Slacklining as a Way to Better Understand the Core and Breathing
So I never thought I’d write this sentence but…I just bought a slackline. A wha? Those tight-rope like contraptions between two trees that have a good wrap in Europe. ‘Ohhh, yeah, those…’ you’re thinking…
Some of you will know I’ve been both rock climbing and bouldering quite a bit lately, alternating my time between the high walls of St Peters Sydney Indoor gym and indoor bouldering gym 9 Degrees, in Alexandria. It’s been an insightful experience stumbling upon a thriving community of enthusiasts who treat climbing with the same vivacity as athletes from more traditional physical disciplines. The latter of the two establishments has been a particular eye opener to me. People spend hours a week climbing up three metre walls unharnessed and jumping onto mats? No thrill of vertigo inducing heights? Oh, so wrong. Firstly, as I’ve found out first hand, when rock climbing with the traditional harness up walls around 12 metre tall the initial sense of vertigo soon subsides as a logic prevails, trusting that if you fail to complete a move you’ll be suspended in the same position without consequence. But in the world of bouldering you can easily find yourself atop a bouldering wall with a final move to be made, forearms burning as your fingers intensely squeeze a hold that looks like it verges on not actually existing in the physical world while your contorted body trembles with fatigue and fear, oh and your feet placed on a tiny ledge barely by the tips of your toes which feel like they could slip at any moment leading to the realisation that there is a very real chance you could fall very awkwardly. Like on your head. Eek. Now that is scenario that truly pumps the blood a bit faster round ya body. But I love it. Bouldering is king in my opinion.
So anyhooo, the bouldering gym in Alexandria features a slack line smack bang in the middle of the room. On my first visit, a busy weekday evening, I was impressed by the number of climbers adept in the art of walking along this bouncy piece of webbing. It seemed like a load of fun but was hot property that particular night and I wasn’t gonna hold up a group of seasoned vets to make a right ol’ fool of myself. My next visit was during the day when the 9-5 cogs are all tied up ensuring the machine is well oiled and running smoothly, so it was nice and quiet around the gym. After a couple of climbs and close monitoring of the slackline to see no takers around, I ripped off my ego and decided it was time… Man, it wasn’t easy. Starting off a two foot high ledge, my leg would start shaking uncontrollably as I shifted my weight on it- in the sort of way you consider that maybe just maybe your femur turns into a boney jackhammer when placed on slack webbing. Rattling away a good half dozen times an very much perplexed as to why, I was reminded of the times- far and few between- I’ve done sit ups, where I would shake in a similar fashion after a couple of reps. I decided this time instead of focusing on my leg I was going to focus my energy on my core. That was usually the answer to sit up problem and generally everything right? Well, ah, it kind of is, hey. No, it didn’t suddenly gift me the ability to run across and dismount with a backflip but the shaking did quickly subsided. After a couple more attempts I began to have some success taking steps across the line, with zero steez* if I’m honest. After the success of engaging my core, it dawned on me that maybe other postural tips I’ve collected regarding playing the trumpet (because ah, I’m always relating it back to the trumpet, durh), mainly from and reiterating the ideas that Phil Slater taught in lessons, would aid my slackline attempts. Things including engagement of the core; shoulders over hips; the most marginal forward lean (definitely not leaning back) and of course knees bent. Sure enough, like milk and honey, utilising those postural ideas on the webbing made it a far less daunting feat. I started to think ‘well hey, this is kind of like how I should be play trumpet’- and it was at that very moment I knew I was going to go online and buy one.
I should point out before I blab on any further this is not an instructional post. I’m not even certain the above tips are endorsed as proper technique by the slacklining community. Yes I’ve built up sound basics including being able to walk across my 20m line both forwards and backwards, little running jumps onto the line and changing direction but I am still most definitely a grade A gumbie in the field of slacklining so please take the above with a solid grain of sea salt.
A week or so ago I set up the slackline for master chiller Jake, giving him my spiel on how I’ve come to approach it. He was very much on board with the ideas I laid out and mentioned he had in fact been thinking about the core himself, pertaining to the idea style in surfing. He suggested that the physical traits of someone we value to be ‘stylish’ in most board-centric activities (surfing, skating etc) are relaxed, free limbs and torso i.e. bent knees not straight legs; relaxed arms as opposed to stiff arms and shrugged shoulders. Although, instead of a complete removal of tension from your body which I imagine would result in one falling over due to a lack of structural integrity against your board’s momentum plus that lil guy called gravity, Jake explained that focusing your energy in your core allows your limbs to stay free and in turn stylish while retaining enough muscular engagement to stay on your feet- and can I say Jake embodies what it means to be steezy in the water so he’s an authority on the matter, in my opinion. I’m definitely on board with his idea. Engaging your core seems to provide stability to a greater portion of your body than engaging the exterior limbs. Furthermore when the core is engaged, it’s less physically impairing to compound movements than your tense shoulders or concrete legs would be. There you go, just unlocked the secret to being a style master.
Oh and, I think as horn players we could focus more energy on our core to alleviate tension in other parts of our body, namely shoulders and neck. This is actually really important shame it’s so poorly integrated into this article…
Another concept I’ve superimposed onto slacklining is breathing. The past six months I’ve focused on developing a more ergonomic breathing sequence, that is, an inhale that captures more air without tensing any part of the body beyond the core and an accompanying exhale that releases air without push but freely and also doesn’t inadvertently tense other parts of the body. Try to complete that sequence while balancing is nice and challenging.
A large component of Awa’s teaching to Euguel in Zen in the Art of Archery (see http://nickcalligeros.com/jazz/zen-in-the-art-of-listening-via-tyshawn-sorey/) focused on breathing. In the Zen teachings of Kyudo (Japanese archery) once the student developed sound technique, the breath would be the tool to clearing your mind and reaching a state of nothingness, and in turn, true mastery. An incredibly simplified explanation, but even working from such a diluted interpretation has been fulfilling. Disengaging your conscious self from the physical by focusing on your breaths really is a thing. I was surprised that as a new adoptee of a skill like slacklining even I could find merit and feel instant successes in focused breathing. It’s a state of being that many of us so rarely enter. Try it next time you’re attempting a difficult task with a non-demanding physical component. Feel your surrounding dissipate as your mind clears all but the strokes of your breath. It’s not an uncommon concept, I’m sure. In fact I’ve read and heard it many times over. Take meditation and yoga (I just never mastered the asanas enough to do so though dang).
I think as a horn player though, after years of being told your breathing is insufficient, to breath deeper, longer, more relaxed, with a straighter and less interrupted air column etc etc breathing comes to adopt the persona of a friend who has helped you out loads but you’ve never been able to get deep and meaningful- you’re aware of the indispensable nature of breathing but due to an analysis via paralysis sort of scenario it never quite becomes autonomous, at least in my case, masking any potential transcendental benefits other disciplines utilise and praise of it. Our inhales become over analysed attempts to achieve the sequence stated above; our exhales sit even further away from any clearance of the mind as we force air out in all sort of inefficient ways. Personally, I’ve become aware only recently that when inhaling my corners become firmer than needed, distorting the natural setting of my aperture. It’s made me realise I need to breath with more spiritual purpose. The purpose of detaching myself, because removing yourself is the largest leap from technical proficiency to true mastery I’ve come to believe, and breathing is the trusted way to do so in so many disciplines. If you need to read those dots and lines then to focus your energy. Basically don’t let the power of the breath go to waste. It is the life force of both us and our craft. Let our inhales clear our mind and body (of tension) and our exhales suspend us above our surroundings and inner thoughts.
Maybe a topic for another time but check out some information on ‘The Way of Watazumi’, a text that Ben Gerstein introduced me to. Watazumi is one of the most famous modern shakuhachi players and he has an entire school of thought on breathing not to dissimilar to the above. Worth the read.
So I guess we ended a couple of feet away from slacklining but still, wouldn’t of had these thoughts without it. Thanks slacklining for the insights!
Photo credit: Boris Belobrad x Gnarlyfix | http://gnarlyfix.com/tiptoe-slacklining-balancing-act/
* Steez | [s-tee-z]
1. Style and ease
Nick writes with such steez.