaning: the development of an individual goes through the same stages that their ancestors went through.  While this has been demonstrated to be false in the literal sense, metaphorically it couldn’t be more true.

       While the specifics of that statement are a few cans of worms I don’t want to open, there often is a vague sense of memory, and of a journey backward in time. The farther backward we go, the more all of our biological relations can be seen as one family. and somewhere, deep in our unconscious and subconscious mind, we carry the memories of this shared past, of our primordial beginnings, and our emergence onto land, of the old gods and the new.

There are movement patterns, morphological design changes, emotional and hormonal changes, brain and nervous system development, and life strategies associated with each split of our direct line and other branches of the family tree. The places where the branches meet is a marker of time and of fate, luck, decisions, and strategy.


In 2003 I took a course in Comparative vertebrate zoology (Dr.Dr. Bob Eckstien, Warren Wilson College). It blew my mind. (It was the first time I actually believed the theory of evolution). We tracked changes in the structure of life forms over evolutionary time, and saw how each change opened up new possible life strategies.

However, the focus was on structure, not mobility. It got me wondering about the incremental changes in movement patterns, and their evolution through time.  I attempted to follow the same format we observe through the fossil record of incremental change, layered upon the previous design, in a dance with the changing needs of the species within a changing environment, and apply it to the less well recorded world of movement patterns.

   Both Darwinism and Daoism extoll the virtues of adaptability in response to constant change. (And then there are the Confucianists, the Conservatives, and the Sharks- for which the old way has worked beautifully for eons. If it aint broke. Don’t fix it!)

I assumed this same pattern of layering upon the previous adaptation must also exist for the phenomenon of locomotion.  I looked for research on this, and was unable to find any (I just wasn’t looking in the right places of course), and so I kept returning to the laboratory of my own body, and observation of the natural world.  Like many things, patterns become obvious with familiarity on the subject.

It was very exciting, to watch the complexity of movement options in the biosphere begin to self-organize into simpler patterns, and simple progressions of patterns. 

      From the primordial cell, the first individuation, the monad, all the way to the myriad things, and to you and I, it is the journey of consciousness in matter, it is peeling back the layers of being. And it is as much about habit, strategy, and perception of the world, as it is about internal architecture, locomotion, and the changing environment.


This is a playlist I started a few years ago to help me see the progressions


        For most of this period of exploration, I didn’t realize anyone other than I and a few friends actually took this stuff seriously. Little by little I began to see things on the internet. Most of it seemed to be derivatives of Russian and Brazilian training. There was one low sprawling gait –salamander- that I had never seen anyone try. The ideal is to have humerus and femurs parallel to the ground, and use the lateral undulation to locomote, the way most Salamanders do.  It requires and builds a lot of muscular strength, because it is terribly inefficient- which is why our ancestors abandoned it long ago. I admit I was a bit proud that no one else seemed to be exploring the idea, until I saw this guy…

   and I thought “fuck me! I never even conceived that was possible!”   on second thought, don’t watch- It’s embarrassing . it was the answer to how to do a low postured gait with mechanical efficiency- just get rid of the sprawl. It is actually a different gait pattern, but it was a missing link in my progressions and in my thinking.

            This next video was an attempt to isolate the primary axial/spinal motions of each of these primary movement patterns in an evolutionary context. It was part of a larger study of undulations and spinal waves, and is heavily influenced by Qi Gong.  It could use a few revisions, which I encourage folks to find. But it gets the gist across.  

 One of my rewards for uploading my thought processes to youtube was to be introduced (virtually) to Simon Thakur,

not only was this the first time I knew of anyone else pursuing this train of thought on ancestral movement patterns, but we had a strikingly similar approach. One difference was that he had done an exhaustive amount of research on the subject. If you have made it this far, you definitely want to check him out. He also created an online forum to discuss these and other ideas, which has helped keep the fires burning.

Then, last year this book came out : Restless Creatures Life in 10 movements , it is everything we have been discussing from the perspective of a 30 year veteran in evolutionary biology. That means I am officially not crazy!

Turns out, there were already many people exploring these concepts.  Some were on the level of animal mimicry as a personal practice, and others with the philosophical tie in to evolution and human development.  For example:

the “Dart” method

Body Mind Centering   

Bartenieff Fundamentals   


Whenever something makes sense from several different perspectives, I consider it worth paying close attention to. While animal movements can be an excellent exercise in their own right, they can be much more than that as well. They can be a pathway to a greater understanding of our ancestral and developmental patterns, our neurological template, to not only our own bio-mechanics but the factors which shaped them, to our subconscious and unconscious minds, and to our unity and relationship with all life. And this my friends is what makes it a practice. Enjoy the journey!