n/PK - Nepal Parkour
n/PK is a small zine detailing the parkour training scene in Nepal, as experienced by a visiting parkour practitioner from outside Nepal. Originally posted on www.penelopedavison.com, where you can download the print zine.
A big thank you to the following people and organisations: Asim Shrestha, Dinesh Sunar, Christian Maki, Saroj Tamang, Ramesh Shrestha, Boby Qumal, Uttam Bist, Ujwal, the Nepal Parkour and Freerunning Association, the Parkour and Freerunning Association of Nepal (Nepal Parkour), and everyone else who helped me feel welcome. Special thanks to Dishebh for arranging the zine for print.
WHAT IS PARKOUR?
It really depends who you ask. If you ask a stranger on the street, typical responses include:
· Jumping between rooftops. · Doing flips and tricks. · Getting from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ as quickly as possible.
These responses are varying levels of correct, but it’s a little more nuanced than that.
Parkour Earth, a grassroots international body for parkour, defines parkour as an umbrella term, neatly wrapping around ‘purist’ parkour, freerunning, and l’art du déplacement. Generally speaking, parkour is the practice of learning to overcome physical and mental obstacles. This is often with the goal of maximising speed and efficiency of movement in an effort to gain utilitarian strength that can be useful in a reach or escape situation, or more commonly, to be more helpful and resilient in day-to-day life. Physical obstacles are overcome through a mixture of running, climbing, vaulting and jumping. There’s a focus on increasing mental fortitude through challenge and learning to safely manage fear and judge risk, but values such as altruism, humility, and often non-competitiveness are core to the practise.
Parkour originated from a mix of military and indigenous practices from a range of sources, but coalesced into its current form in France around the 1990’s. Beginning with David Belle and an expanding group of friends and fellow athletes who called themselves the Yamakasi, parkour was gradually developed through a period of intense training. Over time they pushed this training further and further to test their physical and mental limits, which included the oft-imagined roof jumps (which in modern training is somewhat niche, and only one element of high level training).
Just as the original founders of parkour had differences in how they saw or trained parkour, the way people practice or define parkour differs as well. Parkour differs from traditional sports in its philosophical base of non-competitiveness, and this non-competitiveness is exactly what attracted a lot of original practitioners and youth disillusioned with team sports. Many were also attracted by the other parts of the philosophy, including altruism, longevity, and a focus on self-improvement and humility. But as high-level parkour athletes impressed the public through perceived riskiness, and freerunning further increased the visual interest through incredible tricks and bravado, the interest of outside companies to commercialise and market the discipline became greater and greater.
This would lead to the biggest disagreements, fights, and political issues across the worldwide parkour community. Purist parkour communities worried about the dilution of the original meaning of parkour, and argued that commercialisation and competition was in direct opposition to parkour itself. Freerunning-oriented communities were more open, seeing it as an opportunity to show their skills to wider and wider audiences, and also bring some money into their communities and help them grow or become sustainable. Some communities opted to sit somewhere in the middle, and create or support their own competitions or businesses to keep parkour more closely in the hands of the community.
The definition of parkour, and the place of competition and commercialisation, is still the subject of intense debate. FIG, an international gymnastics organisation, has recently named itself the global authority on parkour, despite having had nothing to do with the discipline’s development or history. This has frustrated many of the existing parkour organisations or practitioners, who see their practice as entirely separate from the rigidity of gymnastics. While controversial, some cannot ignore the benefits of embracing FIG, and this continuously causes ideological and social rifts in communities. It’s a constant hard choice between catering to popular appeal and receiving sponsorship and resources in return, or sticking to the heart and values of the discipline at the expense of opportunity. This tension between values is also reflected locally in the Nepali community.
Parkour in Australia and Nepal
I started my own parkour journey in 2011, in Canberra, Australia. I attended classes and jams for years, before I began assisting classes and running some of my own. In 2016 I moved to Melbourne, Australia, getting involved with the Women of Melbourne Parkour, and the jamming community. In 2018, with friends I co-founded my own parkour and movement teaching organisation Melbourne in Motion, before later becoming vice-president of the Australian Parkour Association (the APA). The APA as an organisation holds a purist view of parkour, but is a member of Parkour Earth, and individuals hold their own views about the definition of parkour and competition.
There are two main parkour organisations in Nepal, and they’re both based in Kathmandu. There’s the Parkour and Freerunning Association of Nepal (also known more recently as simply Nepal Parkour), which is run by Asim. There’s also the Nepal Parkour and Freerunning Association, run by Dinesh. Confusion between the two similarly named groups is understandable. There’s crossover between students, community members, and international guests, who all engage with both. Despite this overlap, the remnants of political and personal disagreements between the leaders of the two groups are clear. Regardless, both groups appear to share the goal of growing parkour in Nepal, despite approaching it in different ways.
Funding is a problem across both communities. In Nepal athletes have continuously left parkour, despite their passion, due to the current inability to make a living from the practice. Such athletes have drifted into adjacent fields such as circus, stunts, and dance. Both leaders, Asim and Dinesh, spoke to the difficulties of how to make athletes sustainable and independent, how to get money to invest into new equipment or spaces (such as gyms), and fitting out these spaces appropriately. Asim prefers to work behind the scenes, giving up movement himself in an effort to manage others more effectively and raise awareness of parkour through his work in the Nepali media. In contrast, Dinesh is stepping into the spotlight himself, and doing everything he can to bring in outside attention and sponsorship. This includes working towards numerous Guinness World Records and embracing sponsorship from international parkour groups. It becomes a continuous struggle for visibility and legitimacy in the eyes of Nepal, each other, and the greater worldwide audiences and communities.
This struggle for visibility was apparent in the way my presence was treated and publicised by the two groups. Both were excited and welcoming, but it became clear that spending time with one group came at the risk of frustrating the other. My status as vice-president of the APA added legitimacy to any media shared, and in response I needed to consciously put in effort to be equally visible in both groups, and not favouring one or the other. I was reluctant to accidentally tip the scales of legitimacy in one direction or the other, and I was very aware of my privilege in this scenario. Being a temporary guest, I would leave when my time was done and not have to live with any repercussions within the community.
Within the Nepali parkour community, there’s a noticeable absence of anyone not male. When asked about it, I was informed of an all woman team who had existed before the earthquake regressed Kathmandu’s parkour community back to zero, a small but symbolic casualty of the tragedy. When another source was asked, I was told there were three or four women who used to train amongst a roughly estimated 30-50 parkour practitioners. This reflects an unfortunate trend across parkour communities, which tend to be extremely male dominated. In my brief time training amongst the community, I, a woman, received a strong amount of romantic and/or sexual interest from multiple sources, from both sides of the community. And while I acknowledge my position as a short-term guest (and therefore a novelty), I can speculate that this uncomfortable level of attention could be a contributing factor to the lack of non-males in the community.
When practicing in public, no members of the public seemed to express disapproval. There were no calls of “that’s dangerous!” or “get down from there, you could hurt yourselves!” as is common in Australia. Instead, people congregated, and watched. And watched, and watched. People congregated quickly, and seemed to stay until the action stopped, for far longer than most Australian audiences. For one free workshop organised by Nepal Parkour, a crowd of around 20-25 men gathered, presumably to take part. When the workshop started however, initially only two participants got involved, the rest stating they were only there to watch. While some people eventually warmed up and joined in, it was shocking that such a crowd had already gathered from just the mere promise of public spectacle, not including the additional curious onlookers who continued to build up over time.
While there was a small level of implicit hierarchy in the form of clear leaders, such as Asim and Dinesh, there was an encouraging culture of co-operation across communities. Everybody was keen to share the achievements of each other, such as gold-medals in sports or achievements in their professional lives. Athletes supported each other in training, through encouragement, automatically spotting each other and obstacles for safety without complaint, and patiently teaching complex manoeuvres to others. There was never a moment when someone was ridiculed for not making something, or not measuring up to some unspoken standard.
In 2015, Asim opened a parkour gym with the help of Canadian Christian Maki, however since the Nepali earthquakes in 2015, the gym has been unusable and thus abandoned. Dinesh has since opened his own gym, also with the help of Christian Maki, which appears to be the cause Dinesh is working so hard to fundraise for.
When Dinesh had managed to secure some funding, both parkour practitioners and friends banded together to help renovate the parkour warehouse. This was done without question, a community working together for a single cause. Local food was brought in at regular intervals, and the group worked tirelessly until well after sunset.
Asim talked about the value of parkour in emergency situations, and his version of parkour seemed to roughly translate closer to purist parkour, or ADD, even if certain terminology central to the discipline in Western communities is missing (such as the core phrases “be strong to be useful”, or “to be and to last”). In contrast, Dinesh’s organisation leans heavily towards gymnastics and competition, to a point that feels even further from purist parkour than freerunning. They’ve seemingly lifting the visuals of the movement with less or none of the philosophy; which is the exact grievance that older parkour communities have towards gymnastics and the misappropriation of the discipline as a whole by FIG and other organisations. Coming from a purist parkour/ADD background, this strong disconnect from the original roots of parkour makes me feel uneasy, but conflicted. The heavy use of logo’s in their media and abundance of sponsorship is antithetical to what the APA represents, yet it would be inappropriate for me to judge them for that, or see them as an enemy in my community’s struggle against FIG when I can so clearly see the benefits that sponsorship and competition brings their community. It raises all the shades of grey in what I wish was an easy black and white issue, about the choice between smaller communities bleeding talent and members who need to earn a living, and larger, well-structured communities that may come at the expense of what made the discipline so special in the first place.