As dawn breaks, the Wildfitness tribe stands barefoot on the hilltop ready for our full-throttle sprint down the slope towards our picnic breakfast. I’m exhausted but empowered by an hour’s session of ‘Essential Mobility and Flow’. I’ve engaged my core more than in any Pilates class, and worked important postural muscles which I’m sure I haven’t used for at least a decade.
Having spent the last six months shuttling around Classpass studios, I jumped at the opportunity to ‘rewild myself’ with Wildfitness on a one week experiential course. The schedule promised enlightening workshops, skills classes and training routines with some of the best Wild coaches in the field. All this while living at one with nature at Milia, a picturesque mountain hideaway nestled in the hills of western Crete. Set high above the Topolia gorge and reached by a 2km dirt track road, the engulfing silence and remoteness of Milia is otherworldly.
Founded by Tara Wood in 2001, Wildfitness is the result of the Cambridge bioscience graduate’s fascination with the ‘wild state’ of nature and how this can – and must – be applied to humans. The theory is that when humans are isolated from nature, they suffer physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. In their natural habitats, human senses become heightened, more alive and sharply focused just like in the animal world.
The Wildfitness philosophy is simple: Drop people into the wilderness, get them to eat fresh, real food and be physically active outdoors, alongside a good amount of rest, relaxation and recovery time. It doesn’t take long before an incredible awakening and blossoming occurs.
This renewed energy was clear within my own body less than two days into the week. At Milia, our ‘tribe’ of seven moved, ate and played together for an entire week and the results were incredible. Wildfitness is not a weight-loss retreat, but you will create a leaner and stronger version of yourself. Outside the health and safety-obsessed urban jungle, this challenging environment will yield rewards, but you need to grant it some of your trust.
In order to prepare for my Wildfitness mountain experience and stimulate my primal senses, I signed up to one of their two hour ‘movement jams’ on Hampstead Heath. This is the most accessible introduction to the philosophy and I arrived in Crete already familiar with the concepts of playful ‘roughhousing’, exploratory running and improvised dance.
With 2-3 training sessions per day and evening workshops, the focus is on essential movement, playfulness and reconnection with nature. In ‘Wild Locomotion’, we learn to move freely and with optimal efficiency in challenging environments by crawling, balancing, vaulting and brachiating (swinging and hanging from trees).
Sessions at Wildfitness teach you to move efficiently and often. We carry this constant load in our lives by sitting and walking in the same position and in the same environment every day. On a week-long retreat this pressure and load are eliminated by reconnecting with our natural environment and constant training outdoors in the wild. A lesson in ‘Structural Hygiene’ helped me make small adjustments in my daily stretching routine in order to maximise effective movement and minimise injury. Guided and encouraged by our expert coaches Uju and Anne-Laure, we practiced being both follower and leader of our ‘tribe’, empowered by knowledge and practice and building up an inner resilience to nature’s elements which I did not think my urbanised self was capable of.
‘Animal Circuits’ and play and games sessions feature heavily throughout the week and as the title suggests, this is the time to explore your wild motivations and liberate your mindset. We start with some fighting monkey play, stimulating the body with irregular patterns using sticks and tennis balls. I feel nimble, animated, invigorated. Playing is a vital part of Wildfitness and the idea is to remove feelings of competitiveness and self-consciousness whilst creating free, unstructured fun. We let our guards down, experienced our own fragility and exposed our vulnerability.
One of the greatest benefits of the holiday is the physical assessment on the first day which records your posture and movement patterns as well as running technique. I hung from a gymnastic ring, lifted a tree bark, practiced some basic boxing and did some shoulder stretches using a wooden pole. Exercises are photographed from different angles for the trainers to guide you and improve your range and flexibility as the week progresses. On completion of the course, results are documented and explained in a one-to-one session and I could see clear improvements in my posture, body awareness, flexibility and strength.
My biggest fear was the ‘Fundamentals of Lifting’ session, having barely brushed knee height on my lifting assessment. I soon realised lifting can be fun when it involves rocks, logs and stones which we throw and catch, leaping around like wolves. It was hard not to be charmed and enthralled by our training terrain at Milia. The mountain settlement has been in existence since the time of the Venetians in the 15th century but it was only in the 1970s that owners restored their ancestral village and revived the old way of life, largely forgotten in the post-WWII exodus from the countryside. The three-year project transformed a mere pile of stones into a magnificent 15-room solar-powered ecological retreat and world-famous gastronomic experience, set among mountain tops and swaying plane and chestnut trees.
Milia is the perfect setting for a Wildfitness retreat, providing us with the natural raw, hot wilderness of the Cretan mountains and their irregular surfaces. We walk the paths of Zeus and come across old olive groves, little churches, fields of aromatic wild rosemary and the gorges and peaks of Polyrinia. Less than an hour away we discover the turquoise waters of Elafonissi beach, perfect for barefoot running in the sand and swimming amongst corals. We climb trees, jump over rivers, wriggle in tunnels and use all the natural elements of Milia to align the body and teach it useful skills.
After a particularly gruelling day exploring the rugged beauty of Milia’s hiking trails, we sit down with Tsourounakis’ son-in law Tassos Gourgouras for a traditional Cretan supper under the stars. He reminds us that simplicity really is in the beauty of nature and he has seen generations of the same families return here year after year, craving Milia’s warm hospitality. Our nutritious menu for the week is high on protein and vegetables such as amaranth, pumpkin soup, aubergine moussaka and goat with garlic, all locally grown, reared and slaughtered on site. Milia produces its own olive oil, thyme-flavoured honey, yoghurt, cheeses and a robust red wine made from the indigenous Romaiko grape. My skin flourishes with no bread or cake and lactic-lift off training feels a lot easier.
I took away some inspiring knowledge from our Wild Mastery and Wild Eating workshops. The former introduces us to Wild Experts; namely Erwan Le Corre of the ‘Mouvement Naturelle’ concept and Christopher McDougall, author of the bestselling ‘Born to Run’ which conveys the spirit of human adventure, challenge and ultimate freedom. We are encouraged by Nassim Taleb’s theories on living systems; we are all ‘anti-fragile’ and improve when challenged much like the Masai, the iconic Kenyan tribe who perform incredible feats of endurance in the most inhospitable conditions.
My Wildfitness journey was exactly the right medicine for my adrenal fatigue and hard worn body. I truly found a more dynamic, stronger and calmer me, with clarity of mind that neither the most potent pharmaceuticals nor the most insightful shrink could have provided. As a fellow Wildfitness enthusiast said, ‘life seems to cheat us of an essential freedom but for a few days, I had managed to break out’. The adrenalin rush is all consuming but unlike the contrived motivation and stress adrenalin of a work deadline, this is a positive vitality and a feeling that my body had been released from its cage.
Implementing the Wildfitness way of life back in the city isn’t easy, particularly without my fellow ‘tribe’ members but the resolve is there and I have found that spending my lunch hours in the park throwing a ball around, finding a tree to climb and attending a Saturday morning jam on the Heath really are within easy reach. Wild therapy has always been available to our ancestors and nature is its own original, all powerful patent.
The next week-long Wildfitness retreats at Milia in Crete are 16 – 23 September and 23 – 30 September 2016. A week costs from £2,400 per person and includes seven nights accommodation, all meals and local transport during the course, 2 – 3 group training or skills sessions per day, workshops covering various topics and a deep tissue massage. The price also includes initial video movement assessment and one-on-one follow up discussion, a one-on-one reassessment at the end of the course and a personalised documentation of what you have learned on the course. Prices exclude any flights, transfers and personal insurance. British Airways flies direct to Chania from Heathrow. Join Wildfitness on their London jams which take place every Saturday morning (10-12pm, £30pp) on Hampstead Heath.