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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?”
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.
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
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.
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).
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
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
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.