City dwelling humans live and grow in a controlled environment. Our lives are organized physically and socially by the buildings and cultural rules that surround us. Streets, city blocks, public transit, buildings and environmental obstacles such as rivers and parks regiment our paths through the city.
Our movement through the urban environment is restricted further by cultural obstacles that delineate our mode of motion through the environment. Social codes restrict us from cutting through a person’s yard or an office building. They offer us the option of walking or driving through the environment, running only when we are really late. For some, these impositions cultivate a need to stand out from the rest, but most trade in notions of messy individuality for the comfort of conformity.
Parkour (or Le Parkour) is a sport that originated in France with a group of men who called themselves Yamakasi, led by David Belle and Sebastien Foucan. (Some members of the original group participated in the recent Luc Bisson film Yamasaki, but both Belle and Foucan distanced themselves from the production as they felt it did not represent the truth about Parkour.) What started as a way to bring the obstacle course into the urban setting has evolved over the past decade into a way of life for many around the world.
To watch experienced traceurs (those who participate in Parkour) is akin to watching Jackie Chan manipulate the urban environment. While on the surface the sport seems to mimic the greatest urban foot chase scenes in action movies (with the traceurs vaulting, jumping and rolling over roofs, rails, and walls), the sport is elevated to a much more philosophical level by many of its participants, who see the sport as life strategy.
Physically, Parkour (also called PK or free-running) is the art of fluid movement through an environment. One uses perceived obstacles like walls, rails, fences, and roof gaps as tools to create new kinds of movement through an urban environment instead of letting them impede or control movement. The physical goal is not simply to make the biggest jumps or the most dangerous moves safely. There is an aesthetic that you are trying to achieve that is at once unified with the environment (as you use it as a tool) and struggling against it. You are trying to move with the sleekness of a cat, to create a flow through an environment designed to discourage it.
When you are first starting out, the most important steps are learning some fundamental moves and building up your strength and agility. Sebastien Foucan maintains that while there are some fundamental moves that you should master for safety, the sport is ever-evolving as it is about finding your own way through your environment. Depending on your obstacles, it is your goal to discover your own way over them.
Some important basic moves to master are rolling, landing, balance, and vaulting. Vaulting alone has several different variations, including monkey, reverse, turn, dash, speed, lazy, and Kash vaults. You will also want to develop your jumping skills. For demonstrations of these moves, there are many Parkour videos available on the Web. Also, at Urban Freeflow Worldwide’s Web site, they provide detailed instructions and still-shot demos of a couple of dozen basic moves to get you started on the right track.
When you start practicing your basic moves, it is important to concentrate from the beginning on fluidity and precision so that they become second nature to the moves. It is also important that you start working on your flexibility, as Parkour involves many explosive take-offs and landings and the more limber your muscles and joints are, the larger your range of movement and the more narrow the possibility of injury.
The best place to start your training is outside on a soft grassy area or inside on mats. Always warm up your muscles with 10 minutes of aerobic activity (jogging, jumping jacks, etc.) and then stretch. Follow the tutorials offered on the Urban Freeflow Web site as study aids. Once your have some confidence in your skills, take them to the streets, practicing focus, fluidity and precision. At first you might practice vaults or jumps as independent moves, like doing a trick on a skateboard, but your goal is to keep moving, concentrating on your flow through the environment.
At a simple level, Parkour is about being able to mentally and physically overcome obstacles (from concrete walls to fear in general) and transform the way you see obstacles from hindrances to movement into accomplices. It is also about being able to evaluate your surroundings, drum up a strategy and move ever-forward.
The sport takes a tremendous amount of focus and self-discipline, but in the spirit of martial arts, it focuses on building these skills not simply for use in the streets, but also to transform your every day life. Also in the spirit of martial arts, those who practice Parkour seriously see it as a combination of the physical, mental and spiritual coming together to free an individual from the constraints of complicity, conformity and complacency.
Parkour is an incredibly social undertaking, as it is not only safer to participate with others, it promotes the idea of interdependence: that we can and need to learn from the experience of others around us. Because everyone brings their own experiences, struggles and solutions to the street, watching the course of another through the environment presents us with possibilities that would not immediately occur to us.
Support, not competition, should be the primary goal among group members, as everyone must work at their own level. It is true that having others around may push you to places you would not normally go, but as Sebastien Foucan puts it, you may feel the desire to perform a jump to impress a group, but in the end that group is not the one doing the jump. When poised to jump, you are alone with the obstacle, and you are responsible for overcoming it. This focus on personal responsibility not only places the onus for your safety on you, it allows you to take full credit for your accomplishments.
Parkour is an emerging sport that not only pushes a person’s physical and mental boundaries, it pushes individuals to question society’s boundaries. It is about seeing boundaries and obstacles as a tool of movement rather than a limitation. Our minds experience so many boundaries every day. Society trains the mind to observe its limits; Parkour trains the mind to see obstacles as opportunities to move forward.