Looking to achieve balance? Try slacklining
Standing on a swaying length of flat nylon slung like a tightrope, my knees shake as I try desperately not to fall. But every time I take a tentative step, I lose my balance. Fortunately for me, this isn’t a circus act performed several stories up; I’m slacklining -- and the ground is a mere 12 inches away.
A trio of experts are attempting to show me how it’s done. With the backing of a German manufacturer of slacklines, the men are trying to raise the sport’s profile by touring the U.S. giving demonstrations. This is a bit like bringing coals to Newcastle, as the invention of slack lining is attributed to a pair of rock climbers in Yosemite Valley more than 20 years ago. By stretching a length of nylon climbing webbing a short distance off the ground between two tree trunks and attempting to walk on it, the climbers created a simple sport.
Today, slacklining is no longer just something to do between adventures on El Capitan. Widely popular in Europe, slacklining is now spreading outside the climbing community in the U.S. via college campuses, parks and youth camps.
Originally homemade, slacklines are now made by several manufacturers. The kits, which start at about $65, include webbing and a tensioning device. The lines are not exactly slack; “springy” is a better description. The resulting trampoline effect, requiring active balancing, is what makes slacklining such a good core exercise and is helping fuel the sport’s growth.
Linda Givler, a product manager at outdoor retailing giant REI, says that sales of slacklines are expanding, especially with younger customers and nonclimbers.
Much of that growth seems to be spreading virally, through friends seeing friends slacklining and giving it a try, or watching YouTube videos and ordering a slackline kit. REI sells an instructional DVD, and help is also available online at manufacturers’ websites.
Gibbon Slacklines’ plan to kick-start the sport in the U.S. with grass roots marketing demonstrations gave Holger Welsch the chance to spend a month of his summer vacation on an all-expenses-paid tour of the U.S. Part of the crew spreading the gospel of slacklining from San Francisco to Manhattan, he views the merits of the sport as in no small part mental. An engineer from Esslingen, Germany, Welsch has a high-pressure day job designing automotive components. When he’s stressed, he takes his slackline to the forest or a park. “The moment I’m on the slackline, I’m so focused on what I’m doing, all stress relieves because there’s nothing left in my brain,” he says.
This mind-clearing requirement to completely focus on the present in slacklining is one of its attractions. A form of meditation, say slackline enthusiasts, it’s like Zen or tai chi on a tightrope. Some advanced practitioners perform yoga poses on slacklines.
Harder than it looks
While slacklining is harder than it looks, Welsch says, “most people can manage to walk from tree to tree on their first day.” That seems a tall order on this sunny weekend day at a park in Westlake Village. Spectators watch as the pros balance and bounce on the lines -- and as I flail and fall. Peggie Hart, an elementary school teacher and tutor, steps forward to give it a try.
“They make it look so easy,” says Hart, who tried slacklining for the first time with the Gibbon group. “It was definitely one step at time. You couldn’t look too far in front of you and expect to get to the other side right away.” With some assistance from Welsch -- he provided a helping hand and a shoulder on which to lean, the sport’s version of spotting -- Hart did make it to the end of the line.
“Slacklining is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it was a lot of fun,” says Isabel Chaney, who tried slacklining this summer with friends at Malibu Creek State Park. A rock climber, Chaney liked the core workout -- balancing uses both abdominal and back muscles -- but she worried about turning an ankle. “I’m not used to reacting that quickly when I fall off the line,” she says. “Also it snaps.”
Of course, few people except insurance underwriters and park managers believe slacklining is especially dangerous. Joe Kuster, owner of SlacklineExpress.com, an online retailer of slacklines based in Longmont, Colo., has been selling slacklines since 2003. He says that if beginners keep the line short -- about 20 feet -- and at midthigh height, slacklining isn’t much more risky than walking up stairs.
“In the entire sport’s history, there have been no deaths. And injuries of any sort are pretty rare,” Kuster says. Injuries can include a sore butt from a hard landing after a poor dismount, bruises from the line snapping against legs, and sprained toes that get caught in the webbing.
The dangers from slacklining are not to participants as much as to trees. Wrapping lines around the trees can damage bark; the tension on the lines, compounded by repeat use, can even bend smaller trees.
Slacklining’s increasing popularity has led some communities -- most notably Boulder, Colo. -- to ban or restrict slacklining in public parks because of concerns about liability for injuries and damage to trees.
Maria Quinones-Phiegh, owner of Slackline Brothers in South Pasadena, says she has not been kicked out of any parks in Southern California. But she adds that newcomers are sometimes unaware of what she calls “slackline etiquette” -- the need to protect trees and other natural anchors, to not leave lines unattended and to spot beginners. They can learn proper etiquette at slackline.com, a website owned by Quinones-Phiegh that offers information and a forum where enthusiasts can discuss aspects of the sport.
City parks in Salinas and San Luis Obispo have even officially allowed slacklining after enthusiasts made presentations at City Council meetings and invited officials to try the sport at demonstrations. In addition to worries about liability for injuries, land managers are concerned about damage to trees and cite ordinances that prohibit attaching anything to a tree in a public park. Slackliners say trees should always be padded where the lines are attached and that only larger trees, over 8 inches in diameter, should be used as anchor points. In its birthplace, Yosemite National Park, slacklining is accepted by park officials as long as trees are protected.
A benefit to agility?
Research on the benefits of slacklining is understandably sparse for such a relatively new, do-it-yourself pursuit. Kristin Scheewe measured agility and balance of student volunteers before and after slackline training for an undergraduate research project at Brigham Young University-Hawaii. Scheewe, who now works as a skills trainer with disabled children, says she didn’t expect much of a difference. She was surprised to find that the eight subjects made substantial improvements in both agility and balance after a month of daily slackline practice. She suggests that slacklining improves agility as well as balance because it requires quick but subtle movements.
Regardless of the proven benefits, enthusiasts seem confident that slacklining helps improve balance and core strength without the dangers of a high-wire act. Some physical therapists have suggested slacklining to their clients to improve balance and coordination, and at least a few athletes, including ski racer Bode Miller, use slacklining as part of a cross-training program.
Meanwhile, slacklining has developed its own vocabulary. Inevitably, practitioners are sometimes called “slackers.” “Low lining” is done close to ground, while “high lining” is done high in the air, preferably between mountain peaks. High liners use a safety harness and leash clipped to the slackline to avoid fatal falls. If you “water line,” you’ll get wet when you fall. “Trick lines” are tensioned somewhat tighter than normal slacklines, to make it easier to get airborne and perform flips and tricks. “Long lines” are, well, long. The current record for distance on a single slackline is 666 feet.
At the park, I hold onto my spotter and take another tentative, wobbly step on the slackline. The distance record is safe for now.