Training and Mental Health (part one)

The view from where I’m standing…

I have depression.

Looking back, it has been a part of my life for a long time, probably since I was about 13 or 14. It has affected me in various ways, and led to some less-than-healthy behaviour over the years. Since finding parkour, I can honestly say that it has been (among other things) the most powerful and effective force in my life for dealing with depression. I’m writing these blog posts partly to offer some small pieces of advice gleaned from my own experiences with depression, and how it affects and is affected by my training.

I’m also writing because I hope this may start one or two conversations about mental health. I know first-hand how beneficial parkour training can be in combating depression. I also know that the issue doesn’t come up in conversation all that much, certainly not compared to how much we chat about DOMS or shoulder mobility or other physical issues; and this is despite the inestimable importance of mental focus, and health, in our training.

So, what is depression? It’s usually defined as a persistent state of low mood, but this doesn’t really convey how debilitating depression can be. Symptoms are complex and interrelated; they can include (but aren’t limited to):

– continued low mood or sadness, feelings of hopelessness, apathy

– loss of motivation, in work, training and everyday tasks

– loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable

– difficulty concentrating

– thoughts of suicide or self-harm

–  changes in appetite, rapid loss or gain of weight,

– changes in sleeping patterns: sleeping very little or far too much, sleeping at weird or inconsistent times of the day.

– feelings or worthlessness or guilt, and inability to control negative self-talk

– avoidance of social situations

– unexplained muscle fatigue or weakness, aches and pains

– feeling tearful, crying for little or no reason

– feeling angry or irritable for little or no reason

Changes in behaviour that match these symptoms could point towards depression, so watch out for them in yourself and your friends. So, what should you do if you think a friend may be suffering from depression (or any mental illness)?  You should talk to them about it.

The point of talking with those who may be suffering from depression is not to take on emotional responsibility for other people’s problems, nor is it to act as a proxy doctor or therapist. That is not the role of a friend. The aim of talking is to open up a safe space for your friend to admit that, yeah, something is wrong.  Unfortunately, depression and mental illness still do carry heavy social stigmas. People will often “put up” with depression for fear that others will see it as a weakness, judge them for it, tell them to just “get over it.” I know I did for years. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.) If you start the conversation, your friend may let go of their fears of being judged as weak or ridiculous, and begin to address their illness.

Because mental illness is not weakness. And it’s not going to just go away. It is not something that you should put up with either.  You are stronger than that, even if you don’t know it yet. 

If you saw a friend limping on a swollen ankle, you wouldn’t ignore it. You’d ask them how it felt. You’d tell them to address the problem, and help them if you could. I’ll return to this comparison, because depression is like a sprained ankle in many ways. Sometimes you can identify how and why the problem arose; stressful life events or loss of a close relationship. But sometimes you can’t. Sometimes it’s a diminished capacity that passes quickly, if given the required care. Sometimes it’s a chronic recurring problem, which needs to be managed vigilantly.

Just as most of us get injured at some point, mostly minor things but sometimes not, most of us will have some experience of depression or other mental illness, to varying degrees, at some point in our lives.

In a community that focuses so much on strength, the nature of mental strength can so easily be misunderstood. Mental strength is not some kind of hyperbolic toughness, or the cerebral equivalent of brute force. That’s not what we identify as strength in the physical realm; otherwise we’d all do nothing but deadlift all day. The key components of mental strength, in my opinion, are flexibility, adaptability, agility, humility, perseverance. It’s exactly these qualities that come to the fore when recovering from depression; it seems odd to say, but in my experience, taking on depression and working to overcome it has made me stronger in all of those areas. We aim to be strong to be useful. Pretending there’s nothing wrong is no use to nobody.

I worry that some of the rhetoric surrounding parkour may discourage people from speaking about their mental health, precisely due to those social stigmas that paint depression as some sort of silly affliction for the weak-willed. This is the most heart-breaking part, because I know it’s so far from the truth. These ideas are not generally held or defended by individuals; stigmas exist like a kind of cloud of illogic and negativity, and guesses at what others might think. They are only kept alive in darkness, and can potentially disappear if we simply speak openly. I know that the parkour community is a supportive one, and that speaking to my training buddies will not be met with scorn or censure, but with care. I want everyone else to know that too.

We need to ensure that the discussion of mental illness is just as open and socially encouraged as the discussion of physical illness or injury. The question “How are you coping with depression?” should be asked and answered as freely as the question  “How’s that ankle recovering?”. I feel this is particularly important for our community because I know that parkour training can be a catalyst for change in the lives of people with depression. The discipline can provide a structure for those who feel helpless, the community provides support for those who feel hopeless, and the daily achievements and progressions give confidence to those who feel worthless. The experience of flow can approach meditative focus to calm the mind and the physical exertion is a key to recovery as well.

As I said, I hope this can be the beginning of some open conversations, and I know we can all help each other. In a blog post to follow, I’ve written some snippets of advice for those who may be struggling with depression.

By Kelley

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For more information on depression, and how to help others or where to find help for yourself, check out:

Scottish Association for Mental Health – www.samh.org.uk

What matters most

By Fiona B

As you can see from our new year’s resolutions, we all have goals and targets that we’ve set to improve our training. This is obviously a good thing, if you don’t try hard, you aren’t going to progress. Sadly, you don’t just wake up one day and get magically good at parkour (I know, I’ve tried). It takes hard work and a commitment to focus on areas you aren’t good at. However, while it’s good to be aware of where your weakness lie, I think it’s important not to get too focused on what you’re not good at. I am guilty of often confusing being realistic about my training with being pessimistic and end up being too hard on myself. It’s important to take a moment to remember all the things you are good at and look at how far you’ve come in your training.
I’m not the only one who forgets this. Too often I talk to people about their training and am saddened to hear how much they put themselves down about their abilities, especially since I know they’re better than they seem to think. Being surrounded by talented, strong people, it’s easy to always compare yourself to others and forget that you’re pretty amazing too. Lots of people are too afraid to even try parkour. When I first started parkour, I couldn’t do proper push ups or climb ups. While objectively I might not be the strongest person, or have the biggest jump, I have come pretty far from when I first started. There’s lots more things I need to improve on in my training, and it is important to be aware of these things, however it’s good to be proud of what I’ve achieved so far.
So don’t get too sad if your training stalls, if you’ve been trying to break an elusive jump since forever, or if it feels like everyone else around you is better than you at everything. Remember, you’re pretty amazing too! Think about everything you’ve done, smile, then get out there and have fun training. Because that, at the end of the day, is what matters most.

fib

My First Class

We asked Ama, who has just taken up Parkour to tell us about her experience of comming to a class:

“I am surrounded by a very supportive, enthusiastic parkour community, here in Glasgow and I have done everything in my power NOT to become a part of this community. The fear that roiled in my stomach, yes because of my fears that I would fall or hurt myself or look like an idiot, but mostly because I just felt like I wouldn’t be able to do it. I wasn’t fit enough, fast enough, physical enough or anything, and would just be slowing everyone else down.

When I finally decided to face my fears and go to a class, I was so surprised, relieved, and excited. Everyone was so nice! People stayed back with me in the jogging and encouraged me step by step by step. Every exercise was about pushing your own physical limits, just giving it a go and not being the best or even necessarily succeeding but improving, getting stronger and working your body and your mind beyond where it was tells you your able to go.

I’ve now been to two classes, and though I still get terrified the whole night leading up to the beginning, the feeling of pride and growing confidence is a high its hard to beat and after two hours with these girls, I feel we’ve been friends for years. Thank you Glasgow Parkour Girls!”

(Photo of the girls warming up)

Some thoughts from Kate and Susie

We asked two of our younger pals currently training parkour in Glasgow, Kate and Susie, both 16, to tell us about their training and offer their advice on getting started with parkour.

How did you get into parkour?
Kate: I had seen some people on TV doing it and I thought it would be amazing to be able to do something as awesome. My friend had already found a youth class that she had began going to, so I thought I’d join her.

Susie: Honestly, I found out through the internet/gaming. I played a pretty popular game called Assasin’s Creed, and thought what the game character was doing looked cool. Then I googled parkour in Scotland and I started taking classes. Oh, and one of my friends showed me a lot of videos of people ‘failing’ at parkour and hurting themselves on youtube… xD

What is your favourite thing about training parkour?
K: You never know what you’re going to faced with next. And when you’re able to do something that you may have thought there was no way that you would be able to do, it feels like an amazing sense of accomplishment

(Kate jumping)

S: When you haven’t been able to do a certain movement, but then after some training, you overcome it. It’s like ‘Woah, I actually did something kinda cool.’

What was the hardest thing when you started?
K: Being able to get over my fear of falling and hurting myself. But I came to realise that thats the way you learn; you have to get a few bumps and cuts along the way to learn from your mistakes.

S: Undoubtedly, the warm ups at training. In fact, I still have problems with them sometimes. My only advice for that is, make sure you eat something before you start any intense training.

Whave you acheived in your parkour training that you are you most proud of?
K: I’ve gotten over my fear of heights. When you’re working up high you learn to control your fear and just go for it.

S: Honestly, I’m just proud that I’ve been able to keep myself fit and in shape. It’s a really healthy and fun workout, and I’m normally a lazy sort of person.

What kind of music do you listen to while training?
K: Mostly anything, but I think it’s probably better if you listen to something chilled and relaxed because it’ll make yourself loosen up a bit and also become relaxed.

S: Music? Ehhh… Not sure. They play some music in my class, but I’m normally too busy chatting away to friends or exercising to notice.

(Susie being a ninja)

Do you prefer structured classes or jams with your pals?
K: I love both so much. Classes are more structured and you get to learn more things and get help from people who are experienced. At jams you get to know lots of people that share a common interest with you, and also get help you when you need it. It’s like one huge community that keeps on growing.

S: I think I do enjoy the classes a bit more, but only because there seem to be more people around. Jams are good too, though.

What advice would you give to other teenage girls who want to try Parkour?
K: Just go for it! You may be like me, and nervous at first but it’s so worth it in the end. The things you learn and the people you meet last a lifetime if you keep it up :)

S: Just do it! If you’re reading about it on the web and wondering, like I was, and you’re maybe just a tinsy bit shy, then honestly, just go for it. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done :D

Warum bist du barfuß?

Or, why are you barefoot?

I was asked this question while balancing barefoot along an abandoned tram track in a park in Leipzig, by an adorable five-year-old, asking the way children do; with a genuine curiosity rather than the i-already-think-you’re-an-idiot tone that adults can take. But speaking German, I scrambled for translations I didn’t know for words I needed, and in the end managed nothing but a kein-Deutsch apology and a smile. It got me thinking though- it’s the same question I’ve been asked a million times in English, and one I’ve come to answer on auto-pilot in my Muttersprache. Those answers, though, they’re not the whole story.

I walk around barefoot a lot, and people ask me why I’m not wearing shoes a lot. When answering, I tend to rattle through a stock list of reasons. It’s better for you. It strengthens stabilizing muscles in the lower leg, which are under-used by shoe wearers. It improves balance and landing, as any small mistakes and sloppy techniques won’t be covered up by a wedge of foam, but will be communicated instantly in the form of discomfort or pain, meaning you stop doing that pretty quicksmart. it increases the input of information, about surface, conditions, force, and so increases precision. Shoes change the way a human walks, encouraging longer steps and heel-striking with each step, which causes shock to travel up the straight leg and into the knee and hip, rather than being absorbed by a forefoot-striking leg, bent to take shock like a spring. Blah blah blah.

These are reasons why I should go barefoot, but not really reasons why I do. Similarly, I can list bazillions of reasons why I should eat a lot of fruit and veg; that’s all fine, sure, but I eat a lot of fruit and veg because it’s delicious and I like it. People are unlikely to continue doing something they should do simply because it’s the right thing to do; there usually have to be other reasons, tangible reasons. On some level, it’s gotta make you feel good.

So, why am I barefoot?

Perhaps a short note, a question as to why the question is always framed as though naked feet are wrong, weird, silly, whatever. Barefeet shouldn’t be weird, and looking at it globally and across the history of the species, shoe-wearing is the weird activity. And it is true that shoe-wearing leads to atrophy of the muscles in the lower leg- you can feel them growing and flexing as you walk. Barefeet make you stronger.

It’s a real shame more people don’t go barefoot, at least once in a while, because there are things you’ll never know unless you do. The way wet grass tickles the sides of your feet on a cold morning. The way certain materials they use to repair roads can turn spongy-soft in the hot sun. The way your toes grip around the irregularities of a rock with surprising intuition. The tiny moment of chaos with each step on rain-slick cement, that miraculously turns into balance and control. Barefoot, you’ll get to know the upper and lower limits of what your body can handle, temperature wise, and I promise, it’s more than you think. You’ll figure out how to distribute weight evenly across the soles of your feet, so you can skip across gravel and rocks that you previously wouldn’t even look at without lacing up. I feel like I learn something about the world, about the peculiar material qualities of the world, every time I forego shoes. Barefeet increase knowledge.

One of the reasons that people think walking barefoot is inappropriate seems to be a form of Mean world syndrome. This is a belief that the world is an inherently dangerous place that’s out to get them, and it’s the same thing you face when you’re out training and someone yells at you to get-the-hell-down-off-that-rail-you’re-going-to-hurt-yourself. People can overestimate risk. In this particular case, shoe-wearing sufferers of the syndrome tend to think that the world is composed almost entirely of dog shit, used syringes and broken glass, and that walking barefoot is an almost-suicidal undertaking. There are risks involved in walking barefoot, and there are certainly places where I wouldn’t do it. But the risks are small, the consequences largely reversible and they are far outweighed by the benefits. Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat – broken glass is not really a problem. Pieces large enough to be a real menace, you’ll spot instantly and avoid. Smaller shards will get into your feet, I’m not denying that, but they pop out as easily as they go in and rarely get infected. Furthermore, feet toughen up fast. Barefeet can seem scary at first, just like parkour training, but sticking with it will give you a much better idea of what actually poses a risk, and what you can take in your stride.

Shoes seem to offer protection and insulation from the world. And, as someone who’s spent more time than I’d like with the black dog, I know the temptations of shutting everything out. It can feel like sanctuary to stomp around oblivious, collar turned up and headphones in, a way to disengage from the world. And true, that’s exactly what it is, but it doesn’t help. This just shuts you up inside your own head, with your problems and fears bouncing about inside there, getting louder and louder. Going barefoot can help you to feel centered and grounded- every step returns your mind to physical experience of the world, and any mental attempts to shut yourself in get that much more difficult. An integrated part of the world, not an interruption into it. The Cartesian conceit of a mind located in but distinct from the body is almost impossible to maintain when you’re not wearing kicks. It’s easier to notice the sun on your face when you can feel the ground under your feet.

It takes a little bravery to lower the defenses, and you do it every time you go training. Then you see the world isn’t big and scary and out to get you, but actually (if you’ll forgive me a moment of unrelenting optimism) an place full of wonders. And that you, your body, isn’t under threat from all sides and in constant need of protection, but actually strong and capable of more than you thought.

Why am I barefoot? Truthfully, because it’s harder to be unhappy that way.

Courtesy Zeno Watson- http://www.zenowatson.com

(Many thanks to Zeno Watson for the photo- www.zenowatson.com and www.glasgowparkourcoaching.tumblr.com)