On a dark, damp January afternoon in an abandoned south London council estate, an 11-year-old boy is trying to summon up the courage to jump off a six-foot-high brick wall onto a concrete bollard. He crosses and uncrosses his skinny arms, assessing the distance, then shakes his head. “I can’t do it.”
“Yes you can,” a man in a hoodie standing on the ground below instructs him. “Just bend your knees, spring up and forward. Let your legs absorb the impact.” The boy leaps, one trainer-clad foot flung out in front, but at the last second dodges the bollard and lands on the pavement beside it. The hooded head shakes, then speaks. “That fear you feel? It’s all in your head. Now try again.”
Welcome to the inner-city grit and inspiration of parkour—a training discipline and urban lifestyle philosophy that has become a British fitness obsession.
Initially called the “art of displacement,” and more commonly “free-running,” the practice originated 25 years ago in the suburbs of Paris among a small group of young, ethnically diverse French men determined to use the concrete jungle to strengthen both the body and the mind. This founding group of nine, known in parkour circles as the legendary “Yamakasi” (a Lingala word that translates to “strong spirit”), combined the influences of Japanese anime, Jackie Chan movies, martial arts and even comic book superheroes to bring a Zen-like focus and discipline to the age-old childhood pastime of scaling walls, hopping fences and jumping from roof to roof.
“In the beginning they weren’t trying to do big jumps or crazy movements, they just wanted to find the most efficient way to move from A to B and, as a result, how to become strong and functional, both physically and mentally,” says Dan Edwardes, director of Parkour Generations in London. His school, which has three directors and a teaching staff of more than 20, bills itself as the largest professional collective of parkour instructors in the world. It runs daily indoor and outdoor classes around London, as well as an inner-city state school program, which, according to Edwardes, aims to help kids by “giving them a discipline and restoring their desire to play and move—and overcoming that 1990s mentality that kids shouldn’t do anything at all because it’s all just too dangerous.”
Though parkour originated in continental Europe, it found a place to flourish in Britain, where throughout the 2000s it was embraced by the establishment (as opposed to France where, until recently, it was treated as nuisance behaviour). Edwardes attributes the British popularity of parkour to the success of Jump London, a 2003 Channel 4 documentary about free-running featuring many of the original French “traceurs” (practitioners) doing their thing at British landmarks including the Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern.
In 2009, parkour received a national governing body from the U.K. government, making it an officially sanctioned sport, and there are now clubs operating in every major British city. Edwardes estimates somewhere between 8,000 to 15,000 Britons are currently practising parkour, either as a form of fitness or (as its devotees will tell you) a way of life. “Parkour completely changed my life,” says Naomi Honey, a London management consultant, who is one of the few female instructors at Parkour Generations. “The feeling of doing something other people think is quite weird is exhilarating once you get used to it.”
The practice is now a global phenomenon (there are practitioners in every major Canadian city), but Britain remains the stronghold. In London today it is not an uncommon sight to see groups of people in their 20s and 30s monkey-walking along park fences and scaling council-estate walls—for fun. According to Edwardes, the sport continues to evolve, incorporating elements of yoga, Brazilian capoeira (a dance form that features martial arts movements) and even ballet, but remains true to its core values, which are fundamentally practical and non-competitive.
This combination of physical rigour and philosophical loftiness has led to social benefits as well. During the summer of 2006, Parkour Generations ran a program for the London borough of Westminster, aimed at disadvantaged eight- to 13-year-olds. A subsequent report found that during that period crime among that age group in the area dropped an unprecedented 69 per cent.
“Kids tend to get it right away because they have fewer fears. You grow up and take on adult responsibilities and it changes the way you move. Parkour is about challenging that,” says Chris Rowat, an enthusiast who writes a popular training blog Power is Nothing Without Control. This is not to say that parkour is about shirking responsibility or reverting to childhood. On the contrary, says Rowat, “It’s about being the very best version of yourself. How strong are you? How fast are you? How fearless are you? It doesn’t get much more practical than that.”