MagazineMarch 2011How to be a Superhero

How to be a Superhero

Like most folks, Salil Maniktahla discovered parkour on YouTube.

“This guy’s in an office, looking out the window at traffic below. There’s no way he’s gonna get to where he wants to go in a car. So he heads to the roof of his building, takes his shirt off, and starts jumping from building to building. I remember thinking, ‘That’s not special effects. He’s really doing that.’”

Maniktahla was instantly hooked on the burgeoning new sport called parkour, where practitioners run and move over, under, through, and around whatever obstacles are in their path. Practitioners, called traceurs, climb walls, leap from building to building, vault over obstacles, land massive drops—and they do it all with grace. It’s the art of forward movement.

Parkour has grown from an internet sensation to an organized sport. Thanks to a wave of parkour-specific gyms, a growing interest in parkour competitions, and a new reality show, parkour is ready for its close-up.

Photo courtesy of Wake Forest Parkour.

Learning how to play Parkour was inspired by the French exercise guru Georges Herbert, who blended functional fitness with a sense of morality to create the Natural Method, a practical approach to fitness that re-taught very basic skills—climbing, running, swimming—that Herbert saw disappearing from society in the early 20th century. At its heart, parkour has the same sense of functionality. The discipline is designed to get the practitioner from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible.

In theory, parkour is meant to prepare you for extreme situations, like being chased or escaping from a burning building. The discipline has become increasingly flashy with stunning acrobatics performed on the streets, but at its core, parkour is still as functional as it is artistic. And it’s also a helluva lot of fun.

“Going to the gym was always so onerous to me,” Salil Maniktahla says. “Until I found parkour, I had no idea you could actually play and get in shape. Parkour has completely revolutionized how I approach fitness.”

Maniktahla founded D.C.’s Rock Creek Parkour, which now has over 400 members. Maniktahla is 27 pounds lighter, and the proud owner of a brand new parkour-specific gym, Urban Evolution, in Alexandria, Va. Six similar gyms have opened in the past two years.

Founded in 2006, Primal Fitness, also in Washington D.C., was the first parkour gym in the world and has helped turn D.C. into one of the premier cities for parkour in the country, paving the way for similar gyms. “There is a lot more correct information out there now than even just a couple of years ago,” says Travis Graves, lead trainer of Primal Fitness. “We want to give people the resources they need to practice safely, instead of just jumping off the highest thing they can find…like I did.”

Places to Go, Things to See: