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Slacklining: they walk the tight rope for a strong mind & body

Slacklining: they walk the tight rope for a strong mind & body

Slacklining is now gaining popularity not only as an exercise but also as a therapy for speedy recovery after an injury.
A woman Balancing on a suspended flat rope.
Slacklining experts say it is more than just keeping one’s balance | shutterstock

Balancing on a 1-2-inch-wide piece of suspended flat rope might not seem like the conventional workout routine. But this routine, called slacklining, is now gaining popularity not only as an exercise but also as a therapy for speedy recovery after an injury.  

Slacklining experts say it is more than just keeping one’s balance. 

“The highlight of slacklining is definitely balancing,” says Mohit Tanwar, moderator and administrator of Slacktivism, Delhi’s slacklining community. “But it is also about [getting a] razor sharp focus.”  

“Slacklining corrects one’s posture as it is essential when it comes to balancing. Besides that, it elevates your awareness about the surroundings and helps you to focus on the present. It also feels good to walk and balance on a suspended webbing,” he says. “The set-up is based on similar principles to that of adventure activities like rock climbing or mountaineering,” says Tanwar, who also works as an instructor at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarakhand. 

“I love how individualistic the sport is,” says Utah-based professional slackliner, Faith Dickey. She is also the outdoor sport guide at Elevate Outdoors Guiding — the first highline guiding business in the United States — where she works with slacklining, climbing and highlining enthusiasts.  

I found slacklining at a crucial time of my life,” she says. “Through this sport, I was introduced to various aspects of ego, fear, identity, and community. I also learnt devotion, determination, and that the biggest battle we face is always within.” Dickey has been slacklining for 14 years and she firmly believes that the sport has taught her the lesson that she is more capable and resilient than she thinks. 

 Control & contentment 

For Samar Farooqui, founder of Mumbai-based Slackline Inc., slacklining is all about fun, clarity and control. “I found it meditative. It taught me to be content with myself,” he says. 

According to Dickey, the sport helps people connect with their thoughts. “You either see them more clearly or learn to let them fade into the background,” she says. She adds that it is not only about staying focussed but also of being calm and not being afraid of failure. 

Essentially, slacklining is like tight rope walking but on a line that has a little less tension to it — loose cables, hence the name. Yosemite Valley, touted as ‘the birthplace of slacklining’, is where rock climbers experimented different techniques with multiple webbings. By the 1970s, it became popular. 

“You can buy a basic level slackline from your nearest sports store. It is two inches wide and is used for doing tricks. However, people find it comfortable because it is broader than the standard line,” says Tanwar.  

The next step is to find a place where you can suspend the line, often using trees or poles as anchors. Stretch the line between the anchors and secure it, roughly up to the height of the upper thigh to the hip. 

“If you cannot afford a slackline, try and find your local slackline community; slackliners are usually quite welcoming,” says Dickey of Utah. “Reciprocate their kindness to teach you by helping them set up and take down or get them edible treats,” she adds. 

 Anyone can do it 

“Anyone can do it,” says Farooqui. “Try standing on one leg for three seconds on the ground; then shift to the other and do the same. If you can do it on both, you are good to go. It starts with learning how to simply stand on the line and then slowly walking. Once you can confidently walk, start practising tricks, Yoga poses and flips.” 

Farooqui has taught three-year-olds as well as people over 70; super thin folks to plus-size people. A paraplegic learnt how to sit and balance on the line, he says. 

After mastering moves on the beginner’s webbing, slackliners graduate to standard one-inch-wide lines.   

“Slacklining trains a person’s integration of sensory input and neuromuscular response, balance, postural control and muscle strength,” says physiotherapist Taniya Chrisostom, Christian Medical College, Vellore. “As a result of the regular performance, the individual develops consistency, flexibility and efficiency. All the responses are based on motor learning processes. It is a complex process occurring in the brain in response to practice or the experience of a certain skill resulting in changes in the central nervous system,” she says. 

Australian researcher and physiotherapist Charles P. Gabel, in his paper Slacklining for Lower Extremity Rehabilitation and Injury Prevention, says three phases of motor learning are involved in becoming proficient in slacklining:
*Cognitive phase, which involves learning and unlearning new and old ways;
*Associative phase that lasts for weeks to months, during which skills are acquired and consolidated, and the performance improves.
*Autonomous phase that lasts for months to years, during which skills can be executed without conscious effort. This process leads to improved control of the natural oscillations that occur while standing on an unstable suspended line. 

After sports injuries 

When it comes to rehabilitation, slacklining is popular among sportspersons. “It is a novel approach to rehabilitation that is consistent with a whole-body perspective,” says Chrisostom. “The response strategies that occur during slacklining are suited to train individuals with deficiencies in four areas. They are neuromechanical demand, balance, postural control and muscle strength, particularly for the quadriceps, gluteal and core,” she says. 

From a physiotherapy perspective, slacklining is adjunct to enabling recovery after lower limb injuries and for sports specific rehabilitation. “During the recovery period, the routine must be performed under the supervision of a trained therapist without injuring oneself. It is a complex neuromechanical task that involves balance retention,” she says. 

Farooqui, who is currently recovering from a broken ankle and torn ligament, is waiting to return to the slackline as part of his rehabilitation. “I have previously used this exercise to rehabilitate my ankle and knee, and I got fully healed. Once my initial rest is over, I will get on the slackline to strengthen my ankle,” he says. 

Extra safety attachments are added for people recovering after an injury or a fracture, says Tanwar.  

Faith Dickey warns against going overboard with the sport. In moderation and under supervision, it plays a big role in healing. But it would be too much if you injured yourself, she says. 

Not a panacea 

The routine helped Tanwar with clarity of mind and focus. “I have gained a lot through slacklining, mentally and physically. And when it comes to highlining [a slackline performed at great heights] I have seen that it has helped people to deal with anxiety and fear,” he says. 

As with all exercise therapy, Chrisostom stresses that slacklining is not a panacea and may not suit everyone. “Trainers must observe caution when it comes to older age groups who have problems with balance and systemic movement control such as Parkinson’s disease,” she says. However, with consideration, the exercises can be adapted with extra safety measures, like choosing a low height above a soft surface such as matting, grass or sand to cushion any fall. 

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