In addition to spending time in a pleasant company and giving our body a thorough workout, slacklining allows us to practice various skills that we can apply in everyday life. This is also the purpose of our workshops and courses – to become aware of and practice our technical, physical and mental skills so that we can recognize and apply them in other areas of our life.
It is interesting that, compared to other sports, walking on a strip of webbing is a relatively simple exercise technically (right and left step). This is the reason why, once we master the basics, we can dedicate more attention to the mental skills which are further described below.
Slacklining undoubtedly helps us develop a good perception of our body. In addition to the five basic senses, there are also other sensory faculties that connect auditory, visual and tactile information into a comprehensive whole. Even though we do not consciously process these perceptions, we nevertheless always use and rely on them for the normal functioning of our body.
Proprioception is the sense of how one’s body moves and where it is positioned in space. Without it, we could not walk except by looking at our feet, we could not learn to drive a bicycle, we would not know how much force is required to hold a glass to not drop it, and we would not be able to touch our nose with eyes closed because we would not find it.
Difficulties with proprioception are often seen in the elderly, after injuries, and in an inebriated state.
Slacklining helps us improve proprioception because we have to be conscious of how our centre of gravity changes, the position of our limbs, the pressure of our feet, the speed of our movements, and the forces of inertia which arise during this activity. When learning new skills, it is very important that we do not disregard the feedback of our own body but instead become aware of it – we make the unconscious conscious.
To train our proprioception we should direct our gaze directly in front of us and not look at our feet. Eventually, we will gain a perfectly clear picture of our position relative to the line and the space around us in any given moment. If you would like to engage in an even bigger proprioceptive challenge, try closing your eyes.
The human body is the most sophisticated machine that ever existed. Learn how you can use it more efficiently and have fun at the same time!
Slacklining is like walking on a thin line between a stable and labile position (like a ball on top of a semi-circular roof). It involves dynamic balance because we try to maintain a stable position of our body while standing on a line which also wobbles as we move. Even if we succeed in entirely stopping the wobble, the next moment we might already be out of balance. And if we are ready for this, it is less likely that we will fall.
Balance is therefore struck at the point of transition from one unstable position to the next. Our balance mainly depends on how quickly we perceive the deviations from the equilibrium point and the speed and manner of adjusting the current unstable position.
Nothing is eternally balanced and neither is life. It is good to keep this in mind so that unexpected events do not throw us off balance as easily.
Walking on a line represents the unexplored ground outside of our comfort zone. When we try to persevere in sustaining balance, our body and mind put up a fight because they prefer situations that are already familiar to us. By persisting to maintain balance on an eternally wobbly webbing, we are pushing through the wall of our own beliefs and limitations – which is an indispensable skill in many areas of life.
BALANCE = RESPONSIVENESS (speed of perceiving + reacting) + MOTOR SKILLS
Responsiveness plays a key role in keeping balance when slacklining. It really comes into its own in all sports requiring speed, whereas the lack of it becomes pronounced for example in the elderly when the body loses its responsiveness and when even something as simple as walking on a slippery surface becomes dangerous.
Due to fast oscillations of the slackline while sustaining a stable position, the body engages various muscle groups. A multitude of neural pathways – collectively called motor units – also become active. They consist of a motor neuron and skeletal muscle fibres innervated by nerve cells. When we start to learn how to walk on a slackline, we are not using enough of such motor units because we have yet to develop them. As we try to prolong the time of maintaining balance, we develop the missing motor units really fast by repeating the required movements. However, we do not know how to efficiently engage only the required units. And this is why achieving balance looks a little awkward. Neural networks in the brain represent a type of a motor programme that “debugs” itself through practice and starts using only the motor units which are necessary and restore body’s balance as quickly as possible. And this is how our body starts to respond efficiently not only in sports but also in everyday situations.
Abilities and Motor Skills
When learning new elements of movement, we want to progress from conscious actions to non-conscious or, in other words, automatic actions. This enables us to carry out the acquired movements without giving them any thought in any given situation while slacklining. Therefore, our walk becomes calmer.
In search of balance, beginners usually wave their arms and legs frantically around, while a master can do subtle corrections to his balance by only slightly moving his wrists. The main difference between the two is obvious: the master perceives and reacts much faster compared to the beginner and, consequently, he or she can keep movements at the minimum. Moreover, master’s movements are more precise and exactly as big or small as they need to be.
During our first attempts to walk on a line, we quickly realize that strong legs and tense torso alone will not be enough to prevent the trembling of our legs and the line. We must engage smaller muscle groups and relax our body to just the right degree in order to rise up to our first stabilisation challenge on a slackline.
Ideally, during walking on a slackline, we should tense our torso and legs, and relax our arms. Even in babies, a strong torso is a prerequisite for optimal movement and learning. Without it, we cannot perform the movements efficiently. We must therefore use the muscles which are responsible for stabilizing the torso. These are mostly the muscles in the lower part of the torso: the multifidus muscle, pelvic floor muscles etc., or, in other words, all the muscles which we use to tense our torso in order to stabilize it.
To tame the wobbling of our line, we also have to stabilize our legs and ankles in the lateral direction (strong thigh muscles already take care of the less problematic forward and backward motion). The weakest are usually the lateral muscles of our legs and torso because we do not use them as often when moving on flat surfaces. But we can learn to engage them in less than one hour of practice.
After a good slackline session, we always feel like our entire body is tired because virtually all of the muscles were engaged in the process. Especially during low temperatures (-10° Celsius) it is obvious how much the body is actually working; even though a slackliner does not perform any big moves, he or she is usually dressed only in a light pullover.
One of key factors that directly influence steady walking or achieving balance is correct breathing. This is a vital piece of the puzzle in maintaining long-term focus – we use it to balance not only our body but also our mind.
Breathing involves conscious and non-conscious processes of the body and, if we focus on it during meditation, it helps us to tame our wandering or monkey mind. The same applies to slacklining.
If we direct our thoughts into a relaxed, uninterrupted breathing, our body will automatically calm down. And we need to be in this state of relaxation to prevent the wobble of the line. Our body cannot be sufficiently relaxed if our breathing is uneven or if we even hold our breath while trying to find balance.
Being focused on our breathing also helps us to divert attention from unnecessary thoughts that could interfere with our walking.
When slacklining, you play an interesting balance game with yourself – you are your own adversary. On the one hand, your thoughts give you instructions on how you should move, while on the other hand, intuition whispers into your ear. More often than not, we tend to overthink situations instead of listening to our intuition – and it is the latter that usually points us in the right direction.
For example a very simple trick we can do with our facial muscles, i.e. smile, can trigger a very effective response in the brain. Smiling helps us to infuse many difficult situations with a light touch or even turn them into play.
A relaxed state of persevering in a challenge entails strong and deep focus as opposed to a dead serious concentration! This kind of focus also enables us to access the state of flow which is described further down below.
Among other things, slackline is also an ideal tool for strengthening knee ligaments, ankles and hips. We can use it for various types of controlled sensory-motor practices. Physiotherapists and kinesiologists use it to improve the stabilisation of joints, proprioception and muscle power.
Due to intense wobbling, the line enables the activation of various muscle groups which are of key importance for a successful rehabilitation. Because our body has to perform many fast and small movements, the weight is distributed more evenly in the joints and our body posture is improved. It also strengthens the ligaments.
An example of practice on a self-standing slackline – Balansa Woodie. More at >>>
If we have good motor skills, we can get the hang of the basics and techniques on a slackline very quick, in just a few minutes or one hour. Otherwise, we can learn the basic movements in two hours with a little help from the instructor. After mastering the basics, we can start focusing on mental aspects that could be preventing us from walking calmly on a slackline. By addressing such problems, we refine the skills that are related to better perception, the control of mind and emotions, and intuition. We become aware of our hidden potentials and start developing them in various areas of our life.
By training balance on a slackline, we increase the use of non-conscious signals and feelings and learn how to bring them into our conscious mind. Non-conscious information appears in the brain approximately 300ms earlier than conscious information (”readiness potential”, Hans Helmut Kornhuber and Lüder Deecke, 1964). It is much easier to find balance when we find a direct link to our perceptions and not to our rationalisation of them. We learn how to shorten the amount of time necessary to recognize or react to a sensation. If we are able to sustain focus for a longer period of time or follow a desired train of thought, we strengthen our brain “muscle”, increase its plasticity (its ability to change from experience), and create new synapses.
Many benefits and cognitive abilities arise from this process, such as creativity and resourcefulness.
Persistence and determination are probably one of the main mental skills which are required to learn slacklining. Without them, we would not be able to progress – either on a slackline or in any other area of life.
How often do you wonder about the meaningfulness of what you do? Why do you do what you do? What lies on the other side?
To be able to do even one step on an entirely unstable surface, we need a certain amount of grit. Many people encounter considerable difficulties when they have to leave their familiar environment behind and venture out of their comfort zone. If you were ever to step on a highline, you would face an extremely challenging task. It would demand all the resolve you could muster inside yourself: to stand up from a comfortable sitting position and step into the unknown – an unstable and very intense game of seeking balance high above the ground and with a wide open space below.
The amount of patience we need on a longer slackline can be a very demanding task: we have to wait for the wave-like motion of the line to subside and only then continue walking. When we are under significant stress or we feel threatened, we wish to take the edge of this experience as soon as possible. It often turns out that an immediate retreat alleviates the situation only in the short term, whereas in the long term it causes even more damage. Slacklining on the limit of our abilities increases our capacity to persevere in difficult situations. This has many benefits: in day-to-day challenges, in critical moments during competition for athletes, for people with brain injuries.
If we do not tame our mind, it often escapes our control so it can constantly analyse and connect things with either our past or the future. From time to time, we all catch ourselves thinking about what will happen at the meeting next morning while we are in the midst of a conversation with friends. Our mind often holds us back from being fully present with what we are doing in this moment.
There is only now!
Finding balance forces us to be present in the moment because, if we are not, we quickly fall of a slackline. Often we do not realise until only after a fall that we were thinking about things unrelated to slacklining just moments ago. In this way, we can efficiently train our mind to remain in the present moment, to focus on the task at hand or to quickly return to it.
We live in a world of information overload. Therefore, it is even more important that we direct our attention where we chose and that we respond to stimuli in a desired manner.
Slacklining on the limit of our abilities poses a challenge that does not allow any unnecessary thoughts to enter our mind.
This is when we are focused on how our centre of gravity moves, our posture is firm and upright, our arms are supple, gaze is directed straight in front of us, our breathing is steady and calm, and our knees are slightly bent – and we do not allow ourselves to be disturbed. Because if during walking we think for a moment about what we want to have for dinner, notice people on the street observing us, see a nice dog playing behind a tree, or think that we are doing really well today… We suddenly find ourselves on the ground.
All the disturbances, either internal, such as our own thoughts, or external, for example an ambulance siren or a ball flying through our field of vision, affect us – they snatch away our focus. If we then direct even more attention into the distraction, we can completely forget about the task at hand and then need a considerable amount of time and energy to return to the previous focused state of mind, let that be on a slackline or at work. Because steady walking requires that we remain very responsive all the time, slacklining is an excellent tool to practice concentration.
And How Do We Stay Focused?
We must learn how to recognize and control our thoughts.
The easiest way to do this is to always remain focused only on the elements that help us perform the task at hand. We try to be aware of as many proprioceptive signals as possible and of the breathing flow in any given moment. If we succeed in this, the brain’s “working memory” will be so busy with processing all the incoming signals that it will not be able to deal with any other distractions. As soon as we recognize something as a distraction, we simply accept it but do not attach any weight to it or give it any further thought. We rather direct our thoughts to the key aspects of our task.
A relaxed state of persevering in a challenge entails strong and deep focus as opposed to a dead serious concentration! This kind of focus also enables us to access the state of flow which is described further down below.
When we walk on a line, we look at a point straight in front of us (it is best if it is clearly visible). Usually this is a point on a tree where one end of a slackline is attached. When we do this for an extended period of time and we are focused on the main aspects of the task, our peripheral vision can become blurred and we get the sensation of being in a tunnel. Maintaining balance therefore becomes relatively easy as we are deeply immersed in what we are doing.
It has been proven that our thoughts, either positive or negative, affect our body. A good example of this is the placebo effect. Visualisation or the ability to form a mental image works in a similar way. Many experiments were done where actual weightlifting was compared with the imaginary lifting of the weights. In most cases, the results have shown that just thinking about the exercise was up to 60% as efficient as actual physical exercise. These are extraordinary results and top athletes and successful businessmen alike take advantage of them.
Accordingly, if we know how to imagine what we want to do (and not necessarily how we do it because this is something we do not know) in sufficient detail, our body will unconsciously respond in a way that will help us achieve what we want. A perfectly steady walk or changing direction on a line are manoeuvres which are difficult to control solely with our rational mind. With a good visualisation of the interim or final result, we can progress much faster.
Flow is a psychophysical state of optimal experience as defined by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1990. It is when we are so completely absorbed in what we are doing that we lose our sense of space and time and get the most out of the activity – emotionally as well as physically.
When we are in the “zone”, we transcend our ego and limitations, we have clear goals, and feel in complete control over what we are doing. This is when we acquire new skills and feel better and fulfilled, which in turn makes us want to spend more time in this state of flow and, possibly, also make it our permanent state of being.
Slacklining is an excellent activity for exploring the flow state. To walk on wobbly strip of webbing, the first four key factors from the list below must be fulfilled and we can practice them with relative ease on a slackline.
- In each and every moment we know what we want and what is the next step. This is easy with slacklining: we need to stabilize the line and then our step.
- We receive immediate feedback on how well are we doing and if our activity leads to a desired result. On a slackline, we always know how well we are doing. The feedback is directly felt and visible: trembling of the line and the distance we cover.
- The difficulty of the activity must be exactly at the limit of our current abilities (see the diagram below). We set up a slackline of such length and tension that we can still just walk the entire line. Or, if we want to take on a tougher challenge, we set up a line that is difficult for our level and practice only individual sections.
- Complete focus on just one task: a desired result or the next step. After being fully focused on an activity for some time, we become totally immersed and also more efficient in it. To achieve strong focus, we need to calm down and know how to dismiss distractions. The Balansa crew dubbed the state of sharp focus on a slackline also “tunnel vision” since it seems as though you enter a tunnel of attention where everything outside of it becomes blurred.
- The experience of a tunnel becomes the new reality and, at first, we become aware of it only when a major disturbance interrupts our flow. When we become skilled in entering the state of flow, we start being aware of it in real time and also know how to prolong it (see the section on meditation below). Csikszentmihalyi described this also as an escape forward, whereas the other direction is an escape backwards into repetitive habits, for example drug abuse. When we escape forward, we achieve transcendence and personal evolution and create the desired state ourselves, with our own skills and creativity, and not with the help of any other substances. This is not an escape away from reality but rather into reality itself.
- We gain complete control over a situation (the difficulty of the task exactly matches our abilities) and consequently realise that we also have complete control over our lives. This is when walking on a slackline becomes easy, even when the situation is so difficult that we cannot calm down and steady the line.
- We let go and transcend our ego. We do not care what others think about us and we are aware of our transcendence. When the elation subsides, our life is enhanced with a new learning experience and we feel content and at ease with ourselves.
- Our perception of time changes. You almost certainly remember a time when you were so absorbed in an activity that you completely forgot about time. You were probably in the state of flow!
Because we can easily achieve and adjust the first three elements of the flow state on a slackline and also practice the fourth one, this is an ideal way to familiarize ourselves with the principles of flow and how to sustain it.
Usually, it is easier to maintain flow than to regain it. We can experience it on either short or long lines, regardless of whether we are beginners or advanced slackliners. It is easier to tap into the workings of flow on longer lines because they require longer concentration times. In addition, it is also true that the more abilities we have, the more challenges we are able to take on – and in turn gain more opportunities to enter the state of flow (see the graph below).
Did you ever ask yourself how much of your day is spent in the flow state?
Based on 10,000 interviews, Csikszentmihalyi found that flow is not only pure pleasure which we experience during instant gratification, such as playing computer games. The traces of flow stay with us and make us a better person. Csikszentmihalyi also says that flow inspires evolution because it helps us find new solutions to existing problems.
Due to play, children generally spend more time in the flow state than adults. There are nevertheless also older people who radiate strong willpower and are interested in tackling new challenges.
When we know how flow works (on a slackline or anywhere else), how we can always achieve it and how to prolong this state, we can make good use of this knowledge also in everyday life.
A good way of entering the flow state on a slackline is to never stop moving and to always make steps forward, even when this is hard and we cannot walk calmly or steady the line – this is when we simply slow down our movements.
Summarized according to the Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990.
The state of flow is very much like deep meditation. Because the practice of balance naturally encourages us to enter such a state, for some people slacklining is an easier path to expanded awareness than meditation in a sitting position.
In both cases, the result is the same (and positive): our mind becomes centred, we enter a state of heightened awareness and transcendence. Our thoughts grow silent, things become simple, and we are more connected to ourselves and the people around us. As a result, we feel good and have complete control over our lives. We overcome ourselves and our problems, thus finding solutions to them becomes easier.
Mindfulness (of our body)
Mindfulness is a form of meditation or attitude that is closely linked to balance. It teaches us to be aware of the present moment and to inhabit it with our mind. The person practising mindfulness learns to observe their feelings, thoughts and other bodily sensations and/or signals from the surroundings.
A similar thing happens when slacklining but with one main distinction: because it is a physical activity, we direct most of our attention to our body. By practising mindfulness when finding balance on a slackline, we begin to be aware of all the subtle movements of our body, we feel our centre of gravity, precisely place our feet, and even sense the slightest vibration of the webbing because we maybe moved our arm a touch too fast. We become more responsive. Dean Potter, an American free climber, alpinist, BASE jumper, highliner, and one of the first people who took slacklining to a higher level, also named this a state of heightened awareness.
If you ever found yourself in a life-threatening situation, the fast pace of events probably slowed down and you started being aware of even the smallest details (for example the cracking of thin ice or the details of a traffic accident). With the help of slacklining and other similar activities, we can learn how to achieve this state of heightened awareness also in everyday situations!
With a little practice, we can usually start being aware of our thoughts but we can rarely tap into how and why they arise. It is difficult to be aware of, for example, why certain thoughts keep reoccurring and why others do not. Most of us spend the majority of our day half-aware. If we let our mind wander, we can quickly see how many thoughts cross our mind. We can conclude that, on an average day, we are completely present for much less time than we perhaps think we are.
Thus, it can often seem that our mind controls us as opposed to us controlling our mind. And if we lack knowledge of our mind, we can cause considerable troubles, even suffering, in our own life and also in the lives of others.
Also Buddha, who knew every nook and cranny of his own mind, said 2,500 years ago that “It is a man’s own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways.” Our mind can convince us into believing our own lies or constantly compares us to others and that is a source of much unnecessary suffering.
By increasing our awareness and consequently gaining better control of our thoughts, mindfulness enhances the possibility of using our free will.
Confronting our mind and learning how to calm it down is not an easy task – it is, however, immensely rewarding. A good mind is an excellent tool! Practising mindfulness and the heightened awareness it brings also has the following benefits:
- We observe without distractions (judgements) and we are very open, accepting and compassionate;
- We are aware of and eliminate patterns of damaging behaviour which we would otherwise not even notice;
- Positive effects on our health;
- Synapses relax back to their steady state;
We accept things which are outside of our control without unnecessary frustration.
Did you ever ask yourself how many of your fears are actually beneficial and how many of them are only limiting you and causing you stress?
And how is fear connected to slacklining?
The easiest thing to say, even before you give it a try, is that slacklining is not for you, that you have no balance and that you cannot walk on a thin strip of webbing. Are you afraid of failure, making new discoveries or merely resisting the unknown? Even during your first attempts at slacklining you will probably realise that you probably harbour some unnecessary fears.
If you manage to avoid such struggles at the start, they are probably in store for you once you are ready to walk high above the ground. Highlining is the most intensive form of walking on a slackline and it forces us to confront all our fears and thoughts. Only then we are truly ready to get up on a highline and start walking.
Even though we are protected and we make sure that the line is properly and safely set up and that there is no danger of a fatal fall, we are (at least at the start) instinctively scared. We need to overcome the obstacles and conquer our ego which is trying to force us into giving up and retreating to a comfortable shelter. When we succeed in vanquishing our ego and calming ourselves down, we can really start to enjoy ourselves and eventually walk the entire length of a highline. What usually waits for us on the other side is a profound experience which can teach us to overcome limitations also in other areas of our life.
Ego (summarized according to the War of Art by Steven Pressfield)
The Ego is that part of the psyche that believes in material existence, takes care of business in the real world and acts exclusively according to principles of the material world. This is of course an important job and we would never survive without it. But there are worlds other than the material world, and this is where the Ego runs into trouble. Among other things, the Ego believes that the predominant impulse of life is self-preservation. Because our existence is physical and thus vulnerable to innumerable evils, we live and act out of fear in all we do.