In this text, I endeavour to explore the responsiveness of our environment, our responsiveness to it and the complex marriage of this duality. I attempt to observe and to interact with these phenomena through the relatively under-researched medium of l’Art du Déplacement, a movement discipline that has, since its co-formulation by the group Yamakasi in France in 1988, separated into the well-known disciplines of Parkour and Freerunning (Foucan 1988). This approach is integrated with a conceptualisation that I developed through my Doctorate in Counselling Psychology which grounded theory study on lack of progression in Parkour (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020), as well as lay the foundation for a form of therapy based on l’Art du Déplacement and Parkour. The Esprit Concrete Method (ECM; conceptualised in 2016) is something that I continue to co-create with Gogoly Yao.
L’Art du Déplacement inherently calls for us to interact with ourselves, others and the complex, turbulent terrain around us, most commonly but not exclusively with the urban terrain. In the recent symposium presentation ‘On a Molecular Level’ at the University of Westminster practitioner Georgia Munroe, who volunteered to collaborate in this presentation as a practitioner example for this piece, interacted with the presentation space to visually ‘act out’ the following thoughts and ideas expressed herein. I gave a lecture that reflected on Georgia’s embodied process, based on her visual cues in her movement during the presentation and prior knowledge of her training habits and patterns outside of this lecture. Georgia’s unplanned movements contributed to and were then used in my lecture to provide a visual illustration of the processes that I was presenting to the viewers. She used a high staircase, railings, platforms and the ground around both myself and the audience to work through certain challenges. She was inadvertently sharing her internal processing externally, an interpretation of which was offered by me using a conceptualisation of prior knowledge I had of Georgia’s habits and challenges in line with what her movement portrayed during the lecture. Onlookers experienced her performing seemingly scary, risky and some apparently ‘impossible’ tasks.
In the question and answer session the audience responded that the experience was exhilarating and immersive, as Georgia’s outward self was reframed by my shared conceptualisation of her possible inner self (based on my work with her over the last two years) and co-delivered simultaneously to the audience. Why, however, is this potentially interesting? As thinking, feeling and reactive beings, different objects speak to us, different textures speak to us, different dimensions of space and time impact us in unique ways depending on who we are, and all of this has to somehow factor into our movement training. Therefore, in the following, I will try to hone in on one question in particular that l’Art du Déplacement / Parkour / Freerunning practitioners may ask themselves: what are certain things saying to us and why?
In l’Art du Déplacement, Parkour and Freerunning, routes through terrain are often explored – a route being the act of getting from one place to another over, under and through obstacles, known in French as ‘un parcours’. The intentionalities placed on these trajectories vary and are chosen by the practitioner themselves, ranging in approaches from those that focus on the creativity of efficiency-seeking to those that privilege fear management training, but often the shared intention is to achieve a state of flow, an uninterrupted stream of movement, to get from point A to point B. Sometimes, however, a practitioner’s training may also focus on getting up close and intimate with one particular object, a railing or a wall for example, exploring one’s potentiality within the confines of that object’s space. Be this a route or an interaction with a single object, what interests me is the exploration of what these different choices that people are making with the spaces and objects around them mean to them and what is potentially consciously or unconsciously being triggered in the process.
My doctoral research in part aligns itself with and takes further ideas that mental maps and models are developed in us from infancy, constructed around our past experiences, which allow us to process the real world and our perceptions of how we influence it, and it us (Craik 1943). My longitudinal model of lack of progression further suggests that these past experiences are retriggered and put into question, to a degree, every time we interact with our environment (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020). Not only are we seemingly emotionally remapping the spaces we inhabit based on new experiences we have with people and objects around us, but we may also be influencing our behavioural geographical mental maps of our physical world views. This means that our points of view of the space we interact with may also be influenced by other cognitive processes such as spatial reasoning, decision-making and behaviour (Gregory et al. 2009) depending on what psychological responses are triggered by spaces; a knee-high wall may appear friendly to one person, extremely terrifying to another.
People forming very powerful and enduring memories from a very young age appear marked by how the environment responds to them and in turn how they then learn to respond to it. If one person perceives a surface as rougher or harder (more likely to cause potential negative bodily impact) than another perceives the same space, for example, this appears to therefore not only be linked to just present-day data-retrieving cognitive processes at work but also complexly linked to their psychosocial and psycho-emotional world view based on a store of past experiences.
This is argued in my doctoral research (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020) to closely resemble the process we undergo in re-enactment of trauma (Freud  2004), the process of unconsciously, automatically and compulsively repeating our pasts. The seeming inability to break one’s past relationship cycles with certain character traits of people, objects and their environment more generally (physical obstacles being confronted during training) appears to keep people in an endless loop of re-enactment, ‘ping-ponging’ them between losing and gaining from these experiences and interactions with their obstacles (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020).
Much like in the ‘Karpman Drama Triangle’, I contend that we seem to interact with things in our environment through various unconscious role adoptions, taking on personas like those suggested by Karpman, such as the ‘persecutor’ (powerful, shaming, blaming), the ‘victim’ (helpless, incompetent, oppressed) or the ‘rescuer’ (helpful but often feeling angry under the surface) (Karpman 1968); often never seemingly regaining conscious control of how things could be done differently in order to safeguard one’s sense of self when not prompted or guided. As such, when interactions with our surroundings do not go to plan or injure us in some way, it often seems that blame is either overly internalised (self-blame) or externalised (object/environment blame), depending on how one usually processes negative experiences involving others (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020).
Nonetheless, if we think about the idea of role and responsibility assignment, what we do with our experience of all these different aspects of a particular environment and various moments within it is what we are arguably solely responsible for, is it not? Inanimate objects surely cannot realistically be held responsible for things that happen, or can they?
It is often easier to externalise responsibility and distance ourselves from taking ownership of it. With reference to my experience of practising and teaching l’Art du Déplacement, let us first consider what we could hold the environment responsible for in practice (though often without acknowledging this) unconsciously, representationally and, as my research suggests, sometimes quite literally (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020).
Assessment of our environment and the obstacles we perceive to be present within it is paramount to this discipline. This physical assessment of our space in relation to how we feel in it and how we anticipate it impacting us represents the first step in most practitioners’ initial training guide. This essentially provides us with invaluable data on what exactly in the environment grabs our attention, what about it moves us and eventually informs how we use it to manipulate certain aspects of our interaction with it, in order to achieve what we want, or indeed what we need physically and emotionally, through movement. Reciprocally, it also informs our decisions on what the environment itself needs from us. Which objects look like they can take our weight, and/or what can we put weight on? Noting here that the differential is merely how we interpret our and the environment’s role in affecting our perceived or real agency. I find therefore that the very interesting question within this discipline is whether or not the environment can hold a role and responsibility in our training, or is this solely about the control we possess in our role and responsibility? Either way, both lead to solving the question of whether or not we (practitioners) and it (the environment) are safe if there is a movement-centred interaction happening. Due to the nature of the discipline requiring us to often imagine and/or work within the confines of our body and the environment, this leakage can provide opportunities to discover the potentiality of our and the environment’s constraints just as much as the liberties afforded to them by the way one interprets the roles and responsibilities assigned to both.
This above process of determining how well suited we are to the environment and it to us, commonly used in risk assessment protocols, allows us insight into what role our state and the environment are going to have in our training in that moment. My research proposes that there is a certain amount of our autonomy that we have to give and relinquish to our environment in order for us to see how that environment provides us with the opportunities that it does, to help us overcome whatever obstacles we hope to or need to on a particular day (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020). We tend to give objects in our environment custody of our ‘omnipotence’ in our greatest moments of fear and doubt, temporarily, often believing that they may have more power of control over us in that moment, rendering them more capable than us in terms of contributing to the successful achievement of the tasks we have set (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020).
This, however, arguably requires us to unconsciously feel like we are contained by the environment, that it is there, able and willing to safeguard our sense of self. Although unconscious, this is at times interestingly visible somatically, e.g. when seemingly not holding tension while moving. This therefore assigns the environment the somewhat benevolent task of ‘safekeeper’ or ‘rescuer’, while in reality it is also recognised that the environment and its obstacles are inherently utilised in our training to actually provide challenges and problems which we intend to try to resolve. Participants in my research therefore appeared to negotiate the respective environment’s role and responsibility differently as their time in it and exposure to it went on, reclaiming their own role and sense of control, again being their own custodians of risk management if and when they became more familiar with the space (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020).
In an apparent mirroring of the process of healthy attachment development in infants and consequently adults, I propose that we appear to assign a role similar to that of a ‘transitional object’ to objects in our surroundings when training. The term ‘transitional object’ coined by Winnicott (1971) describes an essential temporary tool that provides psychological comfort in unusual or seemingly unsafe situations, during a period of adjustment as we process differentiation between our psychic reality and our external reality.
While we are not at one with these obstacles in our environment, we remain anxious and often frustrated. We regain a sense of oneness with the object only once the object fulfils the roles and responsibilities we have. This process allows us to feel a connectedness and belongingness with the object, all whilst maintaining a separateness to it that enables us to regain custody of our ‘omnipotence’ in this instance. Thus, this process allows us to decide how we would like to proceed based on what we consciously know we are capable of and what our environment is offering us.
As previously mentioned, however, memories are stored, mental mapping occurring from a young age based on these memories, a process which influences how we react to things in the future, depending on how we remember certain events made us feel in the past. As such, people have painful experiences early in life that get seemingly imprinted on their very being, leading them to often relive this pain each time they meet a situation that is similar in some way, through a retriggering process. Furthermore, it has been suggested that people’s responses to these triggers do not change, which leads to them experiencing the same resultant feelings, thoughts and behaviours that they lived through initially, which in turn ensures a similar ending to their story in response to the stimuli in question, over and over again – something Ogden (1992) calls their own cautionary tale.
My research suggests that, unsurprisingly, this does not appear to be any different in one’s experience of l’Art du Déplacement / Parkour / Freerunning training (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020). Questions pop up when I work with practitioners like Georgia using ECM such as: What has been triggered in Georgia by the object in this moment? How has this made her feel towards this object and towards herself? How does this seem to make her react? What impact does she perceive this to have on her ability to achieve what she wants/needs with the object? And suddenly I find myself therapeutically enquiring about whether or not she has felt like this before, outside of a movement context. What has she found herself doing in that situation? What worked about this choice of action then and what did not? How then could she change and adapt her response to arrive at a different outcome within this specific scenario? What progressive steps would this take?
This line of investigation at the centre of Georgia’s problem-solving and both of us expanding our view made our approach less movement-focused and more person-centred. This means we endeavour to move away from the purely physical goal-oriented way of processing movement (e.g. what does my body have to do to get to that place?) and engage a more psychosocio-emotional orientation to problem-solving that is relational in nature (e.g. how is this making me feel and why, given what I know of myself?). This seems to allow the initiation of the process of her taking back some ownership of the situation (e.g. movement to be accomplished), and with this begins the nurturing of autonomy and the ability to rewrite her cautionary tale’s ending. This process empowers Georgia to be able to change the fate of her relationship to her problem/movement/object-oriented task, allowing her to experience a different end result (cautionary tale ending) to that of previous similar situations.
The power of the object in front of her diminishes, Georgia’s anticipation of failure diminishes and her fear becomes reframed and manageable. She appears to reclaim her agency and grow in her belief that she may be able to overcome this challenge somewhat differently in time or, conversely, accept that it may not be in her best interest to do so. Her mental models are put in question, her mental maps challenged and her perspective on the object before her is given space to shift from what it is ‘doing to her’ to what she is or more importantly what she could be ‘doing to it’, in a highly empowering way.
We can now begin to further unpack what our roles and responsibilities are when navigating our environment: what impact are we having on the meeting, greeting and overcoming of obstacles within our environment, and what responsibilities come with this?
If we follow the assumption that we are almost constantly mirroring our lives, that is acting in the same way in various different relationships in our lives often unchangingly, then through movement training that involves object interactions, we have the option to keep attempting to tackle challenging situations in the same way we have always done, thereby understandably not changing the outcome. On the other hand, we could interact with these objects encountered in the environment in different ways to how we would usually do in other areas of our lives, in other relationships, essentially channelling the outcome of our negotiation with our environment in a different direction.
We can try to explore how interacting with the environment allows us to question those behavioural patterns that we have, how it allows us to question the relationships that we have with the objects that we encounter, allowing us to try to remap ourselves in relation to them. Instead of reigniting the historical pain and trauma within us – trauma here being defined as something that impacts us significantly negatively enough to lead to us forming defences against confronting similar experiences in the future – we can attempt to question ourselves, to better understand our true needs, the needs of our environments and how both of these can interact in order to positively assist us.
In the ECM we suggest incorporating a feedback loop into our movement training, taking place both in vivo during training sessions as well as after sessions, in order to stimulate a reflective and reflexive process that aids in unpacking our triggers and our responses to these triggers, allowing us to better make sense of the reasons behind these processes. The ‘contained practitioner’ process suggested for coping with training effectively developed in my thesis (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020) saw participants of the study stress the importance of this process and its being iterative. This training style highlighted processes such as reflexivity and reflection as central to maintaining a healthy and balanced relationship to training and to object interaction (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020).
This process however requires a certain readiness to explore that can be unnerving and sometimes scarily confrontational, much like the therapeutic relationship. Practitioners become responsible for deep-diving into their physical and emotional vulnerabilities, which often involves challenging the integrity of their perceived ‘training self’ (the persona desired in training), while searching to harmonise this with their ‘real self’ (their truer, more realistic selves). These terms were coined by participants in my research when they were recounting a split in the sense of self that they felt as they were reflecting on how this friction of selves had caused them distress and had contributed to them eventually stopping training (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020).
Our narcissistic psychological functions that protect our fragile egos, which tirelessly maintain our grandiose sense of self in order to protect us from the pain and humiliation of rejection (Ronningstam 2005), in this case being the failure at a task which could possibly be internalised as a rejection by the object, may fight back to defend our self-image of ‘God-like Man’ or omnipotent ‘training self’ (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020) (both terms coined by my research participants), rendering it very hard to get to the core of one’s vulnerability.
In line with this, it is unsurprising that participants showed resistance or defensiveness in relation to coping with their inability to overcome obstacles: some ‘numbingly’ (seemingly ambivalent and non-committedly) and others ‘destructively’ (aggressive towards self and other). Both of these cases represent a continuation of a conflicted interaction style to overcoming obstacles, possibly resulting in a total exit from the practice. Both also represent a re-enactment of their ineffective coping without resolve (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020).
It is important to note though that these coping styles were mirrored in how my doctoral research participants responded to not just physical but also emotional obstacles, and not only in l’Art du Déplacement / Parkour / Freerunning settings, but in wider contexts: in their personal history in school, with their parents, at work, in relationships (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020). This suggests that how we meet, greet and overcome obstacles may not be so unique to encounters with a rail or a wall, but more generally representative of our coping styles overall.
There are consequently some tough questions which it becomes our responsibility to ask when meeting an obstacle if we want a favourable, healthy, productive outcome from the interaction. Georgia, for example, would need to ask herself: What are her pre-existing vulnerabilities in general? What were her expectations about her interaction with the obstacle compared with the reality she may be experiencing now? How much of this is externally derived and how much is based on internal dynamics and drivers? What are the things that she feels are affecting her current state of being, both inside and outside of training? Are the external factors being re-enacted here in the encounter with the object/task?
Sometimes the answers to these questions are tough to take in, tough to contain, and that is why the ‘contained practitioner’ coping style emerged: a method that is based on the concept that we should not always attempt to overcome obstacles, physical or otherwise, alone (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020). I drew parallels between participants’ processes and those that match Jung’s (1957) theories on the necessary balance between collectivism and individuality. Jung (1957) proposed that there was a constructive potential to these two dimensions, the former increasing interrelationships and providing a sense of safety through familiarity of the in-group belongingness and the latter increasing one’s autonomous and independent self. He also proposed that the cost of an imbalance could perpetuate unhealthy dependency which could result in a lack of autonomy in the former or being overly autonomous, unable to positively exist with other groups of humans in the latter.
With this in mind I proposed that the group-centric nature of the Art du Déplacement / Parkour / Freerunning community is invaluable in empowering people to actively risk seeking, engaging and altering their psychological traumas through their training. Some participants need additional therapeutic guidance and external forms of education and self-discovery mediums to tap into their reflective capabilities safely. In relation to this, I propose the use of solo and autonomous training as vital in establishing a practitioner’s capacity to learn to relinquish trust to objects and to other people and to reclaim it when better equipped to more openly face the things they fear (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020).
Given all of the above, the ECM assumes that meeting, greeting and overcoming obstacles is a highly fluid and iterative process. There is ‘paradoxical losing and gaining’ that occurs in the process, dependent on our desires to achieve this gain being matched by the openness to our psychosocio-emotional states required from us to achieve this. This often means risking being vulnerable before we as practitioners can be strong when we have convinced ourselves that we need only be strong to achieve overcoming an obstacle. To me this feels like a paradox: practitioners often enter the discipline to embody strength not weakness, yet they then need to do the opposite, embody weakness in order to fully embrace strength.
They may say they want to jump to an object but everything about what that person is doing appears to be sabotaging their chances, e.g. repeatedly deploying learned patterns of coping, such as avoidance, which have never before been useful in allowing them to achieve their goal (Torchia and Athanadousia-Lewis 2020).
The relationship between obstacles and ourselves is therefore one in constant flux. I see the interaction as very visceral. It’s very much alive. Though it has the potential to be ever-changing, it is so often captive to the defences within us that render all situations in which we encounter obstacles so similarly and unconsciously render the outcomes of these situations also forever the same.
The suggestion therefore is to either individually or with some guidance investigate and move to acknowledge one’s tendencies and patterns. The relationships to objects within movement mirror our relationships to people, and therefore maybe our pathways to navigating these are not so different. Perhaps, therefore, we can in fact benefit from breathing life into these objects, these movements, these routes, and view them as alive with the potential to help us create new patterns of behaviour, if we just listen.
I, like many, base my work on what the body can tell us through movement, but over the last few years both my research and my therapeutic work have allowed me to specifically observe physically immobilised practitioners, emotionally burned out practitioners, who experience a very ‘alive stuckness’ in motion. By this I mean oxymoronically that though they are in motion they do not progress, and therefore although they seem alive and in motion they are in fact more stuck than free. Through this I have come to truly appreciate the resounding abundance of the possible movement potential inherent in stillness.
Addressing these difficult states allows us to more freely admit our vulnerabilities, embrace them through normalising them, accepting and thereby owning them, allowing us to better embrace ourselves, our environment and the mountains of obstacles within it.
Maybe it is time for us to try to take responsibility over our environment, trying to at least develop around it, trying as we can do in l’Art du Déplacement / Parkour / Freerunning to embody this idea of seeing the world as an urban playground that challenges our potential, which could allow us to act less guardedly and instead be accountable to ourselves, to others and to the objects that we encounter in our interactions with the world.
Maybe, as I suggested at the response/i/ability panel at the inaugural Hyphen symposium in March 2019, we can learn to discriminate between real responsibility and an often perceived over-inflated or under-diminished sense of responsibility, between internalised responsibility and externalised responsibility, as well as all the different dimensions and constructs of responsibility in between, by processing our deepest and darkest conflicts through the powerful representational realm of obstacle play.
Kasturi D. Torchia, co-founder of Esprit Concrete and Mental Health Lead for Parkour UK, is an award-winning psychotherapist researching lack of progression within Parkour through the approach of counselling psychology. Her research and practice centres mostly on somatopsychic and psychosomatic research, somaticised presentations, re-experienced trauma and re-enactment through movement-based mediums such as l’Art du Déplacement. Kasturi is an Art du Déplacement practitioner and in her final months of doctoral training in counselling psychology. Her method centres on combining integrative psychological formulation with movement mapping in order to work through one’s lack of progression physically, psychologically, emotionally and socially. Seeing movement as a visceral demonstration of one’s internal processes projected onto the outside world, as well as a means by which one’s internal process can be moulded and even altered by the world, Kasturi enjoys making use of her skills as a therapist in an innovative way to guide people on a path of self-discovery, facilitating the learning of movement while healing one’s sense of self.