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Slacklining: the balance of a mountain goat and the concentration of a Tibetan monk Add to ...

Sometimes, the world is too much with Robin Avery.

Cramming his head with complex theories and lecture notes, the UBC student can feel bogged down by big thoughts and looming deadlines.

Recently, though, he's found the perfect antidote for a muddled mind.

Mr. Avery has become an unabashed slacker.

"My mind becomes so much more clean after slacking," says the 23-year-old cognitive systems major. "When I need to come up with a thesis, I'll go out slacking for a while and it'll just come to me."

Slacking in Mr. Avery's case is a struggle not against laxity, but against gravity. It's slacklining, and it requires the balance of a mountain goat and the focus of a Tibetan monk.

The popularity of slacklining - in which participants wobble atop a one-inch-wide strand of nylon webbing suspended between two poles, trees or car bumpers - is blossoming across the country.

On Saturday, B.C. slackers will congregate on a Squamish beach for HevyFest, the first slacklining festival ever held in North America, according to organizers, who expect more than 100 people to attend. Other groups are proliferating across the country from Vancouver to Calgary to Toronto, mainly on university campuses.

A hodge-podge of snowboarders, students and extreme athletes are driving interest in the sport, all united in promoting its many benefits: mental clarity, better balance and one heck of a workout.

"It's a form of moving meditation," says Mr. Avery, who took his first shaky steps on a slackline three years ago. "You're concentrating on everything and nothing at the same time."

Slacklining actually has decades-old roots. It's widely agreed that two climbers in California's Yosemite Valley invented the sport when they strung climbing ropes horizontally and attempted to traverse them like tightrope walkers. Over ensuing years, slacklining - so named because the line is not taut like a tightrope, but loose and bouncy like a trampoline - became popular among climbers as a way of passing time between ascents.

"It was more to kill the boredom than anything else," says pioneering slacker Allen "Hevy" Stevens, a 58-year-old climber and founder of HevyFest, which features nine lines of varying heights, lengths and tension. "In the olden days you used to rig a line between two trucks and away you go."

Those pioneering slackers were considered a scourge among North American park wardens, who would cut any lines strung between trees on park land.

Much has changed since then.

One Squamish park recently erected poles specifically for slackers.

And the slackers themselves have evolved well beyond mere balancing. Expert slackers can stay up anywhere from 15 minutes to four hours and perform as many tricks as a high-beam gymnast, spinning, flipping, and cartwheeling while the narrow line sways and bounces beneath them.

One branch of slackers practises slackline yoga, striking Gumby poses most would find difficult on solid ground.

Mr. Avery's tricks are such a spectacle that he's made good money busking in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

"Some of these kids literally breakdance on the line," says Mr. Stevens, who hasn't slacklined much since suffering a painful elbow injury years ago. Other slackers report similarly rough introductions to the sport.

"I had some bruises, some lawn burn," Mr. Avery says. "But it's probably no more dangerous than walking down the stairs."

Extreme slackers practise highlining, in which the line is suspended across a gorge or gulley. Slackers then harness themselves to the line and pray that its anchors hold as they make their way across.

Most slacklines, however, are suspended a few feet off the ground to reduce chances for injury.

As much as slacklining is sold as a Zen pursuit, it's also incredible exercise. "You get this incredible functional strength in your abs and legs," Mr. Avery says. "It's literally like learning to walk all over again."

The sport has grown to the point that entrepreneurs see a business opportunity in the bourgeoning hobby. Slacklining, they say, may soon rival ball gloves and badminton for space in yards across North America.

"At a lot of universities, people used to bring the Frisbee to the park. Now they're bringing a slackline," says Jason Charlton, director of Slackers Slacklining, a Squamish-based company that started selling slackline sets for $135 and up last year. The base set includes a 10-metre-long line and ratchets. Recently, the District of Squamish bought several for its kids' summer camps. In all, Mr. Charlton has sold 60 lines, but expects business to pick up as soon as the company website is up and running.

Until the sport finally reaches mass appeal, pioneering slackers will teeter on as borderline freaks. "As popular as it's become," Mr. Avery says, "the question I hear the most when I'm up on the line is 'Are you training for the circus?' "

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