In parkour, the city is the gym

NEW YORK Mon Oct 5, 2009 12:12pm EDT

A man practises parcour near Sofia Cathedral in Veliky Novgorod some 520 km (323 miles) northwest of Moscow October 5, 2008. REUTERS/Mikhail Mordasov

A man practises parcour near Sofia Cathedral in Veliky Novgorod some 520 km (323 miles) northwest of Moscow October 5, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Mikhail Mordasov

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Zen saying goes: the obstacle is the path.

That's true of parkour, the gritty urban sport that evolved from obstacle course training for the French military into a fitness option for urban youths.

In parkour, the city is the gym. The bridges, buildings and railings are the equipment. The goal is a direct route from one place to another. You see an obstacle, you overcome it.

Now the techniques of this adamantly outdoor sport are coming indoors to a gym near you.

"Parkour is a method to train the body and mind using obstacle coursing as the medium," said Mark Toorock, who teaches the techniques of parkour at his Primal Fitness gyms in Washington, D.C., Florida and Texas.

And while beginners might be inspired by YouTube videos of lithe young men gracefully vaulting over city structures, Toorock says they'll probably not be defying gravity anytime soon.

But the former martial arts specialist says that we'd all do well to learn, or re-learn, the basic skills involved.

"Parkour has this basic toolkit of movements like running, jumping, crawling," said Toorock, whose website is American Parkour. "All the things humans used to do."

The tenets that became parkour predate World War One.

Georges Hebert, a French naval officer, was so impressed by the effortless athleticism of African tribes that he devised a training method based on basic movements such as running, jumping, climbing, balancing, and throwing.

The word parkour derives from parcours du combatant, the French term for the obstacle course form of military training Hebert proposed.

Practitioners of the sport are called traceurs or traceuses, from the French word meaning to trace, draw, or go fast.

Dr. Kenneth Kao, a chiropractor, has been a traceur since college. "Traceurs are some of the most fit and neurologically coordinated people I have ever met," he said from his office in Lafayette, Colorado.

"Many basic parkour techniques like crawling, rolling, climbing and jumping should have been ingrained into our movements at an early age. There is nothing that parkour does movement-wise that is unnatural--quite the opposite, actually," Kao said.

"Parkour is not extreme," he added. "The environment is the extreme and dangerous aspect to parkour."

The environment is precisely what the luxury fitness chain Equinox aims to control in its Parkour Power Play class.

"It can seem intimidating to go outside and immediately start jumping off railings and flipping over park benches," fitness instructor Lisa Wheeler said. "We break down the moves to make them easier."

Wheeler said experienced traceurs co-conduct the class.

"We have thick mats for rolling, rubberized boxes to jump over, balance beams for railings," she said. "Then we do some outdoor events."

Toorock says it's just not parkour until you're outside.

"We teach people how to run, jump, squat. But that's not parkour because it's indoors and with a fixed obstacle. The goal is to go outside."

And what's the lure of those concrete canyons? For Toorock, it's the joy of not putting away childish things.

"People forget that movement is fun," he said. "Play is no longer acceptable. I'm 39 years old. People see me in a playground they think I'm insane."

"Meanwhile I enjoy my life," he said. "I have fun."

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