(Updated with Slideshow) Parkour: We Try to Become Our Very Own Leaping, Spinning, Pipe-Grabbing, Pedestrian-Avoiding Jason Bourne
The program remains dedicated more to the pursuit of the spirit rather than to the pitch of the bottom line. The classes, five days a week, stay small, and the instructors remain as patient and encouraging with those on a first try as they do with the non-amateurs who regularly come to enjoy the afternoons and evenings. Still the only structured parkour organization in Houston, Urban Movement has finally begun expanding, hiring a fourth instructor -- a 24-year-old teacher named, simply, Ra -- and, per the Segway highlights, has finally begun making a mark on the downtown spaces they hoop through for most of the week.
Of course, it's one thing to read about the physiological benefits of scrambling through a well-tended city block; it's another altogether to actually put those words into practice. Saturday morning provided just such an opportunity for Hair Balls to test the claims that using a curb as a balance beam was useful beyond escaping Jason Bourne.
Gathering in the shadows of the Wortham Center, patchy clouds hanging above, the Urban Movement instructors greeted their patrons with a clear voice. "You'll have to train through the pain," Pratto told the dozen of us circled up. "If you're just starting off, you'll probably bang your knee and smash your shin -- we all have -- but we're here to try to keep that to a minimum. And if you think that you're just going to sprint through all of this -- you won't."
And he was right. Even if you wanted to sprint through the subsequent course -- even if, like Parisian Cathy Marais, you've been parkour-ing for months -- Pratto and Hamner make sure you have no energy left to approach anything near a sprint.
The waivers signed beforehand alert those unaware that, yes, there's a bit of danger involved in the practice of parkour. It's physical exertion, writ across a city. It's going to hurt. However, the class listings, now available on GroupOn, don't let on that the most physically demanding aspect of the day's activities center is not the hand-springs and sweep-legs but rather the most stringent, sweatified warm-up you'll ever experience.
Sprints through stairs. Push-ups at pace. Crawling sideways, leap-frogging straight-legged back and forth. Tenderizing your palms on the cobbled rock. Heating your triceps and straining your quads until they're quivering and nearly empty. Only after you find the sweat rolling down your nose, only when your hips are locked in exhaustion -- only after Wes informs us that anyone caught leaning or sitting will be subjected to more push-ups -- are we ready to reach for the walls over which we'll spend the morning leaping.
Indeed, the actual parkour aspect of the class is the easiest part of the entire course. It's paced slowly, full of reminder and encouragement and rote repetition, and confidence builds as your body recovers. The initial focus on exhaustion and heart rate, instead of simply getting yourself warmed, is carried within parkour's philosophy.
"If you come at it fresh, you're going to land the first few jumps, and you're going to build up a false confidence about your abilities, especially when you then get tired," Hamner says. "And so we want you to be already tired when we're teaching you -- if you can accomplish this when you have no energy now, you can do it again in the future. And you can do this with whatever mental hurdles you have outside of parkour."
The three-foot wall we spend the morning near was no match for our later swing-throughs: Placing a pair of hands to your side, you jump your opposite leg out and bring your other leg through the empty triangle between body and brick. Backward, forward. Over and over. Touch the ground, lightly. Keep your palms flat for traction. Move to a slightly higher wall. Do it again.