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?
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.