More than a competition: Parkour training develops mind and body in quest to overcome obstacles

Photo by Sue Suchyta Jacob Loftis, 13, of Taylor practices Parkour training on a warped wall at Downriver Gymnastics in Southgate. The aim of the holistic training is to get from point A to B in an obstacle course using only the body and surroundings for propulsion.

Photo by Sue Suchyta
Jacob Loftis, 13, of Taylor practices Parkour training on a warped wall at Downriver Gymnastics in Southgate. The aim of the holistic training is to get from point A to B in an obstacle course using only the body and surroundings for propulsion.

Times-Herald Newspapers

SOUTHGATE – Unlike popular obstacle course competitions like “American Ninja Warriers” that have popularized Parkour training, the pure discipline springs from group training emphasizing cooperation and humility along with personal growth.

At Downriver Gymnastics, 13777 Eureka Road in Southgate, teens and young adults worked alone and in small groups Nov. 18 to build skill, strength and agility while honing tumbling and gymnastics skills in a safe environment.

Downriver Gymnastics has offered Parkour through Wyandotte community education so children who want to learn the techniques they have seen online may do so in a safe, padded environment. If community classes don’t fill up, Downriver Gymnastics will find a class at its gym for youth seeking training.

Parkour, with roots in French military obstacle course training, teaches participants to travel from one point to another using the most efficient means possible, using only their body and surroundings while maintaining momentum in a safe environment.

The courses, often set in urban spaces, challenge participants to see their environment in new ways as they traverse obstacles while running, jumping, climbing and swinging.

As Parkour popularity and competitions grow worldwide, pure practitioners oppose the competitive element.

Parkour began when Raymond Belle, born in Vietnam in 1939, trained himself to survive and thrive in a military orphanage at age 7 when the First Indochina War separated him from his French physician father and a Vietnamese mother.

Years later, in France, Belle’s son David, an athlete and gymnast, unhappy with competitive sports, learned survival and protective skills from his father that would change on his life.

As David Belle began training with his cousins and like-minded individuals, he adopted the term Parkour, based on the French term parcours, military obstacle courses.

Hassan Hijazi, 22, of Dearborn, a DG Parkour instructor, said he, like many others, became aware of Parkour through videos posted online.

“It started hitting the mainstream media,” Hijazi said. “The media just ate it up. It was entertainment. People loved it. Some shows came out on MTV, and even on YouTube. I think it grew mostly on the Internet.”

Hijazi said a friend first showed him a Parkour video online during a computer class when he was in high school.

“(Parkour) just completely astounded me,” Hijazi said. “I fell in love with it. It was something different. To just use your human body in these ways it completely redefined the limitations in my head.”

Owner Kelli Huntington Cook said the Parkour program began five years ago when teen boys used weekend open workout time to practice Parkour.

“The gym wasn’t too used by older boys, but they were doing some really neat stuff,” Cook said.

She then let them come in late two nights a week to practice Parkour.

Two years ago, she started a Parkour class for boys who did not find traditional gymnastics classes appealing.

“It was a hit,” Cook said. “It’s been evolving from there. We now offer ‘pre-Parkour’ for 4- to 6-year-olds.”

They have 17 weekly Parkour classes in which instructors break down the skills into small progressions so students can feel a sense of accomplishment at each level.

Jacob Loftis, 13, of Taylor, said Parkour is something he loves to do. An eighth-grader at Summit Academy North Middle School in Romulus, he is on his school Parkour team.

“This is something I live for,” Loftis said. “It keeps up your courage because (when) you are doing flips off buildings and things, and you will have the courage for other things.”

Hijazi said Parkour develops confidence and self-knowledge in practitioners.

“The idea of it, the philosophy of it is you face physical obstacles through the training, through the discipline,” Hijazi said, “whether it be a wall or a gap or a jump. So you face these physical obstacles and most of the time they are obstacles that really push you to your limit — a jump that is your maximum distance or it’s a wall that is your maximum reach.

“Once you are able to overcome this physically, mentally it unlocks a greater way of thinking,” Hijazi said. “If I can overcome a physical obstacle, such as a 13-foot wall, whatever obstacle I might face in my life I can definitely face that just the same. It really changes you perspective on things.”

Jesse Harrison, 21, of Livonia, said he likes Parkour more as time passes.

“It is about training your mind to know what your limitations are, and to be confident in whatever environment you are in,” Harrison said. “Each time you conquer that fear you grow mentally. When you face the next challenge, it is easier. You are going in with more confidence.”

Jacob Winslow, 20, of Livonia, said Parkour keeps him in shape and helps him deal with daily stress.

“If I am having a really bad day, I just go outside and I train and I feel happy,” Winslow said.

When a child is interested in Parkour, Eric Zimmerman, 24, of Royal Oak, said it is better for them to learn with an instructor than on their own.

“A kid that is really passionate about doing Parkour will likely try it at some point on their own,” Zimmerman said, “or they can try it with a certified instructor, at a facility that has state-of-the-art equipment, in a padded environment (with) safety routines.”

Hijazi said Parkour lets people reconnect with the physical world, to feel again.

“I think we tend to stay indoors too much now, or on our gadgets too much now,” he said. “Basic human are stripped from us.”

Cook said Parkour is a great workout.

“Physically it involves speed, balance, agility and strength,” she said. “Mentally it is great for focus, courage, teamwork, cooperation, calculating risks, overcoming fears.

“The nature of Parkour is not (to be) competitive against others, but competitive against yourself,” Cook said, “pushing yourself both physically and mentally to the next step.”

Michael LeFever, 30, of Melvindale, said Parkour keeps him in great shape.

“It’s like break-dancing in the air: a lot of twists, a lot of flips,” LeFever said.

Hijazi said more girls and women are becoming interested in Parkour.

“We can’t say that men have the upper hand here because women, through gracefulness flow through obstacles and even perform better than some of our guys,” Hijazi said.

Worldwide JAMS, based in London, holds Parkour gatherings worldwide, bringing enthusiasts together as a community to practice their art.

“We love the fact that (Parkour) is growing,” Hijazi said. “We hope that it grows under the right conditions. We would love to build a community here for anyone that would like to learn.”

For more information about Downriver Gymnastics, call 734 282-1947 or go to