Parkour Body, Mind, And Soul

Several years ago I suffered an injury that made me slow down and question the future of my physical capabilities as a human being. One morning I experienced a spontaneous manifestation of an inguinal hernia. The examining doctor determined that the condition was in all probability  conginital. The condition could have occurred at any point in my life. After a lifetime of being very physically active I was faced with circumstances that could severely limit the scope of my performance in all of my favorite recreations. During my recovery period of three weeks I was pretty depressed. I ended up finding a video on youtube that changed my outlook on the future. What I saw gave me the drive and determination to adapt to and then overcome my condition.

When I viewed this for the first time I had the suspicion that the man in the video was using some sort of physical art to navigate the abandoned urban terrain. Something beyond gymnastics or anything else I was familiar with. After some initial digging I discovered Parkour. I researched the movements and skills that my discovery demanded. I knew with my old level of physical training I could with a little work start training Parkour. After my initial recovery was up I got cleared by my doctor and cautiously started to train. I did not, however, research the art of Parkour beyond movement skills. I would find a move and practice it until I felt I could incorporate it into my practice. It was not until I began research for this project that I was exposed to the knowledge that comprises the body of this inquiry. Sources agree that the art that would become Parkour began in Lisses France in the 1990s. The movements were taught to David Belle by his father who learned them while in the army fire service. These movements in turn originated from the works of Georges Gebert. Hebert based his natural method on a variety of sources including the movements of indigenous peoples. This method became the basis for military obstacle course navigation within the French army. David and his friends trained these skills and navigated the streets of Lisses playing a kind of complex follow the leader. Many of the members of this core group have spread parkour to the screen and stage. Now it has spread across the globe and if one looks carefully one can find people practicing it many of the major cities.

The  core move sets of Parkour are basic.  At root the art consists of jumping, climbing, running, and vaulting. These are the bare minimum of skills with which one can be said to be doing parkour. A very simplified version of it but still recognizable as parkour. Practitioners have specialized vaults and jumps to such a degree that moves such as the “kong” vault can take on spectacular appearances. A sub set of skills secondary  to jumps and vaults is that of landing. landing in turn includes rolling. to jump and vault one must know how to land. Not only land but continue moving. remember the art is all about moving. A proper roll absorbs the shock of landing and redirects the force of the landing launching the traceur forward at speed into a run.  Landings like the precision can be trained to incredible skill levels enabling the practitioner to land a jump on a stair rail or a horizontal bar. Basics aside, there are some specialized moves within the art that stand out and immediately identify the practitioner for their art. These moves are the wall run and the tic tac. Observing someone running up a twelve foot wall or tic tacing back and forth between two walls is impressive to say the least. Viewing such acts executed properly is a real treat.

Parkour is as much a mental discipline as well as physical one. consideration must also be given to the type of mind that is attracted to the art. Something of the free spirit or non-conformist. There is a certain rejection of the urban environment. There is a certain embracing of the urban environment. The mind changes. The way the city looks changes. Obstacles become avenues. Parkour challenges it’s practitioners to overcome obstacles both physical and mental in nature.  Author Jimena Ortuzar writes in his article  Parkour or “l’art du deplacement”:A kinetic Urban Utopia that “Parkour is perhaps best characterized as an act of fleeing, of escape, it is  an act of flight. However, it is a chase with no pursuer, at least not one that is immediately evident or easily identified”. Jimena goes on to describe how parkour is a sort of flight or  rejection of the oppressive restrictions of the modern world. Given these ideas as expressed in Jimena’s article it becomes evident that what was developed in France and continues to develop on the streets of the world’s cities is not a sport but an art which complements those of the martial sort. The spectacle the art provides captivates the viewer of  any of the numerous Youtube videos available. Wow, how cool! Look at those flips! How do they do that? That looks dangerous! It is certainly a given that the art is, in many people’s eyes, not for everyone. Serious proponents reject this mentality but that is not yet part of this conversation.

The question now is why someone engages in this kind of risk taking. The article Personality, self -efficacy  and risk-taking in parkour(free-running) by Christopher J. Merrit and Ian J. Tharp published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise  investigates the personality types and traits which may contribute to risk taking in parkour. As presented in the article this is the first study of its sort to examine personality types and parkour. Self-efficacy is a trait better known as self confidence. The study concludes that this self confidence  leads to greater risk taking in the practice of parkour. The ideas expressed or studied within this article help to explain, by scientific method, why certain people would be prone to embrace the concept of jumping from roof top to roof top. The article Discourses of Subversion: the Ethics and Aesthetics of Capoeira and Parkour by Sophie Fuggle  published in the Journal of the Society for Dance , volume 26, number 2 discusses ideas of self expression in both of the arts mentioned in it’s title. Sophie’s thesis is that these arts share common grounds in their history in that they both are rooted in subversive attitudes towards oppression. Additionally, she presents the idea that both arts encourage self expression and self development within their frameworks.According to Sophie Fuggle there is at once a confirmation and an oppression of the individual by the urban environment. The practitioner of parkour similarly defined, alienated, and challenged by their surroundings. There is ,according to Fuggle, a subversive dialogue between the practitioner and the environment  or as she puts it “Moreover, both involve an ongoing questioning both of oneself and one’s surroundings”. These three articles are promising not only because of their content but also because of what they represent. These articles show me that professional researchers are investigating the parkour community with a spirit of inquiry beyond mere curiosity.  The common theme in these three articles is that of the mindset of the individual. Not just that of an athlete or sports person but that of  soul striving for expression in an oppressive environment not of  one’s choice or design. The end result is not a sport but instead a response of the oppressed individual self  to an restrictive and oppressive world.

One could sum up most of the parkour spirit in one word. Play. This sentiment is expressed time and time again in numerous articles and interviews. One of the best in my opinion is an interview with Sebastion Foucan  , who is the founder of free running , a discipline similar to parkour but is generally credited with more room for freedom of expression. Tina El-hage of the Guardian interviewed Foucan in july 2011. one of the most simple and clear statements embodying the spirit of the art of movement can be seen in this quote “ It’s not a sport, it’s a way of life, he says. “ I see it as an art…. climbing and jumping is not a discipline, it’s what we are meant to be doing as  human beings. with practice we can create a very stylish way of doing things, but it is just natural”.


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