The Tao of Parkour
Much has been made of Bruce Lee’s enduring concept of Jeet Kune Do, across myriad different activities, art-forms, sports and disciplines. Often it is applied quite wrongly, of course, flourished with bravado in a slapdash attempt to justify some sort of unstructured and unresearched approach to training or development. Nothing could be further from what Lee intended with his concept, or indeed more removed from his own path towards personal liberation.
However, a strong and meaningful analogy can be drawn between Lee’s concept and our own discipline of parkour. In fact, parkour is a prime example of Jeet Kune Do (JKD) in action. To explain this, it is necessary to define first what Lee meant by the term Jeet Kune Do and how he applied it to his own training.
Jeet Kune Do, despite the existence of many schools and clubs teaching to the contrary, is not a style. It is not a system, not a collection of techniques, nor even an amalgamation of effective movements from disparate martial arts. It is not boxing mixed with Wing Chun mixed with Muay Thai. It is certainly not the simple imitation of the movements of Lee himself.
Jeet Kune Do is simply the concept of functionality. It is the stripping away of anything that does not serve one’s purpose which, in Lee’s case, was to become the best and most complete fighting man he could be. Lee applied this concept ruthlessly to his own training, and recommended others do the same, so that one is left with only what actually works, only what is directly functional in the pursuit of one’s goal.
The Paradox of Freedom
This means, almost paradoxically, that Jeet Kune Do is at once extremely liberating and extremely rigid in its approach. Liberating because it has effectively only one rule – if it works, use it – and rigid in that it excludes anything that is extraneous to its singular purpose of producing an effective end product. Anything for show, anything ‘flowery’, anything that serves only to look good and boost the ego of the practitioner – instantly discarded. Jeet Kune Do is truly a ruthless guiding principle: which is what makes it so effective, of course. Its core can be found in Lee’s four guidelines, which were:
Absorb what is useful
Reject what is useless
Research from your own experience
Add what is specifically your own creation
Parkour is much the same. Not a collection of techniques or movements, not a restricting system or tradition-laden paradigm or dogmatic training methodology, not rules-based in any way other than one: if it works, use it.
Parkour, like JKD, is a concept one applies to one’s own training. It’s not even so much a way of thinking as it is a way of learning to think about one’s movement, learning how to train in order to reach one’s own self-established goals: a stark philosophy of facing the truth of where your ability is now and seeing exactly how and what you have to do in order to reach where you want to be.
Again, this means a form of liberation that does not equate to simply doing whatever you want. That was not at all what Lee intended with JKD, quite the opposite in fact. For him, the reality of combat defined his training – so he forced himself to stare that reality squarely in the face and see exactly what he had to do to master it, whether he liked it or not, whether he wanted to do it or not. It meant hard training, continuous research, intensive self-examination and critical analysis. It required enormous discipline and attention, and a supreme effort of will and clarity of focus. Lee realised that his liberation would be a product of a great deal of hard work.
In truth then, applying the fundamental principle of JKD – or parkour – is far harder than mastering any set syllabus of movements or techniques, or sticking to a collection of pre-defined rules. Harder precisely because it puts responsibility for one’s personal growth firmly and completely on the shoulders of the individual. But this is also what makes it – or them – so very empowering.
In parkour, as with JKD, there is no one and nothing else to blame for failing to find a solution to one’s own dilemmas. With enough commitment, drive and perseverance a way forward can always be found. If one had to identify one value as being the most central to parkour training one could confidently put forward that inner resolve, that refusal to quit or be beaten, as a strong contender.
With that mindset, the concept of JKD becomes an endlessly applicable and almost inevitably successful tool. Given time, a combination of good research, practice and review will usually lead you to the answers you seek in any chosen field. Now, of course that research and practice process can be made more or less efficient depending on a number of factors, including access to good information (through teaching, guidance, knowledge and experience of others, etc), sensible application of said information and rigorous self-discipline, but the vital component is the resolve to see the process through – the commitment to do whatever is necessary to realise one’s potential. This Lee prized above all, saying
‘Persistence, persistence, and persistence. The power can be created and maintained through daily practice – continuous effort.’
This fighting spirit, this indomitable, endlessly adaptive willpower, is the essence of both parkour and Jeet Kune Do. Capture it and one can achieve anything, for it bestows the only freedom that really matters – the ability to create yourself.
‘The void is that which stands right in the middle of this and that. The void is all-inclusive; having no opposite, there is nothing which it excludes or opposes. It is living void, because all forms come out of it, and whoever realises the void is filled with life and power and the love of all things’ – Bruce Lee, 1940-1973
 As always, I use the words parkour, freerunning and art du deplacement as interchangeable terms that describe the same base activity. For simplicity’s sake I will use the word parkour throughout this article.