Twenty years ago, rock climbers in Yosemite and Joshua Tree discovered a way to entertain themselves when they weren’t scaling walls. They strung a piece of 20-foot webbing between trees to create a makeshift tightrope and practiced walking on it. The better they got at their new game, the more they upped the ante. They made the line longer and eventually raised it higher off the ground—slinging it between canyons 800 feet in the air.
Slacklining, as it was eventually called, never became more than a diversion for climbers and other thrill seekers. Recently, however, a young climber has found a new way to use the slackline, a way he believes might serve a larger and more enduring purpose than just an adrenaline hit: as a yoga prop.
Jason Magness, 30, first discovered slacklining about seven years ago and couldn’t stay on the rope for more than two seconds. "It felt like the most impossible thing ever," he says. "I tried it for half an hour and thought I’d never be able to do it." He dismissed it and went back to climbing. When he rediscovered it a year ago, it was after he’d been practicing yoga for three years. And to his surprise, he brought a different perspective to the line. "I was more centered," he says. After an hour of experimentation, Magness was able to stand up and balance. "It was remarkable."
Since that experience, Magness has found more similarities between yoga and slacklining—and he may be on to something. He and his friend Sam Salwei are working on a DVD on the subject for T-Phy Productions, and they’re holding workshops around the country.
Magness says certain things improve once you start slacklining: your focus, breathing, balance, control of the bandhas, and your sense of humor. Obviously, the consequences of losing focus on a loose line are more pronounced than when you’re on a mat. "Your mind has to be engaged or else you fall off," says Magness. "There’s not a stray thought: what to cook for dinner, your to-do list at work—those thoughts and you’re off." Being in touch with your breath is equally important. "If you’re holding your breath, the line will vibrate more," says Magness. "If you can settle in and drop your weight into your root and engage your core, the line almost becomes still."
No matter how deep your breath or strong your focus, you still have to balance, and that requires activating all those tiny oblique muscles in your core. "The first time you stand up," says Magness, "you don’t know how to control those muscles. Slacklining is really good for finding out where balance comes from." It’s also good for finding your bandhas, those locks in the abdomen and perineum that contain and stimulate energy. Magness says they’re crucial for arm balances on the line: "The minute you don’t engage Uddiyana Bandha, you can’t do them."
Of course, the first time you step on a slackline, you won’t be doing arm balances; you’ll just be trying to stay upright. But the work is fun and can give a huge boost to your confidence. "We had a 45-year-old mother of two who we convinced to try it," Magness says. "By the end she could balance and take a few steps. She was so excited to go back and show her kids."
Magness tries more difficult poses and experiments with sequencing these days. He’s found that some poses, like Revolved Triangle, are actually easier on the line than on the ground. The hardest one so far is Navasana (Boat Pose). "You do it sideways," he explains. "Your sitting bones are on the line. It’s so hard on the core. It’s like taking an Ana Forrest abs class condensed in a few seconds."
A lover of Ashtanga Yoga, Magness says he’s always had a hard time meditating until he discovered slacklining. Now he sits on the line in Lotus Pose and meditates for 20 to 30 minutes regularly.
Slacklining has completely transformed Magness’s practice. And, like any good convert, he’s eager to tell others. "I’d love to teach it and see the word spread," he says. "When you teach beginners, you rediscover the joy of your first time. They stand up for 10 seconds and you see this huge grin."