Parkour: Way of the Pathfinder
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
What we now know as parkour began with a quest: a quest for strength; a quest for the next challenge; a quest for that intangible ‘something’ in our lives for which we all search and few ever find. This thing, I think, is buried at the heart of parkour, as it is buried inside all true disciplines and transformative practices; something that has been there in rough form from the very start, practised instinctively by many of the pioneers perhaps due to the highly exploratory nature of what they were doing.
Even in the formative years it was only ever vague and ill-formed, difficult to grasp and hold for long. Something that couldn’t easily be verbalised, only experienced. As the Old Master pointed out, ‘the true way is the way which cannot be spoken of’ – which perhaps makes a mockery of this article – but for once I’m going to ignore the wisdom of Lao-Tzu and forge on.
It’s always easier to follow paths that have been trodden than to find our own. Cutting your own trail through untamed landscapes requires effort, determination, great courage and the ability to ignore ‘conventional wisdom’ which invariably will do its best to dissuade us from even trying.
Yet that’s precisely what the early generations of practitioners did: they found a new path and from that daily quest was born a concept and an idea that caught fire and burned until it quite literally reached every corner of the world. That’s an astounding thing and something that doesn’t happen very often.
However, it wasn’t the particular techniques or movements of parkour that took hold in the imagination of that growing group of early practitioners. After all, humans had been jumping further than the pioneers of parkour for decades in existing sporting contests, lifting more weight, climbing higher and better, performing far more difficult acrobatics. So what, exactly, made parkour so special?
For me, it’s that buried thing – that treasure we find when we undertake our own quest and find our own path, when we face ourselves honestly, ask the big questions and don’t shy away from the answers.
It’s self-knowledge; something beyond the limited ambitions of ego and pride and the insecurity behind the struggle for acclaim and validation from others. Those things simply aren’t worth anything. Deceptions, all.
It’s personal responsibility; realising that you and you alone are responsible for your actions, your thoughts, your choices, and not being burdened by that realisation but strengthened by it.
It’s self-reliance; learning to let go of the crutch of external authority and walk through life on our own two feet, no matter how hard that may seem at times.
It’s understanding the value and significance of the journey itself. That the treasure at the end of the path is simply more path.
The pioneers arguably had it easier to find these things, in some ways. Back then, before YouTube, before the likes of MTV and Red Bull decided to take a piece, before the scrabble to be in front of a camera, that quest was all there was – there were fewer distractions, less noise and mis-information. Yes, there was less accessibility and less evolution too, but the essence of parkour – the real value of the thing – was probably easier to identify as a result.
For me, parkour – as with all things we do – should be an extension of our way of living, of our philosophies, of the way we work and play and fight and love. It should reflect every choice we make, and be reflected in how we go about our daily lives when not training. It should be part of a whole. That’s what it means to be an individual – an ‘un-divided’ person. Parkour training can remind us of the quintessence of life, the value of challenge and risk, the mindfulness of daily endeavour, the quality we should put into every action, task or movement.
One of the beauties of parkour is that it forces us to be fully present in the moment, which creates an alignment – however uncomfortable that is for us – of body and mind rarely experienced in modern living. It also happens in fighting. It’s being in a situation that you cannot resolve through mental acuity or physicality alone – both are required, working hand in hand, to bring you through to the other side. It’s realising that we are in a lifelong process, and that each new step we take along it is the most important we will ever take.
And in that process, that path-finding, we learn something that simply cannot be put into words.
Body with mind; mind with body
One of the reasons I enjoy parkour so much is that it is its own philosophy put into practice – it is an experiential phenomenon. It’s an athletic philosophy; rarely is it a verbal one, and that’s a good thing: the most serious parkour practitioners do not often talk about philosophy or spirituality, instead they bring it to life through action. They practise it, which is the litmus test of any philosophy. If it isn’t practised a philosophy has less substance than smoke in a strong wind.
Just as physicality with no quality of intention is incomplete, so knowledge and theory without a physical discipline are also ineffective in shaping a complete human being. So many of our problems – both 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.
A lack of balance as individuals leads to inner conflict, which leads to conflict with others, which leads to most every societal disorder we endure. Fix the root cause and the symptoms will rectify themselves, over time.
This may seem like oversimplification, yes, but sometimes the simplest solutions are the most elegant, as well as the most overlooked.
Visions of parkour
As is common in 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 mis-communicating the art. Videos showing endless repetitions of the same few movements performed on a different set of buildings, in a different country, and with a different poisonous energy drink’s logo appended to the corner of the screen, or the mindless antics of ‘practitioners’ acting like arrogant thugs, screaming their ill-aimed and unoriginal rebellion to the world by setting off fireworks or vandalising public places. 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 and internal balance just isn’t that absorbing to watch. Yet it is far more powerful, has far more substance to it and, I would argue, possesses infinitely more meaning.
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 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 seek recognition or acclaim for their work, or to take a camera along to every training session.
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 video 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, that fact of the silent and unsung ‘warriors’ of the parkour world has always been apparent to me.
Over-specialisation and rediscovering the renaissance man
‘Physical education is the fundamental discipline of life’ – Alan Watts
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. 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 with individuals wearing pads and crash helmets while looking for justification when what we really need is to face ourselves, honestly, without any protection.
Anyone who is fully alive 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 obsession for fitness, or developing the perfect physique, or having the biggest jump, or even losing weight. 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.
All ways are only different paths 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.