Move Like an Animal

Parkour is full of references to animals and their movements. Core moves of the discipline have names like the cat leap, slide monkey, cat balance, and kong vault (ok, I realise that ‘kong’ isn’t a real animal, but bear with me). Sebastien Foucan once said that we traceurs should try to move like animals through our environments. Stephane Vigroux’s nickname is ‘the monkey’ (le singe). One of the Storm freerun team goes by the name Spyder, and the title of one of David Belle’s most popular parkour videos was a play on the words Spider-Man.

Why the obsession with animals? I believe the answer is simple: we are trying to mimic their movements and ways of negotiating through their surroundings. To some observers this might seem ridiculous. Why would you want to move like a spider, or a monkey (or even a spider-monkey)? For one, you might look quite silly (a feeling which anyone training on their own in a public space will have had to deal with), but beyond that, you might say that humans can move perfectly well without having to imitate animals.

It is exactly this kind of arrogance which assumes that because of our technological innovations, our superiority over the rest of the animal kingdom is assured. We don’t need to outrun big cats any more, or evade other creatures which hunted our ancestors. We have vehicles, chemicals, guns and other inventions to enable us to control those animals which pose a danger to us – most of the time. Moreover, our technology has given us the edge over those animals in space and time – we can fly, sail and drive faster than the fastest animals on the planet, and access the resources we need for survival, like fuels, easily.

Despite all this, however, I would say that it is precisely because most animals must rely on their physical movement for survival that we can learn from them. Lest we forget, humans have only been around for the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. Animals like the crocodile, which can move swiftly and silently on land and in water, have existed for around 200 million years, compared to our rather small 2 million years or so. They must be doing something right to stick around so long, and movement is surely a part of it.

Many modern humans may have forgotten that we are still animals, and by comparison to lots of species, our locomotive skills leave something to be desired. This is increasingly the case today, as technology makes our lives easier and more sedentary. Some people move very little altogether, which has significant implications for health. But not all humans are ignorant of certain animal’s superior movements.

The ancient Chinese, for example, spotted the effectiveness of animal movements almost two thousand years ago for the purposes of exercise. Around a thousand years ago they applied this to their martial arts, and developed animal forms, or ‘styles’ of kung fu, based on the distinctive movements of certain animals – like the eagle, snake, leopard, monkey and praying mantis. I’ve placed a link to some examples of these below. It’s captivating to watch a person take on the movements – even subtle mannerisms – of an animal and apply that to movement.

When we practice parkour, we should aim to move as fluidly and efficiently as possible. There is a lot to learn from the natural world in our discipline. So next time you see an animal, watch how it moves and think about how well adapted it is to its environment. Challenge yourself to move as it moves (unless it happens to be a bird launching off a three-storey rooftop!). While animal movements and the idea of imitating them might seem strange, if we watch and learn from those creatures who move over and around obstacles more smoothly, powerfully or gracefully than us, we can make another step towards mastering our own movement.