Adie-hard Jackie Chan follower, 16-year-old Vishal Kumar, spent hours watching and dissecting his seamless movements on YouTube when he stumbled upon a video about parkour in the suggested section. “That was when I realized that there was an actual word to describe the thing I was obsessing over!” he recalls. In that moment of thrill, having discovered the existence of parkour, Vishal turned to the internet, finding every resource he could get his hands on, reading everything about his new discovery. That’s when he realised that he wasn’t alone. There was an entire Orkut community (what social media looked like in 2009) of fifty enthusiasts where all of Chennai’s parkour enthusiasts congregated. They would meet on the weekends at open spaces like Besant Nagar Beach or Anna Nagar Tower Park and practice and teach each other movements. “But that group reduced to four within the next two years. Everyone couldn’t sustain the rigorous practice sessions.”
What exactly is parkour you ask? It lies in a grey area between an art form and a sport, with movement styles and techniques borrowed from several of its predecessors, choreographed together and inspired by the architecture in an urban setting. As complex as that may seem, to a conditioned parkour athlete, the world is a playground, quite literally.
“The parkour community is close-knit all over the world. We’ve had traceurs from UK and France (where the movement originated and is more popular) contact us and do jam sessions with us,” Vishal explains with pride, “We were initially reckless trying to jump off buildings and injuring ourselves, but the jam sessions with the traceurs from France, who have been training for more than 10 years, helped us learn more about the sport.” In 2011 the newly trained parkour enthusiast group decided to make their own videos for YouTube and started a channel named after the Chennai chapter titled Chennai Parkour. That is when a new wave of enthusiasts resurfaced in the state. “We got several requests to start taking classes.”
Vishal Kumar, Vishwa Dayakaran and Vignesh Raghavan were enticed by the idea of resurrecting the local parkour community and founded Parkour Pod, while still in college. “Initially it was out of passion, then it slowly converted from a hobby to our profession,” laughs Vishal, “I went to an Engineering college and I spent all four years, maintaining the minimum 75% attendance. I had invested so much time into training and teaching parkour during this time that I would even leave college half-day to take a class, so it felt pointless to drop it and look for another job.”
The business came with its risks. Parkour is usually perceived to be a dangerous sport. It took the founders eight months to do research and bring investment. “Most people think they will be jumping off buildings on their first day of training. This misconception made it a challenge to market our classes initially.” Once people joined, the next challenge was to motivate them to stay for a period of three months to understand the basics and the essence of the sport. The young trainers were soon joined by two calisthenics practitioners (a foundational requirement to practice Parkour) who moved to Chennai to join as trainers.
Most of the training happens at the facility which consists of metal bars and padded flooring to reduce the impact for beginners. “Parkour practice facilities are usually large warehouses with different types of obstacles, but we had to make do with what we had available,” says the young athlete. Once the trainee gains strength and is accustomed to the movements, they will be able to perform the same in an outdoor setting (usually a park in Chennai). With proper foundational training and practice, the movements become internalized and that is when the world becomes a playground. “When a group of parkour athletes hangout we look at our surroundings and calculate and imagine all the possible movements on the structure whenever we don’t get permission to use the premise for parkour,” Vishal says with a chuckle.
The same amount of calculation went into the formation of Parkour Pod but the Pandemic was an unforeseen blow. The business plateaued but the team improvised. They had to downsize their batches from 7 to 5 per day, with about 150 clients per day (which is a large number considering that finding parkour instructors is not easy). They used obstacles that one would normally find at home to practice.
The team has two facilities, one in Alandur and the other in Chetpet Ecopark through a tie-up with Fitrock Arena (as parkour and rock climbing have a lot in common). “If I had the chance to change one thing about the way we approached Parkour Pod, it would be to have invested in a larger facility at the beginning.” It would have been a risky move for the trio given the novelty of the sport, especially in the city of Chennai. However, the following for the sport has grown exponentially in the last 10 years that the demand for classes has risen above the available space and resource.
Parkour is a fairly new sport with its origin dating back to the late 1980s. Although the parkour community has agreed not to convert it into a competitive sport (out of fear of losing the creativity behind the movements), the last five years saw the emergence of a competition format that would enable it to be practiced competitively without hindering the creativity. “Since then there have been talks about parkour becoming a new addition to the Olympics as well!” The community is still keeping their fingers crossed to get their own spot in the international event rather than being absorbed by gymnastics (a dying sport that also shares a few similarities with parkour). Meanwhile, the teams in India compete amongst themselves and constantly keep training with a goal to compete on the highly celebrated platform.
Parkour Pod has been instrumental in making Chennai one of the largest and oldest parkour communities in India, sharing the spot with Mumbai. The sport has gained more traction by featuring in the local movie industries, with actors promoting their trainers. Besides being an uber-cool community, Parkour Pod has onboarded men, women, girls and boys from the age of 8 to 70 and has helped improve their overall fitness and strength, while proving that with perseverance anyone can gain superhuman qualities.
“Before you follow through with a parkour flow you plan your steps, break it down and calculate every movement. The same applies to a business,” Vishal concludes with a gleam.