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.