The organization I volunteer with, Parkour Visions, is running a Movement for All campaign, and it inspired me to share how my relationship with movement has changed over time.

I am 17 years old, and my lungs are on fire. The footsteps on the trail behind me grow louder. I fight to stay ahead. Halfway through the race, I desperately want to stop or slow down, but I can’t. Only one more mile to go.

Ahead I see a log across the path. Perhaps I can trip over it and feign injury so my suffering will be over.

I push hard to pass three people in the final stretch. At the finish line I want to flop onto the ground. I want to puke. Instead I grasp my sides and gulp air like I’ve been drowning.

14 minutes, my fastest two-mile time ever. Still not fast enough for varsity.

“Some people will just never be athletic.”

My father

I am 20 years old.

I share a one-bedroom apartment in Augusta, Georgia with my partner and a family of cockroaches. First thing each morning, I wait for the dial-up modem to connect. For the rest of the day, I play Myst and search the internet for answers to questions I have not yet formed.

After a year of doing this all day, every day, I discover I am so out of shape I gasp for breath when I walk up a flight of stairs.

I should have known how to keep my body healthy. I like the idea of being a runner. I like being around people who loved to run. But within the environment of high school athletics I could never bring myself to like running. As soon as I am out on my own, I stop.

I have heard of people who had positive experiences with sports as a child. I can’t quite imagine it. I was taught to push through pain rather than listen to my body. Eventually it led to injury. What would it be like to have had coaches who cared about me as a whole person, who helped me overcome challenges, who believed everyone was innately capable?

What would it be like to find movement enjoyable?

“Mommy, look how high I am!”

My five-year-old daughter climbing a rope structure

fixed gear bicycle I rode in North Carolina

It is January in North Carolina, and I am almost 24.

From Thanksgiving to New Years, I gorged at every dumpster-dived holiday potluck in town. Although I bike everywhere, I feel sluggish and slow. I am tired of it. I put on a pair of shoes and go for a run. When my lungs begin to burn, I ignore it and continue slogging through strangely quiet subdivisions with oversized yards and wild green spaces where no children play.  Exercise is supposed to hurt. My fitness plan does not last long.

Neither does my current relationship. When my partner moves out, I dance for hours alone in the room we had shared. I find new ways to wiggle to the music. With my body I say things I wouldn’t dare express in front of an audience. Movement is my voice. Movement is joy.

And when I start learning lindy hop a few months later, I will discover a whole community of people who feel the same way.

“Dance is freedom.”

My roommate, a dance teacher

I grew up in a culture that defines fitness as a luxury. We sit students in chairs all day, watch them grow ever more sedentary as the years pass, then sell them overpriced fitness plans in sterilized gym spaces when they become stressed out adults.

Exercise will make you healthy, we say. But you’ve gotta suffer for it.

We tell children to grow up and stop playing. They lose their willingness to explore with their bodies. They become afraid of looking silly, of falling and hurting themselves. Our whole culture tells them the older you get, the more incapable you are. Of course I believed it.

Purple Keds dance shoes

I am 33, and this is the year I lose connection to the dance community and nearly all of my friends.

At nine months pregnant, I have stopped dancing. I will never start again.

The next year is the worst of my life. I hold the baby all day long. At night I barely sleep. Nursing is painful. Shitting is painful. My knees ache on the hours-long walks I take to help my daughter nap. At least it’s exercise, I tell myself. I dream of the day I can romp around the playground with her.

My daughter climbing at Gas Works Park

When my daughter is two, she begins Montessori preschool. The children in her classroom are in constant motion. They learn everything from tying their shoes to binomial equations using physical, practical objects. Maria Montessori discovered that movement is “an essential factor in intellectual growth… Through movement we come in contact with external reality, and it is through these contacts that we eventually acquire even abstract ideas.”

When you move your body and manipulate objects, your brain comes alive. It’s why we love shop class, chemistry lab, playing Legos with the kids, walking on the beach, corn mazes, building robots, painting our faces with makeup, driving go-karts, and climbing trees.

To deny movement is to disconnect from an essential part of our brains. We need movement like we need clean air and water, like we need each other.

New running shoes

This time I am 35.

I have tried (and failed) to start running again many times since high school. I just bought a fancy pair of Swiss running shoes with fourteen pods of cushioning on the soles. I feel like I could sprint the Alps. I open my door and stride out into the mellow Seattle summer.

Less than a mile into my run, my knees ache, and I slow to a walk. Normally I would find it embarrassing to walk in the middle of a run, but by this age I have suffered far worse indignities. When my knees feel better I jog a bit more, trading back and forth between the two until I am back at my house two miles later.

I am free to run; I am free to walk. I don’t care what my past self thinks. All I want to do is move my body in a way that feels good to me.

“It was just so much fun, I couldn’t stop doing it.”

A new friend at a Women’s Parkour Meetup

Group photo of the Women's Parkour Meetup

I am a 37-year-old sleep deprived parent of two.

My life is threatening to dissolve into shambles, but I’ve shown up anyway to share parkour with a group of women on a Saturday afternoon. Parkour is what keeps me going.

Two people come late, a mother and daughter. I rouse from my weariness and offer to help them warm up. “What’s your movement background?” I ask. It’s my go-to question to connect with new people. They’ve both taken parkour classes, but not for a while. Since they just jogged over, we start by doing some simple jumps.

I watch them and the other beginners intently throughout the session. We explore the handrails and the rough brick walls, going over, under, and through in many different ways. Sometimes they look uncertain as they try new movements. The mom wants to do a gate vault over a handrail, but there’s a drop on the other side, and she is worried she’ll stumble. I show her how to brace her body with her arms to control her movement. When she finally gets it after many tries, I can see the exhilaration light up her face.

This is my project, helping women learn to see themselves a little differently by moving their bodies.

At the end of the session, one of the newcomers speaks up. “I was intimidated at first. But you all are so nice!” My insides buzz with happiness that I got to be a part of her experience today. I planted a seed, I think to myself. And we will all grow together.

Movement isn’t a luxury, it’s a human right. If you’d like to help fund the Women’s Parkour Meetup (along with many other initiatives to bring play and movement to more people), please contribute to the Parkour Visions Movement For All fund.

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