Freerunning as Spiritual Practice and Political Statement

Picture: Kandil1 (PD)

When I was 15 years-old, I began exercising on my own. At the time, I had the shame of having been diagnosed with coordination problems and had been placed in a special gym class.

I suffered from anxiety, allergies and asthma. In school I had a lot of social fear. At times this anxiety would manifests in severe headaches and bouts of vomiting lasting a few days at a time. I learned that I could escape these headaches by moving around and changing my mindset. I would try things like walking differently, talking differently, being more outgoing and striking up conversations with people.

Looking back, I think what was happening was that my mental state had become toxic. I was playing these mental tapes over and over again in endless loops until I made myself sick from anxiety. I had become stuck in a destructive pattern. I had the sensation of leaving this painful state and escaping into a new state that involved more spontaneity. There seemed to be an intelligence behind this intuition. Sometimes I would do free form exercises and stretching alone in my room which I later learned was quite similar to something called “free-form qigong.”

This activity corresponded with a realization around the same time of my intuition, that it was an alternative path presenting me with choices that were contrary to those I would tend to make with my conditioned mind. I began to follow my intuition more and more while continuing to examine it analytically, to come up with an explanation for it. I began to call it “the voice” even though it was not an audible voice, but more of a feeling.

My intuition told me that running was not enough, and I soon took to the woods.

Every time I escaped to the quiet of the woods I would feel layers of anxiety lifting off of me as I left the chaos of civilization. I would walk and  wait for “the voice” to come to me. I experienced its presence as a particular way of moving that would occur come to me. I had the impression that there was a movement there ahead of me in space and time, and that I needed to push ahead just a little bit on the path to meld with it and embody it –  that I could meld myself with this Spirit and then it would bestow on some type of divine grace, that enabled me to move with heightened efficiency and coordination.

The woods behind my school were very hilly and presented many natural obstacles such as logs, fallen trees and boulders. I would run through the trackless woods as rapidly as I could, jumping over logs, ducking branches and crossing streams by leaping from boulder to boulder. I’d run down steep hills with long bounding leaps covering huge amounts of ground in a short period of time using the soft leaf litter on the forest floor to absorb the impacts of my leaps. This was done as rapidly as possible with no time to consciously think or plan what I was doing.  It was like being led through the woods by some type of angel or spirit, but looking back, I think what happened was that I entered a meditative state and was allowing myself to move by the inherent wisdom of my body.

I continued this practice of running alone at night, all through high school and into my Army enlistment. When I was stationed in Monterey, CA, I would spend my four day passes running off and on all through the night covering 20 or 30 miles between Fort Ord and Carmel. I alternated walking, jogging and sprinting, incorporating leaping and vaulting over fences and navigating concrete walls and buildings. The shoreline in the area alternated beaches and rocky cliffs, and I would run along the beach playing tag with the surf, and then climb and leap along the rocks. One time I chased black tailed deer all night through Pebble Beach Golf Course.

I ran in shorts and a t-shirt with nothing but my debit card in my pocket. I was flush with cash in those days (being single with no expenses, not even room and board) and as the sun came up in Carmel or Monterey and I was exhausted from running all night, I would crash in a luxury Hotel. Sometimes I would just enter one of these hotels and just crash on a couch in one of the lobbies without paying. I was in a zone; seemingly invisible – not that people didn’t see me, but because I was so relaxed they assumed I belonged there. Another time I climbed into and entered Monterey Bay Aquarium. I looked at scaling buildings as fun; a challenge. I was trespassing  but I never stole or damaged anything.

This inborn wisdom of navigating efficiently through space had been there all along, but I had been suppressing it by continually short-circuiting it with my traumatized and conditioned mind. This natural graceful part of me had been split off from my awareness, and I had been experiencing it as a voice outside of me. I have gained some insights into this from reading Julian Jayne and The Bicameral Mind. Jayne’s theory was that in ancient times men attributed messages from the right side of the brain to the voices of the gods.

Around the same time that I had become dedicated to running –  in the late eighties and early nineties – a Frenchman named David Bell was developing something called parkour. While I hesitate to call what I was doing parkour (I never developed the impressive gymnastic flips that he did) we seem to have begun from the same motivations.Some people are trying to turn parkour into a competitive sport, which I think is at odds with the value system of the founder. Bell saw it as a form of well-being and a way of seeing your environment in a new way;  essentially, a spiritual practice. I agree with that sentiment.

For me, freerunning was not about competing with others, but building confidence and challenging myself. It had became a spiritual practice for me, too; something akin to a type of yoga. Years later, when I learned mediation in a Buddhist Meditation center it felt very familiar to me, like I had done it before. In fact, I had: running, jumping and climbing outdoors on my own. Freerunning cleared my mind , quieted my internal dialogue and brought me intimately to the present moment through the natural movement of my body. It left me feeling like I had connected with my own inner wisdom.

I later learned some things about diaphragmatic breathing, and, how we naturally breath from our bellies as babies and young children, but stress, trauma and anxiety cause us to breath higher up in our chest as though we’re stuck in an extended startle response.

Proper breathing is the foundation of natural movement. Roughly 100 years ago a Shakespearean actor named F.M. Alexander developed a problem of losing his voice just as he was about to recite his lines. Through intensive self observation from setting up multiple mirrors in his home he realized that just as he was about to say his lines he tensed up his entire body, which ultimately manifested in him losing his voice. He realized this conditioned startle response was caused by stress and anxiety, and it was inhibiting his natural movement in other areas as well. Through these observations he later developed a technique to help others restore their natural grace and movement.

Your body knows how to move. What is needed is to overcome the anxiety and conditioning that causes the inhibition of natural movement. Once uninhibited,  natural reflexes take over, creating flow and a more graceful way of moving. In Western culture, children are trained to live in their heads. We often ignore our bodies, inhibiting natural movement. Grids of sidewalks, fences, walls, and concrete pavement force movement into straight lines and right angles. Spending long hours sitting on chairs create posture problems. Bells, clocks, stoplights and signs chop up our experience of space and time. Tight schedules creates anxiety and the concomitant breathing problems.

For these reasons, and through some insights I have gained from reading philosopher Gilles Deleuze, I have come to look at freerunning as a not only a spiritual practice, but a political one, as well. Parkour and freerunning allows the traceur to de-territorialize striated space, and re-appropriate it as smooth space.

Apparently I was not the only one to make this connection:

The institution of the street “grid” (or variations upon it such as Haussmann’s Parisian star-configuration) facilitates both the intelligibility — in terms of both navigation and surveillance — and control of space in the city. It situates people in urban spaces in determinate ways and channels the flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. The “grid” thus carries a number of normalizing and disciplinary functions, creating in effect what the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari refer to as a “striation” of urban space. This striation constitutes “a process of capture of flows of all kinds, populations, commodities or commerce, money or capital, etc.” within a field of determinate spatial coordinates (Deleuze and Guattari 386). It establishes “fixed paths in well-defined directions, which restrict speed, regulate circulation, relativize movement, and measure in detail the relative movements of subjects and objects” (Deleuze and Guattari 386). Many of these aspects of striation can be seen in the ways urban space is depicted in the “Rush Hour” video: in the gridlocked traffic, the flashing tail-lights, the “STOP” light and “WAIT” sign, the sign indicating the proper directional flow of traffic, and the grim, bundled-up pedestrians trudging home en masse along the congested streets.

Against these images of conformity, regulation, and confinement, the video presents the parkour ethos of originality, “reach,” escape, and freedom. Belle’s (shirtless) aerial traversal of the urban space between his office and his flat — a swift, improvisational flow across the open rooftops (and the voids between them), off walls, and finally down the sloping roof into his apartment window — cuts across the striated space of the streets below and positions him, for that time, beyond the constrictions of the social realm and its “concrete” manifestations. Though parkour necessarily involves obstacles that must be “overcome,” the goal of parkour is to do this as smoothly and efficiently as possible, or, in the language of its practitioners, for the movement to be “fluid like water.” The experience of parkour might, then, be said to transform the urban landscape into “smooth space,” in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense of “a field without conduits or channels” (371), and thus into a space of uninhibited movement, at least in certain ideal moments.

-Paula Geyh, “Urban Free Flow: A Poetics of Parkour”

By connecting with your childlike innocence and sense of play, freerunning opens you up to your body’s ancient inner wisdom. You move beyond the rational mind and enter the mysterious flow of the present moment. It almost feels like flying; something you once knew to do before you lost your wings. Maybe you, too, should don your running shoes and learn to fly again.

36 Comments on "Freerunning as Spiritual Practice and Political Statement"

  1. Anarchy Pony | Mar 27, 2013 at 12:35 pm |

    I was into parkour for a while, I used to practice in my barn, until I took a spill and detached a retina. I don’t really do it anymore, but it was a great feeling. Very occasionally I will still do a vault over something, but none of the dramatic stuff.

    One also needs to make a distinction between freerunning and parkour, where freerunning is about flash and style, parkour is supposed to be about flow, about purity of movement.

    • Jin The Ninja | Mar 27, 2013 at 12:45 pm |

      i didn’t know u were a ninja too;)

      • Anarchy Pony | Mar 27, 2013 at 1:41 pm |

        Once upon a time…

        • Jin The Ninja | Mar 27, 2013 at 2:26 pm |

          in fairness, it was a rather serious battle wound.

          • Anarchy Pony | Mar 27, 2013 at 3:31 pm |

            I actually didn’t really notice for a long time, but I got this sort of blind spot in my peripheral vision, that slowly got worse (like several months) until it started to encroach on my focal point.

          • sibilladart53hy | Mar 29, 2013 at 12:42 pm |

            my co-worker’s aunt makes $69/hr on the computer. She has been unemployed for 6 months but last month her paycheck was $13747 just working on the computer for a few hours. Read more on  Ask25.c­om

          • Jin The Ninja | Mar 29, 2013 at 1:25 pm |

            ninja don’t have use for gold. i take payment in the form of demon forged blades, deadly botanical poisons, rare scrolls and cursed artifacts.

    • That’s cool! Maybe I was doing parkour, then. I just didn’t want to present myself as being more acrobatic than I was. I can’t do flips. It wasn’t flashy but It really was about flow. I suppose some of it might have been flashy but I was doing it alone at night.

    • Is your eye OK now? There is a group here In Madison, I might check out. I did a lot of trail running in the woods this summer and really liked that. sometimes completely off the trail, navigating along natural features like rivers.

      • Anarchy Pony | Mar 27, 2013 at 3:30 pm |

        Well after two failed minor procedures and one surgical vitrectomy/ring implant later, it’s more or less okay. Doesn’t see as well as it did before, which wasn’t great anyway, but it isn’t blind. But yeah it sounds like what you were doing was parkour as opposed to freerunning. And many parkour maneuvers do look flashy, but they aren’t that way by design. But then I don’t think that parkour really has a strict set of “textbook” actions and moves.
        I’d love to do it again, but I’m just kind of scared. Any problems with my eyes really make me feel very apprehensive. So I’ll vault over a short gate or over some railings, but not much beyond that.

        • yeah I like vaulting. I even taught my dog to jump fences. There are some dogs that do parkour.

          • Anarchy Pony | Mar 27, 2013 at 3:55 pm |

            Yeah, there’s a pretty kickass vid about a dog in poland, I think, that learned to do a bunch of parkour-esque moves, pretty cool. Pit bullish I think

            A HA! Actually in Ukraine, the dog’s name is TreT: Vid quality isn’t that great, but it’s pretty awesome.

          • that really is awesome. Pitbulls are a amazing, fearless and yet eager to please. my dog was half pit bull and half collie. he could scale cliffs and climb trees and stuff, but not to that degree. But still it was always fun talking him for a run when he was younger.

            here is another cool clip of some malinois:


          • Anarchy Pony | Mar 27, 2013 at 8:08 pm |

            Pit bulls are great dogs, and they are so unfairly maligned, when I worked as a vet tech, all the pitties were such sweet dogs.

          • kowalityjesus | Mar 29, 2013 at 2:01 am |

            My roommate told me about his dog in Germany, a Bayerische Gebirgsschweisshund which he and his Dad use to hunt boar near the edge of the Black Forest. He was trying to explain to me about how one goes about obtaining one of these dogs. Apparently they are so capable in tracking that you literally need a license to own one if you aren’t police or military.

            Actually the whole affair of “hunting” in Germany is quite alien to our concept in the States. A hunter buys a license to hunt (which is very coveted) and they get a ‘jurisdiction’ within which to hunt. They then answer to the public living in that area whenever they have a complaint about a pest, usually boar. In fact the hunter is liable for damages to property, particularly crops, that wild animals in their territory inflict! That is why they have a hunting party beat through the bush every year. Their idea of social responsibility is SO foreign to ours, its nuts!!!

          • Oh, Bavarian Mountain hound! I had to google that one! Yeah, sounds like a good system, except more red tape though!

      • Anarchy Pony | Mar 27, 2013 at 4:15 pm |

        Also, another good physical activity that sort of lends itself to a sort of spiritual resurgence of the “primitive” self is archery, more so when using traditional style bows without the fancy accessories. Just using a naked bow. And this next part is a little weird but stay with me, especially when shooting au naturale. You will feel a spiritual connection to your ancestors and more natural mode of living, I swear.

        • I believe you. I swim naked most of the time. I always wanted to build a bow. That was one of my projects this summer, when I was organic gardening in the Adirondacks that I never got to. Its not weird at all. (OK maybe a little weird if I ran into some people while stalking around the woods naked with a bow and arrow!) But, as far as that goes, I think it would be awesome to live in the woods all summer with nothing but a bow and arrows and know how.

  2. I know very little about freerunning or parkour, however I think this video will be of interest. These piggies completely overreact.

  3. Anarchy Pony | Mar 27, 2013 at 10:11 pm |

    Don’t call Ted Shirley. And learn to spell.

  4. Anarchy Pony | Mar 27, 2013 at 10:11 pm |

    Don’t call Ted Shirley. And learn to spell.

  5. ParanoidCoast | Mar 28, 2013 at 1:56 pm |

    I enjoyed reading your article Ted. You explored some important points and themes about how space and place affect behaviour, transgression of space as resistance and embodiment.

    Western culture quite often downplays or ignores the role of the body on consciousness. The body and consciousness are a unity; you can’t have one without the other.

  6. ParanoidCoast | Mar 28, 2013 at 2:19 pm |

    Ted, have you ever read any of Michel de Certeau’s stuff? Check out the chapter “Walking in the City” in his book “The Practice of Everyday Life”.

    • I think I would actually love to do that. I do trail running like that. I have to get in shape though, but when I run that is the type of running I do. Trail running excpet with no trail. So basicvally bushwhacking. I am sure I would not win but it would be a blast! I’ve covered 50 miles before in 12 hours. So concievably I think I could do it. I should probably set some type of goal for this fall now that the waether is getting nice.

  7. kowalityjesus | Mar 29, 2013 at 2:16 am |

    Great read, Ted. You must have been crunchy as shit, if not still. I understand the thing about being comfortable crashing in hotel lobbies. People really do not question you unless you appear self-conscious. That image will stick in my mind.

    Here in Chicago, while I support people’s efforts to stay healthy, and am happy that they do not use a treadmill (which is completely antithetical to the concept of ‘running’) there is a nauseating conformity as to what constitutes a run. It is strange to think of how little time almost everyone I know has probably truly spent “off the trail.” I guess I have a number of advantageous inputs from an inchoate life-period that contribute to my relative exceptionalism in that regard, so I cannot truly judge, just thank God for my luck.

    Have you ever heard Calypso talk about his own forest running at night? I think he is a different generation than you or I, but he definitely professes to have shared this experience. Anyways thanks for the good article, later bro.

    • I got in really good shape last summer and then in the ensuing months I kind of got in less than great shape, so I am hitting the trail again this spring. I have never been able to run on a treadmill. That is for hamsters! Its so obvious! Its actually hard for me to spend much time in a gym period, if its at all nice outside. I enjoy calisthenics though, I might get a kettle bell through inspiration from Matt Staggs and Joe Rogan.

      • Calypso_1 | Mar 30, 2013 at 2:05 pm |

        I see no mention of it here but perhaps you have already come across the concept of dérive.
        Also ‘Born to Run’ is a fantastic book. Very inspirational- definantly one part marketing for vibram 5 fingers but a worthy read nonetheless.

        • Thanks, fascinating link. I have probably done that before as well, without realizing it, along with others I have known, too. For example hanging out with street musicians in a new town and trying to score food and booze and meet some women. Its pretty much an adventure. There is no planned out way to achive the mission. I am sure our route was very chaotic and non-linear. Yet at the end of the day we had food, wine, a campfire, and several hippy college girls sitting around it.

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