Run for Freedom

Freerunning, or parkour, isn’t merely a daredevil’s game. It’s a way to reappropriate our urban spaces as training grounds for body and mind. Vincent Thibault on how running, jumping, and climbing can beautify our cities—and our lives. With photos by Andy Day.

Vincent Thibault
1 May 2014
parkour buddhism lion's roar shambhala sun andy day free running freedom
Photos by Andy Day.

Parkour is a complete discipline, not to be confused with what young people call tricking or, say, skateboarding or break dancing. That being said, the aesthetics are sometimes underestimated by beginners. Just look at the pioneers of the discipline in action to see how graceful their movements are. These artistic athletes know that elegance is often a reflection of the control of movement. The aesthetic is not the primary purpose of the practice, but comfort begets fluidity, which begets beauty.

Some practitioners see their art as a means of personal fulfillment. They do it in order to face their fears; to get to know themselves more intimately; to improve in how they relate to other people; to get to the essence of things; to see that obstacles, of whatever kind, are an integral part of life and offer many opportunities for advancement.

Parkour is not just a physical discipline; it also helps develop social skills and inner qualities. It leads to a sense of universal responsibility and a sense of ethics, a quiet confidence and joy, a practical wisdom. This is the spirit of chivalry in an urban setting. A spiritual path for the modern samurai, but in the service of the heart, not the dictatorship of ego.

It’s easy to imagine what some of the young people who engage in parkour are thinking about when they say they like parkour for the feeling of “freedom” that it provides. You can jump this way or that way, climb up any wall you encounter, and nobody can stop you. You’re even in the best position to get away from the cops.

Photo by Andy Day

But true freedom is above all a state of mind. A mind that is free from disturbing emotions, harmful habits, the comfort of false beliefs, and any and all illusions, especially those relating to one’s own identity. People who achieve this state will always be free, no matter the circumstances in which they find themselves.

With some judicious training (and this has nothing to do with technical competence), parkour can help develop a sense of inner freedom in relation to a sense of freedom in the world. It creates a link between being comfortable with the way our thoughts flow and being comfortable with the way we move our bodies. Parkour mainly involves learning how to move physically, but to move in an efficient, safe, smooth, and, if that is your goal, artistic way, you must be in harmony with your environment. At its optimal level, this harmony with the surrounding environment is only possible if one is vigilant, patient, open, sensitive, and courageous—not qualities of the body but rather of the heart and mind.

With greater control of our bodies, nothing to prove to others, and armed with a whole palette of techniques, we’ll be able to take everyday obstacles in stride, contemplate entirely new horizons, and change our perspective when the need arises. All this provides a tremendous sense of freedom. Of course, true parkour artists are careful not to become too impressed with their own capabilities. Passing over a 3.6-meter wall should not be a source of any more pride than that felt by a fish that knows it can swim upstream.

Undertaking serious training in parkour changes how we perceive things. As Chau Belle, one of the leading figures in the discipline, has said, “Our awareness of our immediate environment increases. We no longer look only ahead, like some kind of robot, or down at our feet, but also upward, left, and right. We begin to see the possibilities that are everywhere.”

Photo by Andy Day

It wasn’t an accident that parkour developed in the suburbs. The outskirts of Paris are home to the most diverse physical structures, and you can enjoy a wide range of movements. But even more important, for some young people, physical activity became their main way of fighting boredom. Committing themselves to a healthy and rigorous discipline was not just a way of passing time but also a matter of survival. There were other options, and falling into a life of drugs and crime was too easy. But rather than lead sad lives, bent down under the weight of years of alienation, they decided to see what they—as human beings—were capable of. They were, in their way, great explorers.

If practitioners are discerning in how they train, they can enchant the everyday lives of other people and—it’s not an exaggeration to say—beautify their city. It’s not hard to see that there’s a clear difference between an immature goofball acting out by trashing the urban infrastructure and frightening other people and a considerate artist who leaves the spaces in which he or she trains in immaculate condition and responds in a friendly manner to questions from fascinated observers. It is not a question of putting on a show, but rather participating in a dynamic of sharing. And when we fall, we’re learning about perseverance, rather than showing everybody how violently irritated we can be. You might even say it’s the only way to learn. Dignity, respect, drive, elegance, and vigilance are all qualities that reinforce each other.

Of course it’s true that a handful of parkour movements involves risks, but if we want to take part in authentic parkour training, we can’t be too soft. Minor bruises and a scratch or two are our lot. In fact, the majority of movements are not dangerous (at least not any more than, say, in jogging, playing volleyball or any other sport, or even vegging on a sofa, since a number of studies show that prolonged physical inactivity is one of the worst “activities” there is, although that’s another story).

How sad is our urban walker, petrified at the sight of a patch of ice! And our noble hero cursing at the rusty old gate that refuses to budge? Would our ancestors really have reacted like this? It’s a good question. When we place too much reliance on external conditions, we can easily lose our bearings when conditions change. However, change is inevitable.

When we are able to discover new resources within us, and when confronted with difficulty, we are able to face our fears and thereby understand something of the nature of our egos, windows open. Rigid concepts begin to fade, and stereotypes and labels peel away. We no longer have a desire to prove something to other people, we are more into “being” than “doing”; we are finally ready to welcome existence. Have we ever taken the time to contemplate the beauty of the word “welcome?”

Our discipline—which is called l’art du deplacement, free-running, or parkour—provides a workspace, a way to make friends with our fears, to come to know our personal limitations, to explore their textures and experience their rationale.

Photo by Andy Day

The general practice is to try to escape from fear, to flee anything that we believe will affect our fragile equilibrium, to stay all wrapped up in the comfort of familiarity. It is normal to want to avoid pain and seek happiness; it is a principle at the basis of all life (i.e., survival). But to achieve true happiness, and not an artificial or ephemeral substitute, we need insight. And insight is only possible if we stop running away. Everyone has days when they want to stay home tucked under the blankets, but we can’t spend our entire lives doing that. We must abandon our false, albeit comforting, beliefs. We need to face the world. Experience the world.

When we say that parkour enables us to face our fears, people almost invariably think we mean fears such as the fear of heights or the fear of falling. But there are a number of different kinds of fears that can come up in the course of this practice: losing control; fear of loneliness, ridicule, or shame; fear of the unknown, weakness, injury, death or oblivion, disease, and aging. What we really need to do is learn how to identify which fears are our friends and how others hold us back by deforming our perspective of reality. Many fears have their uses, their rationale, and to study how they function is actually quite fascinating.

It’s up to each of us to be good students, to live well; nothing can force us to grow in self-awareness. Sometimes we need to experience fear. This is also true of parkour: to experience our fears, break their stranglehold (or sometimes fail to do so) and not to run away from them, forget about them, or deny them. This is very concrete, a way to come in contact with reality.

Sometimes we feel as though we’re simply too tired to continue training. But is it really true, or is something else going on? Is there a real physical need—and a key protective mechanism kicking in—or just some well-camouflaged laziness? Are we afraid of failing to execute a supposedly simple movement in front of bystanders or other practitioners? Are we lacking confidence in our abilities? If we stop, would that show there’s a pattern of not putting out enough effort? Asking yourself these questions can be a challenging exercise, but real training involves learning not to deceive ourselves. Authenticity is one of the main qualities of the warrior.

Photo by Andy Day

The risks found in parkour are not inherent in the discipline itself; the degree of risk is the practitioner’s choice. He or she is responsible for exercising discretion and humility. Of course, even people who do not practice sports are regularly confronted by hazards and a degree of uncertainty, whether they’re conscious of it or not. The parkour artist’s task is to determine which risks, even those that are carefully calculated, facilitate growth and which others only cater to the ego (the exact opposite of growth).

Simply calculating is one thing. Even more dangerous is to set your sights exclusively on measureable achievements. To obsess over results. To reach for a new record. Parkour artists must break with the frantic performance drive instilled by the modern world.

It is natural to fall, to fail to execute a movement, no matter what level of mastery we’ve achieved. The concept of training—of apprenticeship—is fundamental to learning: progressing from what we know to what we don’t, which immediately implies estimating, trying, and erring. No one learns to ride a bike without a bit of hesitation. To get down on ourselves at every failure is to condemn ourselves to permanent incompetence. Being arrogant is the surest way not to learn. Because everyone knows that to learn anything, we must (once again) accept that we don’t know (something).

This is reminiscent of one of the teachings of Zen master Shunryu Suzuki that we might reflect on again and again: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s view there are few.”

Human life has an incredible potential for freedom, for perfection. No other species has the ability to wake up one morning and decide to become better and stronger. We alone have this freedom. We must contemplate this opportunity again and again; we must rejoice in it and make a firm decision to use our intelligence and our time wisely—to use our energy in a constructive way, in a way that conforms to our values.

Thinking about impermanence while reflecting on the preciousness of human existence can lead to unexpectedly powerful insights, if we’ve meditated correctly. It’s challenging at first, but it can help us become less complicated and a lot calmer. Practitioners of parkour can benefit from the exercise; it helps us reset our priorities and begin trading our illusions for clarity and madness for true courage. The idea is not to become more fearful; on the contrary, the reflection helps us take useful and calculated risks and avoid doing stupid things that we might come to bitterly regret. It gives stability to training, provides a reason for learning. Without any insight, enthusiasm can wane. A reflection on the nature of life—at once temporary and precious—combined with humor and compassion can bring about real inner change over the long haul and provide a practical wisdom and lasting joy.