It’s the latest in the world of fitness. Meet the members of Urban Exodus, Chennai’s first Parkour club

Intimidated? Try jumping off a building. At Natesan Park, T. Nagar, a group of boys in running shoes and track pants is doing precisely that. Well, that and a number of other startling physical feats.

They run, gaining momentum, and then agilely vault over a four-foot concrete square. They do what they call ‘palm spins’ where they hoist their bodies up, holding on to the edge of a stone bench, and then — turning upside down — spin themselves propelled by just their wrists. They spring up a building like cats, using occasional footholds and muscle power. Then, they crouch and jump off it, landing softly.

This is Chennai’s first, and only, Parkour club, which calls itself ‘Urban Exodus.’ Started a year ago, with just a handful of people who liked to try out YouTube Parkour moves on Besant Nagar beach, today, it consists of roughly 15 traceurs (the term used for Parkour practitioners) who get together every day in different parts of the city to practise.

For those of you who are still pumping iron at the gym, Parkour is the newest big discovery in the world of fitness. Addictive, adrenalin-pumping and exhilarating, this highly acrobatic sport requires traceurs to conquer all manner of obstacles, whether they’re walls or five-foot gaps between six-storey buildings. While it’s not a spectator sport, it’s certainly fascinating to watch, and has generated countless YouTube videos, which inspire and entertain everyone from traceurs to couch potatoes.

Even if you don’t spend every spare minute figuring how to conquer buildings or crouched over a computer, you’ve probably seen Parkour. James Bond does it in the construction site roof-top chase in “Casino Royale”. Akshay Kumar is an enthusiastic fan. And, even a lot of advertisements over the past few years have traces of Parkour.

The sport, created by Frenchman David Belle, an athletic gymnast, martial arts exponent and military man, started making waves only around 1997, thanks to a string of documentaries and videos. Today, they’re still what tempt people into the world of Parkour. After all, when you see gorgeously-fit people sailing over buildings and looking like they’re having the time of their lives, it’s difficult to resist hitting the road and trying to conquer some benches, at the very least.

That’s how Chennai’s Urban Exodus began. Karthik Ganesh and Prabhu, for instance, got enamoured by the sport thanks to the documentary “Jump London” and action movie “District B13”, respectively. They then met on Orkut, where they were both members of a Parkour India community. Eventually, more people joined Urban Exodus, including Susheel Chandradhas who set up their website ( http://www.chennaiparkour.com/).

Since there are no experts on the team, their approach is to learn together, downloading videos from YouTube and practising them in different parts of the city — Besant Nagar beach, YMCA grounds and Natesan Park. There’s a strong emphasis on caution and safety, which means every practice session stretches to about three hours, including warm-ups, running and cool-downs.

They all say the sport has changed their lives and personalities in unexpected ways. For, unlike regular sports, Parkour’s benefits translate powerfully into everyday life. Between stretches and handstands, Karthik who is lithe, fast and fearless on the field, says he’s found it’s improved not just his fitness levels, but also reflexes. Prabu, who joins us after nonchalantly jumping between two walls set about five feet apart, adds that it’s changed his entire personality. “I used to be very quiet. I couldn’t just go and start talking to people like I do now,” he says. “But now, I think, ‘If I can jump off buildings, I can do this…’ When I meet a new person, I treat him as just another obstacle.”

Parkour also possibly saved Prabu’s life. When he had a recent bike accident, he instinctively crouched and rolled following the Parkour technique, thus falling softly. The sport’s also useful in emergencies and self-defence, because it improves your presence of mind, training you to act fast instead of getting paralysed by fear. Karthik says: “It takes the person to a level he’s not been before.”

Although most people are intimidated by Parkour, assuming it requires daunting fitness levels, the boys insists that “everybody can do Parkour — If you’re human, you can do Parkour.” “It’s about confidence,” says Karthik. “It emphasises more on the mental aspect.” Adds Prabu: “You know your limits. Can you push them?”

Your goal is to overcome all kinds of obstacles using your body. And, it’s not just about running the fastest or jumping the highest. Founder David Belle says the spirit of Parkour is the idea that you can use physical and mental agility to get out of difficult situations. In short, if you’re determined enough, you can conquer far more than you ever believed possible.

What essentially sets Parkour apart is its emphasis on executing every move with a lithe beauty. Sébastien Foucan, a prominent traceur, speaks of being “fluid like water". Similarly, traceur Jerome Ben Aoues says, in “Jump London”: “The most important element is the harmony between you and the obstacle; the movement has to be elegant ….If you manage to pass over the fence elegantly — that’s beautiful, rather than saying ‘I jumped the lot’. What’s the point in that?”