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why rafe kelley wants you to start acting more human


April 2015

Written by
Lauren Hunsberger

Photography by
Michael Matti

Rafe KelleyRafe Kelley is a specialist and curator of human movement. Raised by two yoga instructors, he was a basketball player and gymnast (and gymnastics coach) in his teens. He also studied various forms of martial arts, including Muay Thai and jujitsu. A few years later, Kelley added CrossFit coach and weight-lifting trainer to his résumé. 

Currently, he trains in the disciplines of capoeira, modern dance, sprinting, functional range conditioning, juggling, stick spinning, swimming, tree climbing, general roughhousing (yes, he consciously practices this) and the list goes on. Then there is his deep fascination with parkour, the practice of navigating obstacles by jumping, running, flipping or swinging over them, a skill set he primarily taught himself by watching videos and training deep in the woods. 

To some, Kelley may seem simply unable to commit to a single discipline, but dig deeper and the reason behind his generalist mentality may actually be the key to helping people of all ages and abilities achieve vastly healthier bodies and happier minds. “I’m a generalist because as a mover, as a human, you need capacity in all these things. And I think ultimately we as human beings feel better when we’re generalists; specialization is often extremely limiting.”

Kelley, in fact, has become so adept at meshing together everything he knows about strengthening, stretching, protecting, conditioning and moving the human body, he now hosts movement seminars and speaks at conferences around the world, as far away as Australia. In addition, companies like Prana, the hugely popular apparel and accessories company, are taking note. They featured Kelley in a video called Return to the Source, which demonstrated his inimitable nature-based parkour skills, which lay at the foundation for his training system called Evolve Move Play. 

But how does this complex marrying of movements make people healthier? And how and why does it differ from the kind of sport-specific or goal-specific (think marathons, body building, etc.) training in which most Americans take part? Well, it all starts with his belief that there is a current epidemic going on within the general population—a widespread problem that most people no longer know how to move like humans.


What Kelley means is that we as a culture are quickly losing the capacity to perform inherent, basic human movements such as climbing trees, running through the woods, jumping, falling safely, swimming and—what he believes to be among the most important—playing and interacting with each other in a way that builds strength and mobility. 

Rafe Kelley“Take the average person,” Kelley says. “By the time they’re 5 years old, they’re stuck in a box and prevented from moving normally. They’re told to sit still for hours at a time. So, what I see is every 5-year-old can squat perfectly and has perfect mobility. Then by 7, kids start to have excessive pronation, with their feet turned out and medial knee collapse. They also have overhead range of motion and strength problems, and it’s because we have crowded out movement for so many other sedentary things.” As he describes it, as we grow older, these limitations and lack of movements only compound and worsen. 

On top of that, Kelley explains that for decades the collective solution to combat and reverse our increasingly sedentary culture is to play a sport—soccer, football—or run and so on. But Kelley hypothesizes this type of remedy can actually create further problems. “It’s pattern overload, and those athletes are at risk for injury because they aren’t given other movement options. And more importantly, they’re still not being primates, grasping and climbing, they’re being specialized sport athletes,” Kelley says.

This doesn’t mean, however, he believes people should give up organized sports or a favorite sport all together; just approach the training differently and with more awareness of how our bodies have evolved to move rather than forcing our bodies to adapt to our sport of choice. “There is an epidemic of injuries in specialized sport because athletes don’t take care of being humans first. They try to be a football player first. In my opinion, you can’t be a great football player and a healthy football player without being a healthy human first,” he explains.

Kelley often brings up the importance of recognizing our human instincts and primate lineage because he says it’s vital in understanding how the human body functions on the most basic level. Take climbing trees for instance, an activity many people give up in their early years. “Right now one of my obsessions is navigating trees. It’s where our bodies are from,” he says. “We spent 60 million years tree bound; we’re arboreal animals. That’s why we have grasping hands and binocular vision, because we are primates.” 

Kelley says he sees the evidence of removing this one simple, primal task, this one simple way to play from people’s lives. He explains how the vast majority of people can’t do a single pull-up. Can’t lift their body weight with their arms. This fact affected him especially when he spent some time in the Skagit Valley, a notably more rural area than the Seattle metro area, training some kids who spent significantly more time playing outside. The vast majority of them could perform a pull-up, meaning they had significantly more strength and mobility in their upper bodies. The difference, he says, is all of them listed regularly climbing trees and running around the forest for fun, an activity that Kelley says is at the base of good human movement. “What people don’t understand is the cost of not climbing trees,” he says.

Rafe KelleyAnd speaking of trees, it’s important to note that while Kelley is one of the founders of Seattle’s Parkour Visions Gym, he has since branched out and now prefers to do 99 percent of his parkour-style training and teaching outdoors. Again, this is with the idea in mind that the body is healthiest and happiest when allowed to move and play in its natural environment. He prefers the outdoors for a few reasons. First of all, because it’s a much more challenging terrain, with more obstacles and challenges. And second, because it’s just more fun. “Nature is more complex, so it offers a more interesting environment to train in, but it’s also more beautiful and soothing to be in.”

Climb, Run, Flip, Swim and Play with Rafe

Because of the multidisciplinary nature of his philosophy, it’s sometimes hard to grasp what you’ll get out of an Evolve Move Play session with Kelley, so let’s break it down. 

Based on his background in parkour, gymnastics, martial arts and strength training, clients can expect to hit three main areas of concentration: locomotives (stretching, joint mobility, gymnastics and other body weight exercises), manipulatives (weight lifting, juggling, stick spinning and anything that involves moving objects), and interactives (martial arts, partner dance and play with others). He says the part most people are unsure of at first is the combat, but usually it is ultimately the most rewarding because it encourages people to revisit the kind of playfulness they experienced as a child. All of the concentrations are taught in progressions, making them extremely safe for anyone.

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