Parkour, stripped down, is the use of space. It’s how we fill space, how we move through it. It’s a process. And it has often struck me when training and moving that the vast majority of that space is filled with what most would consider to be ‘unspectacular’ movement: that is, the gaps and distances that exist before, between and after the obstacles we fly over and through, around and under. The approach to a jump, the steps between vaults in combination, the landing and rolling and running again after a drop – these are where we spend most of our time, not actually engaged in the saut de bras or cat-pass that occurs so quickly and is over in a flash.
Long ago I began to think that the essence of parkour actually happens between the application of the ‘techniques’ themselves; in the spaces between. It’s the use of those spaces that makes the difference between good parkour and simply good stunts or tricks. A balanced and well paced run-up, for example, makes a good jump happen; efficient and dynamic steps after a landing maintain momentum going into the next movement; coming out of a roll with balance and stability provides the ability to flow seamlessly on towards the next set of challenges. For me the parkour happens in those spaces, in that larger movement that contains the individual techniques. And it’s often neglected.
I look at those techniques – the difficult jumps, the tricky landings, the dynamic vaults – as equivalent to peak experiences in life: they are what we train for and strive for, but in truth they come and go quite quickly and, in isolation, mean very little. Only in context do they have a point. That context is constituted by everything that precedes and succeeds those peak moments: the movements are given meaning by everything that comes before and after them. The spaces between.
The real quality of our movement, as of our lives, is held in the way we deport ourselves in those larger and less obviously glorious spaces. Who are we when not overcoming a great physical challenge or achieving some stupendous athletic feat? Who are we when not enduring a rigorous test of the mind or pushing ourselves to our limits? Who are we in those spaces between, in our daily living, our simple movement between jumps? Who are we in every moment, not just the ones that require our focus and presence in its entirety?
It seems to me that that is the true test of our character, just as it is the true test of our movement. To rise to an immediate and threatening challenge is something most of us will naturally do, it’s probably part of our nature as those who seek to uncover our potential and squeeze every drop out of it. But how well do we maintain those virtues, that inner strength, throughout the days when we are not engaged in such life-and-death moments? Do we still act with the same immediacy of thought? Do we still remember to use our fear and not be used by it? Do we carry that self-discipline and self-awareness we have in training on into the rest of our lives? If not, why not?
Parkour, like all great practices, is an art of living. It is not something you do for an hour or two and then forget or put aside. The point of these arts is that they reveal aspects of ourselves that we strive to hold onto, they uncover and polish something quite pure and bright within us: what a loss to then leave that shining thing on the training ground and live out the rest of one’s day in relative darkness.
Surely the point is, when we discover just what we can be, to then let that knowledge and that practice infuse all parts of our life, so that we can begin to take on more permanently that concentrated ‘us’ we find in our peak experiences.
And that can only be done in the quiet stretches of our days, when nothing very special seems to be going on and our character is tested in more routine, but no less significant, ways. It can only be done in the spaces between.