Esbjörn Svensson Trio – What Though The Way May Be Long

I began training parkour around 2004 at a time when the discipline was not well known, and was even less understood by myself as well as many others who had been inspired by videos of David Belle, and his unique displays of strength, speed and agility in his home town of Lisses, France. The practice of using the environment as both a means of strengthening the mind and body, as well as a playground, obstacle course and place of exploration and discovery, blurred for me the boundaries between exercise, philosophy and art, and continues to influence my way of viewing the world today.

I made this video and wrote the accompanying text with the intention of showing a different way of practising and thinking, which was less dramatic, more contemplative and altogether different from what was seen in the majority of videos at the time. Almost eight years after it was filmed, this video represents for me not just an important moment in my own history, but also an art that is vanishing beneath shallow, diluted forms of its original potential.

Originally posted on on Feb 3rd 2008:

Before I wrote this or uploaded my video, I debated with myself over whether or not to post my ideas and experiences. In the end I decided that it can do no harm simply to share my opinion with everyone.

This piece of writing is purely to highlight my own thoughts on certain issues and is not meant to be a discussion about what is, and what is not Parkour.

Within it I may use the term ‘Parkour’ to describe what I train, but it is not an attack on it’s definition, or anyone who wishes to stick to it.

One of my goals that I hope to achieve through training is the ability to move, react, and act, not just any way I please, but also any way necessary to suit best any given situation. A few examples of this would be having the strength and flexibility in order to climb something, being able to spontaneously dance without fear of embarrassment whenever I hear music that moves me, and also to live my life day to day, in such a way that brings the most peace to myself and those around me. This is what I understand the concept of ‘flow’ to be, both in the context of philosophy and Parkour.

For me, it is a very limited and limiting view to think of Parkour only as the most efficient route physically from A-B, overcoming physical obstacles X and Y. This is partly because the vast majority of physical obstacles that I have faced, and will face during my lifetime, will be the ones that I face out of choice. I have maybe only been chased once that I recall, and I believe that by living a peaceful life of non violence and acceptance of others I create a world in which I don’t have to escape.

As a race we no longer live in a kill or be killed world, where other humans or animals are an immediate threat to our survival (although some people may have you believe that). It is no longer only the strong who survive, and this is one reason why my motivations for training are not for the sole purpose of escape.

‘Be strong, be useful’, but how can we really use our time on earth effectively and be useful to anyone if we are dedicating a lot of time and energy to training for an imaginary scenario that may never occur?

I believe that real life chase situations can never be predicted, but I feel confident within myself that if it was really required of me, then I could run vault and climb to escape in such a scenario.

If everyone across the world stopped training altogether, but spent the exact same amount of time and energy on doing voluntary work for example, I think that would have a greater affect on the population and its consciousness as a whole, more than physical Parkour could do. Because in some ways training can be quite selfish, and at times I actually feel as if I don’t care what anyone else wants or does, I just want to go out and train ‘such and such’. And I think this is especially true if you train alone.

I’m not suggesting that everyone goes and helps change bedpans at the weekends and after school or work, but I think we can get caught up in illusions about what it is we are really training for.

Being able to clearly perceive the world around us is the key to training safely and effectively, but how can we do this when we approach obstacles with the thoughts about what similar, or the same obstacles were like last time we faced them? Our experiences of the past can cloud our judgement, or rather, our simple observation of what is at the present moment. I think it is naive to assume that the circumstances of our training are ever repeated, as there are far too many different factors to take into account. If we always base what we see as possible on what we have done before, then how do we ever progress? I believe that it is all uncertain, but we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we know what will happen each time we move. I’ve heard countless people standing at the edge of a wall trying to prepare themselves for the jump saying ‘I know I can do it’. If you know and are certain that you can perform any jump or movement then you will never need any preparation. Not even a second to adjust your footing or position. I also believe the opposite to be true; that we don’t know that something is impossible, and the only way to find out is to try. What I’m suggesting is that we change the way we think.

Personally I believe that fear is unnecessary in life, and that it is fear that holds us back in everything. To face and overcome these fears is one of the main reasons I train. We don’t need fear to tell us about the dangers involved when training or even during day to day life. We are already aware of such dangers, both consciously and subconsciously. When crossing a busy street I am totally aware of the danger and that I could be hit by several cars should I just suddenly walk out without looking. But I am not scared. Fear inhibits us and or ability to react effectively. When we are scared we lose concentration, we hesitate and we lose our good form that we have spent years trying to perfect through training. It can be argued that everything we do has some danger, in one shape or another, but if the purpose of fear was to inform us of these dangers then we would see the entire world as a threat to our own safety, and would live in a state of continuous fear of the endless list of possible things that could go wrong in any given situation. The fact is, while practising we perform many dangerous movements without fear, simply because we have come some way to conquering it. How many of us have been told by members of the public that what we’re doing is dangerous and we must ‘be careful’? As if we weren’t aware of the dangers and were carelessly moving through our environment with no regard for our own safety. It’s similar to flagging every bus down, just to tell the driver to drive safely, because if he crashes he could get hurt.

I am scared of heights and have been for as long as I can remember, and whenever I get scared it’s as if everything I have learned counts for nothing. I doubt my grip, my legs become weak and unsteady, and I feel physically incapable of doing things I could quite easily do at a lower height without any real effort.

Living without fear doesn’t mean that you will act recklessly. If I was suddenly to lose all fear I wouldn’t go and attempt to jump off the roof of my house just because I was no longer scared, because I will still retain the knowledge and understanding of the possible consequences of my actions. To live without fear of death doesn’t mean that you no longer value your life, but it comes from a deep understanding and acceptance that regardless of what your choice of lifestyle is and what safety precautions may be in place, you could die at any minute because of things beyond your control.

An important lesson I have learned is that there is only so much confidence skill alone can bring. There are countless movements, moves and routes that I am more than physically able to perform, but am let down by my lack of confidence or fear. When we feel confident we hold ourselves differently and we move more effortlessly. Our thoughts and beliefs shape the way in which we move and also determine to some degree what is, and what is not possible.

Quite recently I discovered a technique called imaging, taught and used by dancers (and also actors) to improve their posture and efficiency of movement. The basic premise of the technique is that thought affects the behaviour of our bodies, and this power is harnessed by developing a repertoire of images that you relate to, in order to positively affect your body in different ways. For example imagining yourself as an actual ball when you perform a roll. The one strong image I am now aware I have used during training is that I imagine my legs and feet are arrows, pointing me in the direction I wish to travel and focusing the flow of energy. Like when going feet first into an underbar or executing a precise jump. Until I began reading about imagery I was vaguely aware that at times I held that image in my mind when training, but didn’t know that there was a technique there at work, or that there was even a technique at all, and I’m sure other people are using imagery without actually realising. At some stage I would like to experiment with consciously harnessing images in order to aid my development.

You can see the affect thought has for yourself with this simple test: first turn your head to the left and then back again. Then try the same, but while you are doing so, think about moving in the opposite direction.

We are able to see if someone is upset by the expression on their face and even by their posture. I spent time observing and analysing this body language and the way in which people train, some of them friends, but mostly strangers. I think you can tell a lot about a person and their perspective on things, their mood and attitude by the way they train. It is also beneficial to notice these things in ourselves, and for our minds and bodies to be in tune with each other in order to get the most out of our efforts.

Certain things caused me to look at what it means to flow efficiently. During the summer I had been training in a relatively small area using a few basic movements and tracing a route that included a climb, when I was approached by two men who were interested in what I was doing. They said that their boss would be interested in seeing too, and asked whether I wouldn’t mind putting on a little ‘show’ for some kind of reward. As always I replied that I did not like performing, but what I could do was continue just as I was before once their boss arrived. I had no good reason to refuse, so when the boss and the rest of his entourage showed up I simply continued the route and executed the movements like I had been doing for the past two hours or more. For that I got a round of applause, countless thanks and a golden handshake of £10. You could say that I sold out, that I used my skills to earn money, but I believe that this situation was quite possibly the first actual test of what I had learnt up to that point. My training was put into practice in front of a crowd of people and under pressure. This is an example of why I believe that Parkour extends way beyond the current definition. In that situation I did what brought most harmony and joy to myself and those around me. It would have been easy to say no, but it was a challenge to say yes. Not only did I get to test my abilities in a situation that can’t be easily emulated, but I brought happiness to a group of strangers. What reward is bigger than that? For me, that is what ‘flow’ and Parkour in an everyday sense are all about. If the world asks something of you, then you should be able to do whatever it is, and enjoy it.

To be able to adapt to any obstacle, to any situation, in order to overcome it, this is what many people, many traceurs say they want to accomplish. But how many people are trying to do this any other way than in the physical sense? I am reminded again of the quote ‘be strong, be useful’. How can we truly be strong of mind, and useful to others if we focus all our energy on this physical activity but are unable to achieve balance in relationships and other areas of life? What use is Parkour, if for example, after a day’s training you go home and argue with your family, or you become depressed and frustrated if you are unable to train at all?

Parkour could be used to escape, but I don’t think it is to be used for escape, to get away from it all. If it has taught me anything it is that I don’t need to run. For every challenge, every fear that I face, I learn something that enables me to tread where once I couldn’t.

We tend to do what we find comfortable and easy, we eat the same foods, listen to the same familiar music and even tend to make friends with people who all have similar interests to ourselves. The same applies to training, and we end up with favourite, or preferable moves and locations, and ones right at the opposite end of the spectrum. The problem is that we get into a sort of rut, and once you’re in that rut the snowball effect takes hold and it becomes increasingly difficult to get out. I believe that in order to really progress, and progress most rapidly, we must be in a constant state of breaking habits and challenging the things we find uncomfortable. Whether it’s a habit of doing the same vault or the habit of reacting to criticism with anger, for example. Looking at things in this way it is easy to see what we should train and what we can learn most from. Just look towards what you are avoiding, and then go and do it. If you don’t want to train in the wet, then that is a perfect example of when you should be training! With this method of using your fears and preferences as a guide to what you should train, you will never find yourself without something to work on. In fact, you will probably find that instead of having to look for the challenges and the obstacles to tackle, they will find you.

For me, everything is a habit, and not being able to do something is just as much a habit as being able to something is. The same goes for being drawn towards, or away from certain types of moves, situations, people, or anything you can think of. ‘The habit of breaking habits’. That is as simple as I can put what Parkour means to me.

To be able to do the things you once avoided and were afraid of, surely that is more freedom than you will ever need?

I feel that it is slightly misguided to place so much emphasis on physically conditioning your body without any regard for the way in which your mind has been conditioned from before you could even walk.

When I train I find myself very aware of my fears, anxieties, worries and habits that cause me to feel restrained, but also make me want to retreat to what I find familiar and comfortable. This is another motivation for my training, to dissolve these fears in every aspect of my life. All these things can sometimes require too much mental and physical effort on my part to achieve, which is why I also choose to also simply move on instinct, spontaneously, whether in some sort of route or not, and simply, just for fun, with fun being the means as well as the end. And I respect anyone who chooses the same. I think that in order to be flexible and adaptable it is vital that we learn to balance ‘serious training’ with playing and just moving because it feels good, and not think less of ourselves or others for doing so. It’s just all part of the journey. You may find yourself after three years thinking ‘I should be stronger, faster, more confident’, but you should remember that regardless of what your ability is now, you had fun along the way. Otherwise, what is the point of reaching a level such as David Belle’s or beyond, if you don’t enjoy what it takes to get there? I wouldn’t want to spend my life doing anything where I only found happiness somewhere at the end, and not along the way.

To me, there isn’t a real distinction between what we may call ‘Parkour’, and what we call ‘life’. They are an inseparable whole and I feel we should view them as such. If we are observant of our surroundings and act with insight when we train, then we should be unbiased in how we live the rest of our lives too.

I feel that all of us have something to teach, and at the same time we can always learn from people who are less experienced than ourselves, and not just those who we consider to be ‘better’ than us. I feel that the best way to teach someone is not to tell them anything, but to silently demonstrate the values you live and train by. Your advice won’t be trusted if for example, you tell someone (especially a child) to always practice basic movements where everything you do is precise, when you aren’t practising it yourself. If you are guiding someone less experienced, it is a good way of keeping your own training in check, so that you do as you say, instead of just saying it.

For me, movement is the tip of the iceberg that is the journey towards higher consciousness. I feel that Parkour has opened peoples eyes in many ways, to something bigger than its external, and physical manifestations, that as a whole we find hard to pinpoint and put into words. People have begun questioning things that span beyond ‘how can I execute move X?’, and for me this is part of Parkour’s ultimate purpose. To get us to question life and examine beyond what we see and what is tangible, to enable us to find our own paths.

I feel I have found my way and no longer spend all my energy on the endless road of questions, because I know that unless I actually act upon a thought or an idea, no amount of just thinking will change a situation.

This is my experience.

I feel the journey is just beginning.

I’d like to thank everyone I ever trained with, those who taught, inspired, tested and poked fun at me, everyone I met along the way, those who I am yet to meet, and every individual willing to walk the path.

This video is for you.