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George Hébert and the Natural Method of Physical Culture


This essay was inspired by comments made by Sebastian Foucan in an interview regarding historical influences on le Parkour.

Many thanks to Artful Dodger for translating, paraphrasing and contributing.





George Hébert (1875-1957) exerted a major influence on the development of physical education in France. A former naval officer, he travelled throughout the world before World War 1 and was struck by the physical development and skill of indiginous peoples in Africa and elsewhere;

"Their bodies were splendid, flexible, nimble, skilful, enduring, resistant and yet they had no other tutor in Gymnastics but their lives in Nature." - G. Hébert

In 1902, Hébert was stationed in the town of St. Pierre in Martinique when the town fell victim to a catastrophic volcanic eruption. Hébert heroically co-ordinated the escape and rescue of some seven hundred people from this disaster. This experience had a profound effect on him, and reinforced his belief that athletic skill must be combined with courage and altruism. He eventually developed this ethos into his motto, "Etre fort pour être utile" - "To be strong, to be useful."




Returning to France, Hebert became a physical education tutor at the College of Rheims, where he began to define the principles of his own system of physical education and to create apparatus and exercises to teach his "Natural Method". As well as the "natural" training regimens he observed in Africa, he was inspired by classical representations of the human body in Graeco-Roman statuary and by the ideals of the ancient Greek gymnasia.
Hebert's system rejected the sclerosis of remedial gymnastics and of the popular Swedish Method of physical culture, which seemed to him unable to develop the human body harmoniously and especially unable to prepare his students with the "moral requirements" of life.

In the same way, Hebert believed, by concentrating on competition and performance, competitive sport diverted physical education both from its physiological ends and its ability to foster sound moral values.







Body, Mind and Spirit

For George Hébert, influenced by the "noble savage" teachings of philosopher and educationalist Jean-Jacques Rousseau, only the observation of nature could lead people to the true methods of physical development. He wrote:

"The final goal of physical education is to make strong beings. In the purely physical sense, the Natural Method promotes the qualities of organic resistance, muscularity and speed, towards being able to walk, run, jump, move quadrupedally, to climb, to walk in balance, to throw, lift, defend yourself and to swim."


In the "virile" or energetic sense, the system consists in having sufficient energy, willpower, courage, coolness, and fermeté ("firmness").

In the moral sense, education, by elevating the emotions, directs or maintains the moral fibre in a useful and beneficial way.

The true Natural Method, in its broadest sense, must be considered as the result of these three particular forces; it is a physical, virile and moral synthesis. It resides not only in the muscles and the breath, but above all in the "energy" which is used, the will which directs it and the feeling which guides it."



Hébert defined the guiding principles and fundamental rules of the Natural method as:



1 the continuity of work.
2 work by contrary alternation of effort.
3 gradation of intensity of work.
4 initial Rust removal (heating) and final appeasing (translator's note - I have no idea what this means!)
5 proportioning of the quantity of work, and individualization of this proportioning.
6 adjustment of pace.
8 adjustments of the durations.
9 flexibility of work.
10 correct attitude and full breathing.
11 freedom supplements action of each participant, even in collective work.
12 work timed by the stopwatch
13 improvement of technical execution
14 research and correction of the weak points.
15 work in a state of naturalness/nudity. Hardening with the bad weather.
16 free demonstrations of joy to be encouraged. To sing and to cry.
17 virilisation or the cultivation of energy.
18 moralisation or the cultivation of noble feelings.
19 emulation


With regard to the development of virile qualities, this is obtained by the execution of certain difficult or dangerous exercises requiring the development of these various qualities, for example while seeking to control the fear of falling, of jumping, of rising, of plunging, of walking on an unstable surface, etc.





Hébert's Legacy

George Hébert's teaching continued to expand between and during the two wars, becoming the standard system of French military physical education, and influencing both the German Turnverein ("gymnastics movement") and Anglo-Saxon sport.

He was also an early advocate of the benefits of exercise for women. In his work "Muscle and Plastic Beauty", which appeared in 1921, Hébert criticized not only the fashion of corsetry but also the physical inactivity imposed upon women by contemporary European society. By following the Natural Method of synthesized physical, energetic and moral development, he wrote, women could develop self-confidence, will-power and athletic ability just as well as their male counterparts.

Hébert wrote a number of books and papers on the Natural Method. One of his pet theories is of particular interest towards the development of Parkour:

"A (Natural Method) session is composed of exercises belonging to the ten fundamental groups; walking, running, jumping, quadrupedal movement, climbing, equilibrism (balancing), throwing, lifting, defending and swimming.

A training session consists, then, of exercises in an outdoor environment - "a course of greater or lesser distance (a few hundred meters to several kilometer), during which, one walks, one runs, one jumps, one progresses quadrupedally, one climbs, one walks in unstable balance, one raises and one carries, one throws, one fights and one swims".

This course can be carried out in 2 ways:

1 - the natural or spontaneous way, i.e., on an unspecified route through the countryside.
2 - within an especially designed environment.






All of the exercises can be carried out while progressing through this environment.

Finally, the session can last from 20 to 60 minutes."

Thus, Hébert was among the earliest proponents of the "parcour" or obstacle-course form of physical training, which is now standard in the military and has led to the development of civilian fitness trails and confidence courses. In fact, woodland challenge courses comprising balance beams, ladders, rope swings and so-on are often still described as "Hebertism" or "Hebertisme" courses both in Europe and in North America. It may even be possible to trace modern adventure playground equipment back to Hébert's original designs in the early 1900s.



As a former sailor, Hébert may have patterned some of his "stations" on the obstacles that are found on the deck of a ship; he was also a strong proponent of "natural" or spontaneous parcour training in non-designed environments.

The year 1955 marked the fiftieth birthday of the Natural Method and Hébert was named Commander of the Legion of Honor by the French Government, in recognition of his many services to his country.




In 1957, George Hébert, by then the victim of a general paralysis, cultivated the admiration of his entourage by relearning how to walk, speak and write. He passed away on August 2 of that year, but his legacy remains.

There are still schools and gymnasia throughout Europe that are promoting the Natural Method of physical training, some maintaining their own elaborate "parcours" in natural surroundings.



Most recently, the confluence of Hebert's teachings and the Asian martial arts has influenced the development of le Parkour as an "art of movement" in its own right.



Many thanks to Artful Dodger for translating, paraphrasing and contributing.


 

 

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