When a dear friend insisted I accompany her to Derek Notman’s club-swinging class, I blithely queried what in the world it was. Hard to describe, she replied. But I trust my friend, and I’m up for just about anything physical.
Notman, a movement educator and energetic bodyworker, teaches his transformational class in a gorgeous open field — perfect for social distancing, but allowing me to easily see him and the other students. Although we were “exercising,” the class was beautifully aesthetic, and it was mesmerizing to watch the choreography of everyone’s swinging clubs together.
The clubs, which come in varying sizes and weights, look sort of like oversize, elongated bowling pins, or juggling clubs. They have a marvelous weight when you hold them in your hands, especially as you swing them, transforming your arm into a virtual pendulum. The very best way to get a sense of how you move with them is to visit his website, islandphysicalculture.com.
Notman took us through a series of patterns in which we swung the clubs around, above, and to the sides of our bodies. When using just one, we passed it from hand to hand, and while when using two, the patterns included a lot more of what I would call twirling each in one hand — sometimes in unison and sometimes in opposition. (Think patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time for the latter.) Despite all the movement, you are very rooted to the ground, which gives it a meditative feeling at times.
Coming with a chronic shoulder injury, I was hesitant to go all out, but I discovered that not only was I not aggravating my pain, but it began to subside. Speaking with Notman afterward, it all began to make sense. The clubs can be healing as they help us to notice and then transform our body’s tension by giving us “feedback.”
“The clubs are a tool. If you are swinging the club and it’s not smooth, you get a real sense that your circle is off. Or if it’s wobbling around in your hand, then you know your grip isn’t connected with the club properly,” Notman explained. “A lot of times, when we move our bodies through space there is no feedback to how we are moving. But we can learn to sense a lot more of that process. When we pick up a club, we are relating to an object other than ourselves, and it gives direct feedback on the quality of our movement. You’ll notice, maybe, that when you swing it, it doesn’t feel smooth, or there is an area the circle falls apart. So, that will tell you that there is part of the chain of your movement that is off. Then you can begin to tune into your movement and smooth it out. In smoothing it out, you’re actually changing your own body. The clubs allow the whole body to reorganize itself. It changes our posture, rhythm, and timing. You become more aware of how you use your body, more than simply just using it.”
But the benefits don’t stop there. Club swinging develops coordination, flexibility, rhythm, and timing. Notman says, “It’s a really good form of functional training. You are developing strength and mobility together, as opposed to having them be separate. The club acts as a lever, and that allows us to build some strength through the engagement with the club. It’s different than with a weight, where you have the center of mass closer to where you hold it. Club swinging builds long, lean muscles as opposed to short, tight ones.”
Likewise, Notman noted that it is a great exercise in brain engagement, because you are swinging in all these different patterns, and there is this left-right hemisphere crossover that’s happening in the brain. And it’s really good for developing spatial awareness — really getting the individual to develop a sense of where they are in space.
As it turns out, club swinging is one of the oldest forms of physical culture, and still practiced today in India and Iran. It was used for training warriors, soldiers, and wrestlers. Club swinging had a big renaissance when the British colonized India, because they saw it and started training their military with it. It came over to the U.K. and became a big phenomenon, and made its way to the U.S. from there. It was even in the Olympics in 1904 and 1932, and then disappeared. Notman points out, “We generally had a waning in this country around our physicality that came partially with medicine and technology. Prior to that we had a lot of exercise as medicine, chiropractic, and bodywork. It was part of that older healing tradition.”
Fortunately for me, there has been a resurgence of interest. When I finished the class, I felt calm, more centered, and while I had worked up a sweat, I wasn’t tired in the least. Notman says, “It is a fitness method that teaches skills and allows people to become more embodied.”
And ultimately, given this is the body I have, what a gift to be able to experience it more fully.
To learn more about club swinging and Notman’s classes, which will continue through the end of October, contact him at email@example.com.