Hi and welcome to our first episode of The Handstand Factory Handstandcast – a Podcast where Mikael Kristiansen and Emmet Louis talk all things handbalancing.
The Handstandcast – Season 1 will air every week. Topics we’ll cover over the first season include the straight handstand, the mindset of handbalancing and coaching handstands, though to be honest we’re making it up as we go along, so who knows where it might go!
Emmet and Mikael get together for the first ever episode of the handstandcast. They discuss the definition of what even is a handstand, explore the different contexts in which handstands are utilised, and how this affects the form, aesthetics, and training approach. And a whole lot else!
S1E1 – The Handstand
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Transcript of Episode 1: The Handstand
MK: So welcome to the Handstand Factory Handstand-cast. I am Mikael Kristiansen, and right over here we have Emmet Louis.
EL: Thank you all for tuning in. This is our first episode of our first season. We’re really excited about this. We’re also just making this up as we go along, so bear with us as we get set.
First things first – I suppose we should say a little bit about ourselves, what we do, and what we’re going to achieve.
MK: Yeah, so a little bit about myself. As I said, my name is Mikael Kristiansen. I am a handbalancer. I did the University of Dance and Circus. Before that I did breakdancing, and now I work as a circus performer and handstand teacher. I work a lot with Emmet with what we call the Handstand Factory.
Handstand Factory is…would you like to say what it actually is?
EL: Let me introduce myself first. For those of you who don’t know, I’m Emmet Louis. I am an acrobatics coach. I’m known in the general fitness world as the Flexibility Wizard, or the Splits Wizard. It’s more that I’ve sort of tailored a lot of my teaching to general flexibility of people; how to get flexible as an adult, and this kind of thing. I’m sure you can follow this all on my Youtube.
I’m also an acrobatics coach. I also coach handstands like Mikael. I’m not as high level at handstands, or ever was, as he is a machine, as we say, in human form.
We’re coming together to make this project, the Handstand Factory. Basically we wanted to get our voice out on how we feel handstand coaching is, and how it should be done. We’re putting together…I’ve been in the coaching business directly for a good 12 years now, as my main thing. MIkael’s been coaching for about the same amount of time, so we’re putting, you know, 20 000 hours of experience coaching into a product.
MK: Exactly. So, this is a podcast that you’re listening to right now. We have basically been thinking about various topics that we’d like to cover. There will be different things. Some will be directly handstand related. Some will be kind of more in terms of circus, and other things. We have loads of different interests, so we don’t exactly know what direction this will go in as of yet.
Stick with us, and you’ll see, I guess!
EL: I suppose we’re getting into that thing where it can be slightly viewer led. If you’re listening in, have some stuff you want to talk about, or are interested in, you’re free to contact us on social media and let us know. We’ll put it into the pot, and if there’s interest then we’ll do it.
I suppose in our first episode, we were kind of debating: what will we do for the first episode, as if we had any choice.
But the only choice was to say – what is a handstand? Why would you choose to do this kind of thing?
One of the things we’ll mainly look at now is the two arm handstand this episode. We have to actually get a working definition of what is a handstand. For us as well, that’s kind of a big thing. Obviously we make a product of it, but within that big thing of ‘what is a handstand?’, there’s also how we only teach a certain subset of what a handstand is.
MK: I think that one thing that’s actually been interesting while doing Handstand Factory is we had to put a lot of thoughts onto paper, and a lot of assumptions and general ideas that we had from before, but hadn’t really clarified. What is a handstand? What actually defines that? It seems like it’s very clear. Yeah, a handstand is a straight shape where you’re on two arms, but is it really?
Of course, there’s a lot to be said for it being that, but what I find fascinating is just seeing, where is the context where it’s relevant? What are you trying to use it for? Are you doing it for its own sake? How do you want it to look? All these things play into what a handstand is to you, or is to the context. That was a very important thing we went into when discussing this.
Obviously, our approach to the handstand comes from our backgrounds, where are from the circus. There’s loads of associations and loads of concepts that come with it, when you come from that direction. That doesn’t mean that’s all that it is.
EL: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of…if you look at the history, there’s a lot of things. It’s the aesthetic, it’s been designed for a reason. It was chosen, but then became a set thing, where people think it has to be like this, because this is the most technically efficient way to do it. When in reality, it’s just because the aesthetic changes. If you go back to the history of hand balance, the early courses, the York courses on hand balancing, Professor Paulinetti-
MK: Paulinetti, true art and science of hand balancing-
EL: When do we become professors? That’s what I want to know. But he’s talking about…in the book it’s talking about the ‘curved flowing lines of the American handstand’ versus the straight European handstand, and how the curved flowing lines are much more aesthetic.
There’s pictures in the book. He’s perfectly capable of doing a chin on chest, perfectly straight shoulders open handstand. Yet his choices, and the way he was teaching, was for this curved shape.
MK: They even argue for the fact that it is easier to balance with the arched back, because you can use that curvature to balance, and you lower your centre of mass. It makes sense.
I remember when I started hand balancing back in…my first class was the 18th of December, 2007. That’s when I had my first handstand class. Around that time, I got The True Art And Science Of Hand Balancing, a copy of it, and read through it. I find it fascinating, the way they used to do it. They weren’t bad; they were super fucking good at doing this. It worked.
Another interesting thing is that it’s very intuitive to think that the straight handstand is the correct one, but if you also look at, what is the intuitive handstand? It’s not a straight handstand.
If you ask a child to kick up to a handstand on the grass, they’re going to arch the back, bend their arms, do all these weird things that the body will automatically do to solve this equation of staying on the hands. For a child, they’ll be up there for like a millisecond, but that is what the body’s going to try to do to solve this complex equation. All these things in terms of aesthetics, efficiency, and so on – of course they matter, especially if you want to take your practice to a high level.
EL: Watch out for the table over there, be careful. We’re typing, and kicking my ghetto set up in my living room. We’ve got the good equipment, but we couldn’t afford the studio. Our next kickstarter is: get us a podcast studio.
MK: Joe Rogan 2.0 is what we’re doing here, except with acrobats.
EL: If you could send me some weed…you know. Mikael just wants methamphetamine. We balance out. There’s the Yin, there’s the Yang.
I think it’s one of these things where a handstand is very context specific, in that if we look at the disciplines, and what you’re going to do, it’s almost like – what do you do before and after the handstand that defines the actual handstand itself, and why it might be certain ways.
The idea in gymnastics: if you look at the way a lot of gymnasts do it, they have to hold the handstand for 2 seconds to get full marks in their competition. They have to enter from one way, and they have to exit, generally with a roll. That would be a common element in Floor.
They have to hold it straight, but they also hold with a wider hand position than we’d normally coach for hand balance.
The reason for this is if you are on a gymnastic floor, it’s much easier actually to hold with a wider position. It also comes down to – I remember the first lessons I had on this on the push. I used to think, many years ago, you must push as high as you can to get the shoulders right up. Then one gymnastics coach explained no, that’s more to do with high bar, because if you are on high bar and swinging at high speed, and haven’t got your shoulders shrugged up completely, then when you come down and get the whip and swing to go into a Giant, you can just lose the push as gravity and the force kicks in. That can cause some tweaks, cause some issues. So when they’re coaching kids, they want the shoulders up as far as they can, so they don’t get that jerk and lose that energy.
Where say, in hand balance, when you look at Mikael’s handstand…do you even elevate your shoulders?
MK: Yeah, I always elevate, but I never go max. I would say my general elevation is around 80º, or at 80%. I push so that I feel like I’m activating the traps and two arms, and when I go to one then I push higher. There’s only a few very specific positions where I push to 100%.
It’s taken for granted that you need to push to 100% in two arms. I think what ends up happening when you’re trying to do that is you’re wasting power. The general thing I like to say is that if you push so high that you kind of, have to twist your face, like make a grimace, then you’re pushing too high. You’re just starting to drain yourself more than necessary.
Like you said, in gymnastics these things are very important, because you need to be working with this large extension. Even if you just want to go into a roll from a handstand, if your handstand position is not properly pushed out, you’re not going to be traveling as far in your roll.
Same if you’re going into a roundoff, you really want to use this push because you really want to travel through space with the handstand. As you said, before and after is what is starting to matter. This is something that’s quite fascinating. You have gymnastics, which…I don’t want to call it a problem. Gymnastics is the most widely spread physical activity that uses handstand, and that has caused gymnastics to be the largest authority on the internet for handstands.
Then it kind of mixes with various concepts from other disciplines that use handstands. Hand balancing, hand to hand, even breakdancing, capoeira, all these other things are also using handstands. It’s just that the way you want to use them will be different, and the expression is different.
EL: To the capoeira thing, I remember talking to Simon Thakur from Ancestral Movement – check him out, he’s pretty cool – but he’s big into capoeira, and was talking about the capoeira handstand. They coach with a wider arm position and with bent elbows and the head true. The reason for this, and they can hold handstands quite long, is: 1, you’ll always be kind of entering your handstand from the side; 2, you want to keep your head true so you can see your opponent. And the other one I found most interesting for me is they want the elbows bent, because that gives them more options to move laterally on the handstand, and come down. Then you can transition. You might go up on the left, come back down on the left, or go up on the right, or move around. So they have that kind of lateral motion that we, via our choice in techniques, have removed from the handstand, with the circus handstand.
It’s kind of like they’ve adapted it, and gone, this is our usage of it, this is the way we want to use it. So what shape does that handstand need to be, or what kind of structure does it need?
MK: And of course, they will want the kick from it, so why the hell would you want your legs straight and together, pointing? You either want them bent and close to your body so you can whip out the leg towards your opponent-
EL: Yeah, exactly, so you always have to think, what is the context? I suppose that kind of leads us into us giving our working definition of the handstand. I think the easiest way to do it, for me anyway, is:
A handstand is when there are only two points of contact with the body, to the floor, or to the body. If we think about, say, arm balances, like elbow stands and stuff like that, I wouldn’t count that as a handstand. It’s a balance for me, because we have the hands on the floor, but then the body has another point of contact with the elbows on the knee, or an air baby or something like this, or all those Yoga kinds of arm balances. Some people would say that’s a handstand, but for me it’s not. Your only point of contact for the body are the hands, either on the floor, or possibly on your apparatus. There’s no other point of contact, the body is not sealing up anywhere else.
MK: That is just one thing that I wanted to touch on before we move into the circus-y things that we teach. Since I come from breakdancing, I spent a bunch of years in that before I met my first handstand coach in late 2007. In breaking you don’t really think about how you stand on your hands. You’re never taught the handstand.
There are tutorials online for B-Boys nowadays, but when I was training, it was taken for granted. You learn your baby freeze, you learn your elbow stand, you learn your handstand – because you want to do a freeze with it.
There’s a couple of interesting parts to that. First of all, you don’t really think much about it. Breakers spend a lot of time training and trying, and because so much they do are with the hands and floor, they build the strength and control, and so on. They kind of get it over time. It’s very unspecific technically, but they get it.
There also, you want to keep your arms bent. I even remember, a B-Boy asked me about presses to handstand. He was doing Stalder presses, but he was bending his arms, and asked if it’s a problem. I said, you’re breaking – why is it a problem? Yes, if you want to do it with straight arms like in gymnastic or circus style, sure, then you can train in straight arms. But you’re breaking, and it’s much more efficient to have your arms bent because you’re going to move up and down from baby freeze and elbow stands and all these things. Then you can actually use the dynamics, and it’s integral to the aesthetics, and to the techniques of breaking, rather than making your handstand into a gymnastic shape.
You can, it has different aesthetic qualities, and different goals to them. So I find that very fascinating. To me, those are some of the main categories that use handstands: gymnastic, circus handstands, hand to hand balancing, breakdancing, capoeira, and I guess you could also say diving, but they kind of just stay on two arms and then whip out of it.
EL: You could also say the “Y word”….Yoga.
MK: Ah, yes, Yoga too, that’s true. It exists there. And I guess Crossfitters walk on their hands as well.
EL: That’s an interesting one. Crossfit has taken the handstand, and made it into the most Crossfit thing possible. The handstand pushup, if you look at the tutorial for the handstand pushup, it makes me cringe inside a little for how bad they are, and what I believe is a good technique for a handstand.
It makes perfect sense for Crossfit, where I need to get the reps in as fast as possible. I don’t really need to balance it, and I don’t really need to worry about correct shoulder alignment and everything, or correct as I see it…
See that’s the other thing, it comes down to ownership of these things. People say, this is the one true way. What we’d like to get to is that, there really isn’t one true way.
MK: I think this is very relevant. The more you teach, or at least the more I’ve taught and the more people I’ve seen doing this stuff, is that even within these specific disciplines, you start seeing variation. I suppose that sports, like gymnastics, is the place where you’d think that you’d see the least amount of variation, because they have code points. It is specific, and you will lose points if you move in a certain way rather than another.
In circus, we don’t really have that, but at the same time, circus has a very strong tradition on aesthetics and technique. There is kind of an internal judgment on how things look.
That’s something we’re going to get back into in another episode, but the general concepts that you feel that you have to follow, like straight legs, the pointed toes, the fucking line, and so on – it’s looked upon as…it’s not just good criteria to have. If you don’t have them, you are a bad person! Or that’s what the internet tells you.
EL: A lot of things are efficient training aids. It’s kind of funny, even when you watch the education of a circus artist, and not even counting handstands, but there’s a certain aesthetic that comes from the training tools, that are there to build the body awareness. Toes pointed, legs locked, no micro bends, pay attention to what your extremities are doing. This is there to build the bodymap, so you can do a movement, feel your feet, ok now when you choose to do something, how do you express it? A lot of circus is, you learn all these movements with this kind of aesthetic that is derived from the training. Then a lot of people spend a lot of years trying to get rid of that aesthetic, and are like, I can do it correct, but how do I do my own thing?
I always think of it like ‘Paint by Numbers’. You have to get inside the lines, but that’s just teaching you to control the pen and how to paint. Afterwards you have to get a sheet of paper, get some spray cans out, throw the pens away, maybe.
MK: It’s like, I remember the first thing in the True Art and Science of Handbalancing by Paulinetti, and I think it came out in the 40s- he was at his best in the 1920s, but the first thing in the book is actually ballet. It’s showing the different leg positions. Ballet, and how that is what you’re trying to achieve aesthetically in your handstands.
Even when they’re doing the very arched handstand, the outfits they use are kind of like, tight white full covering outfits. The general pointed toes, full locked knees thing, all of that. Of course, through gymnastics, ballet, that sort of stuff, the efficiency is very important. I also find the aesthetics interesting, because if you take the aesthetics off what essentially became ballet, and you take the context, it’s performed on this stage, and the audience is far away. So having a very straight leg, and pointed toes make your leg look longer. It fits the format; it’s more visible.
If someone has a very wide straddle and the legs look very long when they do a handstand on stage, it’s more aesthetic in terms of being more visible in space, and again I think it’s very interesting if you compare it to breakdancing, with a totally different aesthetic. But also, breaking is designed to be looked at from a very close proximity.
You’re in a circle, and 1.5m away from the person dancing. So it has different contexts, and that also leads into how it’s formed.
EL: You can see more fine details up close in breaking. There can be more individual style.
MK: Yeah it’s about angles. If you take pictures of the freeze frames of either when they’re doing footwork, or doing freezes, it’s always about creating intricate angles, that I find very fascinating. No one uses it in hand balancing, for example. It’s very rare to see.
I suppose that leads into that thing of the actual training of it. I think it also affects the aesthetics simply because it’s really, really hard to learn. You spend an enormous amount of time perfecting the techniques, the straightness. You have all these criteria that are enforced by the community and ideas, and so on.
EL: What did you friend call that again? Was it the cabal?
MK: No, that was Jonathan Fortin. He called it the Federation.
EL: You must have your knees locked! And your toes pointed!
MK: The Federation, according to him…Jonathan Fortin, he’s a French circus artist who does aerial straps. He had this concept of the Federation. They’re with you even when you’re alone. You look at your video, look at yourself, and go, oh no this was ugly, this was bad!
And if you did a trick that wasn’t perfect, he would always question, why is it bad? Why is it not the trick when you didn’t lift your hand all the way to your knee in your one arm? You only lifted it to 45º, why is that not a thing? Why is it only a thing when you’ve got your hand up to your knee?
This is how the training aspects and their difficulty influence and enforces a certain aesthetic. I find that very interesting. If we look at the practice of handstand, it’s difficult and it takes a lot of time. Obviously when you’ve spent all this time achieving these criteria, you’re obviously happy when you achieve your straight line, or your press to handstand. You want it to look nice, according to these criteria, that becomes the generalized box…
EL: It must be this, rather than, I want it to be this. It’s just interesting. A few years ago, when I was really trying to understand handstands from a different level, stripping everything out of my handstand to see what the things were that made me stay without falling. I wouldn’t be able to give all the same advice to people over the years, like you must do 90s dish hold before you start training, and arch holds, all this kind of stuff. You must have your toes pointed, and knees locked. When I was taught handstand, at the time we had external rotation of the hips. Your position was kind of like a ballet first position. But I started stripping this out, and came to the conclusion that I only really need two things for my handstand.
I need my fingers and hands to be able to do something. I need a certain amount of push in my shoulders. Everything else became optional. My foot can just relax, I can ignore it. My knees can be bent, they can be straight. Just ignoring the shapes, my core, the bane of my existence, squeezing the core…I haven’t been doing a lot of that lately. You see some of the people from the same school as me, they basically suck their stomach in like a vacuum because that’s how they were taught. You don’t need that! You don’t need the rib pulled down. You just need shoulders and fingers, and everything else comes on top of that. It’s a choice, almost.
MK: It’s a foot stand; it should be the same as a foot stand. You stand on your feet, it’s not very difficult because you’ve done it all your life. But if you look at a baby that’s learning to stand, it’s going to wobble all over the place, just like someone learning to handstand. It’s going to be very similar, and I think that thing with the core is interesting. It makes sense on paper that you should be this kind of stick. If the entire stick is tight, then it should somehow be easier to balance it.
But again, the gymnastics perspective has influence that a lot, I think. In gymnastics they do teach it with this very rigid, hardcore tension in the midsection. It makes perfect sense for the context. If you’re teaching a child that is going to do very high level gymnastics, or not even, but you want to swing around a bar, do tumbling, swing around rings…then you need that tension through the entire body as you swing. You need to reinforce that idea from the get go, so every time you go upside down, this is hardwired into the entire structure.
I’ve had a number of discussions over the years with people about this – the core tension thing. I just sent a general message around to a ton of my hand balancing friends, pretty high level people, but also people that can just stand on two arms. I asked them, do you actually think about tensing your midsection while you’re in a handstand. A couple of them just answered, what do you mean!? And we’re talking about people who are pretty badass. They’re very solid on one arms, and I never tense my abs when in a one arm either.
As when you stand, when you stand on one leg, you don’t need to squeeze your abs to be able to balance better on your feet. The example, and I love to use this one when I teach as well, and you the listener can try this right away. You just stand on one leg, and then you look at your foot, you’re going to see that the foot will kind of wiggle back and forth a little bit to help you to balance. It’ll do that more than when you stand on two feet, because you have a smaller base of support. Stand there and you’ll feel your body won’t move that much.
But then without changing any body tension, or anything in your body, just close your eyes and see what happens. Lo and behold, you will likely be wobbling back and forth, your foot will have to work faster and harder to keep you in balance, and the core of your body will wobble. Your shoulder part will wobble and so on. This is the same thing that happens in a handstand. You’re just balancing slower because you don’t have any visual cues any longer. It will be the same in a one arm handstand, or a handstand.
You get up there, you’re not completely used to the context. Your muscles are maybe not completely strong enough yet. You fatigue, you’re not sure what to do, and so on. Things will move around, just like a baby learning to walk. It’s fine to tense your abs but you don’t need to.
EL: Once again it comes back down to that whole idea of choice, and everything else. You have to remember: force propagates from the ground through the body like a wave. I don’t squeeze my fingers and instantly cause a reaction in my toes. It takes a second to travel up. If you’re really solid it just means you put more leverage through your fingers. We’re not talking floppy, but there’s this idea I always tell my students. It’s like a guitar string. We’re turning a guitar string to play the note with the fingers. That’s what gets the balance going. It’s this idea that if you’re trying….you’re just wasting energy in some ways.
There’s a different quality I learned in circus, where we had these classes called Extension. I didn’t really get the point of them. The lady teaching them, Lorraine, was the ballet teacher, and also an aerialist. She was pretty good, very influential, actually, when I was there. It was meant to be a flexibility class, but she was teaching extension. I didn’t get what the quality was until maybe 3-4 years ago, where she’s trying to basically make this stretching feeling across the body. That’s what holds it in place.
When we’re doing ballet, instead of having your arms out and dying, if you can find the stretch out, suddenly you’re kind of expanding into it and it’s holding you in place, but it’s taking very little energy. It’s what a lot of these cues are going towards in a handstand. Push up, push into the floor, stretch out, stretch the arms out, make them as long as possible. Reach your toes to the ceiling, make yourself long. This is what’s happening with a lot of these cues, but they’re just training wheels. Once you’ve got the quality of it, once you’ve got the body connected in a way you can feel it, then you can just choose to do other stuff.
It’s the idea of teaching a certain way, to be able to eventually go, I’m done, I don’t need that cue anymore. it works for me.
Like myself, when I do my handstands, I have my checklist. The only thing I started paying attention to now is my feet, because I’m a bit lazy. For aesthetic reasons I’d like a better point. Then my weight placement in the hand. I want, basically, I know exactly where my weight should be in a two arm. I can now feel, and it takes a while to get this, if I’m arching then the placement is too forward in the hand, if I’m piked it’s too far back… There’s a verticality with the ground I’m seeking, that causes you to balance. It gives a centre to balance around.
MK: I think when people are learning this, too, it’s important to not be too detailed in the beginning. You need to take your time in terms of letting your body understand what is going on. There’s an analogy I often use. If I have someone who’s a complete beginner, and I try to teach them handstand, and I give them 18 different cues that are super duper ultra important to do, or else they will fail forever, then they’re going to be trying to focus on way too many things at once. it becomes as if I’m trying to fill their cup with information, but they don’t have a cup.
It just doesn’t matter. They can’t take in all these things. If I tell them, you need to squeeze your quads. You need to point your toes. You need to tense your ass, push high through the shoulders. You need to bring the sternum in. You need to look at the floor like this. You need to squeeze your fingers like that on the ground. Now you’re going to do blah blah blah… If I keep going like that, they’re not ready.
It doesn’t matter. If someone gives me a fucking physics equation, I’m just going to look it at like, I see the numbers and signs, I kind of know what this one means-
EL: That’s a plus sign-
MK: I’m just going to stop there. I don’t have the capacity, I haven’t learned how to do that kind of mathematics. It doesn’t matter, I’m not going to be able to do anything with that. Instead you can start using certain concepts. I think what we’ve tried to do, at least, in Handstand Factory, is find what are the most important ones? Like Emmet’s just said, it’s very interesting if you’re able to…what did you say there, with finding out those two things that matter? You needed some push in the shoulders, and the grip of the fingers, and the rest is kind of optional. Finding those things are the most important, so you can focus on those. Once you’re able to focus on those, then you can start adding.
Same thing with other elements of the handstand. Okay, I’ve never been on my hands before and this feels scary. Well if you’re scared, you’re definitely not taking 18 different cues. You can be like, holy shit, I feel like I’m falling on my face here.
I need to reassure you. It’s going to be fine, you can work on it like this. Maybe you just need to build some strength holding up the body first. If you can’t hold the body, how the hell can you expect to balance the body?
EL: It’s like that thing you see where, if you’re ever coaching a beginner’s class, doing chest to wall. And someone who isn’t strong enough to maintain the position in the shoulders, the body got sloppy. It’s just a mental drive thing. Then you say, squeeze your legs or glutes, point your toes. They do that, then instantly lose the shoulder push, because they haven’t done it long enough to maintain the quality of shoulder push while shifting the focus somewhere else. The harder the shape is to maintain, the less you can take in.
MK: I think there’s goals at every level. That’s why it’s fascinating with handstands, and why people tend to persevere and train it for a long time. Whenever you enter into a new area of skill, you always have your minimum level of skill, what you can always do. When you’re good at handstands, you can always do a normal handstand. You’ll be able to because it’s so much of a comfortable thing. Then you have your general mid-level of things, which you can access most of the time and it’s not a big problem. Then when you move to the edge of your skill level, it will always be the same. It will always be equally challenging. I guess this goes for everything, but I think this kind of pushing against this limit is interesting, something where you again experience this blindness to your own body. Where am I in space now?
One thing I like to do every time I teach is, yeah people see me and say of course you can stand on your hands. You’re really strong, you’ve done handstands for 12 years. Obviously it’s easy for you to say. But put me on a trampoline, I’m literally that beginner in front of me.
Anything in the air, I’m just not good at rotating in the air. It’s not a skill that I’ve built up. I’ll be at the exact same level as the person going, oh shit, I feel kind of insecure going into a handstand here. Will you catch me? People ask me that. Yes, I’m your spotter, I’ve done this forever. Of course I’ll catch you. But I understand the question, in the same way as if I were standing on a trampoline to fucking backflip, and someone is going to spot me on that. I need to look at the person first before I do the fucking backflip, because I can’t do trampoline.
It’s not a different story than anything else. If you’re a beginner at something, you’re going to have to encounter the same blocks that you need to breach.
It’s the same shit with academic things, or entirely different disciplines. You’ll feel insecure, and need to get that security and understanding before you feel ready and able and good about actually trying to do these things. Because it’s scary, and it’s obvious.
EL: The fear of the inversion happens a lot. It particularly seems to propagate in the yoga world a lot. There’s something fearful about it, and I think a lot is the fear of the unknown. What’s going to happen? What’s my body going to do? Can I feel it upside down?
MK: The blindness.
EL: That kind of blindness, until you’ve actually got some experience. Okay, this is what it feels like. I can support myself. I know how to come down, I know what I’m doing. This is basically what it comes down to.
MK: You know that you’re not going to die. That’s the thing. Getting rid of that fear is all about, if you know that you always see the floor, and if you do handstand and fall over, you see the floor at all times and can move one of your hands, put it on the floor so that you don’t fall further forwards, then you put your feet on the ground and everything is fine.
You always have, you can always see what is happening and you are with yourself in the context.
Another thing I find interesting is how when people are working with this in various other worlds than circus. The first time I taught a workshop was in early 2010, I think in Helsinki. I was invited by my friend who lives there to teach at a yoga studio, and it was mostly very inexperienced people with handstands. I’d never taught before. I’d been in school for a while and I had a reasonable understanding, but I tried to build some sort of workshop structure.
Then some guy asked me while I was teaching wall stuff, what happens if I fall? Well you just twist out. I just go up to the wall, I fall over, twist down, put my feet on the floor, not a big deal.
He just looked at me, what do you mean, twist down?
Then I said, I hadn’t actually thought about that. Let me figure it out. I built up a way of teaching this so they could approach it, by breaking it down. It makes sense that this feels scary at first.
Another thing I think is interesting in those terms, is it’s also easy to make it into too big of a deal. I’ve seen that a little bit in several of these disciplines. To return to breakdancing, everyone that starts is mostly young, gets into it and tries it. The attitude is like, handstands, yeah you just try, and that’s all you get to know about it. Then you try all these things, and suddenly you can do it. It’s not a thing that’s a big deal. Of course, the older people, like with trampoline, it will take a lot longer to learn than a 17 year old.
EL: I remember we went to the trampoline park to do a meet up, and Mikael was teaching at it. We went to the trampoline park on the second day, and the only person to wreck themselves was Mikael there.
MK: I remember. I did classes in school, so I could do the basics of course, like sit to stand, some flips. But I did jump to stomach, and did the timing with the hands wrong. I was coming down too much on the front, and I remember a proper cracking in the back.
EL: Besides me and one other person, no one else had done any trampoline. Everyone came out fine, no injuries, except Mikael who wrecked himself.
MK: What was I saying? Something about the thing.
EL: As a segue, I have one question for the both of us. What’s more important when doing a handstand: balance or perfection?
MK: Easily balance, because without that, you’re…*sigh* I’ve seen so much perfection, without balance. If you’re doing hand to hand as a flyer it’s fine, because your job is to make the pretty shape, and the other person’s job is to balance you. If you want to balance by yourself, you need to deal with that first. Balance is kind of your cup, perfection is more information in the cup.
EL: Yeah, it’s definitely this idea that you’ll see a chest to wall handstand and the alignments, everyone wonders about the shoulder mobility. Well, I can do a handstand, but I can’t hold 5x90s chest to wall holds. But that’s conditioning, it’s fine and you do need some. It’s not a chest to wall handstand, it’s constant to wall handstand, you’re constantly facing the wall. You need to just go in.
You see people try it, and the first time you learn to balance your technique goes out the window. It’s terrible but that’s fine. Until you can actually balance for 25-30s, there’s no point worrying about whether everything is perfect.
Details will tidy it up. We encourage this idea of training the details as much as we can, so they emerge almost naturally as you do the practice, and not that you try to focus on them unless you have a specific focus point.
MK: Adding and removing variables, is what I wanted to say. I think that both of those are necessary for learning, and by removing variables, I basically mean, say your freestanding handstand consists of kicking into the handstand, catching the balance, bringing your legs together, holding it and then coming down. Let’s say a person needs to work on balance, then you can do a wall set up, stomach to wall, for example. Then there’s the one leg lift and push we do in the program, and so on. There’s tons of other variations of moving into balance. But what are you removing? You remove the kick up, so you don’t need to worry about that at this point.
It’s a balance drill; you develop balance as a separate capacity. Then you can work on your kick up, separated, like half kick ups. Work on that as a separate capacity.
Then you can work on alignment as a certain capacity, doing specific drills for that. Whenever you want to work specifically on one thing, you’re better off removing a variable or two so you can concentrate on that. As time goes on, you get really good at kick ups, you have pretty good balance. Okay, now you kick up into balance. Maybe your alignment isn’t perfect but you’re able to hold and stay, so you’re building those two capacities together.
At the same time you know that you still need to work on the straightness of your handstand. Okay you do that as a separate thing. Then you go back to the wall, you remove variables again, then work on it there. Then slowly but surely you piece these things together.
EL: I suppose we’ve been talking for about 40 minutes. I’d like to summarize what we’re getting at in this. What is a handstand for us? It’s context specific for what you wanted to do. What are you using the handstand for? Is it the art of hand balance, which we teach? Is it a component of a discipline that is larger than just the handstand itself?
Then it’s also this idea of, can we have a working definition? I threw out the one where you have the hands as the main point of contact with the ground, and there’s no other point of contact, either with space, be it the wall, floor, or own body, or no spotter.
Then it’s the idea of trying to find, what is the minimal amount you personally need? For me I said it’s fingers and shoulders. For someone else it could be glutes and fingers.
It just comes down to a personal thing. I’m going to cause a bit of a cringe in the room but it’s part of Your Handstand Journey.
But it is a journey. I like handstands. I don’t have particularly high technical aspirations on them, but more just as a means of exploring the body and what it’s capable of. There’s a lot in there, what you can get out of the practice. It’s also this idea of, where do you want to take it?
Is it just something you want to do in your bedroom? Is it something you want to do for Instagram likes with monkeys crawling on you?
MK: I think it’s essentially what you’d like to use it for, and it’s an interesting thing to do, ultimately. It’s fun. I think that’s one thing that attracts a lot of people to it. I love to make a comparison between a handstand and a backflip, where a really good backflip is hard to master, but a backflip is very hard to try to do. It’s scary. But it’s reasonably easy to do once you have the backflip. That much isn’t required for you to get around, but it’s tough to get around the fear and try it.
A handstand is easy to try, but very hard to master. Almost anyone who has two functioning arms can try to kick up on a piece of grass, or whatever. It easily becomes this kind of thing where after a couple of times, Oh! I actually managed it. I just need to get that feeling again, then suddenly you find yourself trying 300 times in succession. It’s very obsessive in that sense.
EL: It has a good success to failure ratio. It comes down to…I don’t know, what’s the minimum conditioning you need for handstand? It’s this idea that, we need to do some drills to give us success and sensation of the body as well as the ability to maintain a practice. I always have this idea of, what is capacity in our balancing? How many attempts, like Mikael said, can I make in a session that will be worthwhile?
Say I have a rough formula, and here’s a simplified version of it. If i can do 5x60s chest to wall holds, which is one thing in and of itself, that gives me, I don’t know, 300 seconds to fuck around in my handstand, where I can say, ok I’m going to try to kick up. The kick up will take me 10s to do, so I can do 30 kick ups in my training, and that’s my capacity.
If I do any more, I might be going beyond what my body has trained in. I know it’s very rough rule of thumb but it’s the idea of, what is the conditioning for? It’s to enable the practice, not the end goal of the practice.
Unless you do Crossfit, where that is the practice.
MK: And that’s fine, but I think if you want to be able to stand on your hands, at least for a while…I would assume that very few people who want to practice handstands have a goal of standing for 10s and being done. I think that’s a rare occasion-
EL: I think you’d be surprised actually. There’s a lot of people out there. They’re a bit jaded, but a lot of older people over the years want to do it and get the sense of balance, but they literally have no high aspirations. They don’t even know that 60s handstand is a thing. I’ve met more than a handful of people who just want to be able to kick up and walk on the hands a little, and hold it.
MK: You’re right, but I think that, even say a 10s handstand, or being able to stand on your hands for a little while is kind of the goal. Being able to do a chest to wall handstand where you don’t need to worry about balance, but just be able to hold your body for at least twice that time, which is necessary.
If you want to stand on your hands for 10s and can’t keep yourself up on the wall for 20s, you’re probably better off just getting that ability, so you can hold your weight for a while.
EL: I have a question for you then. When would you say to someone, they’re allowed to do a handstand?
I have my own answer to this but I want to hear yours first.
MK: I immediately started thinking about what I feel qualifies for a one arm miss. That’s the thing that struck my head. For a normal handstand, if you’re able to kick up into a handstand, and I’ll pull some numbers out my ass: let’s say 7/10 times you’re able to get up and stay between 5-10s, then you’re doing it often enough and for long enough that you’re up there and correcting yourself. Within a try, or successful try, you’re actually doing some balancing.
EL: My working definition on this flies for two arms or one arm. People are allowed to do a handstand when they intentionally enter the handstand. They perform reactive rebalance, losing balance and reacting to it. They restabilize the handstand from that correction, then choose to exit the handstand. That’s my working definition of when you’re allowed to do a handstand.
You’ll see, in the one arm thing, people who, and even myself at the moment, will shift over, find the alignment and the stack, get the hand off. Then you’re on your hands for even up to 5 seconds, but you’re not actually balancing. You’ve just found that dead centre alignment.
MK: You’re lucky for 3 seconds, then you’re falling for 2 of them.
EL: Basically. So I don’t think that qualifies as a handstand.
Okay, I chose to go up, something went wrong, I reacted to it, fixed it, fixed the reaction, then I chose to come down. If you can perform all of that in one set, that’s my working definition of a handstand. Then I’d say I can do a handstand.
MK: I’d say that’s pretty good. That’s something I love to see. Get up, it looks fine, I see it go south, I see them get back. Then there’s always like a cheer, like, yes! That is the thing. It’s a very underestimated thing too, because being able to do that. A big looking correction might be defined as Bad by the Federation, but in reality it’s a very good sign. It means you managed to deal with it, and over time, three years down the line, what will cause you to do that large reaction? Is it even visible?
Then you need a much larger wave of destabilization to move into that same kind of larger correction.
EL: Or fatigue. That’s the point of one of the manuals you put down. Your balance breaks down in a certain order as you fatigue. As you have more conditioning, your corrections are smaller. You start with these corrections, where it’s just like the fingertips pulsing, or the heel of the hand. As you get tired, then it’s longer squeezes. Then as you get further tired, then your shape starts breaking.
Whereas if you’re a beginner and have no conditioning and have no skill, then the shape starts breaking immediately. That’s the only way it can go.
I think Mikael put it in the manual as: you have to learn to ride the big waves before you can surf the little ripples.
MK: Yeah, or like, both are important, but that the thing with the big wave is it’s such an underestimated skillset, because it doesn’t have that kind of pretty, neat quality that we kind of search for aesthetically.
Because of that, if you don’t allow yourself to try to stay on the fucking hand when you’re falling, then you’re always going to let that happen. But if you have that constant mindset of staying on the hands- I remember, years back, when I was a kid, I was 17 and starting breakdancing. I thought it’s probably good to be able to stand on your hands. So I just warmed up trying to kick up to handstand. I just walked around, because I didn’t know you could stand still.
I remember every time I fell down, stomach side, I would just try to keep my legs in the air. I was like HNNGNGH. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was essentially doing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of negatives in presses. So in the end I learned to press, because I was trying to stay on my hands every time I fell down. I mean, I do have a lucky shoulder structure in terms of pressing. The way I would do it was to stay on top of the shoulders and I wouldn’t planche it much, because I was stronger on top.
EL: Maybe your planche would be better if you’d actually learned to planche….
MK: Definitely. So it became this thing, I’d always try to keep myself in the air. Because of that, I built up a lot of strength. That just came from having that automatic mindset for me. I think it’s important when people are learning that they learn how to, or keep in mind that we’re trying to save it all the time.
I suppose we should actually mention that with over and under balance, these terms we use in balance. Over balance is when you move towards the finger tips and need to grab the ground with your fingers, or else you fall over. Same with standing on your feet. If you lean forwards on your foot, you’ll have to grab the ground with your toes, or else take a step. Under balance is basically when your weight moves towards the heel of the palm. Another thing I would try to do with my handstands is try to push up with my shoulders and try to keep my legs in the air, which then turned into the negative press.
But the under balance is more complicated, for you can do that in several ways. You can do what I did, by trying to stay on top of the shoulders. This is what we try to teach in Handstand Factory, and we’ll probably talk a lot about that.
EL: Yes, in the Press episode, or One Arm episode.
MK: You can also planche when you move in that direction.
EL: Or bend the elbows.
MK: Or you can do a combination of the two or three as well. So there are options when you move in that direction. Over balance…the interesting thing is you don’t have a choice. Either you grab the ground with your fingers, or you walk, or you fall. There isn’t anything else to do. No there’s no sucking in the belly button – what I call belly button magic. There’s nothing you can do. Either you grab the ground, or you fall. It is what it is.
EL: When you’re a beginner at handstands, your battle is with over balance. You’re just battling to stay on your point. When you’re trying to become someone at handstands, whatever that is, your battle is with under balance. That’s where all the shapes happen. You have to put more mass into the under balance side.
So, we’ve been rambling for about an hour, I suppose.
First off, I suppose we have a few thanks, and other stuff. First of all, thanks to everyone on Kickstarter. If you’ve got this far, and also contributed to our Kickstarter, we really like you and hope to meet you.
It’s great. I am Emmet Louis, this is Mikael Kristiansen with me. We just want to say this is brought to you by Handstand Factory. If you’re just interested in the practical…the podcast is going to give you a lot of the theory, depth, and thinking. But if you’re interested in what this practically looks like, we have our online course at Handstand Factory. So, you know, it’s a bit of a shameless plug, but we put a lot of work into it. There’s a lot of stuff in text that has never been said in text on handstands.
I’m still amazed about this course we produced. You have no idea how much coffee we drank, and how much we hated each other.
Some of you probably don’t know, but in the background we have Elise, who is our chief whip cracker, producer, magic lady who does everything.
MK: We probably wouldn’t be able to finish this today if she weren’t making us do it.
EL: Yeah, so, big shout out to her. Big shout out to the rest of the team at Handstand Factory. We have Adam Ross to do all our photography and videography. Isaac and Sophie who do our graphics. Isaac is one of our models.
We’ve got Seve…Isaac’s more than a model; he’s also an apprentice and general gopher. Generally useful to have around. Seve is one of the models as well.
MK: I guess we’re pretty much there.
EL: Josh and Morgan as well. The wonder kids. Going to be dangerous when he grows up. Is he grown up yet?
MK: Naw, he’s like perpetually 18. But yeah, thanks a bunch for listening to our things. There will be more episodes coming up. Stay tuned for that.
EL: Stay tuned. One more thing, if you have any questions, you can put them through with the title “Podcast Questions” on the contact form of Handstand Factory. Put them through. We’ll see if your question is good, we’ll read it out on the air. If your question is terrible, we’ll read it out on the air, but with your name attached.
MK: So, yeah, thanks.
EL: I’ve got to turn off the recorder. Cheers! Bye!
- Emmet and Mikael refer to the True Art and Science of Hand Balancing, a free PDF which you can find here:
- Jonathan Fortin, the circus artist who in this context coined the term “the federation”, can be found on Instagram here: @chairhomme
- Simon Thakurs Ancestral Movement website can be found here.
- An overview of the models mentioned at the end of the episode can be found here. You can find them on Instagram here: Isaac, Seve, Josh, Morgan, Elise
- Handstand Factory courses
- Emmet Louis Instagram
- Mikael Kristiansen Instagram
- Handstand Factory Instagram