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thinking i can: life and parkour

By Amy Han

We were sitting at a sushi train off Oxford Street when Clay said, ‘Oh, and I’ve started doing this thing called Parkour.’

‘Park-what?’

‘Parkour. You might have seen it in action movies like Casino Royale – we walk along rails, vault over things, climb walls. It’s great, you should come along to class.’

To my apprehensive face he said, ‘It’s more fun than the treadmill.’

Before this, my exercise routine consisted of walking down to the gym, sticking my iPod in and running for 30 minutes. ‘Brave’ was running outdoors when the sun wasn’t shining. When I caught the train to that first two-hour class, I had no idea it would require me to face fears I didn’t know I had, and leave me aching for days.

The first thing I noticed in that aerobics room full of gymnastics equipment was that it was also full of men.

‘Where are the girls?’ I asked Clay.

He laughed and said I would be fine. The one other girl in the class said the same: ‘Might be sore tomorrow, but you’ll love it!’

The instructors set up stations and demonstrated what to do before we split into groups according to skill level. I was utterly confused as I watched others skip over blocks as high as my shoulders, balance like cats on a fence, jump two metres from a block onto a balancing beam and speed-roll over crash mats. Somehow I managed to clamber from point to point. Other students gave me tips, and the instructors encouraged me to jump further by nudging the blocks apart as they passed.

I didn’t know why I was learning these things or why it was so satisfying, but once I started training outdoors, after I’d returned to Australia following my working holiday, I began to see cities differently. In Melbourne, the walls along Southbank, the ropes supporting the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and the bars lining the Little Collins Street multi-level car park were no longer barriers, but equipment. It even made sense when I was told that outdoor classes are never cancelled – rain, hail or 38° shine. Because like the action movies and video games it has been used in, parkour is about escape: moving through urban environments with speed and efficiency. If someone were chasing you, you wouldn’t stop running just because it was raining.

It’s no surprise that like skateboarding, surfing and other extreme sports, parkour appeals mostly to males under the age of 35. For me, it became an extension of the journey I began when I went to London, leaving almost all my safety nets behind me. It’s likely I still would not have heard of parkour, let alone considered trying it, had Clay not mentioned it to me at that sushi restaurant.  But like the experience of moving overseas, parkour pushes me to stretch my limits. More than that, it requires me to break down childhood-built boundaries; to ignore that rational but limiting voice that says, ‘Don’t do it, you’ll hurt yourself!’ In one of my early classes, an instructor casually balanced on a rail as he told us how he often walked along fences on his way to the shops. ‘Have fun with it,’ he said, ‘like when you were a kid. Who says you can’t?’

Every instructor I have met has been unfailingly encouraging, and teaches parkour in baby steps: climb over the obstacle before you speed vault over it; run towards the wall and kick off it over and over until you get your foot placement right, before trying to whip over the top; perfect your roll from the ground before jumping from a height and breaking yourself on the concrete. The goal should not be to pick up some impressive party tricks, but to push yourself and progress at your own pace.

Of course there is a pain factor. All who practice parkour will tell you that starting out, it’s no fun showering when you’re covered in grazes and have bursting-point blisters on your hands. We have struggled to use stairs in the days following a training session, and been shocked awake by the sting of rolling over in our sleep. For a girl, the temporarily scarred shins, knees and shoulders that are a kind of trophy for boys aren’t pretty with a summer dress. But minor injuries tend to prevent major ones and as I get faster, stronger and braver, the bruises and blisters start to be replaced by flickering, precious moments of being close to flying.

Parkour’s intrinsic philosophy is in being non-competitive. It’s about physically and mentally challenging yourself.  Often, in parkour and in life, it’s your mind saying you can’t jump over that rail without catching your feet and face-planting on the other side. But if you step over the rail a few times, work up to it, you’ll soon realise your body can. You can. And it’s a high to rival roller coasters, bungee jumping, base jumping, sky diving, or any other crazy things that give you an adrenaline rush because they require you to give up control of your life for a few seconds, and survive it. Parkour is not about taking a leap of faith into the universe. It’s about believing in yourself.

An important lesson I’ve learnt – after diving straight into a few walls, and not quite lifting my feet high enough – is that fear can be as dangerous as, if not more dangerous than, physical limitations. If you weigh up the task and decide to commit to it, you’ll get over the obstacle. Leap towards a concrete ledge thinking I can’t, however, and you’re in trouble. And that, as practitioners say, applies to much more in life than parkour.

The discipline itself may not be for everyone, but the idea of it is. Something that can inspire so many people – especially young people – to extend their perceived limits is an inspiring feat for all who have sought to develop, practice and share their parkour skills. I may never reach these instructors’ level of practice. But I am proud of the fact that I showed up to that first class, that I said goodbye to the treadmill in London, that I have made new friends, and that I am learning class by class, week by week, that I can.

The Australian Parkour Association runs classes in most Australian cities. www.parkour.asn.au

A version of this article first appeared in The Big Issue Australia.

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