The Athletic Philosophy: Putting Meaning Into Movement
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
– Robert A. Heinlein
All good ideas – including parkour – shift and mutate and evolve over time, affected by new influences and developments that build on what has gone before, hopefully predominantly toward improvement and positive gain, though perhaps not always. However, though the form an idea takes can change, the jewel at its heart is something too permanent to be affected by any superficial changes. That, I suspect, hasn’t changed very much throughout the thousands of years of disciplines created and pursued by human beings.
It’s a hidden jewel, of sorts. It’s the mystery at the source of disciplines like parkour that compels us, draws us in, engages us and challenges us to find it. It takes different forms for different people, moulding itself according to the particular lessons and truths we each need to learn. We all search for it, whether we know it or not. But not all of us find it.
The difficulty, for we who seek it, is that as an art does grow and change this jewel can become harder to find in the confusion, the noise and the bright lights. Indeed, it can become so buried that newer generations, new audiences, who never experienced the idea in its raw form, may not even know it exists. That, to me, seems a great shame as that rough-hewn gem at its heart is the real gift of parkour – or indeed of any good art-form.
So how can we find it? What paths do we have to walk to come across it? There are countless ways to climb a mountain, but which ones reveal its heart to us.
To my mind, the most important guiding star on our journey is integrity. We have to practise what we preach, and this means embodying the principles we aspire to and letting them permeate every aspect of our lives.
These lofty values and principles we aspire to in training; courage, determination, commitment, humility, honesty, quality, consistency, perfection – what good are they if we abandon them when we end the training session and return to our daily life?
What is the point of being polite, mindful and supportive in training with a group of friends only to become angry, frustrated and small-minded on a crowded train on the way home? What is the point of striving for perfection in our movement only to bring a half-hearted effort to our work? What is the point of committing to a discipline based on physical health and fitness only to proudly endorse the brand of a poisonous product?
If our training doesn’t develop these values within us, to the point that they then inform the whole of our activities, well then I think we still haven’t found that jewel.
The Athletic Philosophy
‘Physical education is the fundamental discipline of life’ – Alan Watts
One of the reasons I enjoy parkour so much is that it is its own philosophy put into practice – it is an experiential phenomenon; you really have to do it to understand it fully. It is an athletic philosophy, rarely a verbal one, and that’s a good thing: the most serious parkour practitioners do not often talk about philosophy or spirituality, instead they put it into action. They practise it, they live it, which is the litmus test of any philosophy. If it isn’t practised a philo
sophy has less substance than smoke in a strong wind.
Just as physicality with no quality of intention is incomplete, so thoughts and cerebral learning without a physical discipline are also ineffective in shaping a complete human being. So many of our problems – physical and mental – originate from a poor relationship with the body, from bad breathing, poor posture, weakness, mobility restrictions and all the things that limit our health and result in unnecessary pain.
This pain and perpetual discomfort acts to limit our perception of ourselves and our potential, with the result that we often have a feeling that we are not achieving our full potential or perhaps just not living as freely and enjoyably as we know we should be. We feel incomplete, inadequate. Deep down we know we are unhealthy and unchallenged; too often on cruise control and living in the comfort zone.
An athletic philosophy such as that found in parkour helps us rectify this. It drags us out of our comfort zone every time we head out to train. It demands our all and in return it rewards us with a strong body and mind, expanding our idea of ourself and restoring us to a more balanced and healthier lifestyle.
The Unsung Heroes of Parkour
As is common to most fields of human interest, the spectacular has come to dominate the world’s vision of what parkour / freerunning is, and it is this spectacle that is most often responsible for both communicating and miscommunicating the art.
Much of it is fantastic: incredibly creative films displaying untold physical talent as well as an artist’s eye for capturing movement. Or films that capture that iron spirit of training or evidence the camaraderie among groups of friends as they explore their environment. Films that spread an idea, talk to thousands of people across the world, bring communities closer together.
But much of it is unhelpful and confusing, even damaging. Videos showing endless iterations of the same few movements just on a different set of buildings and with a different unhealthy energy drink’s logo appended to the corner of the screen; or the mindless antics of ‘practitioners’ acting like arrogant children, screaming their ill-aimed and unoriginal rebellion to the world by setting off fireworks or vandalising public places. Films born of ego and a need for attention. Endless narcissism. Let’s be clear, this is not parkour, nor has it ever been.
Unfortunately it transpires that a wonderful philosophical approach to life is not very spectacular and doesn’t translate well to the ten-second attention span of the YouTube world we now inhabit. Peace, self-discipline and internal balance just aren’t that absorbing to watch. Yet they are far more powerful, have far more substance and, I would argue, possess infinitely more meaning. If we’re going to find them, we have to develop a longer attention span and delve a little deeper into what we choose to do and why we choose to do it.
I’ve always found it interesting that in all my travels around the world with parkour, the individuals I have encountered who best embody and live the art fully are those who in fact rarely post videos or ‘showreels ‘of themselves. Rather, they are most often to be found spreading the benefits of parkour to children or societies beyond our own small world, or diligently leading dedicated communities of practitioners, or training hard and long day in and day out by themselves. Their skills and strengths are extraordinary, their balance as people quite inspirational, yet they feel no need to publicise their work or to take a camera along to every training session.
This is not to detract from the incredible movement feats captured in videos from the parkour community all over the world, or to overlook the importance of film as a form of language that has enabled the art to spread and expand across continents in the blink of an eye. That’s obvious to all, and will and should always continue as a form of expression, communication and celebration.
But still, it is most often those silent and unsung ‘warriors’ of the parkour world that keep the spirit of the art alive; that build communities, educate authorities, teach newcomers and give generously of their time, energy and experience to all who show a sincere interest. Parkour has long outgrown any one individual or group of practitioners: it’s a concept – an ideal, perhaps – and one that is powered and maintained by a silent majority of truly strong human beings.
Masters of All
Parkour is one of the most self-contained and absorbing physical disciplines there is, one of the great transformative practices, which are so often founded through paradox: simultaneously challenging and playful, disciplined and liberating, communal and utterly individual, methodical and yet totally wild. And its fundamental principles encourage all-round competence, not over-specialisation. Parkour practitioners have to be able to run far as well as fast; to climb as well as drop; to jump long and high; to possess power and control, strength and agility, courage and humility. That makes it a highly demanding discipline, as it asks us to become not generalists but rather specialists in all of these areas.Yet in its completeness there lies a risk – the risk of being consumed by parkour.
One of the great dangers of modern living is that of over-specialisation. We are so often forced down a certain path of development, often from an incredibly early age, and educated to expertise in one tiny field to the exclusion and ignorance of all others. We’ve fallen a long way from the ideal of the ‘Renaissance Man’ able to carry out comfortably all of Heinlein’s tasks in the quotation above.
And parkour practitioners are not immune to falling prey to this limited view: we can easily become trapped within parkour’s own insular world, focusing solely on becoming great at jumping but end up lacking in spirit and substance. How easily we begin advocating flashy, ego-driven championships in which people jump for points wearing pads and crash helmets while looking for justification when what we, and they, really need is to face ourselves, honestly, without any protection.
Anyone who is fully awake will not be satisfied with anything less than the totality of experience. The harmony we seek between mind and body has nothing to do with the current obsession for fitness, or developing the perfect physique, or losing weight, or having the biggest jump. It’s about much more than any of those. It’s about the discovery and development of who we are, not what we can do. It’s about growing into a complete experience of life, not limiting ourselves to the perfection of one small fragment of a whole.
By itself, parkour isn’t enough. No one path can adequately express the enormity within every individual. That can only be achieved through the development of the total self, through integrating every aspect of one’s life until the whole thing resonates with an alignment of mind, body, spirit and purpose. Not being a jack of all trades nor a master of one – but rather by striving to become a master of all.
All paths are only different ways to the top of the mountain. Recognise the equal worth and value of all paths, and know that the more of them you walk the more of the mountain you will see. That’s our true reward, the jewel at the heart of parkour, and the only one that endures.
Visit Parkour Generations for more information about parkour and for details on classes, workshops and community events worldwide.