Parkour Stripped Down to its Essentials

April 4, 2013 in Articles by indianparkourassociation


In the words of Tiege Mathews, with this article I’m not trying to define what Parkour should be, I’m trying to understand what Parkour IS.
(If anyone (especially purists) has a problem with semantics or definitions of the terms Parkour/Freerunning, I’ll clarify that when I say ‘Parkour’, I’m actually referring to ‘Le Art du Deplacement’.)
This is also an attempt to understand the physical side of Parkour, and not the mental or metaphysical or spiritual or any other side.

People practice Parkour for a lot of various different reasons and have their own interpretations and definitions of it. But I find that at the core of it, Parkour is a practical discipline of the ‘flight’ side of the ‘fight and flight’ response, it is the study of learning to navigate through any given environment using only your body, overcoming all obstacles in your path. It is the practical art of learning to move from one point to another not worrying about any obstacle one encounters on the way. This is what I believe in, this is what I train in, and this is what I teach in my classes. If people who come to learn from me have different reasons to train in the discipline than I do, then I cannot help them there.
Now a lot of people do like to practice the same movements that we train in Parkour to help overcome various different obstacles, but for a different purpose – like physical fitness, or fun, or competition, or self-expression. But does that change what Parkour is, at its core? Only your purpose has changed, and you have borrowed elements from another discipline in order to achieve that purpose. But just because you are borrowing elements from another discipline, does it change the scope of the original discipline altogether?

I always compare it to Martial Arts in that respect.
Martial Arts, in its truest form, is nothing but the art of practical unarmed physical combat. It is the study of ‘fight’ science.
Now the most basic aspects of Martial Arts are the kick, the punch, blocks/parries/evasion, groundwork or grappling, and locks/holds/takedowns, and then it goes on to various combinations thereof. Now these same movements of Martial Arts can be utilized in a regulated competitive format, or for self-expression through combative movements of the limbs, or for fun, or for physical fitness through moving an otherwise sedentary body. But just because the basic movements of physical combat are utilized for the above purposes, does that make Martial Arts itself all of those? No! Martial Arts remain at their core a study of practical unarmed physical combat. They have a practical application. Same goes for Parkour. Or Le Art du Deplacement if you will.

You cannot hope to say that just because Ballet is movement, and movement is fun, and Parkour is also movement, and Parkour is also fun, therefore Parkour equals Ballet.

No one is denying the fact that while training for Parkour, i.e. while training to learn to locomote and navigate through any environment only using your own body, you cannot incorporate elements of training from other disciplines. You are doing just that – training in various different ways in order to reach your goal of being a better and more efficient practitioner of Parkour. So no one is denying that if you train flips/acrobatics for instance, you will not develop better spatial awareness which will then aid you in navigating through your surroundings better. But does that make a flip itself a part of ‘navigating through your surroundings’? Heck, tomorrow you could even start training Ballet to improve your balance, but will that then make Ballet a part of either Parkour or Freerunning? Isn’t Ballet still movement? Isn’t Ballet still creatively and freely expressing yourself?

Does this mean that if you say you train for Parkour or practice Parkour there are any restrictions on whether you can flip or use impractical movements because that will derail you from the path of ‘pure parkour’? No! Parkour (Le Art du Deplacement), or the art of navigating one’s way through one’s surroundings regardless of the circumstances will remain what it is. How you approach your training in order to become better at achieving that goal of being able to navigate through your surroundings regardless of the circumstances is up to you. You can train effective movements, you can train ineffective movements. You can incorporate elements from other training disciplines to supplement and enhance your training in this discipline. None of it changes what Parkour is at its core. It is the study of ‘flight’ science. Or the study of learning to navigate the human body through its surroundings in various different ways. Doesn’t matter whether your goal is to get from one point to another or to just navigate around your surroundings in different ways expressing yourself through movement.

I think Tom Coppola summarizes it best when he says “Parkour is a culture which teaches its practitioners to systematically cultivate their locomotor capability in the face of obstacles.”

People are always against anyone defining what Parkour is, choosing to hide behind the ‘it’s all movement’ argument, and stating that defining something will only end up limiting it. Therefore we have never, as a community, reached a consensus as to what Parkour really is.

It is useful to have a definition to govern the type of activity that you do, and then have no limits to what can be done within that activity.
We’ll take Bruce Lee‘s explanation for Martial Arts as an example.
Bruce Lee always said to have ‘no limits’ because he felt that “If you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits.”
But then, it was the same Bruce Lee that also always stressed on practicality of motion while fighting, and learning only those aspects of physical unarmed combat and learning the same from only those points of view which would actually help in an actual fight situation. Isn’t this somehow limiting your ability to learn Martial Arts then? Isn’t there a conflict of interest?
I don’t think so. Because he has already defined the broad box which what he practices contains – he practices practical unarmed physical combat. This is the definition of Martial Arts. Now according to his philosophy of having no limits, he then trains in a manner in which his training does not limit him to what he can do to achieve that goal of practical unarmed physical combat. If dancing his way out of it would help him win a fight, then he will use it. That is his limitlessness to the defined activity of physical combat.
That is what Parkour or Le Art du Deplacement is about as well. Purist definitions of Parkour or Freerunning or anything else are all secondary. To what purpose you then end up using the basics of human locomotion is also secondary. It doesn’t change what the science of human locomotion is, at its base.

- NOS on Oct 12, 2010 

This article was written by Parkour Mumbai Reproduced here with permission.