Yogaslackers: The Game-Changing prAna Athletes Talk Slackline Yoga

On my jour­ney through Wan­der­lust Fes­ti­val Col­orado, look­ing for yoga teach­ers who were com­ing from a unique per­spec­tive, I had the chance to talk to Sam Sal­wei and Dan Nor­gard, two core found­ing mem­bers of the YogaSlack­ers. Unique is def­i­nite­ly a great word to describe what they do.

Com­ing to Wan­der­lust, the YogaSlack­ers had almost become mytho­log­i­cal crea­tures. Over the last year, the fre­quen­cy in which I have heard peo­ple say things like, “have you heard of the YogaSlack­ers? They do Yoga pos­es … ON A SLACKLINE!” had start­ed to grow. In one case my Acro Yoga teacher Hobs came back from one of their work­shops with a crazed look in his eye and said, “I just spent a week­end with these guys the YogaSlack­ers. They can do things like a hand­stand … ON A SLACKLINE!” And pret­ty soon ques­tions like, “How many YogaSlack­ers are there? What qual­i­fies a YogaSlack­er? Are they dan­ger­ous? What do you feed them?” began to emerge.

I def­i­nite­ly want­ed to get an inter­view with them, and Sam and Dan were hap­py to oblige. You won’t meet a more friend­ly, fun, and hum­ble crew, but now that I think about it, they did set up their inter­view right after putting me through a round of YogaSlack­er con­di­tion­ing (AKA 15 mins of pain). I would prob­a­bly throw “dia­bol­i­cal” into the mix of as well. I also had the plea­sure of learn­ing some of the essen­tials of slack­line yoga from them.

The Clymb: Because slack­line yoga is so new I think a lot of peo­ple don’t even real­ly know what it is. Could you define it for us?

Dan: Slack­line yoga, for me any­way, is less about doing asana on the line, and more about bring­ing that yoga mind­set to slack­lin­ing. We do asana, there’s about 100 dif­fer­ent asana pos­es that we can do on a slack line, but in our teach­ing it’s more about bring­ing the aware­ness from Yoga into the slack­line practice.

Sam: It’s the same for me. The main point of Yoga is union, and bring­ing that focus point, and the slack­line does that imme­di­ate­ly once you step on it, kneel on it, sit on it. What­ev­er you do on it, it brings you into that zone if you will. So it’s that aspect of yoga where the slack­line real­ly shines.

The Clymb: I’m actu­al­ly sur­prised that there are 100 dif­fer­ent pos­es. Are these all in your heads and bod­ies, or do you have them in books or dvds as well?

Dan: Well two Sum­mers ago we did our first YogaSlack­ers teacher train­ing, and part of that train­ing involved cre­at­ing a man­u­al for the teach­ers, and part of that man­u­al was a pose library, so that they’d have a ref­er­ence of what we’d devel­oped up to that point and some help­ful hints on how to do some of those pos­es. There are some videos out there for pos­es, but I think the pose library is prob­a­bly the best resource we have.

Sam: And cur­rent­ly only our teach­ers have access to that, and that’s only because we are over­worked, and have not had the time to cre­ate a stu­dent man­u­al. It’s def­i­nite­ly in the works right now. We are try­ing to find a way to bun­dle all the infor­ma­tion we’ve come up with over the last 8 years.

The Clymb: So what do teach­ers have to go through to be part of your teacher train­ing program?

Sam: A lot of that con­di­tion­ing stuff [laughs, point­ing to the area where they put me through a rig­or­ous routine]

Dan: Yeah, it’s a ten day long pro­gram. It’s res­i­den­tial so teach­ers eat and sleep with us. We start at 7:30 in the morn­ing and go till about 10 o’clock at night, with dif­fer­ent activ­i­ties through­out the 10 days. So it’s a pret­ty rig­or­ous pro­gram, but the teach­ers become real­ly pro­fi­cient in doing the skills, which is real­ly impor­tant to teach­ing it. I think you real­ly have to have it in your body to be able to give authen­tic cues. So they become pro­fi­cient in doing the skills, as well as break­ing down move­ments to the fun­da­men­tals for oth­er people.

The Clymb: Do did you guys invent slack­line Yoga?

Sam and Dan: Invent is a strong word.

Sam: It’s like an arrange­ment. These things already exist­ed, slack­lin­ing and yoga. Slack­lin­ing is a climbers hob­by, devel­oped in Yosemite, Camp 4 in the late 70’s ear­ly 80’s. We were climbers to begin with so we were exposed to slack­lin­ing through that realm. And we got into Yoga through climb­ing. So the core of the YogaSlack­ers, and those heav­i­ly involved with it today, come at it from a climb­ing back­ground, climb­ing brought us to yoga. And it was all kind of synergetic.

The Clymb: Not real­ly being a climber myself, I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in this move­ment of climb­ing cul­ture into yoga.

Sam: So the idea behind climb­ing is that you want to be strong through your full range of motion. And yoga pro­motes strength and flex­i­bil­i­ty through your full range of motion. It increas­es your flex­i­bil­i­ty, where­as climb­ing increase your strength, not nec­es­sar­i­ly your flex­i­bil­i­ty. So you kin­da want to find a balance.

The Clymb: Seems like a nat­ur­al fit?

Sam: Yeah

The Clymb: So what pos­es can’t be done on a slackline?

Dan: We usu­al­ly can find a mod­i­fi­ca­tion or a vari­a­tion to each pose. For instance, down­ward dog and upward dog are very dif­fi­cult to do with Iyen­gar align­ment on the line, how­ev­er we’ve found ways of mod­i­fy­ing them so your doing them asym­met­ri­cal­ly… bal­anc­ing on your right hand and your left foot. So I can get into a down­ward dog type of pose, but…

The Clymb: You don’t have four points of contact.

Sam: Right, you are on a very nar­row Yoga mat. So doing things on your elbows, or your fore­arms, is not impos­si­ble but sort of imprac­ti­cal to a point. The rea­son the asana prac­tice is grow­ing is that we are con­stant­ly get­ting bet­ter, and we need to again find that place of focus. For instance, now I can do our demo, and if I have my hands free I can eat a bowl of cere­al. It’s that engrained in our mus­cle mem­o­ry. So to con­tin­ue to chal­lenge our prac­tice, we need to con­tin­ue to inno­vate. So as of right now we are not look­ing to inno­vate fore­arm bal­ance …[laugh­ing] There’s plen­ty of oth­er pos­es along that path.

Dan: As far as style of pos­es, we don’t have many lim­i­ta­tions. We do stand­ing pos­es, we do seat­ed pos­es, we do lay­ing pos­es, kneel­ing pos­es, arms bal­ances, inver­sions, back­bends… the full range of types of asana, we are able to bring to the slackline.

The Clymb: Per­son­al­ly I can’t envi­sion a back­bend on a slack­line [laughs]

Sam: There’s a cou­ple dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions, but I guess the future of where we are head­ed is more the vinyasana style, bring­ing it full cir­cle. Being able to start sit­ting, stand­ing up, going through a stand­ing sequence, being able to kneel, going through some kneel­ing stuff. Do an arm bal­ance, and going through an arm bal­ance sequence. Lay­ing down, going through some lay­ing down pos­es. You know, keep it flow­ing with­out hav­ing to come off the line. And real­ly devel­op­ing those tran­si­tions so that they are crisp.

The Clymb: What’s your train­ing rou­tine like?

Same and Dan: Rou­tine is a strong word

Dan: So we like to do a vari­ety of activ­i­ties. So yoga, slack­lin­ing, and acro­bat­ics are prob­a­bly what are most com­mon and uni­ver­sal for all of our YogaSlack­er teach­ers. And for the main core of the YogaSlack­ers adven­ture rac­ing is also a real­ly big part of the train­ing. So there’s a lot of trail run­ning, moun­tain bik­ing, paddling .…

Sam: Every­thing under the sun.

The Clymb: It seems like this was birthed out of your inter­est in a mul­ti­tude of things, so it makes sense that that’s what you would con­tin­ue to do.

Sam: Yeah, and that’s why slack­lin­ing is such a pow­er­ful tool for us is that it is such great cross-train­ing, and it keeps the body healthy. As we like to say, it helps pre­vent injury, and we use it to pre­vent rather than cre­ate injuries. So you won’t see us doing to many back­flips or things like that. More of the stand­ing still breath con­trol is what we are look­ing for.

The Clymb: So I have to be hon­est, the first time I heard the words “slack­line yoga” my mind went, “What? would that even work?” I’m won­der­ing when you real­ized that this could even be a thing?

Sam: That’s the won­der­ful thing about this whole con­cept and orga­ni­za­tion is that it was very organ­ic. Jason start­ed a rock climb­ing gym, I quick­ly came in and start­ed help­ing, Dan was there to help out. And then we start­ed doing Yoga, vol­un­teer­ing at these Yoga con­fer­ences, had ins there. And then I was hitch­hik­ing back from a climb­ing trip in Mon­tana, and the guy who was giv­ing me a ride was a climber and a slack­lin­er, so we stopped on the side of the road and he showed me a super easy way to set a slack­line up, which was a biggest bar­ri­er to entry for us, set­ting it up, it just was­n’t a pri­or­i­ty for us, it was com­pli­cat­ed. So he found a real­ly sim­ple way to do it, his name is Sean O’Con­ner of freeso­lo pho­tog­ra­phy, he’s a real­ly cool guy. But dur­ing that 20 minute stop at a rest area, he’s like, “I wan­na do this book, a cof­fee table pic­ture book called Yoga for slack­ers. You do a bunch of Yoga pos­es on a slack­line in beau­ti­ful places.” So that real­ly put that seed in my mind.Then, May that year or the next, we were vol­un­teer­ing at a Yoga Jour­nal con­fer­ence, and we are doing like 8 hours a day of Yoga, and we are like “wow that’s a lot of Yoga, lets set the slack­line up and just walk on it,” and then we’re like, “lets try some Yoga pos­es on it.” And lit­er­al­ly we are hold­ing these things for like [fin­ger snap] that long. Enough for a cam­era snap. Some­one took two pic­tures of us doing tree and war­rior one, and ran them in Yoga Jour­nal, and that’s a real­ly big point of entry, and a lot of peo­ple saw it. And pret­ty soon Yoga Jour­nal con­tact­ed us and said, “hey we got these 70 emails from peo­ple all over the world ask­ing, ‘who are these guys, and do they teach this thing.” So we rea­spond­ed, “well we don’t real­ly teach it, but here are some things we’ve learned along the way.” And we get respons­es back, “do you guys have a dvd or any­thing like that?” And I’m like well I guess we could put togeth­er a DVD. So I call my friend Sean, the pho­tog­ra­ph­er who gave me the idea, and I called my friend Tad who just fin­ished film school in Orlan­do. And we all flew out to one spot in Cal­i­for­nia, and we shot a DVD, and it was for sale on Ama­zon 6 months lat­er. And because of that, and our rock climb­ing back­ground, Yoga Jour­nal actu­al­ly let us teach rock climb­ing, and Yoga, and then slack­line Yoga at the next con­fer­ence in Col­orado. So with­out that arrange­ment of know­ing the right peo­ple, and being in the right places, espe­cial­ly Prana help­ing us along the way as well, we met them at the Yoga Jour­nal con­fer­ence, they were instru­men­tal to our exis­tence as well… it’s those kind of things that brought us togeth­er … what was the orig­i­nal ques­tion ? [laugh­ter]

The Clymb: [laughs] no, you nailed it, it was when did you real­ized slack­line yoga was a thing?

Sam: Yeah, so it was when oth­er peo­ple saw it as valu­able and want­ed to learn it, and we just start­ed record­ing how we were learn­ing, and basi­cal­ly put that into a DVD.

The Clymb: It seems like there was just a nat­ur­al inter­est that showed up

Sam: Yup, and that was 2005, and so for 4 years we just taught at Yoga Jour­nal. Well, I guess 3 years just at Yoga Jour­nal, and then Tel­luride Yoga fes­ti­val came on the scene and asked us if we’d go there and we said “sure, we’ll go,” and do what we do there. And that sparked this, YES tour where we trav­elled 1000 miles in a spi­ral around Col­orado on bikes. We raft­ed, we climbed, we basi­cal­ly did every­thing we love to do, but bicycle‑y pow­ered. And we taught dona­tion based slack­line yoga and acro­bat­ic yoga class­es for a non-prof­it called Beads of Courage. So that was kind of a big part of our cul­ture that we still try to do with our extra time which has been less and less as the years go on… we are hop­ing to get back to that style of liv­ing soon.

The Clymb: Well it’s good that you have all these teach­ers going so that they can help out.

Sam: Yup, in 2011 there was just so much demand for what we were doing, and we could­n’t be every­where so it was the only log­i­cal step to be able to con­tin­ue to share and grow this amaz­ing con­cept. Because what’s dif­fer­ent than slack­lin­ing you are start­ing to see in the main­stream, which is trick­lin­ing, the jump­ing, this is real­ly acces­si­ble from the ages 5 to 85. A lot of peo­ple send us emails after these con­fer­ences say­ing things like, “you just made me the coolest grand­moth­er ever” [laugh­ter]

The Clymb: That’s awe­some!

Sam: Right! not because they bought their grand­son or grandaugh­ter a slack­line, it’s because they’re slack­lin­ing. It’s real­ly empow­er­ing, and that’s what keeps us teach­ing, is the stu­dents, and watch­ing them break through. Because when peo­ple see slack­lin­ing I think they go, “wow that looks pret­ty hard.” And it might be dif­fi­cult to do, but if you give us two hours of your time we guar­an­tee you’ll walk away with a decent under­stand­ing of how to con­tin­ue on and practice.

The Clymb: I’m inter­est­ed in the arc of progress you see peo­ple make with this, is there any­thing you want to say about that?

Sam: Well, in two hours they are doing stuff that took me four years to learn. [laugh­ter] So, is that a good answer [laugh­ter]

Dan: At Wan­der­lust we get the added bonus of being able to watch stu­dents that we teach on Thurs­day com­ing back to the line on Fri­day, Sat­ur­day, Sun­day, and actu­al­ly watch them progress. A lot of times we don’t actu­al­ly get to watch the same stu­dents again, so we don’t always get that check-in with the stu­dents that a nor­mal yoga teacher would get with a week­ly class.

Sam: And that’s hap­pen­ing more and more with our teach­ers, because they are based some­where, and we’ve always been pret­ty nomadic, teach­ing fes­ti­vals, and that yes tour and things like that where we are only in a com­mu­ni­ty for a short peri­od of time. So as our teach­ers devel­op com­mu­ni­ties, the depth of the prac­tice gets a lot greater to because they are play­ing off this sim­ple foun­da­tion, and start­ing to build off of it, find­ing more fun ways to explore that con­cept. So it’s real­ly fun to watch that part of the prac­tice grow… that we are not real­ly even part of.

The Clymb: That’s got­ta be grat­i­fy­ing in a way?

Sam: Yeah, it’s cool

The Clymb: What brought you to Wanderlust?

Sam: We’ve actu­al­ly been a part of Wan­der­lust since the first one, back in 2009 when every­thing was com­ing togeth­er. One of our teach­ers whose been with us since the begin­ning Addy Carter went to the Wan­der­lust in Tahoe with a few oth­er of our friends and set up a slack­line, and ya know, just played on it. Basi­cal­ly peo­ple walked by and saw them play­ing, and they’d give a cou­ple of instruc­tions here and there. And basi­cal­ly the rela­tion­ship just grew from there.

The Clymb: I am won­der­ing who you look to for inspiration?

Dan: I guess the cheesy but true answer is these 85 or so stu­dents that we’ve trained to be our teach­ers. That’s how the begin­ning of it hap­pened. That Jason and Sam start­ed doing it and then got a cou­ple oth­er peo­ple excit­ed about it and then would be call­ing back and forth and would be like, “I just did this today, hey have you done this?” And now that we have these new teach­ers, we get these emails say­ing, “I just did this on the line.” And we are like, “I nev­er thought of that before! That’s so cool!” And so the com­mu­ni­ty real­ly looks with­in itself, and we all try to inspire and lift each oth­er. And when we come togeth­er at events like Wan­der­lust, it’s play­time for us. We’ll go out there and be like, “what have you been work­ing on? Let me show you what I’ve been try­ing to do, and how can we try to do this”, So it real­ly is our com­mu­ni­ty that we look to to try and find inspiration.

Sam: Yeah, I would have to agree, that’s prob­a­bly the best answer. Yeah, hands down the best answer.

The Clymb: Ok, last ques­tion. Is there a moment that sticks out to you, or maybe even a cou­ple moments, that stand out to you on your jour­ney as a Yoga Slacker?

Dan: A moment that was powerful?

The Clymb: Yeah, or any moments where you stepped back and said, “Wow, that just happened!”

Sam: I think that’s a great ques­tion, and I strug­gle with this in my life, because we are cre­at­ing this lifestyle where I wake up and do what I want to do almost every day, and every hour of every day, it’s real­ly hard to answer that ques­tion. Because I’ve had so many amaz­ing expe­ri­ences that it’s like … yeah, that’s the answer [laughs]… we could prob­a­bly fill out one or two indi­vid­ual moments though.

The Clymb: How about we nar­row it down, has there been any­thing at this par­tic­u­lar festival?

Dan: I think at most fes­ti­vals it still gets to us that when we are teach­ing these intro class­es, there’s so much excite­ment on peo­ple’s faces, and they are think­ing, “oh my god, this is impos­si­ble, and way beyond reach,” and then you watch them a minute lat­er accom­plish­ing that task that they almost com­plete­ly blew off, and now they are doing it, and that smile and that excite­ment of accom­plish­ment and pride, is what gets me excit­ed to come back to these time and time again. That ener­gy in each new group of students.

Sam: It’s crazy, some­times we feel like a bro­ken record because we say the same thing at the same class­es at all 5 of the Wan­der­lust’s that we go to. But then you see that expres­sion Dan’s talk­ing about, and we know that what we’re say­ing is exact­ly what these peo­ple need to hear. It works, that’s the biggest thing. So of the peo­ple we teach around are like, “don’t you get tired of say­ing the same thing all the time,” well, yeah but it works [laughs] We are say­ing it not for us, we are say­ing it for the stu­dents. And that’s some­thing that gives a big per­spec­tive shift as well, is that you real­ize why you are doing what you are doing. and then it’s a lot eas­i­er to do it.

The Clymb: Well I got­ta say, there’s a slack­line at The Clymb office, and I’ve gone on it like once. [laughs] But after your class, I wan­na get on there. And it makes me rec­og­nize the val­ue of some­body who can pave the way, and offer a few key nuggets.

Sam: Again, that’s the point of that class, to give you the tools to go back to your own line, and explore intel­li­gent­ly. And build that foun­da­tion so you can feel com­fort­able and con­fi­dent, on the line. And often times at the end of my work­shops I will say, “for­get these rigid forms of move­ment, you’ve proven to your­self you can be up there. Now try to jump on there, try to stand side­ways, try some dif­fer­ent stuff because you know how to fall off safe­ly, you under­stand the prin­ci­ples of the line. So then you can start to add your own unique­ness into it. Your own style.