Flying through an urban obstacle course like 007

by Lenny Bernstein

The Washington Post

If you’re my age (meaning not in your 20s) and you’ve even heard of “parkour,” it’s probably because of that scene in the 2006 remake of “Casino Royale” when James Bond chases a bounding, bouncing bad guy up a giant construction crane, down an elevator shaft and over all kinds of obstacles on a building site.

The leaping, sprinting bandit is played by Sebastian Foucan, one of the cofounders of parkour, whose practitioners acquire the skills to negotiate any environment, at high speed if necessary, by climbing, vaulting, jumping, running and rolling. Developed in France in the early 1990s, it’s best performed by young, strong people with flexible joints, not someone whose ankles are stiff until his second cup of morning coffee kicks in.

But now there’s a parkour class especially for those of us who remember Sean Connery and Roger Moore, not Daniel Craig, as Agent 007. With my best crane-climbing days behind me, I wasn’t sure what I’d get out of the experience, but several people had recommended it to me, so I decided to give it a try.

Urban Evolution in Alexandria, Virginia, which offers the class, is not your ordinary gym. It’s a 418 sq. meter former automobile showroom, all cinderblock and corrugated metal, hot and humid on this warm Saturday afternoon. The owners’ two dogs, Suri and Nala, both of whom do parkour, were lying in the entrance when I arrived.

Salil Maniktahla, who owns the small, growing chain of Urban Evolution gyms with his wife, Malikah, decorated the place by inviting local taggers to spray the vast, empty walls. With the parkour equipment scattered about, the effect is an urban streetscape in a suburban commercial district. Every once in a while, a gunshot rings out from the shooting range across the street.

Maniktahla’s story is a classic. An out-of-shape consultant who traveled frequently, he barely ever worked out before reading about parkour online. The more he practiced it, the more he wanted to do it. Finally, he cashed in his retirement plan and opened his first gym in 2010, which was profitable in just 10 months, he said. Now there is a second gym in Manassas, Virginia, and a third about to open in Baltimore, Maryland.

Parkour, unfortunately, relies on some of my rustiest skills: balance, upper-body strength and nerve. No matter, Maniktahla assured me later, these can be developed over time. After a warm-up, we hung (or in my case tried to), stretched and lifted ourselves on bars of varying heights. I would feel this in my shoulders and forearms for days afterward.

Maniktahla, 41, who is not the bundle of bulging muscles you might expect in a parkour teacher, is nevertheless very strong and light on his feet. He easily lifted himself off the ground at odd angles while I struggled to defy gravity for a few centimeters.

Then we moved on to jump training, where Maniktahla taught us to land as lightly as possible on a thin metal pipe embedded in a block of wood on the floor, emphasizing balance and squatting to absorb the weight of the jump. We took turns trying to land, turn and jump back to another pipe in one fluid movement.

I was a bit shaken (not stirred) when we moved to a meter-high railing made of steel pipes, the kind you might find on any city street. Maniktahla told us to jump from a box to the rail, turn and walk the railing. (We were allowed to hold on to a vertical pipe while pivoting our feet from the landing position.) A fall to the left would land me on a thick cushion. A fall to the right would bounce me off a sharp-edged wooden vaulting thing. And a split — well, I didn’t really want to think about that.

I never quite got the hang of it, but others in the class did. And after quite a few repetitions, I did begin to feel a bit more comfortable up on those smooth metal pipes. That’s one of the goals for us older “traceurs,” as practitioners of parkour are known — overcoming fear when we are quite suddenly pushed outside our comfort zone, Maniktahla said.

“The body responds quickly,” he said. “The brain, on the other hand, takes training.”

“We want to challenge the people” in the class, he added. “It’s not about catering to your age. It’s more risky than getting on a treadmill, obviously, but it’s fun.”

I did a little better at the final stop, where we ran up a flat-topped wooden obstacle and vaulted to another, again practicing our squat landings. Then it was time for a good post-workout stretch.

Parkour for older folks may be a bit of an oxymoron, but it’s a good, hard workout that reminds you how easy it is to lose certain abilities when you don’t practice them. I doubt you’ll see me at the local park with the younger parkour guys, but I did survive the class without injury, and it was worth a try. After all, you only live twice.