Blog: The Positive Potential: PK 4 Life

3rd April, 2011.


So, we saw in the last blog (Catch 22, it’s beautiful because…) that parkour is a training method and a way of seeing opportunities for movement, parkour IS the means and the end. This describes it, but it doesn’t help to understand it.

During the research for my practice based PhD, I’ve made films; conducted interviews; observed; shared experiences; travelled and met a wide-range of people. As well as the founders of parkour there have been others who followed in the early footsteps of these trailblazers – a warrior class of athlete and artist – and then there are those with little experience who have proved to be equally informative and inspiring, nonetheless. Each person’s motivation and intention may be different but they all LOVE parkour so much…. why?

I think this is one of the most important questions in parkour and one I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about over the past 6 years. What is it about parkour that makes it so special? If parkour speaks to people, what does it say? Its reach is far wider than the 17-25 year old males who choose to make videos of themselves and leave comments on the internet. I’ve seen parkour capture the imagination of people from diverse cultures and environments across the globe. Parkour has transcended race, gender, ethnicity, age, social and economic classes. To understand the parkour love affair, is to understand and gain certain insights into human nature and how we choose to live.

Social systems have been shaping and organising peoples’ behaviour, their desires and needs, hopes and fears all over the world for centuries; influencing, predicting and determining actions and reactions by various means and setting out cultural ‘norms’. Parkour challenges the ‘norm’, asking questions such as, how, when and where to move; how, when and where to play; what is social or anti-social, what should happen in private or public spaces, what is normal, and who has defined it as so.

Parkour is an ancient sport born out of modern times. It is reminiscent of
a time when activities and sports took place outside: in parkour you get
dirty, bloody, cut and bruised. What it refuses to do, unlike its modern
sporting allies, is to confine itself to sanitised areas, those designated by
others for activity, play and leisure. Parkour has no administrative
structures, no standardised equipment or facilities, no measurements or
quantification of results and points, nor an obsession for records.
Parkour has none of the key elements that have defined modern sports
since the Industrial Revolution. In parkour there is you, the environment,
your motivations and intentions.

Parkour makes every participant look at their environment differently. Everyone who’s ever done parkour knows this. You get parkour vision. The wall is no longer ‘just’ a wall, the tree no longer ‘just’ a tree, the surface ‘just’ a whatever. Get the idea? And all this matters and affects your idea of what you want to do. Can you vault this, climb that, balance there etc. Objects take on new significance, they are now opportunities for new encounters.
And things that were overlooked now have something to say. The environment is your friend, the challenger and co-player in the game, to be respected and appreciated: concrete is solid and it’ll hurt if you don’t behave/move in a certain way; that moss, mmm, could be slippery; the loose bricks, damn you need to be precise, the list could go on. What for some was a previously silent and disconnected environment becomes enchantingly alive and welcoming.

We experience the world through the body and doing parkour increases our physical contact and engagement with the environment, whether urban or rural. The more you are able to take control of what the body can do, allowing your body to move and be in contact with (and to respond and experience the environment) separation, anxiety and fear begin to subside. Furthermore, they could be fears and insecurities you may never have been aware of, yet carry with you in the everyday.

By moving, expressing yourself, (participating) and looking at the environment differently, you also look at yourself and others differently. By being open to new ideas, you also question existing ideas about yourself. Who you are, what you are made of, what you can do, what are your physical and mental limits? Like the wall, tree or surface, are you ‘just’? Regardless of the reasons for doing parkour, once you start, parkour is as much a journey of self-discovery as it is about moving around. When you face the ‘obstacle’ you face yourself, there is parkour vision but also a mirror reflecting questions and answers. By being more open to your surroundings you are more open to your own ideas about your identity and how you relate to and find a place in the world.

When you do parkour you step out of the everyday. You enter a flow state where your level of challenge and skill meet to take you into a highly focused state of involvement. Parkour is not the Situationists dérive or psychogeography, there is INTENTION. You set yourself a challenge, one that should be achievable. When you start to attempt it your body gives you instant feedback and you adapt. There is a feedback loop from the body to the action of ideas, emotions and sensations. It could be going too far, not enough power, being more accurate. Your focus is so fine-tuned you can lose yourself in the act of doing it. You are not aware of how long you’ve been there … hesitating … waiting for the moment when you decide to go, when you commit to the movement. In these moments we lose the sense of who we are, the ego, the label, the identity. The psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi says that, “the loss of self-consciousness can lead to self-transcendance, to a feeling that the boundaries of our being have been pushed forward.” In that zone we are open to new experiences and ideas of who are we, our focus and energy is too involved in the thing we are doing to let the labels of our identity in. The movement happens and, whether resulting in success or failure, there is then space for the identity to return. However, when it does there is an increased sense of self; of who we are after being in the zone where an experience we have created has matched our challenge with our skills. Many activities can do this, painting, writing, playing an instrument etc. but in parkour this flow state zone is hyper everything. Hyper tactile, hyper mobile, challenging, fearful and joyful, really rewarding, ‘natural’ and potentially addictive, (but that’s probably the next article.)

The challenges set in parkour brings fear to the surface, revealing weaknesses both mental and physical that people may not have known they had. Anxieties that weigh them down and stop them from realising their potential. Parkour provides a way to train to overcome these. Confidence increases as fear plays a positive role, not hidden away like an invisible yet ubiquitous and irrational foe. You become in tune and in sync, at one with yourself and what is around you. You experience a greater connectivity and give value to places, spaces and people. The more you train the more you will somehow feel included, not separated, a part of everything, you have a place and a right to be there, a citizen of somewhere, empowered, an authentic sense of self, a life with meaningful activites.

Even though parkour trains people to be autonomous, it’s as social as it is physical, psychological and creative. Parkour is a shared experience, always with the environment and for the most part with others, working through and enduring situations together. It encourages affinity with diversity in a world where, for example, the financial analyst trains alongside the unemployed seventeen year old, the young next to the old, the professional and amateur can share an experience. By embracing the alternative view of movement in the world around the participant so they open up to the idea of ‘difference’ elsewhere.

When I asked people why they loved parkour, an answer I kept hearing was the ‘freedom’ one. From beginners and those who had been training for a few years, I heard the same thing. They felt free to move wherever they wanted! No rules! They were not bounded by their environment! Yet I saw these same people conform, be bounded and indeed follow the predicted route. The walk home, to work, to meet friends, to meet others to do parkour. The freedom they felt in their new mobility of temporarily moving in ways and in places that they hadn’t done before was insufficient to justify their answer.

They were free from the pre-conceived idea of who they thought they were perhaps, and what they previously thought they could do. Their ‘freedom’ is about being open and feeling empowered from the constraints of over socialisation, choosing to embrace fear and risk for the joy of connection.

Nobody is doing parkour 24/7, but you can be thinking and being open 24/7. Once parkour vision is activated you can’t ignore it even if you dont act on it. When I asked the same question of why do you love parkour so much to the founders and very experienced traceurs, freedom wasn’t mentioned. They knew they were searching and were still mastering themselves. They had created their ‘body armour’ and were no longer so distracted by obvious physical goals.

After a while, it’s no longer about the jump. It’s the psychological search of the self and of mastering their emotions and behaviour by exploring their limits, not just in the parkour zone, but elsewhere in their lives. By bringing parkour into their everyday they found more purpose and value in their practice. They had answers to those niggling voices, ‘what’s the point of all this?’ ‘What’s it bringing me?’ ‘So what if I can move like that?’ You can jump and yeah it all comes from you but so what? By mastering the emotions of fear, and uncertainty, being able to confront their mental and physical limitations, they can help to find who they are.

For the experienced, warrior class of parkour they take their journey to the extreme, needing what Thomas Couetdic describes as “a full 360 degree view”, with no boundaries – imposed or imagined – including confronting death. The risk, danger, adventure and brutality sought in parkour, even at the extreme, are not negative experiences but ones that bring happiness and fulfilment, even if scary-as-hell in the moment. There are only a handful of true warriors like Thomas (my final research group of friends and informants) compared to the parkour mainstream for whom, like myself, it is a diversionary leisure activity; a challenging, joyful, sometimes scary, interesting, active hobby that whilst not 360, is nonetheless a journey of discovery that questions fear, and increases confidence, empowerment and inclusion by being active and open. Effort, fear, joy and satisfaction are relative.

Parkour’s accessibility (no equipment needed, no special kit, for some not even trainers as the barefoot revolution takes hold,) gives it a seductive mix of ingredients when combined with new perceptions of place, body and identity. There is creativity, physicality and a social aspect. The training and confrontation of our limits and fears, alongside a re-perception of the physical world, show us that things are not fixed, ‘just’, set or as determined as we had culturally believed. The open ended nature of parkour, it can occur in any environment in any conditions, makes it all the more seductive. Our identities, how we see the ‘obstacle’, what we consider to be an obstacle, is challenged every time we train. Parkour encourages us to enquire, experiment and explore, looking at ourselves and the world around us, embracing fear whilst confronting our flaws, weaknesses and fear, accepting who we are. This is what people fall in love with. PK 4 Life.

Special Thanks to Williams Belle, Johann Vigroux, Thomas Couetdic, Stephane Vigroux, Andy ‘Kiell’ Day and Alisa LeBow whose objectivity, insights and journeys have enlightened mine.