You know if The New Yorker is covering a burgeoning fitness movement, the fitness movement must be a bit highbrow. You also know if the movement is French, there must be some existentialist philosophy involved. Parkour is taking the sport of exercise to a whole new level.
David Belle created parkour as a teenager in the mid 90's in a suburb of Paris. A restless spirit, he found regular sports and gymnastics overly complicated (too many rules) as well as boring and pointless. Ahhh...the ennui of youth. Parkour is a verbal riff on the French word "parcours" which means “route,” and it is a quasi commando system of leaps, vaults, rolls, and landings designed to help a person avoid or surmount whatever interferes with his or her route. If you saw Casino Royale, then you experienced an amazing parkour run as Bond chases an assassin through, in and around an active construction site. For me, this scene was the most exciting part of the movie and I was even more excited to learn that the scene was based on activities of real people (don't know if I should use the word "real" here since the men and women that participate in parkour seem almost superhuman) not Hollywood.
Philosophically, parkour requires both physical and mental strength. One slowly works up to jumping from extreme heights, challenging the body more as it acclimates to the landing. One also has to confront the fear of the challenge, but with a heavy dose of realism. Participants of parkour love and respect life, in fact they often imagine that their workouts may some day save them if they are ever chased by some sort of criminal element.
Parkour, like extreme sports, is truly difficult to describe. I found a commercial David Belle made for television station BBC One. While it is edited and cannot be considered "true" parkour, at least by the strict definitions of those that participate in the sport, this clip will give you a taste of what it is all about. Want to watch it? Then read more
If you want to read up on Parkour, you can find the entire article No Obstacles by Alec Wilkison on the New Yorker website.
If you are interested in learning more about parkour here in the states, check out this web site AmericanParkour.com.