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Distillation: Refining the Spirit of Parkour

Blog-Post aus 2013 aber aktueller denn je...



There are problems with the way we talk about “philosophy” in parkour. We have dozens of platitudes and one-liners about what parkour philosophy is, but often I feel like they’re not rigorous or well thought out. Here’s why.

The philosophy of a discipline comes from both the perspective of the practitioner and the practice of the discipline. It develops out of who you are when you practice, and how the practice changes you. It’s personal and unique to the individual. But a philosophy is also grounded in the unique things that make up the discipline, which makes it relatable to others within the community because it comes from a shared practice.

Parkour is not about “going from A to B in the most efficient way possible.” It is also not about “self expression and creative movement.” These are definitions that spawned from the culture and a bunch of debates that happened 5 years ago, attributing the labels “pure parkour” and “freerunning” to various styles. Parkour can be about both of those things, and much more. And yet, it’s too general to say that parkour is “any and all movement,” the backlash against defining parkour in a very strict, purist manner.

Here’s my definition, which I find is more descriptive than the other ones, more based on how I’ve observed it being practiced, rather than how some believe it’s supposed to be practiced:

Parkour is a movement discipline based on using only the body to interact with the environment and navigate one’s surroundings.

It’s sort of long winded and it isn’t the kind of sentence that is going to sell parkour to an onlooker immediately, but I think that real philosophical grounding comes from strongly defined terms. Whether one’s style of parkour is efficient (fast), superfluous (flashy), direct (a to b), meandering (flow), applied (real situations), or supplemental (conditioning), I think that the above definition manages to cover the things that traceurs do.

I took the ADAPT Lead Coach certification course in 2011. It was a 10-day rigorous course and assessment of both physical skill and coaching ability. Between some tough exercises and coaching workshops, there was a lot of discussion about what parkour meant. Although it may be something that slips away in the future of the sport, for me, parkour is always going to have a philosophical element to it–an intellectual side to complement the physical. We talked about what parkour meant to us as practitioners and coaches–these are people who had been training for more than 5 years, whose lives are steeped in parkour–and I basically heard the same thing that I hear whenever the topic of parkour philosophy is breached.

“Parkour is discipline, mental fortitude, overcoming fears.”
“Parkour is about getting over obstacles.”
“Parkour is a way of life.”

These statements bothered me, well, firstly, because I’m a contrarian. It bothers me when I hear an oversimplified consensus, and I’ll immediately start looking for something to contradict. Secondly, though, it bothered me because I had realized that you could replace these words with any martial art. “Karate is about discipline.” Granted, parkour gets a lot of inspiration from martial arts. But moreover, for any significantly passionate sports community, you could replace “parkour” in those sentences and it would probably invoke sage nods and murmurs of agreement. “Marathon running is about mental fortitude.” “Rock climbing is about getting over obstacles.” “Basketball is a way of life.”

Now, I don’t think that these things are necessarily wrong. Parkour does give people these things, and so do all those other sports. But as a physical discipline parkour is incredibly unique; and if that’s the case, why doesn’t the philosophy we talk about reflect that? We often tout parkour as the discipline that’s all about discipline, but that feels so pretentious and ignorant of the fact that everyone else feels the same way about their sport.

If parkour is really about its philosophy, then that philosophy should be unique to parkour. Otherwise, parkour is just another filler for “[insert sport here] is going to change your life,” rather than the exclusive subject.

That’s why I wanted to define (the physical side of) parkour the way I did. It’s distinct, and includes just what we need to talk about parkour and nothing else. Because when I’m talking about parkour, I’m not talking about sprinting (getting from A to B quickly), I’m not talking about dance (creative movement), I’m not talking about skateboarding (navigating environments). As a physical discipline, parkour is singular, and the philosophical side of it should be as well.

I think the philosophy of a sport is something that is necessarily tied to the embodied action; it provides us with metaphors that inform how we should live, based on how we act. From the things we do, we find ways to relate to the world. And the degree to which these metaphors, these philosophies are adopted personally, internalized, assimilated in to the very depths of our psyche, the more meaningful and powerful they become.

“Persistence” and “discipline” are less convincing if you’re not spending hours a day conditioning to the point of collapse. I don’t do these things, and perhaps that’s why I don’t relate strongly to the discipline philosophy. On the other hand, I can tell you about that time when it was raining, and I did a kong on a slick marble surface, when my right hand slipped and I went headlong into the ground, reached out, and managed to bail into a dive roll. I can tell you about how I bounced up giddy and excited, and about how parkour shows me over and over again that it’s worth proving to myself that I can try things and fail and stand up to try again.

But I don’t think it’s fair to break down other parkour philosophies without discussing my own. Similar to the definition above, my personal parkour philosophy isolates some of the more unique elements of parkour. It centers around personal responsibility, resourcefulness, adaptability, and exploration.

While the advice and opinions of others are useful, ultimately in parkour I solve problems by my own decisions. The decision to train harder so I can get further, so I have more stamina, so I execute a movement more fluidly. The decision to educate myself or practice a skill so that I can complete a project or find a job or make someone happy. I don’t blame others for the consequences of my actions. You’ll hear this from plenty of other traceurs–especially since we’re often arguing against the idea that we’re a big insurance liability to private property owners when we train on their space. We have the responsibility to keep ourselves safe, or else stick with people who we trust will take care of us.

Much of the way I train and teach involves medium length routes, performed for time or fluidity. When we choose routes to run, usually it’s based on really loose waypoints. “Go from here to there, and then to there.” Even when a route is designed more carefully, there are usually several ways to get around something, over something. I love that about parkour; when I teach, I’m always overjoyed when a student decides that the best way to get past an obstacle is something that I didn’t even think of. The need for quick reaction times and full use of environment often lends to this level of resourcefulness, and I think that it’s always important to look for ways you can break the intended use of things. We should never be held back by what we’re told, we look for lots of different options and keep things open.

No matter how much we plan, things often turn out differently than we expect. The concept of adaptability is in martial arts to some degree but in parkour it means a couple specific things: traceurs are looking for varied, interesting terrain; and the ability to adapt quickly is essential to safety. One of the reasons that parkour is exciting is that by being in the outdoor environment we have literally the entire world as a training ground. We get to see routes hidden in the handicap railset that leads to a building, or in the series of planters outside the grocery store. We constantly have new things to do, and we are constantly preparing ourselves for different scenarios that might come up. These include unexpected scenarios like a rain-slick ledge, or an unwitting pedestrian walking into your path. By training regularly and training different movements, I try to build up the muscle memory that allows me to change my path at a moment’s notice, without thinking about it. We learn to adapt our training to new environments and unexpected situations.

Finally, exploration! Everything we do we get to take into the world with us. On the one hand, we train in many different places in the urban (and natural) environment that we might not ever go to otherwise. Beyond that, when we have parkour as a mode of thought, we get to look at the world an entirely different way. Everything now has at least two purposes–a desk might be the place you sit down and write, as well as an object to practice rolling over; a doorway doubles as a pullup bar on a tiny fingerhold. There’s literal physical exploration, and the exploration of the possibilities of a piece of architecture. Even though we’ve mapped out most of the world, as traceurs we still have more to discover, through infinite layers of functionality.

There are several more of these ideas and ways you can talk about parkour as a philosophy. These are some of the ones that stick out to me and I’ve thought about a reasonable amount. Ultimately my point is that parkour philosophy can be so much more than rehashing sports or martial arts philosophy. There are things that are specific and unique to parkour, and if we don’t think about the philosophy in those terms, that we might as well just be doing parkour as a physical fitness exercise in a gym and leave out the transformative, philosophical side of it. The most powerful philosophical principles provided by parkour come from first identifying the unique elements of parkour, and then tying them to what matters to you as an individual.

As I said, I’m contrarian, and I wouldn’t ask that anyone agree with me. But hopefully I’ve convinced some of you to go and out and make a parkour philosophy that really matters to you. Because, in the end, parkour is about finding our own paths.



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