Imagine a group of fully-grown men and woman crawling on all fours like a bear, squatting like a frog, jumping around like a gorilla, hopping like a kangaroo, ambling like an iguana or kicking like a donkey. In gyms across Australia and Europe, one can find such athletes and fitness fanatics imitating animal movements as part of the growing workout trend called ZUU. Our relationship with animals has always played a central role in the way we understand ourselves as humans, and that is also true in the world of sport. Sports like bullfighting, hunting and rodeo can tell us something about local culture and heritage and, in recent years, these practices have also become global battlegrounds where people reflect upon fundamental moral issues such as human domination and animal domestication. In his famous study, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz showed how the Balinese cockfight reveals essential aspects about social organization and hierarchy in Balinese society and works as a lens through which the Balinese people understand themselves. Professional sports teams are often named after an animal that symbolizes the team, such as the Chicago Bulls, the Buenos Aires Jaguares or the Minnesota Lynx, while even more teams have animal caricatures as mascots. Looking anthropologically at the way animals are imitated in modern sport can give us some important perspectives on how we imagine ourselves and the world we live in.
According to ZUU founder Nathan Helberg, humans have forgotten how to move naturally due to their modern lifestyles and so he invented ZUU as a way of rediscovering the basic principles of primal and natural movement. The program is now an integrated part of elite sports teams in the Australian Football League and the Australian Rugby League and is also used by the military and police.
Scholars argue that the present (also known as postmodernity) is characterized by the experience of chaos, dissatisfaction, fragmentation and alienation. Therefore, it is tempting to analyze ZUU as a phenomenon through which people try to channel such confusion and frustration about the modern world and attempt to return to a way of living that is perceived as being more pure, natural, unspoiled and authentic. ZUU can therefore be seen as an example of a larger modern zeitgeist that also includes such popular trends as paleo and raw food diets, MMA, and the sharing economy. However, we can also look at ZUU to tell us more about the human condition beyond questions about modernity, especially when one consider that humans among various non-Western cultural groups have been imitating animals for centuries.
The anthropologist Rikido Tomikawa has observed how Mongolian wrestlers imitate animal movements before and after they wrestle in the national sport called Bukh. In front of a large crowd of spectators, they move like a lion, dance like a falcon, or pose like a bull. The wrestler’s body represents a beast or bird of prey that has special powers and social significance, since some animals are perceived among Mongolian nomads as ancestors, while others are related to the spirits that protect sacred mountains, breeding stocks, and rivers. Like the Mongolian wrestlers, the animalistic movements in ZUU also have the purpose of connecting humans to a deeper meaning about the world that they inhabit. Among Mongolian wrestlers, that meaning can be understood as preserving local and spiritual heritage, while the meaning of jumping like a gorilla in ZUU may be to reconnect with a primordial and natural past.
For philosopher Walter Benjamin, the ability to imitate, copy and recognize similarities – what he calls mimesis – is a foundational aspect of being human. Mimesis is considered a particular way of exploring, understanding and adapting to the surrounding world through playful acts using the body, senses and language. Children explore the world by imitating it and humans constantly relate to each other through imitative behaviors such as compassion, inspiration and care. However, Westerners rarely recognize similarities with other species and, in fact, one of the most distinctive characteristics about Western cultural history is the division between animal/man and nature/culture. Such a division does not exist among the Mongolian wrestlers and that is also true among many of the world’s indigenous peoples.
While it might seem a bit unusual for athletes to imitate animals in a gym, a workout like ZUU can actually make us aware of an important way that people from different cultures have been understanding and exploring the world for centuries. While acknowledging that ZUU can obviously be read as representing the frustration and alienation associated with modernity, the imitation of animals can also contribute to a greater awareness of the similarities that humans have with other species and with each other cross-culturally. Looking at ZUU and Bukh anthropologically therefore makes it possible for us to explore how humans reconsider their place in the world through sport.
Tomikawa, Rikido (2006). “Mongolian Wrestling (Bukh) and Ethnicity.” International Journal of Sport and Health Science 4. 103-109.
Benjamin, Walter (1933). “Doctrine of the Similar (1933).” New German Critique 17.
Willerslev, Rane (2004). “Not animal, not not‐animal: hunting, imitation and empathetic knowledge among the Siberian Yukaghirs.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10.3: 629-652.
Taussig, Michael (1993). Mimesis and alterity: A particular history of the senses. Psychology Press.
Photo by Steve Singer license under creative commons