For as long as records have existed, people have found ways to improve their movement abilities. Indeed, the human drive for physical self-exceeding is so great that it has at times become a religious passion. Native American runners, Tibetan yogis, Taoist monks, and Eastern martial artists have all developed control of movement to an extraordinary level, and in so doing have often surpassed the apparent limits of physical capacity. Modern athletes do just the same, though usually without the same level of spiritual zeal! The incredible, exponential increase in the complexity and difficulty of achievements across adventure/lifestyle disciplines such as wingsuiting, skateboarding, motocross and parkour provides dramatic evidence that the human body has enormous potential for a huge variety of differing forms of development through adaptation.
The common denominator is that these are all transformative practices, loosely defined as any holistic activity trained with the focus and intent to transform and improve the self through that activity.
In this truly global and historical effort humans have discovered new agility, strength, and coordination that they often attribute to forces beyond mere physical capability. The Chinese Taoists speak in terms of the universal breath or Chi, Japanese swordsmen of the past told of Original Mind moving through their bodies and directing their movements, the Native Americans have said that gods or animal spirits helped them run far beyond normal abilities, and Indians for millennia have taught ancient practices of yoga to transform ordinary movement into something superhuman. Now we talk in terms of ‘flow state’ or ‘the zone’ or ‘peak performance’ but the underlying mechanism remains unchanged: transformative practice gives us access to this power.
But the truth is that nothing we do is ever ‘superhuman’: all of these feats are very much within our ‘human’ potential. It’s just that we rarely explore that potential fully, the reason being that most modern methods of realising our capabilities often require specific locations, travel, time, special equipment, training, and money. Such activities are therefore open only to a small proportion of any community, meaning vast reservoirs of talent continue to go untapped.
Parkour has changed that.
And already, within its very brief life-span to date, practitioners have opened up whole new realms of possibility for human potential. From the seemingly impossible feats of pioneers such as David Belle and Stephane Vigroux to the dynamic grace and power of new generations of traceurs who are building upon the achievements of these groundbreaking individuals, the progress is clear to see.
Movements and techniques that took the pioneers weeks and months to grasp are now picked up in a day or two by newcomers, due to the guidance of these trail-blazers as they now pass on their hard-earned knowledge through teaching. Jumps and obstacles that only a few years ago were considered very difficult by the community are now taken in stride. The famous ‘Manpower’ jump in Paris, once the reserve of the elite few, was recently cracked by a twelve year old boy. And the complexity of the movements has increased dramatically too: sophisticated flowing movements the envy of elite dancers are commonplace in parkour; vault variations are legion; precision jumps are persistently being surpassed in length and difficulty, and the fitness and durability of practitioners soar ever skyward.
Of course, it is not that practitioners of parkour are particularly original in being able to accomplish incredible physical feats – for example one could reference the Lung-Gom-Pa, the ‘Trance Walkers’ of Tibet, who, oblivious of all obstacles and fatigue, move on toward their contemplated aim, hardly touching the ground. This could just as well be a description of an adept practitioner of parkour as he moves across his urban territory.
Observing a Lung-Gom-Pa in motion, one is given the impression that they are borne by the air, merely skimming the surface of the earth. A student of Tibetan mysticism and folklore, Alexandra David-Neel recorded seeing a Lung-Gom-Pa on the northern plain of Tibet:
‘He did not run, but seemed to lift himself from the ground as if he had been endowed with the elasticity of a ball. His steps had the regularity of a pendulum’.
If this sounds familiar, it is because it is but one of many activities similar to parkour that have been practised by humans for thousands of years.
So how can parkour offer a new level of human development above and beyond the disciplines that have gone before?
The answer lies in accessibility.
Here we have a genuine transformative practise open to all, not limited to specific locations – in fact it revels in the exploration of new and varied terrain – requiring no special equipment beyond a good pair of shoes and no particular training environment. It is an art geared toward the individual, wherein one develops at one’s own pace and in one’s own unique manner. It is a discipline that understands that no one starts from scratch when it comes to movement, we are all moving regularly or at least did so for many years of our childhood. Parkour does not want to regress people by over-programming or reducing us to overly-simplified component parts, but looks to build on everyone’s innate ability to move.
In fact, parkour can be picked up at any time, in any place, by anybody. And it is precisely this level of access to a progressive and holistic method of practise that provides a whole new arena for human development on a mass scale. It is an art that encapsulates all the requisite aspects of the ancient transformative practices, providing both a physical and philosophical paradigm for practitioners to utilise – much in the same manner as the Do, or ‘Ways’, of Japan. Indeed, parkour offers a path by which all can aspire to that ancient but perennially relevant Greek ideal of mens sana in corpore sano– a sound mind in a sound body.
The famous Tibetan ‘Trance Walker’ Lama Govinda once summarized the methods of all true transformative practices as being in essence a ‘concentration of the dynamic vital principle’, and there is no reason that Parkour should not be viewed in the same light. The only difference is that Lung-Gom-Pa are few and far between, the result of Tibetan yoga being a relatively hidden and unknown method, whereas parkour suffers from no such inhibitions.
Of course, the real progress is there to be made by each practitioner, every single day – the transformation of the individual: for this no records need be broken, no one has to be the fastest or the strongest, or jump the furthest. Only aim to develop your own attributes constantly and thoroughly, and progress is already working in your favour.
Let this progress take you to the peak of your abilities and you may discover that rare but undeniable sense that all humans harbour vast capacities for extraordinary living.