The people who walk on air
Slacklining is growing in India, thanks to groups who practise in public spaces
Look ahead. Focus. Heel in, toes out". These are the instructions I can hear as I walk towards a group of young men who suspiciously look like they are floating in mid-air. In reality, the group is practising slacklining—a sport where people attempt to walk on a strip of webbing fixed above the ground, but not stretched enough to make it taut.
“The sport is still young in India. Most people confuse us with tight-rope walking—where the rope is taut and you carry a stick to help you balance. Sort of what we would see in acrobatics or even in road-side stunts, etc. Slack is more about using your core muscles and concentrating to get from one point to the other, on a not-so-stable line," says Mohit Tanwar, 32, the admin of Delhi-based Facebook group Slacktivism. Slacktivism was started five years ago by German slacking enthusiast Enrico Fabian when he was living in Delhi, as a community for slacklining enthusiasts to meet, practise and share ideas. Now, the group has 1,900 members, most of whom are Delhi-based. On weekends, in south Delhi’s Deer Park, you will see Slactivism members practising. The Saturday sessions typically see fewer members come out, but on Sundays, around 20-30 people can be seen taking turns walking on the lines.
They generate quite a bit of interest—there are children as young as 7 who have walked up to the group and given it a go. Then there are passers-by who hang around to see what is happening. The members are mostly the outdoorsy type—people who have been athletes, or have been involved in other adventure sports such as trekking, rock climbing or bouldering. The sport works majorly on the core, with slackliners walking a 100-200ft line for around 10 minutes. Imagine doing crunches continuously for that long—that is the amount of work your core has to undertake. This works on hips and knees as well. But most importantly, it helps improve concentration.
“It is a superb mental activity. Initially you may fall from the line in 2-3 seconds, but once you can balance, it becomes a complete game of concentration. Beginners are often asked to stare intently at one point ahead to keep their balance. But as you improve, it helps to develop a ‘soft’ concentration also," adds Tanwar.
Slacklining, it is said, was thought up by a rock climber. It is popularly used by climbers on days when they want to rest, or work on their lower bodies while giving their arms a break. Tanwar, too, is a climber and tried it out two years ago. Ever since, he has been practising in the park—gradually moving to longer lines, and with more control.
Tanwar is often joined by Archit Rakheja, 31. Rakheja has always been into sports, but it was the first slacklining session five years ago that threw him completely off balance. “I have always been an active person. Playing sports and practising martial arts. But when I tried this, I could not control myself on the line for even 5 seconds. Maybe that initial shock of not being able to do something made me push myself harder and now I am here, even when it is raining. Actually, especially when it is raining," says Rakheja.
Rain does make walking on the line tougher. The line—an inch-wide strip of webbing made of nylon or polyester—can get slippery. Since the line does not offer extra stability, it cannot be wrapped between or gripped with the toes. “But it isn’t as dangerous as people tend to believe. You need to practise and slowly build strength. As a matter of fact, it is great for recovery from injuries, because it makes you aware of your muscle weaknesses and lets you work on it slowly. Just start at a lower height to get your muscles activated back again," says Tanwar.
Tanwar is quick to point out that accidents mostly happen globally because of incorrectly tied or rigged lines. The intensity of the exercise can also be controlled by the rigging—the tauter the line, the lesser the bounce and the easier it is to keep balance.
People also think that the lines, which are generally tied to trees in public parks, can harm the trees. There have been instances when locals or bystanders have asked the group to remove the lines.
But according to Sibby Varghese, 30, from the Bengaluru group called Slack.in, slackliners are careful about the environment. “We use a tree-protection kit called tree pros (a roll/mat that hugs the tree) which has a twofold job: it does not create any abrasion and provides a padding and safety for the slackliner himself (because the line is less likely to slip)," he explains. “We, as a community, use the tree-protection kit as a mandatory practice whenever we are slacklining, However, newcomers to the field, who do not practise with us, might not be aware of or use this kit. This is another area of action for us, where we are trying to create an awareness about its use and benefit," adds Varghese.
“See, it is a new sport—hardly 40 years old—and so it is not surprising that not many people know about it. Officials are obviously more sceptic of things that they do not know much about," says Samar Farooqui, 27. Farooqui is probably one of the most experienced highliners in India. Highlining is a more extreme form of slacklining, where the line is rigged at a much higher elevation above ground—often on opposing hillsides or buildings. In waterlining, the line is attached above a water body, usually a river. Most highliners wear a safety harness or belt which attaches them to the slackline itself. A Mumbai-resident, Farooqui is also the founder of Between Years Slack Festival—which takes place on 31 December in Lonavla, Maharashtra.
Around eight years ago, while studying adventure tourism in New Zealand, Farooqui saw a group of slackliners on the beach and was impressed with the environment and mood of the place. “I wanted to see if we could have something similar in India," he says. In 2016, he organized the first Between Years Slack Fest and got partial sponsorship from Mountain Dew. The first year saw around 70 people attending the festival. The number grew to about 130 people in the next year, and saw celebrities such as actor Kalki Koechlin and cricketer Murali Vijay, trying their hand at slacklining. Vijay also sponsored a part of the festival in 2017. The festival has been instrumental in sharing ideas and knowledge about slacklining. In 2016, Swedish highliner David Sjöström, attended the festival. Sjöström hosted a workshop at the festival, where slackliners from India and abroad connected and discussed the latest updates in equipment and rigging standards.
Farooqui says the biggest challenge is getting people to change their opinion of the sport as dangerous. “It has been mostly self-funded so far but I have to find a way to make it sustainable. So far there are slacklining groups in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Pune and Manali. Slackliners can also be seen in tourist spots like Hampi in Karnataka, Auroville in Tamil Nadu and Goa. The reach of the internet, with social media platforms, has helped the sport to grow. But there is still a long way to go before it is accepted as something which can be practised safely in public spots.