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Free Flow

Lost your skateboard? Tired of running in a straight line? Get a taste for parkour, a ninja-style way of getting your daily exercise hit in a radically different way.

Words by Charlotte Davies

You’re walking home from work. There’s the usual mass of suits moving along at funeral pace. From the corner of your eye, you see a flash of red dart from the crowd. It’s a girl running: looks like she’s running for her life. She heads towards a high wall and strides up, grabs railings, vaults over and you’re transfixed. You follow her line as she pours herself along the pavement, jumping effortlessly over benches, dropping from ledges, spinning off lamp-posts, tipping into rolls. Now she’s climbing like a monkey onto a low rooftop; perching, dropping, leaping to the next one. Moving relentlessly, effortlessly, gracefully she slips out of sight. She’s gone, but your heart won’t stop thudding. Welcome to parkour.

Glimpse parkour once, and you won’t forget it in a hurry. A visually stunning phenomenon, that basically involves getting from A to B in a creative, almost gymnastic way, it’s also a serious movement with a fascinating history rooted in France and a highly appealing philosophy behind it.

The term ‘parkour’ comes from the French noun parcours which, roughly translated, means ‘route’ or ‘course’. The verb, parcourir, means ‘to go all over’, ‘to run through’. ‘Traceurs’, the name given to the athletes who practise parkour, vault over walls, leap over gaps between buildings and turn somersaults off high walls, all with the grace and deftness of a cat. To an onlooker it looks like skateboarding without the board.

Now parkour, or freerunning, is emerging from the underground as one of the fastest-growing urban sports. And it’s no longer just for the boys, with some gutsy girls starting to make their mark.. If you love pushing your body in the great outdoors and enjoy pushing your mind into a higher gear, then parkour could be just what you’re looking for…

Go With The Flow

You know that feeling you get when everything clicks into place as you find rhythm in your surfing or snowboarding? Parkour provides that same ‘flow’ feeling. But this time there’s no board involved – the flow is being created by your body alone.

As well as the physical freeflow feeling (and the fabulous fitness benefits) parkour also appeals on a deeper, more psychological level. Getting from A to B may be a simple concept, but it is highly individual and very creative.

Flow: to move or progress freely as if in a stream; to hang freely or loosely in continuous progression

Former gymnast Emily Rogers, 27, was immediately drawn to the artistry she saw in parkour. As well as developing her creative side, it’s also reintroduced her to genuine play, taking her back to being a kid and playing around outside – the antithesis of the 9-5. ‘Parkour is totally different from anything I’ve ever done,’ she smiles. ‘There are no restrictions, it keeps me young and there’s no pressure to compete or conform.’

Karen Palmer, 27, who has a martial arts background, agrees that parkour stretches you both physically and mentally. ‘It teaches you that there is no such thing as an obstacle – that it’s simply something to be overcome. It’s almost like reprogramming your mind and your body. It’s more than just recreational.’

‘Using your body to express yourself is really enjoyable,’ adds Meghan Pike, 23, a student from Edinburgh. ‘I’m not too bothered about the philosophy aspect. There is a lot of talk about it on the internet forums. But I think people should just get out and do it.’

Parkour Power

So where does parkour come from and what exactly is this mysterious ‘philosophy’ its fans attribute to it?

Parkour is ‘new’ in the sense that it’s only recently gained wider public recognition, following a steady build-up of media attention, captured by the big jump element of free-running. In the UK, two documentaries: Jump London (which featured Sebastien Foucan, one of the French founders of parkour) and Jump Britain (which again showed Sebastien and a group of early UK freerunners called Seidojin) brought parkour to a wider audience as word of mouth spread, mostly via the Internet. You might also have noticed freerunners in car adverts and music videos, catapulted into the limelight by their physical prowess and jaw-dropping moves.

But, parkour isn’t just about crazy moves hyped up by the media. The philosophy behind parkour is strong. It can be traced back to a French military man called Georges Herbert, who developed the first obstacle course – the “parcours de combattant” – around 70 years ago. Herbert was passionate about fitness and the outdoors and devised what he called the ‘Natural Method’. This involved combining different ways of moving – running, jumping, balancing, swimming – all in as natural a setting as possible. He also linked his method to moral and emotional empowerment – a vital factor in the development of the strong philosophy behind parkour.

It’s not just a game, it’s a discipline.

Fast forward to the 1980s and George’s influence had filtered down through the generations. David Belle and Sebastien Foucan trained with David’s military father in the basics of the Natural Method and, importantly, were taught that with dedication they can reach their dreams.

‘He spoke like you don’t have limits. It’s very important for me, this kind of vision’, says Sebastien. Living in the Parisian suburbs and using their urban environment as both playground and training ground, David, Sebastien and their friends gradually developed and refined a new way of moving, drawing on Georges’ Natural method.

As they grew older and stronger, basic moves like vaults, jumps, climbs and rolls became more daring. Set names naturally evolved for some of these, like ‘saut de bras’ (catleap, a jump using the arms) and ‘passe-muraille’ (a way of getting over walls). That was when the group coined its own term for this new way of moving, calling it ‘parkour’ instead of ‘parcour’ to mark out their own path.

The movement’s inevitable rise has meant media hype, money and glamour and this has caused rifts in the parkour community. With parkour’s rapid rise from the underground to the big screen, the media has tended to emphasise the big, extreme jumps rather than the underlying philosophy – overcoming life’s obstacles, both physical and metaphorical. ‘It is not just a game,’ insists Sebastien, ‘it is a discipline because it is a way of facing our fears and demons that you can apply to the rest of your life.’

Fighting the Fear

While women are now firmly making their mark in sports like climbing, surfing and snowboarding, parkour is a much younger sport, with female participants still few and far between.

Herbert himself wouldn’t have approved of this. He didn’t agree with the inactivity forced on women historically and believed that, via his rigorous training, women could develop just as strong a level of self-confidence and athletic ability as men – a view well ahead of its time.

The fear factor (diving onto concrete doesn’t appeal to everyone) and the physical factor (‘I’m not strong enough to do that’) are the two biggest obstacles that put girls off parkour. But the beauty of parkour is that you can play on your own strengths. Because parkour emphasises individual expression, girls can take basic techniques and adapt them. It’s not all about brute strength. In fact, when climbing is involved, us girls often have the upper hand because we’re lighter and more flexible. And overcoming your fears and self-doubt is what this sport is all about.

‘Parkour is like reprogramming your mind and your body,’ says Karen. ‘Even if you’ve previously done a lot of fitness or other disciplines like martial arts, you’ll find parkour is different. It’s more than recreational, more stimulating. It teaches you that there’s no such thing as an obstacle. An obstacle is simply something you overcome.’

You need to overcome the immediate fear of being hurt… getting your head around it is the hardest part.

Lana, 26, teaches break-dancing and came across parkour when she saw the Urban FreeFlow crew doing their stuff at a show in the UK this year. She was immediately drawn to it and has a natural aptitude, enhanced by her break dancing training, but admits it’s totally different to anything she’s done.

‘Parkour is much more of a mental challenge,’ she says. ‘You need to overcome the immediate fear of being hurt. For example, if a jump is too high, you might break something. Getting your head around it is the hardest part.’

Parkour uses and exercises every part of the body: from triceps and shoulders through to abdominals and thighs. It also combines short bursts of intense exercise (for example jumping and climbing) with longer periods of lighter exercise, like running. This makes it a great overall workout, and is key for increasing core stamina, muscle power and flexibility.

Forrest, a member of Urban Freeflow and also a qualified fitness instructor, testifies to parkour’s rigorous workout. ‘Like skate and snowboarding, it also demands quick muscle reactions for jumps and landings,’ he says. ‘You need to be really relaxed in the air and then strong on the landing.’

Because of the injury potential, training is vital. ‘Parkour is one long movement from point A to B and the idea is that you do it effortlessly,’ says Meghan. ‘But to get to this point you need to train a lot. You need to train to make the moves instinctive so you flow into and out of them.’

Parkour doesn’t just require technique and power, but also mental strength and bravery.

Parkour has yet to find its female equivalents of Belle and Foucan, but women are coming into the spotlight fast. ‘There are plenty of female-only workshops which provide girls with an opportunity to try parkour in a group setting,’ says Ez, who heads up UK-based Urban Freeflow (www.urbanfreeflow.com). ‘I have started to see many more women getting into parkour via our workshops. Girls do what we do but often in a more musical, graceful way.’

Sandra Hess, from Leipzig, Germany, is one of the few really experienced female freerunners, and has been training since 2003. She has become actively involved in promoting parkour and feels strongly about encouraging more female participation: ‘I’d like to inspire more women to take up parkour. I think the most difficult aspect od parkour is the “self-conquest”. Parkour doesn’t just require technique and power, but also mental strength and bravery. And the fact that the majority of traceurs in parkour are male, automatically increases women’s inhibitions. Strength also plays a big role, but you can partially compensate for the missing power using the correct technique.’

Getting Started

Parkour is about finding your own way, but you’ll get there a lot quicker if you follow some sensible pointers.

On a purely technical level, skills you might have developed from other sports will definitely come in handy. For example, skateboarding gives you a keen sense of spatial awareness and balance, plus first-hand experience of just how much concrete hurts. If you’re into gymnastics, climbing, boardsports, dance or martial arts, then a highly developed sense of balance, rhythm and core strength will give you a clear head-start.

You can do parkour anywhere. You can ‘tic tac’ off a wall (see ‘how to’ section), rehearse jumps from kerb to kerb, vault over any kind of obstacle. Karen practices in a park at the end of her road, Meghan tries out vaults over the back of her sofa.

Gym training can play an important role too. It’s better to master new moves indoors before you take them outdoors onto unforgiving concrete.

The Internet has been largely responsible for the spread of parkour and this remains the best way of stepping into it and finding people to train and jam with. There are a number of associations and forums with substantial online resources, which are free to join. Try www.pawa.de, www.urbanfreeflow.com or www.worldwidejam.net. These will give you the heads up on when and where a jam is taking place near you. You’ll also find them an invaluable source of information on different aspects of parkour: from style debates to fitness tips and event listings.

However you get started in parkour, be it for pure physical joie de vivre or to help you overcome your fears on a deeper level, parkour will literally open up your horizons and provide you with a new kind of freedom. If you decide to try it, be warned: the walk home from work, your daily run will never feel the same again, transforming your view of your surroundings and turning everyday features into challenges you’ll want to overcome.

Parler Parkour

Traceur: Someone who practises parkour. A term Belle and Foucan coined to bring parkour back to its roots. Traceur means bullet in French, and a bullet gets from point A to point B in the fastest way possible. Get it?

Freestyle parkour: A term used by the British parkour team, Urban Freeflow, which wanted to adopt a more freestyle approach to parkour. This emphasises greater self-expression (the closest analogy would be freeride versus freestyle in snowboarding). If you have gymnastics training, you might naturally incorporate somersaults, or if you want to integrate your martial arts or hip hop influences you can.

Tic-tac: Jumping and pushing off a wall with one foot to bypass obstacles.

Passe-muraille: Jumping over big walls.

King Kong vault: Vaulting over obstacles, but passing your legs through in between your arms.

Parkour jam: A session where people come together to practise freerunning.

How to…

How you land is vital and the correct technique will protect joints from injury, so rolling out of higher drops is essential. For example, rolls need to be perfected in order to minimise bodily contact with the ground and jumps must be executed so there is minimum impact on your knees, the part of your body which is injured most often through parkour.

1) Landing Roll: Do this as you drop down from a obstacle (eg. a wall). Jump upwards, bringing your knees to your chest and reaching your hands up. Land on the toes or balls of your feet with knees bending as soon as you impact and place hands on the ground. Use your legs to immediately push yourself into a roll, placing hands on one side of your head as you tuck in one shoulder. The idea is to minimise body contact with the ground.

2) Tic Tac: Approach a wall side-on and lift your closest leg as high as possible. The knee is bent as you come into contact, with your weight over your leading leg, but away from the wall. You use your foot and leg to spring off the wall with force, whilst lifting the outer knee up towards your chest, landing on both feet.

3) King Kong: This move is used to get over obstacles up to chest height, ensuring you clear them and cover as great a distance as possible. Vault over the obstacle, but lift up your legs as high as you can and bring them through between your arms. This is often followed by a landing roll.

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