Most of what's been written here has appeared before; people have been struggling to explain Parkour for as long as the art has been around. What makes this pamphlet special is that we're interested primarily in bringing radical anti-capitalists into the PK community, and therefore our explanations have been tailored towards demonstrating the relevancy of the sport to those groups in particular.
Towards this end, we have also tried to provide a functional overview of PK so as to facilitate the introduction of those who have never encountered it before. Ideally, this text will be able to stand on its own as a reference guide to the basics of urban freerunning.
What is Parkour?
Although we seek to promote a comprehensive understanding of Le Parkour, for the benefit of the uninitiated it will be useful to begin with a short definition, as found in the Wikipedia Encyclopedia,
Parkour (also known as PK, freerunning, and Le Parkour) is:
"... A quasi-sport in which participants attempt to clear all obstacles in their path in the most fluid manner possible. A traceur is a participant of Parkour. The term free-runner has been commonly adopted by the media (...) free-running has been widely used by journalists to describe Parkour-like activity, but which commonly features more emphasis on 'showy' moves than are a feature of genuine Parkour.In short time we will explore what this means in practice, and in particular how that practice can aid in the growth of healthy anarchist communities, but first let's take a look at how this definition came about.
History of Parkour
"Their bodies were splendid, flexible, nimble, skilful, enduring, resistant and yet they had no other tutor in Gymnastics but their lives in Nature." - G. Hébert
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the origins of Parkour can be found in the French armed forces. It was in the early 1900's that a young sailor by the name of Georges Hébert would begin combining his personal beliefs on altruism, courage, and physical health into an effective mantra, "Être fort pour être utile" - "Be strong to be useful." In his travels throughout Africa, Hébert marveled at the near-universal fitness of the indigenous people he encountered, something which he struggled to explain given the total lack of modern gymnastic training programs, even within the warrior classes.
Hébert finally came to the conclusion that this apparently "natural" strength had in fact come out of a prolonged interaction with ones physical environment, and that basic activities such as running, climbing, jumping, crouching, and swimming had combined over time to create a comprehensive training regimen capable of toning the human ability to perfection in regards to these very same activities.
Excited by the possibilities of this development, Hébert set about articulating his theory of a "Natural Method" in which prolonged runs in outdoor environments, coupled with the adaptive techniques needed for "parcours du combatant" (obstacle-coursing) in purpose-built arenas, would replace the rigid Swedish gymnastic systems used for conditioning by most armed forces at the time.
For the early XX century these philosophies were incredibly innovative, and Hébert used them as a base to build an entire system of thought related to human fitness. Today, many things we take for granted such as "adventure" playground sets for children and obstacle course trainings in the military were originally designed by Hébert as a way to create a more well-rounded, strong, and adaptable body. Although he saw this physical development as inseparable from the cultivation of a healthy emotional state, it would be decades before this connection was once again brought to the fore.
As the "natural method" grew in popularity throughout the world, it was instituted as a primary training program for various armed forces, particularly in France. Raymond Belle - a soldier who was introduced to this concept while serving in Vietnam - passed it off to his son David who, along with childhood friend Sebastien Foucan, would be among the first traceurs in the Parisian suburb of Lisses.
As the two tell it, the whole thing began in their early teens as they and their friends played at being ninjas on the school's rooftops, running and jumping off or over anything they could reach. The addition of Hébert's methodology only gave a more serious justification for these recreations, and as Foucan describes it, the "vision of Parkour" remains "to look... to think, like children".
Parkour therefore has deep philosophical roots, perhaps even dating back centuries as its modern practitioners have had more success in combining its concepts and movement with widely-recognized martial arts. From its modern implementation by French youths in the 80s, it has grown internationally though a series of films, documentaries, commercials, and soon perhaps even video games. As it has not yet become entirely mainstream, however, there is currently a lively debate in the PK community regarding the possibility that its impending acceptance as a sport will lead to an undesirable commercialization that can only erode the original spirit of the art, much like what has happened to skateboarding over the past two decades.
Philosophy of Parkour
"Free running has always existed, free running has always been there, the thing is that no one gave it a name, we didn't put it in a box." - David Belle
"Understanding the philosophy of Parkour is to look further than just the simple movement or the performance of the movement." - Sebastien Foucan
Nowadays, the primary divisions in the PK community are between the "purists" who see in it an art of movement capable of opening up a broader life consciousness, and those who practice "freestyle Parkour", in which flips and other such flamboyant moves are incorporated into the flow so as to maximize a stylistic impressiveness. Since our primary concern here is the usefulness of Parkour to the anti-capitalist culture, we will not be dealing with its "freestyle" variation as it necessarily decreases the utility of the art and has as a general rule been accessible only to those with prior acrobatic experience. Nevertheless it is extremely important to note that for both these tendencies, the primary aim of Parkour remains abundantly clear - total freedom of movement.
This concept springs from many different sources, but some have had the perception to connect it directly with the Situationist traditions in exploring modern architecture as oppressive to the individual and societal consciousness. Indeed, to the traceur most characteristics of the urban environment - stairs, walls, railings, even buildings, are seen primarily as obstacles to the freedom of movement. Thus it is easy to understand how the philosophy of Parkour can be incorporated into a broader analysis of oppressive structures, and the immediate practice be used as a metaphor for a more general liberation.
The modern success of Parkour in gaining broad acceptance is to a large degree as a result of its development into a well-rounded art with several identifiable movements, most practiced out of an efficiency recognized through study of preexisting martial arts. That these basic laws of movement, evolved over the entire history of human activity, could be applied to such a fluid practice as Le Parkour is no surprise. Much more difficult to impart through text are the psychological benefits of any physical activity, and Parkour in particular.
On a purely biological level, physical exertion releases endorphins, a naturally-occurring hormone that acts as a mild opiate, thus explaining such phenomenon as the "runner's high". Sustained exercise also promotes feelings of accomplishment and confidence, particularly in areas where continued experience brings rapid improvement. Because Parkour is not a competitive sport, but lends itself very well to a group experience, it also fosters the kind of relationships that we as anarchists feel to be the most beneficial to our life's development.
To anyone who has witnessed a Parkour "jam" before having the activity explained to them, it often looks like a bunch of people "running around and jumping off things". To a certain extent, they're absolutely right. The genius of Parkour is that anyone can immediately begin practicing it on a zero budget simply by running outside and beginning to interact with their environment. This isn't to say that PK is still exactly the same as pretending to be a ninja, but it is useful to keep this origin in mind when going out for your first time. A healthy attitude about what your goals are will also help keep you from feeling embarrassed at the beginning, especially since it might take some time to develop your skills into something that even looks "correct". Involving your friends for mutual support is of course an excellent idea.
As one might expect, Parkour is immensely tiring. In the most literal application, which of course should not be attempted by first-timers, a traceur seeks to run in a straight line through a given environment (a city or neighborhood, for instance) and find a way over every single element in their path, including climbing buildings when necessary. How this actually plays out is often hard to imagine without seeing it firsthand, but it involves a constant series of leaps, jumps, and - especially - vaults, which are all performed in such a way as to facilitate a fluid transition into the next movement, usually back into running. As part of this technique, one can adopt several tried-and-true movements, such as "breakfalling" into a shoulder-roll, to minimize impact and enable the immediate continuation of the run. Most of these are based on the sound experience of various martial arts such as Ju/Tai/Ninjutsu and can only be safely executed after extensive drilling. It is of course necessary to accept that as fun as Parkour is, it also has the capability to be incredibly dangerous and therefore we must stress that all traceurs should begin as one begins any new hobby - slowly, cautiously, and with attention to detail. The media has of course chosen to portray Parkour as a daredevil-esque series of suicidal leaps across rooftops and down several stories, when in fact these feats are practiced only by the most experienced traceurs and constitute an incredibly miniscule portion of the overall art, most of which is an unglamorous, but creative and rapid, series of vaults over everyday objects.
As a network of revolutionary anarchists and communists, what's important in our analysis of Parkour is not the way it looks but the benefits we receive as individuals and groups from its practice. Returning to the "natural method", it is self-evident that Parkour conditions our bodies and is capable of providing one of the most complete workouts any of us will ever experience. Because one can become a traceur with virtually no equipment or professional training, it also benefits our wider vision of making fitness accessible to all layers of society. And perhaps most importantly, PK encourages us to familiarize ourselves with urban design and our own mobility within it, which, when coupled with the increase in our physical strength and flexibility, is an invaluable tool in the face of confrontations with police, private security, or other hostile elements.
Although there is no particular "uniform" or protective gear needed for PK, it is recommended that you have a decent pair of running shoes or cross-trainers (skate shoes can absorb a lot of shock, but ultimately will not deliver enough grip) and - at least in the beginning - a long sleeve shirt. Once you're ready to head out, you'll need to find a good spot for your first run.
Finding a Location
The first thing you and your friends will want to do is find a suitable location in which to begin training. Although eventually you should be able to adapt your movements to any type of architecture, in the beginning it will be useful to practice some basic techniques in a relatively enclosed space where you can repeat your basic moves without having to run great distances between obstacles. If you're just getting started, don't worry too much about the long-distance aspect of Parkour, and look around your community for "hotspots" with lots of low walls, fences, railings, wheelchair ramps, gaps, and anything else you think might be interesting to work around. Some likely places include subway stations, schools or universities, and parks.
But remember also that running is an important part of PK, and like Parkour itself is often best practiced in groups. Running frequently will train your legs and cardiovascular endurance, and best of all can be done in virtually any setting, regardless of which obstacles are present.
Warming Up and Stretching
It is absolutely vital that you take your physical activities seriously, and prepare for the stress on your body by stretching thoroughly before and after all sessions. Not only will this minimize your chance of injury, but in time will also ensure that your overall flexibility improves. Try going for short "warm-up" runs before launching directly into a jam, as you'll want your body to be prepared for the exertion.
Everyone has their favorite stretches, but a good general rule is that each position should be held for a minimum of 20 seconds in order to be effective. As you might expect, concentrating on the legs is very important; make sure to adequately target your quads and hamstrings, calves, and knees. For your upper body, loosen up your shoulders, back, sides, arms, and hands. See the section on Additional Resources for good references on preparatory stretches.
Although there are many specific workouts that can be used to enhance the strength needed for certain PK techniques, few are as effective as simply repeating the techniques themselves. That said, anything that strengthens your lower abs will definitely come in handy - leg lifts in particular are recommended by most traceurs. Push-ups are universally advantageous even if you're not involved in Parkour, but expect to get a lot of arm and pectoral work out of your vaults, anyway.
Drills for Beginners
A "drill" is a basic movement or technique that can and must be repeated hundreds of times in order for some sort of proficiency to take hold. It's important to note that no one, no matter how experienced, is above drilling the basics, as this is the foundation for any development in ability. Many of the drills you'll need to master can be approached as the individual pieces that make up a run: try vaulting the same wall several times from side to side, or walk along railings to improve your sense of balance. Many of the most important drills are actually just common sense, and the fact that most beginners can't take up a sustained run will ensure that they're practicing the same basic moves over and over, especially if they've decided to train in a specific location.
There is however one vital drill which we will cover at length here - breakfalling.
Over the course of any run, your legs and particularly your knees are going to be absorbing huge amounts of shock from all the types of dismounts you engage in. This could just be the repetitive wear of hopping over railings, or it could be a fall of as much as a storey (which of course should only be attempted once breakfalling has been mastered). No matter what the situation, however, there are tried and true techniques that can help you redirect the energy of impact so as to successfully continue your run.
The most basic rule to breakfalling is to bend your knees as you land, as this is the body's first and foremost method of shock absorption. As you bend down into a squat, you can smack the ground with both hands, thereby transferring the force of your impact back into the earth. This may sound silly, but it's absolutely vital if you're going to be continuously landing hard over the course of the day.
There are of course those drops that are far too high to be comfortably dealt with simply by bending the knees and slapping the ground, and in these cases traceurs have employed a versatile shoulder-roll to help them flow through and continue the run. These rolls are taken directly from established martial arts, and can be used in any number of situations to minimize the damage done by a throw or fall, or simply as a method of escaping quickly. In the context of Parkour, one lands first on the balls of the feet, bending the knees while rolling forward onto their toes, and then springing forward into the roll and finally coming back up to a run. This transfers the energy of impact to the front rather than up into the body, and when done correctly can be used to avoid hurting yourself when falling great distances.
IMPORTANT: Never assume that you can just "roll out of" a fall. You will seriously hurt your legs, back, and ass, possibly even your neck. Yes you will. Learning how to do a competent shoulder roll takes hundreds and hundreds of practice attempts, and correctly implementing it to a breakfall takes thousands more.
When learning a shoulder roll, ALWAYS start on grass and always start from a crouching position, on all fours. To execute the roll you should lift your left leg and then shoot your right arm through the space it had been occupying, behind you at a 45-degree angle. Do this very slowly at first, concentrating on the way your shoulder impacts with the ground. Your line of vision will shift behind you, and you'll end up going in the direction opposite your view, along the same plane. This is important, since if you look too much to the side you're going to end up rolling diagonally.
The move itself is characterized as a "shoulder to hip" approach, meaning that you roll along the side of your back, and your spine never touches the ground. Your body should be bent in such a way that at the end of the technique you are back on your feet, rather than flat on your back. This type of roll can be practiced backwards from a sitting position, and it is recommended that one try doing it slowly 75 times a day, on each side, before ever trying it on a hard surface, much less off of a jump. It's important for you to train your body to internalize and unconsciously "fall into" this type of roll before ever trying it in the middle of an actual run.
Additional information on the various techniques used in Parkour, as well as the proper way to drill them, can be found through the Additional Resources section at the end of this text.
Parkour as a Organizing Technique
Those involved in communist and anarchist street culture have sought to organize healthy, accessible activities that build cooperation and camaraderie in their neighborhoods for at least as long as they've been organizing anything at all. The incorporation of Capoeira Angola into Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed is just one of the better precedents in recognizing the importance of physical activity for cementing community bonds and a personal sense of wellbeing.
As participants in the Red & Anarchist Action Network, we see in PK an amazing cultural development that has as much to teach us about the human experience as graffiti, hip hop, punk, or DIY. Particularly in the context of our network's critiques against the hierarchies of music and fashion cultures, Parkour presents itself as a developing situation in which we can still see incredible potential for a widespread shifting of consciousness and the promotion of bodily/mental health within our communities.
It is our hope that this text will be only the first in a continuing series of reports relating to the intersections of Le Parkour and the evolution of our revolutionary associations.
There is no existing "handbook" for PK. As the culture develops we will undoubtedly be able to document any number of new developments in its scope and application, but the real experience remains undefinable to those who have never engaged in it. Our purpose here has been primarily to promote interest in the art, since only then can we immerse ourselves in the actual process of building it. More obviously than most aspects of revolutionary life, Parkour must be acted upon rather than spoken about, and it is for this last reason that we see it as invaluable to our culture. Unfortunately there does not yet exist a developed tendency of anti-authoritarianism within Le Parkour, nor of Le Parkour within anti-authoritarianism. In authoring this text we have sought only to capitalize upon the immediate accessibility of the art in trying to build a more effective communist tendency, not to monopolize its spirit (which we nevertheless believe should remain free from corporate influence, regardless). With this in mind we are suggesting by way of conclusion only some of the most prominent Parkour websites, with a concentration on their practical relevance rather than radical ideology, which for the most part is at this time either nonexistent or perhaps hidden within a complex "life philosophy" of movement and self-confidence.
+ Stretching & Flexibility (stretching.bradapp.net) - Comprehensive list of resources
The Red & Anarchist Action Network is a loose organization of autonomous individuals and collectives who subscribe to revolutionary anarchist and libertarian (that is, anti-state, anti-Leninist) communist ideals. The network was born out of a desire to bridge the artificial gaps between segments of what might be described as the "anti-political" left, and dismantle the elitist "sceneism" that has governed portions of the revolutionary movement for far too long. It is our hope that a strong association based on shared revolutionary beliefs and a variety of tactics, driven by a serious practice of mutual aid, will be able to make a serious and lasting contribution to both our world and the people who are working to better it.
Parkour is the art of movement as developed by European youths throughout the 1980's and is now being practiced throughout the world as an exciting sport in which "traceurs" seek radical new ways of interacting with their urban environments. There are incredible physical and psychological benefits to be gained from practicing Parkour, and RAAN is committed to seeing the growth of such traditions within the communist movement.