I didn’t even know I had a fear of heights until I made a goal earlier this summer to walk on this tall structure at the Original Muscle Beach (“OMB”). It took me about a month to accomplish this goal. When I first stood on it, I felt paralyzed and couldn’t take a step but now I’m COMFY. I will expand on how I got to that point but first, here’s a quick, 30-second video capturing the feel for what I’m talking about:
The progression I followed was simple…
I started by walking on top of the lowest parallel bars (on a single bar) and moved to sequentially taller ones. This progression took only one session for me and was relatively easy, probably because I can walk on a slackline already. But I still walked on the parallel bars to act as a mental warm up on the following sessions.
I shared this progression with a friend who was visiting the beach for the first time and they got there expecting us to do deadlifts and squats, and didn’t realize OMB was an adult playground. He left telling me he was blown away by the whole place, and it made him start to think so differently about his environment and how you can take common structures around you and make them enticing challenges.
When I first got on the tall structure, I actually couldn’t even stand. I had to sit on it for a few minutes to get comfortable with the height. Then when I stood up, I was deathly afraid just from standing there. I felt SO high up and I was too afraid to take a step. It actually took me 3 days of ONLY-STANDING before I could take a single step! I stood and allowed my breath to take over and allow it to be chaotic in such a way to allow my fear signal to subside, which I will explain next:
How did you use the breath to calm down?
This was something I learned from another regular at the beach who taught me how to use my breath to reset my fear signals. I told him something like, “I make sure to not hold my breath, and when I would go highlining, I would make sure I was breathing deeply the whole time, but my heart would still be racing and I still felt like I was deathly afraid and not calming down whatsoever. What do?” And he gave me some sage advice:
He said that you basically need to allow the breath to be chaotic and natural (don’t overtly try to control it) but when you exhale, exhale fully, bringing belly button toward the spine. That helps reset the fear signal (in your amygdala) and maintain calm.
Before this, I was making sure I wasn’t holding my breath which is generally a good thing, but I was overly trying to control the rate (doing it slow) so I had to relearn to allow the breath to be chaotic (sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes in the nose, sometimes out the mouth, sometimes a yawn, etc). The point is to let the bodies innate intelligence dictate the process while I’m affirming that I’m physically fine. And basically every few breaths or every other breath (not every single breath, because I don’t want to overly control it), I will make sure I exhale fully and bring the belly to spine, to engage the diaphragm and this may recondition the brain to reset the anxiety and fear.
It also helped me to repeat a mantra that reaffirmed reality
I had to constantly remind myself that the damn metal structure was rigid and not unstable like a slackline which required more deconditioning than I even realized. It’s funny but after slacklining for so long, you come to get used to walking on unstable things and using your arms like a tail. So it was really strange to have to train myself to NOT overreact cause there was almost no movement in the structure to react to!
The mantra I repeated internally to help remind me was “It’s rigid, this is rigid. It’s rigid. This is solid. It’s solid. Rigid. This is rigid.” I just kept saying that repeatedly to remind myself that it was in fact, just a solid piece of metal and if I could walk straight, there was no reason for me to fall.
What about falling? What if I fall?
I also had to fall on purpose to realize it doesn’t hurt to fall onto the sand from that height of about 9 feet. I also learned that if I was about to fall, I could EASILY anticipate it and simply bend my knees to grab the bar below me and just hang and then come down. Then it’s only like a two foot drop and literally nothing.
When I took my first steps, I realized…
Despite how scary the height felt, it was actually physically, far easier than the parallel bars I was walking on because the bars were thicker so I actually had a lot more footing.
How did it affect my slacklining skills?
Well, it’s very interesting because while the metal structure doesn’t move like a slackline, it vibrates in such a way that mimics an extremely tight slackline. (Specifically, it feels like a 2″ trickline that’s tightened up really hard, or the very end of a 1″ longline near the anchors where the lateral movement is minimal but the oscillation is much higher.) It’s also helped me not be as afraid when walking on a slackline that’s above 8 feet tall. And the last time I went highlining, I felt significantly calmer from the fact that there’s no bottom (ground) for a couple hundred feet!
In conclusion, all of this opened up a whole new world, conquering fears I didn’t even know I had, creating new experiences with specific people who would join me up there for the sunset (well, actually, more like, me joining them, since they were doing it before), making for some special experiences, with amazing views of the sunset to boot. Also, the view of the ocean is incredible from up there. Life is indeed, pretty GREAT at the Original Muscle Beach 💪 in Santa Monica and I hope it serves as a model for more adult playgrounds that should exist throughout the world. Because adults need to play too, you know! Why should kids get to have all the fun? I’ll leave you with this relevant XKCD article: