Guarding abandoned factories may sound like a boring job, but sometimes, it could get really exciting. Recently, on a quiet morning, the security guard of Indian Home Pipes’ derelict mill in Delhi witnessed some unusual activity. Two youngsters came running towards the building, climbed over the brick boundary wall, jumped in and sprinted into the mill with lightning speed, accuracy and efficiency. Thinking that they were thieves, the guard called the police before running after them.
It took the youngsters, Mujahid Habib and Vijay Saini, some effort to convince the guard that they were not thieves. They are traceurs—people who do parkour or free running—and the stunts were part of their performance.
“Such incidents aren’t rare,” says Habib. “Watching us leap from one wall to the other, slide under fences and hurl over buildings, people often mistake us for miscreants. But after they know that it’s an art form we are practising, they can’t stop raving about our skills.”
A martial arts enthusiast, Habib got hooked to parkour after stumbling upon some videos online eight years ago. “It is so much fun,” says Habib, who has a 15-member group called Team Leonine, which won the first edition of the parkour competition organised by an energy drink in Mumbai in 2013.
Part dance, part sports and part gymnastics, parkour entails navigating city obstacles by using one’s physical ability—flipping in public parks, vaulting over vehicles and brick walls, sliding under park benches and scrambling up buildings.
Believed to have been developed by a bunch of French youngsters in the 1980s to navigate the city sprawl, parkour is increasingly finding favour among dance, sports and fitness enthusiasts, courtesy urban India’s quest for something unique. Little wonder then that a number of parkour training institutes have mushroomed across the country.
Unlike most sports and dance forms, parkour doesn’t have fixed moves, so there is scope to improvise. “You can be as creative as you want, which makes it a customised fun activity,” says Saini, who lives in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh. “Usually obstacles irritate people, but new roadblocks make us happy as it encourages us to find out fresh techniques to navigate them aesthetically. That is why we are lured by abandoned buildings, monuments and warehouses.”
At home and in the neighbourhood, traceurs are frequently summoned to take out stuff kept at a height or clean unreachable corners. Also, you could easily slip out of home for late-night dos without letting anybody know. “And, there is never the fear of being locked out,” says Saini. “Like, at home, nobody ever needs to open the main door for me.”
For fitness freaks, it is an innovative way to stay in shape, says Aman Roy, a trainer at Functional Fitness Group, which has eight centres across India. “After a point, almost every conventional form of exercise gets boring due to repetition of movements,” he says. “But there is no limit with innovating movements in parkour.”
But don’t mistake parkour for just another flamboyant technique to get fit. It is an artistic discipline that lets its followers develop a style and identity of their own and shine through. “We are not just doing random movements,” says Aman Kumar, who hails Rampur, a small town in Uttar Pradesh. “We’re expressing ourselves.”
Known for its knives, Rampur today has more than three dozen parkour enthusiasts.
Doing hand balancing, jumping and flipping may seem like child’s play, but it requires muscular strength and body awareness. “Like any other art form or sports, developing strength requires lots of practice, discipline and dedication,” says Mumbai-based parkour trainer Gunjan Sharma, who shot to fame last year after appearing on the reality show India’s Got Talent. But the hard work is worth it, he says, as it benefits you in every aspect of life. Most parkour enthusiasts claim that they rarely fall sick, that they recover quickly from injuries, and that they have improved memory power and focus.
Three years ago, Anu Agarwal of Delhi realised that her son Vardhan, 6, had a rigid body. “He was scared of climbing down the stairs, catch a ball, swim or even look down from the terrace,” she says. “I went to several doctors and physiotherapists, but all of them advised me to accept it.”
One day, Agarwal saw a bunch of youngsters practising parkour in South Delhi’s Lodhi Garden. “I really liked it and asked them if they could train Vardhan,” she says. Today, Vardhan is a confident boy. “Parkour changed my son’s life. He is now leading a fearless and normal life,” says Agarwal. “He has a huge circle of friends, can swim in the deep and loves to make me laugh with his ‘monkey walk’, things I had never imagined my son could do.”
Parkour enhances people’s consciousness about their surroundings, so their athletic and regular movements become smoother and refined. “Even a simple jump in parkour needs perfect placement of hands, feet and head,” says Roy. “It can be achieved only by being aware of each body movement. So, every move is no less than a full body workout.”
Therefore, experts caution people against learning parkour through online video tutorials without expert supervision. “Most online videos are made by professional traceurs,” says Sharma. “If you are a beginner you need a trainer to help you with diet, fitness and body movement before you achieve professional finesse.”
Atif Khan, 18, does parkour to up his cool quotient. “When you do something different you stand out,” says Khan, a first-year hotel management student, who has been doing parkour for three years. “While I wasn’t popular in school, almost everyone, especially the girls, in my college know me now.”
And, the future is bright. “With reality shows, films and ad commercials featuring parkour, the art form is here to stay,” says Habib, who has displayed his skills in films like Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl and Boss, and the Mountain Dew advertisement.