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Ido Portal: If you’ve abandoned your body, your body will abandon you

The Israeli ‘movement coach’ on his fitness philosophy, working with Conor McGregor, and more

Movement coach Ido Portal.
Movement coach Ido Portal. (Movement coach Ido Portal.)

Ido Portal is an ambitious man. The Israeli “movement coach", who spent years studying different martial arts, dance forms, gymnastics, acrobatics and other physical disciplines, now teaches an approach that blends aspects from each of these forms into some kind of a grand unified exploration of the human ability and limits of movement. Portal calls it “movement culture".

The Israeli trainer was in the limelight this past year as he worked as a movement coach with UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) star athlete Conor McGregor. McGregor went on to win the Lightweight Championship in November and became the first fighter in the UFC to hold two titles together (he was already the Featherweight champion—he was stripped of the title soon after the November fight, due to inactivity in the division).

Portal has since taken on more UFC athletes as well as elite athletes from other sports.

Edited excerpts from a phone interview:

What is movement culture and why is it different from, say, gymnastics? I look at gymnasts and to me they represent the pinnacle of movement.

It is a very common and misleading point of view where people look at all kinds of feats of movement and mistake that for a general capacity to move well. So you look at an elite-level gymnast and you would not even imagine that this same person, flying through the air and doing multiple twists and flips, would not be able to handle a ball properly or to lift a heavy weight off the floor, or to protect himself in another movement scenario.

With movement culture, the idea is to introduce a paradigm shift, a redefinition of the word movement, to bring together many different fields and interests which were segregated and separated before. Someone who is interested in martial arts or gymnastics or in team sports would not necessarily connect with each other. In the movement culture, we are realizing that we are more similar than different.

How did you come up with this approach?

It was a gradual process where I was moving between various disciplines, exploring different points of view, different sets of tools, and with the years and the exposure, I asked myself, what am I doing actually moving between the various disciplines? And I started realizing that it is all leading to the same thing: I am just exploring my physicality, what I can do with my body, from different points of view, different aspects.

The next realization was that I wanted to pursue this general inquiry into movement.

Every physical discipline has its basics. What are yours?

That’s a very difficult question. Most fields have certain fundamentals and basics. When you are talking about such a large phenomenon as movement in general, there are no fundamentals. And that’s an honest and very penetrating understanding. There are no fundamentals because movement is a nebulous term, which contains within itself many subcategories, many layers: We have the martial world of movement, we have the dance world, we have an object-manipulation world—from lifting a heavy object to juggling many light objects—we have the field of somatics, we have the acrobatic realm. Now these subcategories contain many sub-subcategories and within that are the fundamentals. So the basics is first actually to kind of map out the general territory of movement across realms. Then you start your journey of acquisition of various fundamentals.

I formulated some methods and an approach to this madness. One of the things I usually start from is the spine. The spine is where movement originates from; if your spine does not move well, nothing will move well. That’s where I start with people.

One of the concepts you talk about when you talk about fundamentals is something you call the “corset"…

The corset is a kind of body armour. It’s a collection of drills and exercises that I collected from all over the world from various disciplines. Some I came up with myself, some I borrowed or stole from other disciplines. They are exercises that affect the strength, loading and resiliency of the tissues, and the neurological aspect of how we protect our joints, our bones, our ligaments. It’s an encyclopaedia of exercises that starts from the head and goes down to the toes.

It can be something very simple, like walking on your feet in all kinds of alignments, not in the normal way you walk. We did not evolve around straight floors. We did not evolve around Nike shoes. We come from the rocks, we come from the woods, we come from terrains that are extremely rugged. So if you look at the human foot, it is supposed to be challenged in all types of alignments and positions. By reclaiming that, by giving you exposure to “improper alignment", we actually heal the feet, heal the ankle, and make them much more resilient. It helps football players, rugby players, all kind of athletes.

Hanging is another example. We use various kinds of hangs to heal the shoulders, strengthen the shoulders. Something as simple as hanging passively for a minute creates traction from the palms of your hands all the way down to your feet; the gravity stretches the body exactly the way it needs to be stretched. It starts to open up the tissues and realign them.

Many of us have lifestyles where we think that at the end of the day we are just too tired to exercise. How does someone find the energy after a long day at work?

The question of energy is not something I believe should be tackled directly. In most cases, once the motivation and inspiration are installed, the energy is merely the “how". People find the solution. I start with giving people a reason to acquire energy. And once they have the reason, they find it themselves.

Sometimes the motivation can come too late, where you have abandoned your body for so long that now your body betrays you. You’ve abandoned movement and physicality, you’ve betrayed your body first. But eventually your body will betray you. Unfortunately, that is what many people need, they need to hit that wall before they realize how important something that they took for granted all their lives actually is.

Some people understand that before they hit the wall. They realize that if your body does not function well, nothing functions well. Not your relationships, not your daily life, your state of mind…

When you started working with McGregor, what were the first things you wanted to improve?

Cadence and rhythm was one area. One of them was to find a lower centre of mass and how to very minimally shift the centre of mass. One of them was getting more familiar with the floor, how to access the floor, how to enter, how to exit, how to make the floor your friend and not your enemy. Conor is very, very good at what he does, and like a lot of people who are very good, he always wants to learn more and explore more and he came into it with a lot of humility and hard work.

There was also a lot of criticism—people said “why does a fighter need a ‘movement coach’? What does it mean anyway?"

It wasn’t a big issue. The general fight fan is a person who usually misses a lot of different points of view and suffers from extreme machismo. People who have the mind and the understanding will know that fighting is one of the most complex movement riddles there are: two people with infinite possibilities of configurations and connections, whether it is striking or grappling, to resolve that and for one person to come out victorious…that’s a great riddle.

You are also working with film-maker Ayan Mukerji and actors Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt for their forthcoming superhero film ‘Dragon’?

I had a lot of time working with Ranbir and director Ayan Mukherjee, less so with Alia, but maybe we will get more time as the movie starts being filmed. This is still a work in progress. What I did is movement design for the main character, I conceptualized and provided a physical appearance for how the character moves.

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