2010-12-25

Practicing being a hyperactive child: Parkour

So. Jess and I like to fool around with Parkour occasionally. The name parkour (as most know) is a french martial art. For more on Parkour see the Wikipedia article. Recently it's gotten some play in the media, but it's been around for a while longer. Many have tried hard to keep it from association with gangs (as jams really aren't gangs in any classic sense, and are usually polite, friendly, ad-hoc, and non confrontational), but probably the strongest adopters have been street artist groups.

I've always loved jumping on things. Sometime in college I discovered my friends did too, and we started playing with wall running (running up a vertical wall as far as you can), jumping up and down flights of stairs as far as we could, doing standing jumps from one wall on a walkway to another - etc. Basically, think of anything a hyperactive child that's always covered in bruises would do... we did that.

Not long into that I discovered people who were really good at this stuff called the collection of all of it "Parkour". The flashier forms of it are called "Free Running". Having a name for it meant I could find information about it on the internet, and pretty soon I saw cool things people were doing. Thing is, I still had no idea how to do much of it.

Jess moved to Seattle, and so did a friend of ours Tom. Well, in Seattle they ran into Parkour jams, and thought this was the best idea ever.

The way people practice parkour is pretty different from other sports. The sport itself is very individual, and non-competitive, but to learn new things and work out how to do things (that is, to get "beta" in climbing parlance) it's often practiced in groups. It's also just way more freaking fun with others, and it's good to have someone to call an ambulance when you fuck up. That said it's not exactly an organized sport either. So there's what's called a "Parkour Jam".

So, recently we've been working on several motions. I started playing with wall-running and jumping up and down stairs in college. Tom and Jess learned cat-hangs in Seattle, and through a number of inputs we've learned the basic vaults. Speed vault, lazy vault, and catch vault, and now we've been working on the more advanced monkey vault. My follow-through is still poor and I catch my feet sometimes, but I can vault crossways over a picknick table now.

We've also been working on shoulder rolls, I'm trying to get mine reliable enough to use on pavement. I can now do a dive over a bench or similar and come up well. We've recently been playing a lot with monkey-bars and trying to "run" smoothly with your arms hanging under the bars, without the body swaying backwards and forwards.

Parkour can broadly be broken up into 3 classes of activity. Running, Jumping, Climbing.
- Running is of course, running, except possibly over very uneven surfaces and similar.
- Climbing - This includes quadrapedal motion, balancing, cat hangs, and of course... climbing
- Jumping is the flashy stuff, doing vaults (jumping over things), drops (jumping off things), wall runs (running up things) etc.
For definitions and background the Wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkour) is pretty good.

I won't say that I haven't hurt myself. Not long ago I was walking across a train platform and went to vault a railing. I did a catch-vault (where your foot hits the rail). I was wearing very different shoes than usual though, and my foot slipped off backwards. I had forward momentum so was flipped over by the rail. With my head quickly approaching the cement, I threw my arms down as if to drop into a shoulder roll - but, my foot was a bit caught on the rail, and I had a bag on my shoulder so the roll failed, and I didn't flip early enough to land on my shoulder. Instead, after absorbing most of the fall with my arms, my head (a bit backwards from my temple) contacted the cement.

My first thought was "crap, my head hit... this is really bad". I lay on my back flat without moving to see if a headache came. I touched my hand to my forehead, no blood. Okay. My friends said my eyes were dilating, and I pointed out I was looking directly up into a street lamp :P. It turned out I was fine, just a minor impact. I only had a headache for about an hour, but it scared me... a lot - and reminded me to be careful.

Now that I've scared you a bit, here's the thing, most of these activities are not terribly dangerous, it's all about working your way up slowly. What I was doing when I slipped was just jumping a railing, something any teenage kid would do. Having done parkour meant I pulled out of it fine, because I'd practiced rolls. In other words, I wasn't injured because of parkour, as much as I was injured because of parkour.

Be aware and informed of the risks of course. Most importantly don't start by trying to do a monkey vault over a 4 foot high 4 foot wide block of concrete. Instead start by doing a monkey-vault on grass, over nothing. Start with just the dive and absorbing it in your arms. Then do a frog hop until you feel confident and comfortable, etc. The key to not getting badly injured is learning how to work up slowly on any given activity. This is true of ALL sports, and something people who do sports a lot often forget when they switch - but it's doubly true when the consequences of a significant screw-up are your head impacting concrete at high velocity. Once a major screwup is coming in at slightly the wrong angle, or your hand being rotated a few degrees the wrong way - you can make several and still be okay. If that's true at all stages, the activity should be relatively safe (adjust to your own standards of course).

I highly recommend trying it, much of it can be done very safely. Maybe someday you'll find yourself jumping off 2 story buildings, and maybe not - either way doing a shoulder roll on the grass is a lot of fun now :P.

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