Mobility. Strength. Flexibility. Power. All wonderful attributes of a healthy body: but what’s the point of having these things, indeed of having these amazing bodies, if they aren’t then being put to good use in enabling us to lead lives of wonder and adventure?
For me, physical fitness and even movement skill itself are only necessary components of being a competent, capable human being – but they aren’t the be-all and end-all. A life well-lived should develop these things as by-products. To make them the goal in and of themselves is, I think, to have missed the point of what having a body and mind is really for.
‘The challenge should stimulate the mind-body connection, movement efficiency, management of emotion and presence of mind under physical stress and fatigue. The challenge should strive for intuitive and instinctual movement behaviour blended with a movement skill. These should not be over-taught and over-coached mechanical routines designed to increase exertion.’
– Gray Cook, Movement
This quotation from Gray Cook’s seminal work ‘Movement’ could be a perfect description of the challenge presented by parkour. This is a good type of challenge – the healthy, constructive challenge that is found in all true transformative practices and rarely found in the ‘grind’ so common to the rote mechanical exercise paradigms that Cook is referring to.
Parkour is more than movement – from its inception its goal was to make a practitioner a more capable, resilient and versatile individual all-round. It was a test of the self, asking hard, profound questions of a practitioner in an ongoing quest for self-improvement, mastery and self-knowledge. The mental aspects of dealing with largely irrational fears, insecurities and limited perspectives were and are just as important as the physical aspects of jumping, running and climbing. Indeed, movement skill was not even the focus when parkour was in its infancy; the aim was simply to be a ‘strong’ individual, with all the many implications held within that one word.
It is not by coincidence that the founders named themselves Yamakasi, from Lingala meaning ‘strong mind, strong body, strong spirit’, because that was the whole point of the striving that gave birth to parkour, or art du deplacement, as it was originally known. The intention was to find out who you were, what you had inside, and the physical challenges were simply vehicles by which to achieve this. What matters is the journey of self-discovery that the practice enables every day and, beyond that, how we are then able to utilize that self-knowledge to positively affect the lives of those around us.
As Timothy Gallwey puts it in The Inner Game of Tennis it’s about ‘making the maximum effort during every point because I realize that is where the true value lies’, not in winning or losing, or even in whether you make the jump or not. The effort is what counts, as that’s what compels our constant growth.
Parkour is designed to take you out of your comfort zones – and note the plural there, as it’s easy for people to become comfortable in one paradigm and to stay there and to forget the importance of constantly seeking new challenges. Parkour isn’t just about becoming a good movement generalist – though it will certainly help you do that, and more – but rather it’s about becoming a good ‘life’ generalist; developing the ability to act positively when faced with any challenge, any scenario and any obstacle life may throw our way. As any good practitioner will confirm, it involves far more than just movement training.
It’s endemic of the modern way of life to specialise, to compartmentalise; to say ‘I’m a dancer’ or ‘I’m a weightlifter’ or ‘I’m a footballer’, as if one cannot be all these things and more. That old ideal of the ‘Renaissance Man/Woman’ is often ignored in our society’s striving for specialised excellence, driven often by competition, money and ego, and while of course it’s anyone’s choice to consciously sacrifice one’s own health for performance if one’s self-elected goals require that, the danger is that society then glorifies that approach and enshrines it as the epitome of physical excellence, when in it is more accurately physical specialisation. Of course the children of each generation then also come to glorify the titles, the medals, the specialized… and we learn to respect the outcome rather than the process, while it is the process which is of true value to us.
‘Movement’ is the buzzword of the moment, held up as some kind of Holy Grail, whispered like a mantra, with the idea that biomechanical perfection is some kind of panacea for all our ills. And certainly in our sedentary and immobile modern culture the need to restore healthy movement is self-evident. But movement isn’t the goal; it’s simply part of the means.
For a physical discipline to become more – for it to become that transformative practice, something the regular practice of which leads to self-improvement on all levels – it has to aspire to more than simply developing healthy alignment, good posture and a strong musculature. It has to be more than movement. It has to have a purpose, a point, a raison d’etre – something that requires physical and mental capability but which also isn’t limited to those things as its highest goal. Parkour has that.
I think the greatest practices humans have yet created are those which train the entire individual, not just the athlete in us. The practices which ask questions of body, mind and soul, and don’t stop until they have answers – and then start again with harder, deeper questions, continuing that cycle until one’s whole self is revealed, and understood. That’s the fertile ground from which, in time, mastery can arise.
And, more importantly, this is actually what people yearn for: we all seek profound experience, not just physical betterment. In my experiences teaching and coaching thousands of people in more than 30 countries it has become readily apparent to me that the purpose of most people’s training is to understand and master themselves, perhaps achieving this through movement, rather than mastering just the movement itself.
So ask yourself, is your practice more than just movement?