It’s almost nine in Pimlico, Central London. I’m standing on a bench, not more than two feet of the ground. The next bench in front of me seems to be at least a mile away. Eyeing its edge I’m wondering if in the faint light of the street lamps I won’t just smash my shins on it. That would be rather painful.
Behind me I can hear the coach’s voice giving instructions to other women. One of them came here from Paris just for a week. She’s jumping between wooden bollards seven feet tall. Clearly, she’s not scared. Maybe I shouldn’t be either. I decide to give it a go and jump for the bench in front of me. The soles of my shoes slip of its edge. It’s only by chance that I manage to land on my feet and not on my bottom. Sighting with resignation I get back on the first bench to try again. But I know this is not going to work. I’m going to hurt myself. Losing teeth on a wooden bench isn’t going to be exactly great.
My grim thoughts are interrupted when I see the coach approaching my benches of doom. Shirley Darlington of Parkour Generations is teaching the outdoor women’s class at Pumlico every Thursday. This is my first ever class and I’m worried I can see disapproval on Shirley’s face.
‘Don’t try if you can’t do it. Either know you can and you do it, or just don’t. You have to be sure. In parkour you cannot bail halfway through’. She gestures meaningfully towards the bit of the pavement in between my benches. Yes, if it was any higher I would have just hurt myself quite badly. ‘I don’t ever jump if it’s not one hundred percent.’
That’s something new. I stare at Shirley with disbelief but she actually means it. It’s okey not to do stuff. Nobody will judge me. I shouldn’t judge myself. It’s my own wellbeing at stake. Know you can do it or walk away.
Suddenly I feel very relaxed. I could walk away and it would be just fine. But I’m strong and fit and this bench is no more than four feet away. I do the jump with absolute certainty. It’s actually quite easy. Shirley tells me to repeat it at least three more times before I can move on to the next drill. So three times I jump being absolutely sure I can do it.
After jumps and balance practice Shirley devices a little route for us and seven women run in circles overcoming various obstacles on the course. The beauty of this discipline lies in its simplicity. You don’t need any gear and you don’t even need a gym. Barriers, bollards, walls and buildings provide endless possibilities for training. All of a sudden everything seems to be purpose built for physical and psychological challenge.
For two of us it’s our first ever parkour class. The rest had some previous experience with the discipline and our levels of fitness vary. However, the mental intensity of the practice makes us feel something like a team spirit from the first moments of the meeting. The group is focused and driven but provides a sense of security. It’s a great environment to start overcoming some of the mental blocks that impair my progress in climbing.
It turns out that what allows experienced practitioners like Shirley to perform amazing stunts is certainty. And it does not come from thin air but from endless repetition. After jumping between my benches not three but three thousand times, I guess even I could do it anywhere – miles off the ground level too.
Another great thing is that parkour teaches the body to be comfortable with some very weird angles and positions, adjusting itself to the environment. It’s the kind of physical intelligence that no climber can ever have enough of. Plus it’s a real whole body workout, which I got to know only a day after, waking up to a wonderful muscle ache.
So, the outcome of my little parkour experiment is very positive. Yes, it can make me a better climber. (In fact it already did – applying Shirley’s advice paid off during my last two indoor sessions.) Yes, I will make use of this chance. See you next Thursday at Pimlico!
PS. Just got back from my second class with Shirley. Less jumping, more conditioning. It turns out I’m not as fit as I thought. And that my back has more muscles that can ache than I ever suspected!
Photo courtesy of kiell.com