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Why You Should Design a Life—and Workout Plan—That Makes You Uncomfortable

A Q+A with Ido Portal about the cons of “fitness,” facing fears, and the power of weakness.


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Photo Illustration by Alicia Tatone

In 2016, I went to California to interview Conor McGregor. I found him in a strip mall gym, engaged in a series of unconventional movements. Instead of sparring or doing intense cardio, he and a group of others crawled, somersaulted, and partnered up to practice a one-on-one dance that resembled a sort of mystical tango. It was… different. They were being led through these calisthenics by some dude named Ido Portal, whose dark hair was tied in a bun on top of his head—he has since cut the long hair—and who moved with a grace and fluidity that suggested, even while sharing a space with the ever charismatic McGregor, he was in command.

In the time since that visit, Conor McGregor became a global icon, and Portal’s holistic movement practice has exploded alongside, drawing both skepticism and enthusiasm along the way.

He calls it “movement culture.” It’s not so much a training program as a perspective on how to approach life in a body, seeming most similar to disciplines like dance, gymnastics, and the elegant martial art capoeira. Instead of the usual weights and cardio, Portal incorporates more intuitive (and more difficult) bodyweight exercises like handstands, L-sits, squats, hangs, or grappling. Portal travels the globe hosting workshops or meetings where he hopes to draw people away from the labels they typically use to define their practice—”yogi”, “fighter”, “dancer”—and “create a dialogue and a cross disciplinary exchange of information between various types of movers.” (It’s maybe this resistance to our existing fitness vocabulary that makes the work he does exceedingly amorphous and difficult to define.)

He says that, when evaluating new students, he looks at “the body language, the posture, the use of the eyes, the breathing patterns” and that what he does is “very artistic, it’s not really a science, it’s something you develop a feel to.” Portal complements his physical work with relentless reading, discovery, and education. (“My ideas are not organized in a hierarchical manner... they're organized inside a system, and the system is closer to a map. A map does not have a starting point or an endpoint. This is how I organize my ideas: I map them into the mental canvas.”) Though his approach is esoteric and maybe a little baffling, it’s also radical and effective enough to convince elite athletes like McGregor to hire him, and to galvanize a following of derivative movement gyms around the world.

We reached Portal in Tel Aviv to see what insights he might have that can help the everyday man. They include: Learning to run towards your weaknesses, how to use obsession to your benefit, and what getting punched in the face can teach you about getting over your fear of public speaking.

I’ve heard you say, “Upgrade your passion to an obsession." How is obsession helpful?
It’s there to serve us in the weak moments, in the moments where we are not really wanting it anymore. We like to say we want this and we want that—people are after success or money or whatever achievement—they are only temporarily desiring that. Once things become a little bit more difficult, their passion disappears and they either take a break, or altogether fall from the process. Someone who is obsessed has that automation kicking in—you can activate that automatic pilot and it goes forward.

The bad side of it is that you can find yourself not really aligned with what you still want, and you have to install all kinds of checking systems and mechanisms for yourself. Part of the obsession is the lack of need to question again and again, where do I want to go, and what do I want to do? It becomes a double edged sword. It serves you, it works for you, but then you're not really in full control of the process. I think it's like a genie: you have to know when to pop it out and use its superpowers. You also have to install into your daily life a centering practice—some will call it stillness or a mindful practice—and reexamine your desires underneath the surface, who you are, really.

At what age did you first discover this obsession, that you were so fascinated by the body and by movement?
I think it's some form of a tendency, maybe underneath the surface, that was always there. A few years ago, I did some genetic tests, and it was interesting to discover some of the mechanisms even installed on such a deep neurological level. This is what set me out in the beginning.

Then, the second important moment was the discovery, as a child, of the concept of training. Until that moment, I did not realize that you can actually get better at things. There was this aha moment, in the single digits: “Oh, if I'm not good at something, it's not the end of the world, I actually can get better at it.” Then, this became my mantra, a work ethic: I can be as good as I wish to be, all I need to do is to work at it.

From my experience, there are two driving forces, even at those ages. One driving force is your strength, your talents and your gifts. The other [forces] are driven by fear and phobia. My driving force was fear and [was] weaknesses-oriented. They became a lot more present than my gifts. They were occupying more of my consciousness. That meant that I have to work at it, to resolve those issues.

What advice might you give to someone who is more programmed to go towards their strengths? How would you advise them to orient themselves towards weakness or fear?
I definitely believe that we have a lot more discovery and growth offered in our weak points, where we struggle, where we are afraid. These are the points and the journeys that really take you the furthest, the things that you're most proud of in the end of the day. Even if you are strong at something. For example, sometimes I work with an athlete, and he's very gifted, but there are holes. In order to strengthen the whole chain, you just find the weak link—once you resolve that, the whole chain became stronger and you move to the next weak link.

When you're considering whether or not to take on new practice, what are some questions you ask yourself?
More often than not, it's related to fear, or a knee jerk reaction. “Why am I afraid of this? Why don't I want to do this?” That's the most crucial question that will orient me towards a new practice. The other can be, “Why am I not aware of this when this is happening?” It can be something that I'm doing well, but I'm doing it on automatic.

For example, breathing. People constantly say, we should learn how to breathe, and we have all kinds of breathing experts. My father is in his seventies and he never learned how to breathe, and he's fine. He's having a great life. It's totally ridiculous.

Yet, because it's so automatic, it can also hide in plain sight. Inside this automatic pilot, there is a lot to learn. There are things happening right now in your body, without any awareness, or conscious awareness, that can offer you some of the greatest moments of ecstasy, and they can also be your downfall. Most people will just simply not be aware of them… We don't know ourselves, on a very basic physical level. These are two things that I personally go for, and I try to push my students towards: what you don't want to do—we’re going to do it— and what is going on that you're not fully aware of.

Why should people have a movement practice?
On a very deep philosophical, very basic level, movement is all there is. Everything that you experience is a form of movement… Basically, if I need to describe what I am, I'm some kind of a movement. I know that there is a part of me which is still, [and there’s a] part that moves.

...I went out and searched for all kind of practices, to explore that. They all fell short. They were disciplinary, they were pointing at the moon and looking at their fingers. They weren't really hitting the mark. I believe—and I still believe—that what we need is a practice of movement, that enables us to be, to examine how we are, to examine how we do things, to help us in our movement inside relationships, to other people, to other processes and entities.

I'm curious if you could maybe give an example of a way in which your movement practice helps your connections with other people, or your relationships, or some other aspect of your life. Something that might help us to be able to visualize it a little bit.
A very simple example is emotional responses. Most people are being basically torn apart by their minds. It takes them there and it jumps here. It's the ultimate mover, the mind. It never stops. Where we stop, the mind never stops. Emotional responses are surfacing, and making us take, sometimes, very destructive decisions.

When you're engaged with a real practice, a movement practice as I see it, you start to have a much more intimate and deeper relationship with emotions. You experience them on a very physical level. Which, by the way, happens in many different practices: practices of stillness and practices of movement, because on the edges you find basically the same [thing]. A meditation practice, which is geared towards certain stillness, will also give you similar results. That will allow you to experience the nature of these emotions, and have a much better control.

I went and practiced boxing. [When] you get punched in the face, there is an emotional response. The more this is practiced, the less the emotional response and the more you start to realize the true nature of that response, as a surviving force. Something that is supposed to serve you. The emotional responses are below thoughts. They are quicker, they are almost on the level of reflexes. Many people experience fear of speaking on stage. Actually, it's an empowering force! It's supposed to provide you with energy. If you truly examine what is going on, that fear is giving you the tools to fulfill the task.

We are falling into a trap of fearing the fear. That's much worse than the fear itself. That's something very, very powerful, I learned from my friend, Avi Grinberg. The fear of fear is the name of our modern condition. Fear of death, of an accident, of a failure—that's a very powerful and positive force, that is installed to help you get through it.

Those things just emerge from a real practice. I'm not talking about going through some movement, a mindless fitness practice, jumping on the hamster wheel and watching TV. I'm talking about discovering and dealing with new movements, and looking at the body, and how the body responds to stimulus, and being in a culture of practitioners and exchanging and being challenged. That's what we are doing. I know this is still not very common to see, not very popular yet, but it's something that is coming.

What are some mistakes that people make when it comes to their bodies, or starting a fitness practice?
They do not view the totality of their body. They use whatever tools and observation tools that are provided to them, but they are completely outdated. One of them is this word “fitness.” Fitness is not elaborate, and does not provide you with the insight of your total physical being and what needs to be addressed. It is part of the huge universe, of tools and movements and things, similar to martial arts, somatic practice, athletics, and sports. These are all just universes of movement, but they are not the movement universe, which is a bigger thing. I think the biggest mistake is, people think, “I need to go to the gym.” Not necessarily. It can be a positive thing, and people like to say, especially in North America, “It's better than nothing.” Yeah, but they failed to realize that, anything is better than nothing.

One person will need to develop more physical intelligence and engage in problem solving, with the body. He will go to a rock climbing facility, and there, he will be challenged to resolve riddles on the wall. How do I get up there? Another person will need a more internal practice, and observe the most basic breaths. You cannot decide yet what you need, before you engage on the general practitioner level. Just like we go to the doctor: we don't know what's wrong yet, we just feel off. We go to the general practitioner, and from there, to specialty. This is what's missing. People are offered isolated tools: do a bunch of bench presses; run on the treadmill for 30 minutes. They feel empty. It doesn't hit the mark, and they move on and they drop off their practice.

You’ve said before that your work is about undoing as much as doing—erasing the things we’ve been conditioned to do. How much of your work is undoing, and how much of your work is doing?
Hard to say, especially since they mingle often. They are not so clear anymore… It's already paradoxical. You just need to say undoing—you don't even need to say the doing. It's contained there. I think the more time passes, the more I realize that undoing is a less-explored vector in my life, and in most people's lives. The reason is once you come into being, and you're born and you're a child, everything orients you towards doing. Then, at the second half of your life, I believe that when you discover the concept of undoing, it becomes a very powerful concept and very balancing concept for most of us. Some of us are just missing it, and we complete the journey here without fully realizing it. That's sad for me.

I'm curious how you engage with technology. What's your relationship to your phone like?
First, I'm not part of the romantic camp, of going back to nature and all that bullshit that I see floating around. We are going to have to push through. We're not going to reverse it back… I'm not shying away from technology. I have a very physical practice, very intense daily practice. When I am outside of this practice, I use my phone and I use the computer, and I sit down on a chair, and I do a lot of research through those. I use those technologies to help spread these ideas and help me develop these ideas.

I believe also that shying away from them, erasing the Facebook app from your phone, I think it's caving to a weakness, instead of addressing it. I see it a lot: “I erased that app, I did this, I did that.” Actually, you failed. That weakness will emerge somewhere else, because you're avoiding the issue... It might be a nice little shiny piece of advice, that you put on an article, or on a podcast or somewhere. But, it's misleading in its over-simplicity. It can be harmful, actually, in many ways. It works on a short-term [basis], that's why it gives you that nice boost. It's a trick.

I don't want to base myself and base my life in tricks. That's a common thing that you see these days. People are just a collage of tricks. They are hacking their bodies, and taking a supplement here, and drinking a cup of coffee for some chemical energy there. We are basically interlacing all these tricks. But, underneath, there is no glue. Nothing glues these things together. There is a sense of emptiness, a sense of lack of being that emerges. Then, we blame the Facebook app on our phone.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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This post originally appeared on GQ and was published January 13, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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