From 2008 to 2015 I lived parkour. It was my job to study this practice and the people who practiced it. I was working on my PhD and was lucky enough to be there during the flowering phase of the development of the discipline. I also got to talk to many of the early players in the community – the gurus, the coaches, the gym owners, innovators, charlatans and community leaders. I archived the fights about legitimacy and definition that unified and divided us online and I contributed to the debates through weekly parkour panels. This is the chunk of parkour history that is mine and I’m still working on the graphic novel that will archive that history. The PhD is long since done and it is a testament to my love and optimism for parkour. I thought parkour was loaded with transformative potential.
It wasn’t all roses. I saw and spoke about the potential threats that might co-opt our young practice and subvert its potential. In parkour panels I pointed out that commercialism, populism and ego might undermine the things that are unique and beneficial about parkour – as they had with many other lifestyle sports – and transform it from a practice for all into another inaccessible, elite, commercial spectacle. That’s still a concern, but now there are developments that I never saw coming.
What’s so special about parkour? To me, parkour offers a pathway to inner happiness – psychologically speaking. This isn’t touchy-feely spiritualism, it’s neuroscientific spiritualism. In neuroscience and psychology, spirituality isn’t about religion, magic or planetary vibrations. It’s about connection. To borrow from one of many neuroscientific papers on the subject: “Spirituality [is] the belief in a meaningful life imbued with a sense of connection to a Higher Power, the world, or both.” This sense of connectivity is increasingly hard to come by. The features of post-industrialised societies (like cities, endless commercial imperatives, neoliberal hyper-individualism, the competitive ethos, structural rationalism etc.) have an isolating effect on all of us. Even though we see more people in a day than a European peasant from the 1800s would see in a lifetime and are digitally connected to every ‘friend’ since high school, for many of us, social circles are smaller and more precarious than ever. Cities and modern architecture provide comfort and safety but also direct our movement and literally constrain the world by obscuring our view of the horizon, creating a sense of containment and fragmentation. This can make us feel disconnected from the broader environment. Historical beliefs and cultural stories about how the mind and the body are oppositional make us feel like being smart and being fit are somehow mutually exclusive, alienating some from their bodies and others from study, mental stimulation and critical thought. But connectivity – to others, our environment and our complete selves – which we experience as ‘spiritual’, is super important to our mental health. Studies from the early days of city living show suicide rates as higher for those disconnected from community, place and a sense of spirituality. Contemporary neuroscience regularly adds to a growing body of evidence on this topic.
Parkour from the David Belle era (there was a time when he was broadly UNDISPUTED as a sole founder of the discipline with only a few exceptions, believe it or not) seemed purpose built to take apart isolating social narratives. It was non-competitive, because competition added to risk, created and enforced hierarchy and was antithetical to individualised exploration. It cultivated an aspiration for pro-sociability, because it came from the European body-culture tradition of military and civil service. It was ego denying and meditative, because Belle and the Yamakazi were inspired by eastern martial arts philosophies. It insisted on self-challenge and self-improvement, because the young founders were motivated by a search for self through strength, trial and dedication. It cultivated a community of practice, because it was infused with rhetoric of participatory play. It was also occasionally uncritically chauvinistic, classist and often failed to live up to its own values – because it was largely taken up by young men and we tend to make mistakes before we grow up to know better (or, sometimes, not) – but it did a great deal of good to those who took it up and it was loaded with potential. Still is. Parkour did the job of creating connections. It connected people to their environment; it connected people to their bodies and to their creative problem solving capacity; it connected people to others. In neuroscientific terms, it is spiritual. Lots of people I met (over 750 interviews in total) described it as such. It transcended activity, in my notebooks people call it ‘lifestyle’, ‘meditation’, a way of ‘melting with the world’, ‘connecting with a part of myself’ and ‘finding something I thought I had lost’.
I see parkour as a respite from the cultural ailments of the modern world. A patch of European body culture in a world of commercialized, competitive sport. An island of eastern philosophy in a sea of western self-obsession. A playground in the middle of a one way speedway. A place that let you take a breath in the middle of a stressful rush.
If I sound enamored, I am. I allow myself to indulge because I think many readers will agree. But an island stands out because it is surrounded by water – it is an anomaly to the norm. Parkour was powerful because it was different (foreign), and there are lots of people who have trouble processing foreignness. They are confused by it and this confusion manifests in action. Practitioners of parkour have probably seen the most extreme version of this confusion directly in people who are threatened or frightened by training. People who want you to ‘do a flip’ to turn something they don’t understand into a performance. Or gleeful celebrations of injury in the comment sections of ‘parkour fail’ videos. Or sometimes, people who threaten, intimidate and even lash out because you’re using public property in a way they don’t understand. All this is common.
What is more interesting, insidious and tricky is the inability to comprehend the foreignness of parkour that comes from the community itself. Some people loved parkour for everything weird that it was. They embraced the novelty, obsessed over the French origins, did their best to work out a coherent philosophy to stay true to (a tricky task, since the founders had yet to work that out themselves). They saw the value in what was there and loved it as is. In my thesis I called them the purists. But for many others parkour needed to be tweaked. People are generally committed to the ideologies in which they are raised and often see difference as flaw or incompletion; in anthropology we call this ethnocentrism. It’s really common and the growing parkour community is no exception.
Making something different into something familiar by changing its values to match your own is easier than changing your values in light of new information. There’s bigotry in that, a kind of cognitive inflexibility. It’s this inflexibility that I see as the biggest threat to parkour. And it comes in many forms.
Next: PART 2 – Ideology of Improvement In the Face of Limitation, Fear and Depression