By Antonia Massa
Strung out and suffering from mild anxiety, Fernando Ruiz fled his office job in London to travel the world. The inner balance he sought continued to elude him – until one afternoon when, walking along Bottle Beach in Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand, he noticed something unusual.
A young man was levitating a few yards in front of him.
At least that was Ruiz’s impression. As he approached he saw the man was actually balancing on a flat nylon line tied between two trees.
What he was doing, he told Ruiz, was called slacklining – a sport reminiscent of tightrope walking, but using a stretchy and dynamic line that moves like a long, narrow trampoline. Ruiz was eager to try it.
Ten years later, sitting beneath a tree in Fort Greene Park where he teaches free slackline lessons to a growing group of locals, Ruiz said the sport completely changed his demeanor and outlook on life.
“It gave me inner peace and balance,” he said. “Since I started walking the line my anxiety has totally disappeared.”
Ruiz has been offering free slackline lessons in Fort Greene for three months, since his neighbor Sunny Cyr first inspired him to start teaching the sport. Though he has a committed group of students now, at first it was tough to get the idea off the ground. Ruiz and Cyr set up slacklines outside bars on weekends for publicity, he recalled. “When people asked what we were doing we’d say, ‘We give free lessons every week. You should come!’” he said.
Slowly but surely, Ruiz’s slacklining lessons expanded. He has a group of seven regulars who come every week, rain or shine. They almost always get newcomers, from friends of friends to park-goers who get curious.
Most people who come to Ruiz’s lessons simply try to walk across the slackline, but one or two regulars have learned to perform yoga poses, walk backwards and do other tricks on the line.
“I really think slacklining helps you achieve a natural sense of balance,” said Natasha Hornedo, one of Ruiz’s mentees. “You’re not just physically getting that balance, it’s also psychological.”
Ruiz’s group is the only one of its kind in Fort Greene Park, but it may not be for long. Groups of slackliners have popped up in other parks across the city, including Riverside Park, Central Park, and Cooper Park, where Josh Greenwood, a member of the U.S. Men’s Pro Slackline team, often practices.
Like Hornedo, Greenwood is quick to tout the sport’s health benefits.
“You’re basically using stabilizing muscles in your shoulders, lower back and abs that you don’t use in traditional sports,” he said. “That has a lot to do with the unusual way the slackline moves.”
Greenwood said though slacklining is a niche community now, he foresees it expanding.
“I like to equate it with surfing and skateboarding, because they have grown in similar way,” he said. “Skateboarding started as something random kids did in California, now it’s huge.”
The camaraderie of slackliners, both new and old, is something Ruiz has always loved. He said that, from the day he was introduced to the sport on Bottle Beach, he promised himself he would also do his best to spread it to others.
Everywhere I go, it always attracts the right kinds of people,” he said.
Ruiz’s slackline classes are held every Wednesday in Fort Greene Park, near the tennis courts, from 3 p.m. until sundown, rain or shine. All are welcome. To join or request information, email [email protected] .