Georges Hébert (27 April 1875 in Paris – 2 August 1957 in Tourgéville, Calvados) was a pioneering French physical educator, theorist and instructor.
An officer in the French Navy prior to the First World War, Hébert was stationed in the town of St. Pierre in Martinique. In 1902 the town fell victim to a catastrophic volcanic eruption and Hebert 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 personal motto, “Etre fort pour être utile” – “Be strong to be useful.”
Hébert had travelled extensively throughout the world and was impressed by the physical development and movement skills of indigenous 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.
While still at sea, Hébert began to systematise a method of physical culture training patterned on the abilities of the indigenous peoples he had encountered.
Upon his return to France, Hebert became a physical education tutor at the College of Reims, 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 Georges 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:
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.
Georges 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.
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 kilometers), 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 “parcours” 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.
The natural method was also present during the US President Theodore Roosevelt’s training in the Whitehouse in Washington, D.C., 1901–09, he was noted for his “point-to-point walks”, and conducted in as straight line as possible, over obstacles and including swimming where necessary.
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 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 died 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 has influenced the development of Parkour as an “art of movement” in its own right.