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Balance, Blondin and me

Updated: Feb 3, 2020

My balance is much better when I don’t over-think it. I incorporate yoga into my daily life in lots of different ways, one of which is standing in tree pose whilst brushing my teeth.

This started as a way of relieving the boredom when brushing my teeth. I thought it might be more interesting if I did it while holding the tree pose.

My only worry was that this pose would be too difficult to hold for long enough to brush properly. When I do tree pose in class, I often lose balance and never hold it as long as I do at home. I’ve been working on balance poses as I’ve noticed that’s the area where I’ve lost the most control over time.

I used to have near perfect balance. Something I was always very proud of as a child. By the time I was six or seven, I was the one in the playground hanging upside down off the highest climbing frame, or walking on top of it using the connecting pipes as my ’tightrope’. As a teenager, I used to skip school to go a nearby park sometimes, where together with my friends we used the bike railings as our bars and beams. It was called Blondin Park and was named after one of the area’s most famous residents, the tightrope walker Charles Blondin. This was exiciting news to my teenage self. The man who had famously crossed the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope had lived in my home town. He captured my imagination and I found out as much as I could about him.

Blondin wasn’t his real name. It was a nickname given to him on account of his blond hair. His real name was Jean Francois Gravelet and he was born on 28 February 1824 in Saint-Omer, France. ⁠He was known by many other names and nicknames: Charles Blondin, Jean-François Blondin, Chevalier Blondin, and The Great Blondin. My hair wasn’t blonde, so I decided the perfect name for me would be ‘Brunette’.

At the age of five, Blondin went to Lyon to train as a gymnast and gave his first performances as ‘The Boy Wonder’ just six months later. I had a favourite aunt who lived in Lyon and went there quite often. Now I was convinced Blondin and I were somehow linked.

He loved performing and developed his own shows. I did this too. I would find increasingly daring and entertaining ways to get my audience’s attention. Hanging upside down out of windows at parties was one of my favourites. The higher the better. I was never frightened as I’d done it a million times on various playground climbing frames or gymnastic bars. Another stunt involved walking on balcony railings. I wouldn’t recommend this one though. I was lucky and my balance strong enough never to fall off, I realise now though, how very dangerous it was.

‘Brunette’ really came into her own when I took up freestyle skiing. My chosen disciplines were aerials and ballet. Training for aerials took place in the summer on a glacier in Italy. We would usually have quite an audience of locals eager to see what the ‘crazy Inglese’ were going to do next. We must have looked very odd. In the blistering summer heat, we’d put on helmets, wetsuits, lifejackets, skis and ski boots and climb to the top of the artificial ski jump next to the lake. We would then jump of the ramp, do a forward or backward summersault and land on our skis on the water, pausing there for a brief moment of glory before slowly sinking beneath the surface. I liked ballet skiing even more. This provided me with the chance to test my balance further, pirouetting on one ski tip or skiing down the slope in linked 360 turns.

When I moved to Ukraine and later Singapore in the nineties, I found other ways to indulge my taste for adventure; waterskiing, windsurfing and climbing.

I also kept my hand in on various balconies, even almost falling asleep on one occasion while lying on my back on a railing which was no more than 25cm wide.

Blondin’s fame went from local to national to worldwide when he walked across the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope on the 30th of June in 1859. He used a rope cable just two inches in diameter and 1,300 feet long. A crowd of five to ten thousand witnessed him cross not just once, but twice as he went from America to Canada and back again.

He went on to cross the Niagara river many more times, each time adding daring new variations: blindfolded, in a sack, pushing a wheelbarrow, on stilts, carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back, or sitting down midway to cook and eat an omelette!

My fame was limited to a small corner of Singapore called The Point bar. It was here that ‘Brunette’ became ‘the Beam Walker’, a name given to her by one of The Point’s patrons. The Point was owned by my good friend, Guna, who knew better than to try to stop me when I was in ‘tightrope’ mood. The Point had old wooden beams which crossed the ceiling at various diagonals. I would climb up the cross beams which ran up from the floors to the ceiling and formed the supports for other beams which crossed the whole lounge under the eaves of the roof. These were my playground and I would variously walk them, dance on them, hang off them or just sit on them surveying the dancers below. I’m told I even made it into Lonely Planet as the ‘beam walker’, a point of local interest for the tourists!

Blondin first appeared in London in 1861. Further proof that our lives were linked. I was born in 1961, exactly one hundred years later. He performed at Crystal Palace turning somersaults on stilts on a rope 70ft above the ground. After a period of retirement, Blondin made a few more appearances, his last was in Belfast at the ripe old age of 71. At some point he moved to Northfields in Ealing and lived there in the home he called Niagara House until his death in 1897. The same Niagara House which was just across the road from my school.

My own appetite for risk significantly decreased after I had my two children. I channelled it into safer activities like joining my young ones on theme park rides and later as they got older zip-lining, skiing and climbing. More recently yoga has allowed me to rediscover my balance.

So why is it that my balance is so much better in the privacy of my home? One difference could be that I home I have fun with it. I experiment and see how far I can push myself. In class there is the pressure of going at the same pace as everyone else. At home I can go as quickly or slowly as I wish. My eyes don’t stay fixed on one point at home. They look into themselves, or at my arm position, or at my lips or teeth while I’m brushing them… By not over thinking the pose my mind is more able to tune in to the sensation of balance and make minor adjustments as needed.

I’ve discovered that balance is far from static or still. Rather, it is an active state which involves both control and relaxation. Perfect balance is an never ending dance between the two.

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