Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Parkour & Philosophy

Parkour & the Art of Deplacement / Vincent Thibault; translated from the French by Casey Roberts.
Montreal: Baraka Books, c2013.
162 p.

I recently picked up this little book that someone, sometime, had mentioned on their blog. I had noted it then as a "to read" on my Goodreads account, and good thing too, otherwise I'd have completely forgotten about it. As it was, I couldn't quite recall why I'd wanted to read it, but thought I'd look into it since I must have had some reason to add it to my tbr.

Now I realize that the original post must have made reference to the way in which Thibault talks about parkour almost as a spiritual practice, as a kind of martial art that shapes one's whole approach to life, not just as a physical training activity.

It's an interesting read. Thibault references the originators of parkour (or the art of deplacement, or freerunning - he uses the terms equivalently here) Sebastien Foucan and the Freerunning Academy & Yamakasi and ADD Academy, and talks about the purpose of parkour. He comments that watching youtube videos of parkour does not constitute the practice of parkour; one of the principles of parkour is that it is not done for show, as performance, rather it's about the process, not the product.

Since much of what I'm interested in generally are activities which are all about process over product, activities that induce contemplation and/or mindfulness, I found this intriguing.

I had also assumed that this book was written in France French, since France seems to be the source for parkour -- so was pleasantly surprised to find that Thibault is actually Quebecois. His take on parkour is deeply embedded in philosophy, on the interior effects of this practice as akin to a martial art.

Despite Thibault's focus on the internal practice of parkour, it has become a bit of a performance activity out in the world; I have seen examples in films like James Bond's Casino Royale - but that is definitely a performance that comes from the deep practice of parkour, by someone with expertise - in this case Sebastian Foucan, founder of freerunning. See for yourself (especially at 2:38 to hear the philosophy behind freerunning)

Thibault really draws out some of the more "personal development" areas of this practice, though -- he refers to the habit of persistence and effort here:
We are talking about a culture of effort; in any case we must understand that its benefits go far beyond the athletic context. What we call effort applies to all aspects of life, from the most trivial everyday problems to the most daunting challenges. According to the dictionary, effort is the mobilization, by a conscious being, of all available resources to move past an obstacle, to solve a problem, to achieve a goal or to overcome psychological or environmental resistance. It follows that a person who regularly mobilizes effort and enjoys doing so, at least to some extent; a person who is not too invested in results, as long as he or she gives it everything they've got; someone who knows that one of the highest truths of life is that the process is the objective; in short, anyone who embraces the concept of effort will be better able to cope with life's difficulties.
It's true, and tying that kind of athletic effort to a wider, life work made this book much more meaningful to me. I am extremely unlikely to attempt any kind of parkour activities myself, although I do admire those who can do it, but I can appreciate the wider context. As Thibault adds in one section,
When we talk about openness, affection or compassion, we must nevertheless keep in mind that our contribution to the city or the community may seem trivial but may actually be essential. In fact, anyone who does his or her job, whatever it is, with good and noble motivation contributes to the equilibrium of the world. 
This was an affirming, positive and thoughtful read, which I now recommend in turn. It would be a wonderful thing to share with younger people who are drawn to urban spaces and physical activity such as parkour. It's really about living in balance with your surroundings, whether those are physical or your human community. Thibault includes simple checklists of the principles of freerunning and Yamakasi ADD in an appendix at the end, and they are clear and succinct; respect, inspire, be positive. There is a lot to think about in this book and in the wider world of parkour - and a lot to respect as well. 


  1. In 2013 I read Data Runner, a YA dystopian novel, and became fascinated with parkour. I can see that commitment to the practice would be much more than physical.

    1. I missed that novel somehow - would be interesting to see how parkour is involved in it now that I've read this. It's a fascinating subject.


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