Always run the short route. And the short route is the natural, by which one says and does everything most soundly. For such an end delivers one from toils and warfare, and from all scheming and adornment (Marcus Aurelius Meditations 4.51).
I’ve trained Parkour for the past six years – about as long as I’ve been interested in Stoicism as practice. As I have made my journey as a practitioner of each, I have often felt a connection in the mindset each discipline cultivates, and the sorts of lessons each imparts.
I first encountered Parkour on a spring afternoon in 2012; I was walking home from a long day of classes and passed through a circular green partially girt by a moss-covered stone wall. On the other side, several students, took turns leaping over a low wall. An acquaintance – we were enrolled in beginning Greek together – spotted me as I walked by and tried to ask me to join
He described Parkour as a means to travel quickly from point A to B – a standard definition – and gave a laundry list of media representations. You may be familiar with some of them: in the opening minutes of Casino Royale (2006), Parkour co-founder Sébastian Foucan leaps, vaults, and climbs through a construction site with Daniel Craig in close pursuit; in the much-anticipated video game Mirror’s Edge (2007), the player-character, part of a resistance to an oppressive regime, uses Parkour skills to traverse a futuristic skyline; the popular video game franchise Assassin’s Creed has the player run, jump, climb, scale buildings, all to complete epic missions.
The superhuman images were enticing, yes, but I was more drawn in by the scene behind him. For the ten or so minutes we spoke, the practitioners behind drilled the same motion over and over; though they grew tired and fatigued, they never stopped, and gave off a preternatural aura of focus. It was their mindset that drew me in.
These immediately-familiar media representations effectively communicate what Parkour looks like, but provide little insight into Parkour as a discipline. Born in France in the 1980s, Parkour is a movement discipline in which the practitioner (called a traceuse f., traceur m.) uses their body to overcome obstacles in their environment with a view to mental and physical development.
Certainly, I’m not the first Parkour practitioner to notice a connection with Stoicism: in 2016, a major member of the community, Ryan Ford, listed “The Obstacle is the Way” as a must-read for Parkour athletes. Most traceurs and traceuses, I suspect, would see embodied in Stoic texts a mindset that accords well with their approach to training. But to someone who has not lived Parkour, the comparison is not readily apparent; it requires an examination of the traceuse’s thought processes, a glimpse into the act of training.
Last week, I decided to drill a rail precision. The goal is simple: while balancing on a handrail, leap, clear a six-foot gap and, landing softly on the opposite railing, maintain balance. In the thirty minutes I practiced, I heard a lot of comments running the gamut from encouraging to openly hostile. But, as usual, the main response was second-hand fear: “what if you fall?”
Whenever I train Parkour, whether in a public park, university campus, alleyway, I hear this a lot. It’s no surprise that danger is on people’s mind. At a glance, many parkour movements look dangerous. Consequences for failure are high: most often, I train on hard surfaces, such as brick, metal, or concrete, rarely do I encounter anything softer than grass. Coupled with high consequences for failure are plenty of factors that raise the risk of failure. Since Parkour is often trained outside, the traceuse must adapt to an intrinsically chaotic environment.
This January day was bitter cold. The ground was wet from freshly-melted snow. Passers-by were curious what a twenty-something was up to, shivering on a cold railing on a gray weekday morning, and stopped to watch and comment. Plenty of distractions from a movement that requires focus, plenty of physical factors that raised the risk of slipping.
Though misfortune happens, a Stoic can ensure a proper response by preparing for the worst. In letter 99, Seneca advises us to consider the wide range of potential misfortunes that could await us:
[I wrote this letter] so that I should encourage you henceforth to raise your spirit against fortune and foresee all its weapons, not as if they could come, but as if they undoubtedly would (Seneca Letters 99.32).
Indeed, the practice of praemeditatio malorum – imagining misfortunes and visualizing the proper response – allows the Stoic to act properly even in a worst-case scenario.
Likewise, before I attempt a jump for the first time – sometimes called ‘breaking’ a jump – I visualize every potential mishap and how I will react. If I undershoot the jump, I’ll extend my arms and drop into a hang; if I overshoot, I’ll absorb initial landing, then jump down and disperse impact by rolling. What if my feet slip? What if the obstacle breaks under impact? This visualization is an essential part of building up to a difficult or risky movement; since a lot can go wrong, a practitioner, strives to be prepared.
Indeed, Parkour aims to create an individual ready for any circumstance. As Malik Diouf, one of the discipline’s founders, writes:
Even if it’s dangerous and we’re putting our life at risk, as long as you enjoy what you do, it isn’t a problem. You just need to be focused and ready, and to have trained enough to pass the obstacle. It’s a bit like life, when you have problems … Things happen, but it’s your ability to react to a problem that will allow you to overcome it or not (Breaking the Jump, 8).
Because I rarely train in environments designed for Parkour, I must adapt my movement to my training spot. For this reason, Parkour does not have a canon set of movements. While there are common named techniques, e.g. step vaults, arm jumps, climb-ups, variations on these movements cannot apply to every situation. Such techniques represent the highest-frequency ‘vocabulary’ of movement, but specialized situations call for specialized language. Since the goal of Parkour is to become proficient in overcoming obstacles, I do not focus on learning specific techniques so much as creating a self capable of reacting to whatever obstacles are set before you – a mission not dissimilar to the Stoics’ concern with development of the self.
But, when faced with unexpected circumstances, sometimes we act ably and decisively; other times, we stumble and fall. In Stoic practice, we reflect on the day’s deeds, whether done poorly or well:
Don’t let sleep await your gentle eyes,
Until you tally each of the day’s deeds:
‘How did I err? What did I do? What duty has not been fulfilled?’
Beginning from this point proceed: and thereafter
Rebuke yourself for doing ill deeds, but delight in your doing good deeds (Epictetus Discourses 3.10.2-3).
These reflections allow the Stoic to learn from successes and failures and, in the face of similar challenges, to repeat and correct his or her actions respectively. Likewise, as a traceur, I must learn from my mistakes.
My worst parkour injury, a severe wrist sprain, came from a relatively common fall. When performing a laché – a swinging dismount – from a girder, I lost my grip on the upswing and found myself hurtling forward, feet above my head. Though I had imagined such a mishap before the attempt, I had never experienced this fall before, and I was unprepared. I’ve spent a lot of time, since then, replaying that mistake, discussing it with other practitioners, and training performing the fall safely; swinging from a branch, I let my hands slip and execute a pre-planned redirection of momentum – a half-twist and quadrupedal landing. Drilled hundreds of times, these techniques have become instinct.
This focus on reflection and phyiscal preparation for falls is best exemplified by Parkour Ukemi, a project started in 2011 by traceur Amos Rendao. Students of Parkour Ukemi reflect on their own falls or videos of other practitioners and practice safe ‘bails’ for the most common sort of falls. Failure is inevitable, but we can reflect on our mistakes and train ourselves to react properly in the future.
Yet heretofore, I’ve discussed mostly physical mishaps and training; what would an ancient Stoic, so concerned with cultivation of the soul, think of this intense physical training? In letter 15, Seneca criticizes those who exercise excessively; regardless of how much effort one expends in physical training, nature has set a hard limit to our capacity for physical excellence: a human being, no matter how able, can never outwrestle a prize bull. While some exercise is beneficial, he argues, it is best to limit it as much as possible and focus on mental development:
There are quick and easy exercises which both wear out the body swiftly and save time, of which we must keep especial account: running and lifting weights and jumping, either the high-jump or the broad jump or the one called, I may say, the Priest’s dance or, in reproachful terms, the fuller’s jump. Pick from these a simple and easy one to use, whichever you want. Whatever you do, quickly return from the body to the mind (Seneca Letters 15.4-5).
A little physical exercise promotes health and gives the mind a much-needed rest, but too much tires the soul – the Stoic’s real target of training. Seneca couches his critique of immoderate physical training in terms of a failure to cultivate the soul; the value of exercise is a function of the extent to which it aids in the development of the soul. If faced, then, with a movement discipline that focuses on mental as well as physical development – and encourages the practitioner to internalize the lessons of Stoicism – I suspect Seneca would feel quite differently.
Parkour offers more than physical strength and readiness – it cultivates the mind. Describing a famous (to practitioners of Parkour, anyways) death-defying jump ‘the Manpower gap’, Parkour co-founder Malik Diouf says:
But this kind of jump – you can’t just go and think or hope you can do it. You must be ready in your head and your body (Breaking the Jump, 82).
As a practitioner of Parkour, strength of mind and body go hand-in-hand. When breaking a jump, I must assess not just my physical capability and ability to react but also my mental will. Faced with a dangerous situation, the body easily enters a state of panic. When this happens, I can seize up and find myself unable to attempt a jump or, even worse, lose my focus midway through a movement. Before I try to break a jump, I have to ask myself: “if I start this jump, do I have the will to finish?” A half-hearted attempt at a jump over a steep drop or with difficult landing conditions can be catastrophic – certainly worse than not trying the jump at all. For this reason, in my parkour training, I must develop my capacity to overcome mental obstacles as well as physical ones.
Yet there is a limit to our ability to overcome mental obstacles. In Letter 9, Seneca writes of blushing, a subconscious reaction that afflicts even the wise:
For the body’s natural faults cannot be removed by any wisdom. What is imprinted and innate is moderated by practice, but not defeated. Even the most unwavering speakers break out in a sweat when before the people, as if he is fatigued or overheated; some tremble at the knees just before they speak; for some, teeth chatter, tongues trip, lips tremble. Neither training nor experience ever get rid of this these tendancies, but nature wields its own power and, by their own weakness, chastises even the hardiest (Seneca Letters 9.1-2).
No matter our Stoic training, we cannot entirely conquer certain reactions. An accomplished orator may remain calm more ably than an amateur speaker, but still get jittery nonetheless.
Such involuntary reactions reflect the traceuse’s relationship with fear. Whenever I attempt to break a jump, I’m faced with the same familiar feelings: my stomach feels lighter than normal, the gap before me widens, my legs are heavy, unwilling. Certainly, I experience fearful reactions less forcefully than when I began; jumps that once terrified me barely cause hesitation, now. But I am still subject to the same somatic reminders of fear, when, for example, I stand on a high object; though reduced, they’re still present. As a traceur, I can – in Seneca’s words – ‘tone down’ these reactions, but I cannot overcome them. Likewise, with fear itself.
My approach to moderating fear is quite similar to the Stoic strategy. The key is to recognize these fearful reactions as warning signs that precede debilitating patterns of thought. So Epictetus writes about dangerous initial impressions:
But first, do not get snatched away by its sharpness, but say ‘imagination, wait for me a little while: permit that I see what you are, and what you’re concerned with. Permit me to scrutinize you’. And afterwards don’t permit it to lead you on by imagining what’s next. And if you do, it will take hold of you and lead you wherever it wants. But instead substitute some other fair and noble imagination and cast out this one, which is filthy (Epictetus, Discourses, 2.18.24-6).
When I’m standing at the edge of a tall gap, and I feel my body enter ‘fear mode’, it’s easy to let my mind to follow along, visualizing my failure and convincing myself of impending injury; if this thinking goes unmitigated, it naturally leads to inaction. But I try, as Epictetus suggests, to head these thoughts off at the pass and substitute more constructive thoughts. I assure myself that I am capable of performing the movement at hand and counteract my fear of injury by strategizing for potential falls – the praemeditatio malorum, discussed above.
Yet a traceur’s relationship with fear differs from the Stoics in their focus on the body and soul respectively. The Stoics need not fear that mishaps will harm the soul. As Marcus Aurelius writes:
Circumstances themselves do not in any way whatsoever affect the soul nor do they have any way into it nor can they change or move it. But the soul changes and moves itself alone and whatever judgments it deems worthy for itself, in such a way it does what’s submitted before it. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.19).
The immaterial soul cannot by external factors themselves; it is the soul’s reactions to outside circumstance that harms. Yet, the traceuse’s body can be damaged, and so I cannot entirely disregard fear as irrational disturbance. I have to dialogue with fear and determine whether it is rational. As Seneca writes in letter 13:
First, reflect upon whether your evidence for future trouble is certain … We do not refute the impressions which cause our fear, nor investigate them, but we tremble and turn tail in the manner of soldiers who vacate their camps because of a dust-cloud roused by fleeing cattle, or who are terrified by some story that spreads unattributed (Seneca Letters 13.8).
We ought not assume all fear is groundless. As I prepare for a movement, I must examine the causes of my fear. Do I hesitate because I am incapable of clearing a gap? Is the movement beyond my reach? Training Parkour presents frequent opportunity to practice rationally examining first impressions; through the discipline, the Stoic lesson becomes habitual.
Parkour has become, for me, more than a discipline that reflects Stoic values or teaches similar lesson; rather, Parkour is integrated into my own Stoic practice, and in times of disturbance, I turn to each simultaneously.
One spring evening, a couple of years ago, my father had an aortic dissection, a tear of the aorta, which is about as serious as it sounds. I found out about an hour afterwards, as he entered an eight-hour emergency surgery; his survival would remain unclear for at least that long. I was far away from home at the time; there was little I could do but await a telephone call.
I walked to the neighborhood park to get some air, and tried to imagine in vivid detail how I would react, if I should hear the worst. I repeated helpful maxims: “never say of something ‘I’ve been bereft of it’, but ‘I’ve given it up.’” And while I ran through maxims under my breath, I found a low wall at the edge of the park and practiced the same vault over and over, persisting through the fatigue, focusing on the movement at hand. In that moment – as in every session I train – repeating and refining a movement became a sort of physical maxim, a continual somatic reminder of my progress, my ability to reason, my readiness for whatever faced me.
Ryan M. Pasco is a Parkour practitioner and PhD student at Boston University’s Department of Classical Studies. Though he primarily studies Attic Old Comedy, Ryan maintains a personal interest in applying Stoic philosophy to everyday life