Surviving the Parkour Playground

There are some people who see a railing and think, “Great! I’m less likely to fall down the entire staircase if I lose control of my body,” and then there are those who say, “Great! A balance beam!”

Despite identifying with the former group, I joined the latter during an adult parkour class. There, I learned how to turn my surroundings into an obstacle course.

Generally speaking, parkour practitioners (called traceurs) strive to creatively propel their bodies from one point to another as quickly and gracefully as possible. It’s like watching a ballet taught by a martial arts instructor and performed in gritty downtown public spaces.  

And it’s also kind of terrifying.

At my first parkour class, I was confronted with the uncomfortable realization that I was less in control of my body than I imagined. Your average cardio exercise will teach you the mental game of enduring pain as your body pushes its limits, but this exercise tapped into a different mental game: finding the confidence to throw your legs over your head without worrying that you’ll break your neck.

Such was my fear as I stood in line, waiting to launch myself onto a raised foam block and complete a summersault off the other end.

This fear – and overcoming it – is an important part of the parkour practice, said Joseph Torchia, founder of Parkour Horizons.

“We, as a society, try to construct environments sanitized from risk, but parkour practitioners accept that life is full of risk,” Torchia said. “Parkour provides a way to engage progressively and productively with risk and our fear by starting with what we know best, our bodies, to test our boundaries and ultimately adapt to the environment.”

Parkour is unique in that its playing field is not specifically designed for it. Instead, these athletes use preexisting structures as their jungle gyms. Torchia suggested there’s a life lesson to be gleaned from this ability to see an opportunity for movement when literally facing a brick wall.

“The environment is not going to be adapted for you – you have to adapt to your environment,” he said. “The lessons of adaptability and self-confidence gained in parkour can translate to all areas of life.”

It was an interesting thought, considering what happened as I approached the end of the line where I was expected to do this roll maneuver. My plan was to turn my thoughts off after ordering my legs to curl over my shoulders and just hope for the best. It was not graceful, but to my surprise, I did manage to flop over onto the other end.

One student, Mary Bertke, gave me a high-five. Bertke was excellent; not only could she elegantly roll across the foam block, she could grip one edge and roll back the other direction in one fluid motion.

It was difficult to believe that only three months ago, she was just as apprehensive as I was. She said that anxiety sparked her interest in parkour; after watching some family members stop doing activities that scared them, she made a point of doing the opposite.

“So here I am, 40 years old and learning parkour!” she said.

She is part of a growing community. Torchia said the interest in parkour has increased significantly since he began teaching himself the basic moves in 2006. His dedication has since propelled him to further his training in Europe and open Parkour Horizons in 2008.

His organization was the first in the country to host the Art du Deplacement And Parkour Teaching (ADAPT) certification course, making Columbus a launching point of sorts for parkour in the United States, Torchia said.

Now, the company offers outdoor and indoor training courses for $5 per hour-long class. This summer, Torchia plans to expand the project by offering more classes tailored specifically to students from different backgrounds.

This growth was evident in one of the outdoor classes I attended. Instead of leaping onto giant foam blocks, we pounced onto concrete walls and twirled around campus tree branches. The coaches were aware of the different skill levels and accordingly gave multiple variations of the same route.

Although the fear of breaking my neck didn’t exactly disappear, the support of classmates like Bertke made this adventure more exhilarating than intimidating.

Still, if I was to do it all over again, I would spend some time brushing up on my summersaults.

To learn more about Parkour Horizons or to check the class schedule, visit