No Guardrails Required: Math and Parkour United

Prof. Cherney.Obstacles are everywhere. Life is defined not only by the obstacles we encounter but how we perceive them. For Professor David Cherney, obstacles are not insurmountable—they’re just opportunities for self-examination and perseverance.

As an adjunct professor specializing in mathematical physics and a founding member of NorCal Parkour, Cherney sees obstacles in both his mental and physical worlds, and he brings a tenacious mindset to clearing them.

What’s Parkour, you ask? It’s a wildly athletic physical activity based on the idea of “free running” the environment, with the goal of getting from point A to Point B not as quickly as possible but as creatively as possible.

Most students probably walk to class on their own two feet. If they were doing Parkour, they might walk to class on their hands. Whether it’s doing a gainer off a rooftop or jumping through windows, Parkour is about embracing creativity.

Though Parkour, which was developed in France, may still be relatively unknown in the United States, Cherney believes its concepts exist everywhere, starting in childhood. “Everyone did Parkour when they were a kid,” he said. “When you were a kid, the whole world was a playground.” 

The mindset of Parkour is that the world does not have to follow rules. Outside of the strict mistress that is gravity, all bets are off. “The only way to exercise now is to go to a designated exercise area, a gym, and exercise for a certain period of time, while wearing fashionable clothing” Cherney says. “Parkour flips that whole thing on its head. The whole world is your gym. It’s seeing the world as full of possibilities.”

This world of possibilities opened up for Cherney after his rock climbing partner moved away to accept a job. At that crossroads, he reached out to a couple of people who were trying to start a Parkour club in Northern California.

Cherney’s passion for Parkour is intertwined with his passion for mathematics. He sees an intimate relationship between Parkour and math, noting that practitioners of both have to have a sound body, mind … and intestinal fortitude.

“I think the people that are good at math aren’t so much inherently good at math, but it’s that they’re comfortable with not being good at math yet, and they’re tenacious enough to continue until they do become good. That’s the same with Parkour—it’s this mindset that you have a certain set of skills right now and you’re constantly working on them.”

While there is a strong relationship between problems in math and obstacles in Parkour, Cherney says Parkour and teaching are two different sanimals. “In teaching, you’re trying to get everyone to do the same thing. With Parkour, it’s anarchy,” he says.

But these differences don’t mean you can’t learn valuable lessons from both fields. For instance, he says, “When you go out with a Parkour group, you see that absolutely everyone has a different skill set. My students come from a lot of different mathematical backgrounds, and you have to try to appreciate what people have and how it melds with what you’re doing right now.”

For Cherney, bouncing between the worlds of math and Parkour has let him see beyond the intimidation of the obstacles we encounter in everyday life. Instead, he just asks: How can I get over them?