The link between the mind of man and his body is the basis of his power, his strength and his ability to have control over the world and his life.
A dominating physical presence has been celebrated since the 7th century AD, when the Greeks made sculptures representing young men with athletic physiques; a model of perfection, beauty and symmetry. Even in this era, the children of the more well-off received a physical education in a society where physical prowess was directly linked to intelligence. The body, therefore, expresses intelligence, transmitting all the force man is capable of; a strength necessary in disciplines such as dance and gymnastics, from which other disciplines have developed all over the world, with the common trait of the use of the body as a vehicle of expression. They are arts which require hard work and dedication in order to reach ever greater performance, often at great personal sacrifice. A fact well known by ballerinas, gymnasts, and whoever practices acrobatic gymnastics.
Parkour is an urban acrobatic discipline which has become increasingly popular over the last 20 years: it has become a lifestyle in which freedom of movement communicates the need to fly, with the mind as well as physically, and to arrive safely in order to speak to the world. Began in France at the start of the 1980s, it was known as the Art du Déplacement (the art of movement) or by the group who practiced it, the Yamasaki. This group, the founders of the movement, take their name from lingala, the language spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The expression can be translated as meaning a strong man or woman, a strong spirit, perfectly encapsulating the philosophy of this discipline, for which these young people must be strong from both a physical and mental point of view.
The term parkour was created several years later when David Belle and Hubert Koundé were inspired by the military obstacle course used for training by George Hébert, an officer of the French marines who had found himself in charge of the evacuation after a volcanic eruption in 1902. This episode made him understand how it was of vital importance to exploit your maximum physical powers, and also to cultivate bravery and altruism in order to deal with all that life can present. He defined his training as “the natural method”, strongly influenced by representations of the human body in Greek and Roman sculptures and the principles taught in the gymnasiums of Ancient Greece. The harmonious development of the body was inseparable from the strictness with which students were expected to learn the moral dictates of life. Moral valour and physical prowess, therefore, were both obtained by rigour and discipline, focusing on the individual and their usefulness in the world. The training method Hébert developed became known as Hébertism; using obstacle courses in the forests to train and improve your natural movements and contextualise them, thus optimising your potential. Raymond Belle was trained using this method and his son, David, was further inspired by a discipline which enabled him to overcome any obstacle. Having taken the first step on his journey, together with the Yamasakis he then began developing various techniques, as well as starting to film his movements and those of the young men and women around him, known as traceurs and traceuses (tracers). Hébertism can also take credit for the promotion of the sport as a suitable training method for females too as - according to this theory - women have exactly the same power as men.
It is worth noting the spelling of the name of the sport: in the beginning it was actually parcour (course, or path), but it then became parkour, replacing the c with a k in order to emphasise the strength and efficiency which the course taken demands from its athletes. It has also been called freerunning, though a distinction was soon made between the two, in that the latter focuses more on spectacular moves, without attributing enough weight and importance to the efficiency that the parkour movement requires and demands.
It was Belle himself who, thanks to the idea of filming his exploits, opened the doors to a huge increase in popularity of this fascinating activity, creating a true network of video exchange on the internet, bringing parkour almost overnight success and popularity. The videos showed young athletes trained to the extremes of their capabilities and completing incredible acrobatic feats to overcome obstacles, though now across buildings and architectural structures.
Indeed, the most popular videos are those filmed in large cities and which broadcast a clear message to never stop or give up. Thinking back to how Hébert began, it’s precisely this urban or natural environment which represents the best kind of gym where you can specialise in this discipline. It is certainly true that part of the training requires the development of strength and muscle power, meaning that it is the athlete who should choose the method which best reflects their abilities. The second half of the training, however, requires the knowledge of each course from start to the finish, carefully studying the spaces, the distances involved and the obstacles in relation to the control over your body and your personal qualities, with the objective of winning a battle against yourself, pushing past your own limits. The goal becomes to move between obstacles with fluidity, by means of preparation on the field, thus transforming these obstacles into points of stability, on which you should concentrate your energies and find the push to take you past beyond every limit, both physical and mental. This is the triumph of freedom by everything which is behind consciousness, and the consequent knowledge that your own measures of speed and strength are able to develop only by means of sufficient training.
Just as in classical dance, in parkour, the urban discipline which incorporates physical movements within the urban architecture of a city, the training method contains specific and well defined steps.
Basic training essentially consists of wall climbing and jumps carried out with a total absence of security measures. The leap, which requires complete control of your weight and body, is what enables you to go beyond the obstacle. In any case, proper training, attending training courses run by a professional and constant practice of pk (the commonly-used abbreviation for this discipline) can dramatically reduce the risk of possible accidents. Unfortunately, however, due to insufficient preparation or an unexpected event when practising the sport, some people, often of a very young age, have hurt themselves very badly, and in some cases accidents have resulted in the most tragic of outcomes.
Moving by means of jumps and climbing across urban structures requires the development of a technique which is not only physical, but also one which requires a talent for photographic memory, in order to be able to get to know the course perfectly, with all of its dangers. The natural predisposition people who practice parkour is to look beyond the wall, in both a metaphorical and practical sense, and must be aligned with constant training, and above all a deep knowledge of your own strength. It is true that the spirit of this discipline aims to transmit an enormous trust in yourself, but it is also true that this trust must be earned. And in order to be able to entertain the public with spectacular moves which continually raise adrenaline levels, it is important to have a strong knowledge of the level of preparation required. The movements through the air that these athletes are capable of translate the movements of their selves through society, and the walls, buildings, streets and building sites become the school, workplace, family and society in which these young people move. A reproduction of real life, in which they live through situations created on the spot, making them the stars of their own special show.
One of the global icons of pop chose these magnificent street artists to take part in one of her most important tours. Parkour came to the stage on Madonna’s Confession Tour, which started in Los Angeles in May 2006 before touring the world. Madonna, a fitness fanatic, also chose to put these urban angels into one of the most popular and most-clicked videos on the internet, Jump, where they apparently effortlessly leap across the roofs of Tokyo. They seem to be driven by an external force, yet realising that it is simply the result of huge, disciplined training helps us to understand how important the force of will is; the will to arrive at the top and challenge your limits, and seeking to improve yourself as a human being.
Not just adults but also teenagers have been drawn to the discipline. Smaller athletes who calmly train, alongside their teachers, often not much older than they are, learning to keep their balance on the walls, to jump, to support the weight of their body with just their hands. It is a perfect way to live in friendship; the perfect space, taking a small step away from the dominance of technology.
Parkour has even made it to the Guinness Book of Records and to a television programme, where two young men, an English boy and an Italian, challenged each other on a studio reproduction of typical urban obstacles in order to demonstrate their parkour abilities.
The movement of the body, then, as an expression of the mind and soul, the idea of surpassing your limits and putting yourself to the test, though only against yourself. A total sensation of liberty of self in the world; to feel like you’re master of a city without having to confront and overwhelm another, but by simply managing risk, free from conventional mental processes perhaps, but not from those typical of a discipline which teaches you to live the external environment as a place in which you can improve yourself.
The leap into the circle of the fire of life, from one place to another, to feel yourself flying without wings in a state of complete control, only able to maintain and mind, at one with your soul. Athletic journeys, used to transmit to others the certainty that you can watch the world from the roof, day or night, and control it with perseverance and with trust.