Le Parkour – An Overview

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By Dan Edwardes

Le Parkour[1], though crystallised into its current guise by David Belle, the Yamakasi, and a handful of others sometime in the 1980s, is a practice the roots of which precede records. It has drawn on a myriad of sources, been inspired by a number of notable individuals and evolved through several traditions to arrive at the modern discipline now referred to as parkour, freerunning or l’art du deplacement.

Names and labels come and go, of course, and the outward visage of this activity has shifted and modified itself countless times. However, behind whatever appearance has been fashionable at the time, at its core there has always existed an eternal constant – the means, the end, the method and the goal of parkour: Movement.

Put as concisely as possible, the practice of parkour is the refinement of physical movement during the interaction with the environment as one progresses though it. One ostensible ‘goal’ of the discipline is to be able to traverse any terrain as swiftly and fluidly as possible with efficiency, grace and accuracy. However, to say this is the only aim of this broad-ranging and eclectic practice would be to place a rather narrow definition on something which, in actuality, tends to defy such definitions. This ‘getting from A to B’ designation would exclude thousands of traceurs[2].

For example, for many practitioners the ‘goal’ of the art is simply to master their body and mind through challenge, to sophisticate their mobility and improve their overall agility while testing their resilience and resolve. Some practise solely for reasons of health and fitness, while others do it for the fun of recapturing a childlike view of their surroundings. Yet more walk the path for more esoteric reasons, finding philosophy and contemplating ‘The Way’ as they go. In truth, most would admit to pursuing a combination of all these goals while perhaps emphasising one aspect above the rest.

Of course, a wide range of sports and physical practices could also lay claim to the sophisticated goals that parkour lays before us. The crucial difference, however, between most of these and parkour is to be found in the training and practice methods themselves: Both in training and in practice – for the two are very different things – the traceur is never attempting to work any part of his body in isolation, nor is he ever developing anything other than the most functional attributes and skills.

The traceur typically does not bring weights or overly-complex machinery to his sessions: his body is his one and only tool. The principal practice for parkour is to repeat and refine the movements of parkour, improving tensile strength, flexibility, and coordination as he goes, greasing the grooves in the musculature while increasing neuromuscular efficiency. The importance of proprioception cannot be overstated, and is constantly improved through balance exercises, night-training (read ‘sensory deprivation’), and spatial awareness drills.

This ‘natural’ approach to training goes back to the lifestyles of ancient tribal cultures, perhaps first properly researched from a fitness perspective by George Hebert (1875-1957), a pivotal figure in the history of physical education in the West who was struck by the natural attributes of the indigenous peoples of Africa, among whom no specific ‘training regimen’ was ever encouraged or enforced – Hebert noted that merely leading their natural lives of physicality and dynamism produced incredible specimens possessed of exceptional functional strength and agility.

Hebert’s ‘Natural Method’, which many regard as one of the forerunners of parkour, was a means by which to reproduce these effects in industrialised societies by “promoting the qualities of organic resistance, muscularity and speed, towards being able to walk, run, jump, move quadrupedally, to climb, to walk in balance, to throw, lift, defend yourself and to swim.” Indeed, quadrupedal movement – moving with one’s weight evenly distributed between all four limbs – is a tool regularly used by countless communities worldwide as a general holistic conditioning tool for movement.

Parkour practice encourages a gradual sophistication of attributes, through detailed specification as the traceur goes deeply into the intricacy of his movement, towards an unconscious mastery of his own abilities. To achieve a flow state in movement is the Holy Grail of parkour: to link skills together into a seamless, dynamic whole facilitating instinctual movement over any terrain.

It is important to understand that parkour is not simply a collection of techniques – rather, parkour occurs when one is moving over terrain in a spontaneous and non-predictive manner, paralleling the ‘flow without thought’ of many traditional fighting arts. To have this capacity to move at any time, along any plane, gracefully and efficiently is what the traceur seeks. And he trains for it by doing it. Indeed, as we at Parkour Generations often remind ourselves: there are no secrets; just good, regular practice.

Efficiency, demonstrated through stealth training and lightness of touch, is central to parkour. We aim to ‘make silence’ as we train, to go unnoticed as we pass through any environment and to leave no trace of our passing as we go. And anyone who practises parkour soon realises just how powerful the mind can be in restricting one’s own potential, as the art shines a bright spotlight on how much fear-reactivity hinders our every move: parkour is as much mental and emotional as it is physical. 

And once this fear-reactivity is overcome, good parkour make impossible actions seem not only possible but also quite effortless. Obstacles and barriers are traversed in the blink of an eye, difficult terrain negotiated without the impediment of fear or anxiety, and what most would see as impediments to movement become partners and springboards along one’s route.

In parkour; innovation and adaptation are crucial. Parkour is often wrongly described as an urban sport or art, when the truth is that parkour aims to teach the individual to be able to adapt his movement to absolutely any environment, and in any situation. Practitioners are encouraged to train in built-up areas as well as in rural surroundings, upon coastal rock formations, within forests and jungles; indeed, anywhere that presents the opportunity for movement. Parkour coaching hinges on encouraging individuals to find their own way to move, to add what is specifically their own creation to the fundamentals they learn from those who have gone before them.

Fitness must be measured in terms of one’s ability to perform a chosen task at any given time. This means that we must have balance in our training methods in order to maintain a constant and high level of health and fitness, so that we are able to act whenever we want or need to.

Parkour is a truly holistic discipline that offers the practitioner a new way to observe and manage the relationships between himself and his every environment, encouraging him always to be aware of the possibilities for movement and to appraise his own ratio of capacity to potential. We must constantly ask the question of ourselves: just what can I do and how close am I to being able to do it? The goal of training is to improve our standard of living, to enable us to get more from every moment and every activity, to help us explore our innate potential: to make us more capable, in the true sense of the word. A training method that detracts from this in any way is flawed at a fundamental level.

Parkour, as is commonly noted by newcomers, reaches into every aspect of one’s daily life. Many voice this as ‘having their eyes opened’. Practitioners soon come to look at their surroundings in a completely different and unfettered way. They step outside of the box and find that, in fact, there is no box nor ever was one.

Parkour training raises one’s awareness of the inefficiency and wasted effort that accompany most of one’s everyday movements. One learns to move more efficiently and effectively in every situation, to maximise the use of space on a crowded street, for example, or to foresee and navigate obstacles on a journey; in short, one learns to flow with the currents of life in a more harmonious and beneficial manner so that your very daily activities themselves become an extension of your training and practice. This change comes about as much mentally as it does physically for, of course, the two are inextricably interwoven.

We all harbour immense potential for extraordinary activity. We all possess the innate ability to move with the seemingly superhuman attributes that parkour develops. The truth is, of course, that there is nothing superhuman about these activities – and there are no secrets either. Diligent, intelligent practise and focused, regular training will bring about the realisation of this potential.

When you walk the omni-directional paths of parkour you are on a road of self-improvement to which there is no end in sight.

[1] The invented word ‘parkour’ originates from the French parcours du combattant, a phrase meaning ‘course of the fighter’ which was the original term for the military-style obstacle courses now used by armed forces around the world. From parcours, meaning ‘course’ came the altered ‘Parkour’. David Belle credits his friend Hubert Kounde for having coined the word.

[2] A French term that originated as the name of a group of practitioners – Les Traceurs – which included David Belle, Stephane and Johann Vigroux, Kazuma and others. The name derives from the word for bullet and meaning someone who follows his or her own way, it is now widely used in reference to all practitioners.

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