Stephen Bell is a natural movement teacher from Ballinderry. His forest-based training facility encourages its visitors to connect body and nature and appreciate the importance of innate body movement.
We caught up with Stephen as the leaves began to fall, turning up for one of his classes at his invitation. The first to arrive, we waited outside the studio, a beautiful wooden structure bordering the woodland that encompasses Stephen’s home. Stephen soon emerged and we sat down in his studio to talk as his students begin to arrive. A deep thinker, he pauses to reflect before answering each question, hands wringing. Despite wearing a heavy woollen jumper, it is clear that he is in great physical shape.
A former professional athlete, Stephen has had to adjust to a life outside of the intense focus of the media glare, a difficult transition for many athletes. Stephen talks us through that process, his re-engagement with his natural surroundings and how that has shaped his practice as a trainer.
“I’ve been one of the lucky ones in life as I’ve been able to pursue my genuine passions and make a career of them. I try to remember that if I’m ever having a bad day - sometimes I have to pinch myself and say I’ve got it pretty good.”
"Sports and in particular rugby were the only thing that really held my attention since I was about five years old. In a twist of fate the game turned pro the year I finished school - so I seemed to be in the right place at the right time. I lasted over a decade in the sport. Never hugely talented or skilled, I was a grafter, allowing me to carve out a trade at the mid level of the game.I never considered life after rugby until I was hit with a succession of injuries and the build up of years of chronic pain in my late twenties. I think part of me thought I’d play forever. Stay a pro forever and not have to face the reality of a ‘normal job’. Life after rugby scared the hell out of me. I was hiding from the inevitable and the transition of my last few playing years and a move to civi street were very challenging mentally. I experienced real depression for the first time in my life."
"Perhaps I thought I’d coach or take up a job in the back room staff but to be honest I couldn’t even watch a game in those first few years. It was like a horrible divorce, or being dumped, I didn’t want to see the other person. It hurt too much. My love of rugby meant that I couldn’t bear to be around it."
"It took some time to recalibrate my life. To decide that this was not the end but actually the beginning. I was still crippled with pain, and sitting was what hurt the most - so a desk job was out of the question. Strength training, fitness and all things movement were my passion within the game, so I decided to pursue what I knew I was good at and had extensive knowledge in. Private trainers and coaches were just beginning to sprout up across the country so I got qualified and began working in a commercial gym, building up an extensive business with in a few months. It was at this stage I moved back from England, back home to a little village called Upper Ballinderry, were I was born and raised."
"It was about this time I started to really heal both my physical and mental wounds from my playing days. Moving back to the farm to all things good and wholesome. Back to family and the beautiful land which seemed to bring me comfort. I began exploring more ways to bring my body out of pain and methods to settle my mind. Understanding the connection between the two. So I read more, researching meditation and mindfulness techniques. I discovered great trainers and coaches who were developing methodologies built upon a framework of natural movement. Studying everything I could get my hands on, I became consumed with finding the answers to helping people change their lives. Both body and mind."
Natural movement has since become integral to Stephen’s approach to training, and many of his students choose to remove their shoes as they arrive. As they begin their exercises, the focus of the class centres largely on primal movements the body is perfectly created to do - crawling, sliding on the floor, hanging from bars. The kind of movements innate to infants but long forgotten through traditional training methods.
Leaving the gym, the class take to the forest outside, many still barefoot. We sprint through the forest, carry sandbags down trails, and lift logs and tyres. There is a primal joy in this, a sense of reconnection. Mulchy feet and smiles abound as we walk back through the woods and chat over hot coffee. Stephen explains the benefits of reconnecting with nature in training.
"When I returned to Ireland I opened two faculties in Belfast - calisthenics and gymnastics - that in hindsight focused much more on bodyweight styles of training. As successful as they were I knew there was a piece missing in the puzzle of human movement and mindset development. The traditional gym environment I knew was too artificial, too orientated around physique."
"The answer was staring me in the face - I was training people indoors yet much of my own training was almost entirely done outdoors."
"My movement practice. In nature, in the woods. At home on the farm. What I loved doing."
"Training outdoors has always brought me an added sense of calm, and my workouts are as much about clearing my head as building my body. I decided to turn parts of the family farm into an indoor/outdoor movement facility. A space where members could explore a variation of movement practices but make a journey inward and reconnect with their bodies, their spirit and each other. Where they could be part of a supportive, inclusive community built on the common goal of becoming better than they were yesterday."
"A big part of how I teach is to bring play and fun back into training. Working out should not be a punishment or a chore, but a movement pleasure. To do this amongst the forest at WildFoot brings our members great joy I believe. The laughs. The smiles. They feel like kids again. They are reconnected to themselves. To their days of innocence. They can forget about the emails and shopping lists for an hour or so. They become lost in the woods like I did hundreds of times as a boy on the same land. This probably brings me the greatest satisfaction in life."
In the summer of 2018, Stephen walked the newly reopened Ireland Way, a 1000km trail that runs from the island’s most southerly tip to the North Coast of Ulster. While most recommend to leave 30-40 days to complete this challenge, Stephen did it in 23 - barefoot. Although he needs no excuse for an adventure, he undertook the challenge for the Northern Ireland Forest School Trust - a charity set up to give children the opportunity to experience the enrichment of a life outdoors.
"I’ve been lucky to see Ireland in a unique way - travelling 1000km south to north in 23 days, barefoot, during the hottest summer on record. A journey to record the beauty of Ireland and it’s wonderful people and places. A challenge to demonstrate our human spirit and what we can achieve if we put our minds to it. My hope was to show people here what they have on their doorstep. The beauty that surrounds us, primed for everyone to explore and discover themselves. Without social media I would never have had the platform to convey this. It also allowed me to raise £5000 for the Northern Ireland Forest Schools Association. A charity that brings classrooms into nature. Doing great work in reconnecting our youth to the land. Something that should be mandatory in our schools but still falls on the work of charities and volunteers."
Stephen’s near-monastic, nature-orientated approach is atypical of most trainers. His social media is the same - reading like a blog on wisdom, mindfulness and environmentalism compared to the get-quick-fast offered by most trainers. Although it may seem contradictory for someone who is most himself when switched off amongst nature to enjoy social media, Stephen sees it as a powerful means of communication to draw further attention to the damage we are inflicting on our environment.
"I’m ever the optimist and believe we have a youth mobilising themselves. They are close to action. Ready to take charge, and I observe the positive moves on social platforms. This incredible tool to inform and evoke positive change. Of course they can be used in a negative fashion, but with careful curation and consideration social media can be an incredible megaphone to spread good deeds and make the world a better place. In balance with our natural world. I feel young people are ready to rule with a green hand."
"In Ireland we have an opportunity to lead from the front. To become the greenest nation in the world, to move alongside the Scandinavian countries. We already have hundreds of well protected spaces but we have to go further, become greener. I love this land and social media has also allowed me to discuss this love. To bring it into the hearts and minds of people. This amazing island - which I feel more and more compelled to protect."
"So I have bigger plans for our business. To explore permaculture, nature walks, kids projects, retreats. A collection of ways to heal the human condition, which I believe hinges on our disconnect from the natural world. If people can understand the importance of nature for their well being they are more inclined to protect it. I believe this is the single most important issue of modern times, yet it is relegated to the back pages, a mere footnote until it becomes too late."
"Ultimately we can only control and influence the circles we move in. So we have an obligation to create positive ripples within those. To spread good intention and love. To leave footprints in people’s hearts. My purpose in life is to get people to move in nature here in Ireland. My hope is that my actions can show its importance in becoming a better human."
"I am a passionate environmentalist but in truth still guilty of making poor decisions on this front. I plan to explore and educate myself much more in this area. I can’t justify promoting an environmentalist message without first doing it myself."
for more information on Stephen, follow him on instagram @wildfoot or visit his facebook page.