It’s with some trepidation that I sign the consent form at Gravity Calisthenics Gym in Dubai’s Al Quoz, agreeing that if I fall and break my leg, or worse, crack my skull, I’m solely responsible for the madness that led to it. I’m left to wonder why I’d have to sign anything at all considering I’m in for a fitness session that’s supposed to strengthen my body and mind, instead of shattering my bones.
But then, this is parkour, and as the class wore on, I understood why. After a brief warm-up, I joined a bunch of boys and girls (who’ve already done a few sessions) in a hurdle run across the length of the gym – only, the hurdles weren’t bars, but vault boxes the height of tables and cupboards, ranging from six feet (1.8m) to as high as 12.
For those unfamiliar with the sport, parkour brings to mind people jumping off buildings, roof hopping, leaping over barriers, effortlessly pretending to be Spider-Man and coming through unscathed. Even Bollywood star Salman Khan, at the ripe age of 50, gave it a go in this year’s sports drama Sultan, where he jumps from roof to roof, over bikes, brick walls, hay carts and cows to get his precious kite and prove to himself that he fears nothing.
For practitioners, it’s an adrenaline rush and a sense of achievement they get from flirting with danger and ignoring boundaries that doctors, parents and society set for them.
But what exactly is it about parkour that is attracting millions across the world, and increasingly in the UAE?
At the outset, it’s important to point out an essential difference between the reality of parkour, and how it is perceived. The first time I watched it was in the first episode of popular action TV series Arrow, in 2012. Stephen Amell, who portrays the eponymous hero, was chasing someone, and nothing could stop him. No wall was high enough, no gap between roofs wide enough, and no hurdle too difficult to leap over. His jumps and falls were beautifully executed, slicing through air like a hot knife through butter, and I was awestruck.
That is the perception of parkour that has stuck, no small thanks to the proliferation of videos on social media that show amateurs and experts alike free-running like wild mustangs across a never-ending field. But it is also this perception that leads to injuries, puts people off pursuing it as a fitness regimen and a way of life, and dilutes its true message.
‘Most people practice parkour as performance today,’ says 36-year-old Stephane Vigroux, who’s been a parkour practitioner since 1998 and is a founding member of Parkour Generations, the largest professional parkour organisation in the world. ‘For many, it’s all about the spectacular. But what matters is what lies behind the performance. The beginners just want to get to the jump, but they don’t want to make the effort to get there.’
Stephane, along with his business partner Chris Sotiriou, 34, set up Parkour DXB in January 2015 after running Parkour Generations Asia in Bangkok, Thailand, successfully. Its headquarters have since shifted to Seoul, South Korea, where parkour is exploding in popularity.
The pair hold classes at Umm Suqeim Park every week, and have just launched their first indoor facility at Alserkal Avenue, beside The Fridge.
‘Balance and core strength,’ says Stephane. ‘These are central to the discipline.’ He demonstrates this with a short lesson in the middle of our interview.
The idea was to jump a few inches from a pathway on to a ledge about a foot high. It might seem easy, but here’s the rub: once you’ve landed on the ledge on the balls of your feet, you maintain your balance until you’ve counted to 10. If you succeed, you repeat the process thrice before stepping back a couple of inches to increase the length of your jump. If you lose your balance, you start all over again. The idea is to hold your body in complete control, using the core to centre your weight.
This is the institutionalised form of parkour, where you learn how to do it in classes, but the founders of parkour, and indeed Stephane, says it started off as a research into being strong both mentally and physically. ‘It has some military and superhero inspiration, and was mostly running, climbing and jumping. It was about pushing the limits, and learning more about yourself through facing challenges, and what you can do. It was all methode naturale.
‘Most of the challenges were based on a sense of displacement; anything that was physically engaging qualified. It conditioned the body and mind, and refined our techniques. But it took a long time to cultivate parkour as a discipline.’
Parkour, I realise, is a transformative experience. Stephane also tells me that the jumps comprise just 20 per cent of it, the rest is body and strength conditioning, and a lot of mobility work. ‘For me it’s my school of life,’ he says.
Chris, who was a fitness trainer in Bangkok, ventured into parkour when he met Stephane in 2009 and trained for the first time. But even his physical creds couldn’t save him from the challenge parkour posed, and he was hooked instantly. ‘Parkour is the connection between the mind and the body, and it pushes you to overcome your fears,’ he says. ‘It truly brings something rich out of you. It’s accessible by everyone, channelises your energy positively and makes you fit. In fact, one of our students has lost 15kg since he started with us.’
Now, no matter how cool your Herbie racerback and running tights are, or how long you’ve been into fitness, if this is your first encounter with parkour – not counting the hours you’ve spent watching it on YouTube – you’re going to sweat and burn and feel pain in muscles you didn’t know existed. For instance, if you have to jump across a table-size vault box, you end up using your arms to lift your body and get on the other side, because you don’t know the technique of using your legs and core to do the heavy work instead. Naturally, for me, at my Gravity session, a cupboard-height box is insurmountable, and after three rounds, my arms are too tired to go over tables either.
The toughest bit, though, was conquering my fear. Having jumped up boxes that progressively take you higher, right to the top of a 12-foot-tall one, the final task is to fall into a dense crash mat on the floor. And here I baulked. I’m not particularly afraid of heights, but at this point, you’re not quite thinking rationally, because – again – you haven’t learnt how to calm your thoughts and focus. I gave up thrice. However, thanks to my fellow parkour enthusiasts who were very encouraging, I managed to do it, and went home with a few cuts and bruises and a sense of accomplishment.
Anyone interested in pursuing parkour already has an open mind, and the sport just helps to broaden this perspective further, as Iyad Al Mrouj, 20, found out with UAE Parkour in Abu Dhabi. ‘Parkour to me is a way of thinking,’ he says. ‘So instead of walking beside walls like everyone else, I walk on top of them. It makes me think in ways that are outside the box.’
UAE Parkour kicked off in 2006, about four years before Iyad signed up, as a group of people training together. Its parkour practitioners offer private training sessions, but its weekly jams are super-popular among all levels. These are posted with time and place on Meetup, and are free.
‘I think parkour is a great way to train your mind more than your body,’ says Iyad. ‘My students of course look to becoming strong, fast, and flexible, but they also want to have control of how their body moves. Parkour helps you with balance, coordination, body awareness, confidence, and quick thinking.’
Inspiration is key to getting there with parkour, believes Sachin Amin of Against Graviti gym, which has kick-started its parkour classes with Sreeramachandra Modukuru, who’s certified by American Parkour. ‘The antonym for depression is movement,’ he says. ‘Movement purifies the mind, body and spirit.
‘Practising parkour is another form of meditation [technically called mindful movement], where we become one with our environment and start living in the present and appreciate everything we experience through movement. It’s all about having fun, feeling alive and completely falling in love with our own selves. If not to move, why else would we have evolved into such complex beings?’
Nabeel Merchant, the 25-year-old instructor at Gravity, says: ‘Parkour is about going from point A to B as efficiently as possible. It helps you get efficient with your body weight and creative with problems, and you also develop the patience to keep trying until you get a move right.
‘Parkour is all about the individual; their skills and pushing their mindsets. The only competition you have is with yourself.’