Updated: Apr 26, 2021
Hey there, it’s Eleanor again, bringing to you another topic near and dear to my heart...slacklining and Somatic Psychology, AND one of the many ways it has positively impacted my everyday life.
Slacklining as a tool for biofeedback, AKA “Self-regulation”
What is biofeedback exactly?
As defined by John Basmajian, “Biofeedback...is the technique of using equipment (usually electronic) to reveal to human beings some of their internal physiological events, normal and abnormal, in the form of visual and auditory signals in order to teach them to manipulate these otherwise involuntary or unflet events by manipulating the displayed signals” (Criswell, 1995. p.3)
If you didn’t quite get that, here’s my first experience with biofeedback:
Ok, so in my undergrad years I took a biofeedback and somatics course as Sonoma State University. In addition to a lecture, we had a lab portion which involved getting hooked up to various electrodes measuring skin conductance, heart rate, muscle tension, etc, and staring at mandalas that increased or decreased in motion in response to my body. I was told by the technician to try to relax my muscles, which would in turn slow down the moving mandala on the screen in front of me. This visual stimuli mirrored my physiological states; as my heart rate increased and my skin sweat, the kaleidoscope of colors spun faster and faster. I tried to relax, and successfully did so until she told me the electrodes on my jaw were lighting up. “You’re clenching your jaw. Relax and loosen your mouth,” she said.
I had no awareness at that point of my mouth, or the crazy amount of tension I was apparently holding between my teeth.
This went on for the next few sessions; the technician helping me become aware of the persistent tension I displayed in my face. I was amazed at how unaware I was of the different parts of my body (NOTE: This was at a time when I was just becoming healthy with my eating disorder...it’s no surprise to me now how disembodied i truly was.) After finally beginning to notice a difference in my jaw, she explained to me how the visual stimuli creates a feedback loop that reinforces my brain whether or not I am releasing or adding tension:
The real test is to become aware of these tensions out in the real world, without the machines and visual stimuli, and learn how to regulate with our bodies natural biofeedback system.
Biofeedback (self-regulation), “refers to the function of assessing yourself and the situation, deciding on your direction, and making changes in your physiology or behavior to correct the situation...Biofeedback is a natural part of the body’s functions. The primary goal of ongoing self-regulation is homeostasis, the balance an organism must achieve to sustain life. Moment by moment, you assess various levels of activity in various body systems, such as temperature, fluid content of cells, electrolyte balance, etc. Then physiological functions come into play to return the body to desired levels if it is off homeostasis” (Criswell, 1995, p. 5).
Eleanor Criswell was a professor at Sonoma State and CIIS, and a pioneer researcher in the field of Biofeedback and Somatics. She argues that biofeedback can measure both conscious and subconscious physiological functions as well as psychophysiological events, such as emotional stress. In my personal experience, I learned when I am anxious or stressed out, I clenched my jaw and grind my teeth! No wonder I was getting such persistent headaches.
What is the purpose of biofeedback?
The ability to self-regulate and achieve homeostasis and a higher state of self-awareness can impact every faucet of your life. Often times we move through this world reacting to things happening around us rather than responding. Gaining a greater insight of your physiological states and its connection to your mind (and spirit/energy) as well as growing in the ability to return to a state of equanimity can improve your overall quality of life, job performance, health, relationships with others and your environment. Awareness is key!
Biofeedback can also be a great tool for self-discovery and exploration. Most often biofeedback has been used in the treatment of physical ailments, such as TMJ or general tension (like my bruxism). However, biofeedback can also be a way to learn about your own body, and the way it moves and responds to stress, tension, or other stimuli. “It brings in many ways of looking at yourself and your life, simply because you have never looked at yourself from that vantage point” (Criswell, 1995, p.6)
What does slacklining have to do with any of this?
A slackline can also be a great and effective biofeedback tool. The slackline is typically tensioned in such a way that the line itself reverberates and responds to movement, especially when the weight of a slackliner is added. This is unlike a tightrope or a chain, which has tension but no give. With that being said, the slackline will shake, A LOT, especially if you are really imbalanced, or have never slacklined before. The shakes are your micro muscles and stabilizing muscles being activated, as well as your major muscles. It’s good to remind yourself that every body is different, on many, many levels. No one is initially great at this practice, so be gentle, open to new experiences and movement in the body, and get comfortable with falling :)
Whatever it is you are experiencing, imbalance from one side to the other, favoring sides, mental distractions, unstable joints, holding your breath, etc, the slackline does a great job at reacting to your movements. This feedback, along with persistence and training, eventually allows the slackliner to respond to the slackline and self-regulate and engage the appropriate muscles and awareness to flow into “stillness.”
What’s my experience with slacklining as a modality for biofeedback?
When I first started getting more than two steps on my first slackline -- which took me forever, by the way -- I started to notice I would consistently fall to my right side, which is my more dominant side. This stuck out to me the more I practiced, how I carried my weight on one side. In addition to walking, I noticed this difference while sitting and lying down on my line. Once my awareness began to increase around this discrepancy, I mindfully brought attention, and intention, to the other parts of my body I was ignoring.
Another layer of awareness slacklining has been the catalyst for the relationship between emotional responses to physical and mental stimuli
There were a handful of days during my research study where I set up my line in a state of frustration and dis-ease. Looking back on those moments, I should have trusted my gut and stayed home. Alas how else was I going to learn my lesson about listening to my whole embodied experience rather than just pieces of it.
Ignoring my deeper knowing, I set out to slackline, pissed off and not present, even though I thought I was. My emotions had a grip on my body as I continued to fall off the line, over and over. My shoulders tense, jaw locked and tight; breath...nothing there. Disappointment and irritation set in.
I quickly packed up on these occasions and ended up engaging in some other form of meditation.
There were times where I couldn’t even identify that I was emotionally triggered until I started my practice. Slacklining truly became a portal to my Self, and continues to transform into a tool I can go back to, especially since I am in a body which is constantly transforming.
I was and will always be grateful to my slackline for all of the lessons it has taught me and will continue to teach me. I have learned how to trust the way I move in my body, and the way my body moves my soul. Slacklining has provided a mirror to reflect back to me the areas in which I need to grow as well as the parts of myself I should honor and celebrate.
Criswell, E. (1995) Biofeedback and Somatics: Toward personal evolution. Novato, CA: Freeperson Press