At the head of the line of about a dozen students at B.A.S.E. Fitness in Fishers, Indiana, longtime student Jon Bean takes a deep breath, launches into a run, sails over a stack of pads, scrambles up a 6-foot wall, bounds across the top and leaps into a drop, landing on a crash pad below.
Behind him, the next student breaks into the same pattern, then another and another, making their run under the watchful eye of owner and head parkour instructor Ayren Steuerwald.
Parkour! Whether it brings to mind urban running, obstacle courses, James Bond movies or gymnast Kacy Catanzaro blowing through the “American Ninja Warrior” course, the principles remain the same: to maneuver out of dangerous situations and devise solutions to get around any kind of obstacle, like a puzzle in real time.
“Running, jumping and climbing in a safe way over obstacles,” Steuerwald says. “The primary focus of parkour is safety and evacuation.”
Steuerwald, a three-decade veteran of martial arts, dance and self-defense instruction, learned about parkour from a French family he was teaching after they noticed a similarity between parkour and Steuerwald’s running/jumping/leaping style of running. His interest brought him to France, he says, where he studied with the Yamakasi, the French founders of parkour, before he established B.A.S.E. — which stands for Balance, Agility, Strength and Endurance — six years ago.
He conducts classes several times a week, ranging from $12 to $18 depending on difficulty level, and usually lasting two hours, including an intense half-hour of warm-up and stretching.
Steuerwald says the sport draws in a wide range of ages and interests, often for different reasons. “An 8- or 9-year-old might be thinking, ‘Yeah, I want to be a ninja!’” he says. “And someone in college might say, ‘This is a freaking awesome workout, it’s great cardio.’
"In your 20s and 30s, it’s more of an athletic sense, the things you acquire from understanding more about your body when it’s not behind a desk," he adds. "And at 45 and up, it’s about how even the most simplistic movements can help with joint mobility and connective tissue.”
The classes include anywhere from five to 50 people on a given night, with activities ranging from dazzling leaps to wall-climbs to spider-walking around a rail assembly like a solid tightrope. Classic rock and hip-hop music usually play loudly on the sound system.
The dynamic Steuerwald, who’s always in motion, hangs on a nearby bar and does a few spins while observing. At one point, he drops down in front of a student as they’re about to make their leap, just to make it a little more challenging: “Expect the unexpected! That’s the point of parkour, safety and evacuation.”
That sense of surprise and improvisation is key to the parkour thought process, he says.
“You get what we call ‘PK vision,’ where you start seeing opportunities instead of obstacles,” Steuerwald says. “You see things differently. When you come in here, you learn how to overcome obstacles and develop a mentality of seeing something that’s daunting, that you think can’t be accomplished. And then you start figuring out, yes, there are lots of different ways and progressions to approach that obstacle.”
Michelle Hewitt, an assistant instructor who’s been with B.A.S.E. for a year and a half, got involved after taking a hip-hop dance class from Steuerwald and learning about parkour. She says she particularly values the community.
“I felt very encouraged and I could feel myself getting stronger in a lot of ways,” she says. “It was something I could do to get a good workout, improve myself in some way, and make my movement more efficient. I feel like I have more command over myself, my physical body, than I did before.”
Bean says he feels sharper after three years as a parkour student. “The camaraderie and challenge are great, and it’s always changing,” he says. “You pick up flexibility and mental toughness. The instructors really take time to care about safety and progressing.”
Steuerwald says parkour’s popularity has spiked in the wake of “American Ninja Warrior” moving to network television, but more growth remains on the horizon.
“The media has really grabbed hold, but it’s still very new to the U.S.,” he says. “People are becoming aware that we can actually do this stuff in real life.”
Hewitt says it opens students to nearly endless possibilities. “It gives you command over specific goals for yourself,” she says. “Whether it’s to do a handstand or make it over a wall, the rest of the group will support you. Maybe your goals are different than everybody else’s. This is the place to be unique.”