In our 11st episode of the Handstand Factory handstandcast Emmet and Mikael dive deep into the mindset of handbalancing, including determination and resolve, frustration in the face of the inconsistency of training, community as a force multiplier, zooming out on the progress curve and all the other bits and pieces that make up the mindset around what it means to train handstands. Enjoy!
S1E11 – The Mindset of Handbalancing
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Transcript of Episode 11: The Mindset of Handbalancing
MK: Welcome back to Handstand Factory with myself, Mikael Kristiansen, and Mr Emmet Louis.
EL: Welcome back to the Handstand Cast. This week we’re going to do a show for you, as usual. Every show is amazing, but this one in particular is going to be pretty good. We are going to talk everything involving mindset in Handstand Training.
We’re going to look at everything from training environment to frustration, to fun, to enjoyment, to hating yourself, to boredom at staring at the same piece of floor.
The entire range of emotions related to handstand. I think many emotions I’ve experienced in hand balance training don’t actually have names. What’s that emotion for when your feet come off the floor in a press, but then you don’t tuck forwards? There’s definitely a special emotion there that hasn’t been listed in emotional handbooks.
MK: We need to come up with a new registry for the levels of annoyance that can occur, but yeah. Just to start off talking about mindset, what I’ve registered, both with myself and with the people that tend to be attracted by this practice..not everything fits for everyone, and some people get very fascinated by something.
I’m sure that many of you listening here are really fascinated and really into handstands. Some of you maybe want to learn it as a fun skill, or are looking around to figure out how to do it as a personal challenge. I’m sure if you’ve spoken about handstand or some other passion of yours in your life to people who have zero understanding or interest whatsoever, they’ll just go, yeah ok cool yeah…
They show no interest, no kind of passion. They don’t even understand what the hell you’re so excited about with this thing we do, regardless if that is handstands, or collecting stamps.
There is a tendency for certain people to be attracted or gravitate towards certain interests.
EL: I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but there’s a certain type of person who will take handstand as a practice. It doesn’t matter on the exact level, but will just go, this is my thing, I’m just going to do my thing.
It’s the same sort as you get with someone going, I’m going to get really good at this specific video game. Or I’m going to learn to sing this specific type of music, in this specific style. There’s something very narrow focused on it, even though the practice itself can be quite broad.
MK: And like anything, you will have people entering into it that are just, maybe particularly talented, or did gymnastics as a child, so they have it in their life, then decided to continue with it, like it’s not really much of a choice. To use a cliche word, it’s a calling or very strong drive.
Someone might say, I am pretty damn good as an acrobat. I decided to go to circus school because it fits me. I know many handbalancers who entered doing it like that. That is entirely fine.
EL: There’s the hobbyist type.
MK: Yeah, but they can also be extremely good. It’s just this difference between some people that I see, especially who started later in life, that kind of somehow choose handstands as being a really important thing. They become ultra obsessed and focused on it. I’m definitely one of those people.
I was not physical as a kid. I was always ashamed of being in bad shape, feeling like I had no physical qualities. And to be completely honest, that’s why I started breaking. I started as a way to be cool. If I can just fucking fly around in the air like that guy, I’m going to be badass. I’m going to be someone. I wanted to create an identity, as a basic teenager thing.
EL: I can relate to that myself as well.
MK: I think that’s an important thing for a lot of people. With handstands, it’s such a repetitive practice. I find it fascinating mindset wise, because there are so many acrobatic and non-acrobatic practices that build up a skillset that also takes a long time. Very often, they feel more rewarding at an earlier stage, because let’s face it, to get a normal handstand as a completely average no-acrobatic physically normal person, it might take a lot of time. Maybe you grind for six months, maybe a year at a very consistent practice. You still can barely stand on two arms. You can’t do anything “cool” yet.
Getting a one arm handstand is a long project for most people. Even when you can do a straddle one arm, which can take 3, 4, 5 years for some people from scratch, you’re still kind of at a basic level. It really takes the term in mind.
EL: It’s almost like a level of resolve as well. I was reading a meditation book recently on hardcore Buddhist dharma. The guy was stressing a point. He was trying to dispel all the nonsense about Buddhism, and said you have certain meditation techniques. You apply them at a certain stage in your training, and all you need is the resolve to do the techniques, just sit down and do that specific technique. When I get distracted, I go back to it.
With handstands, it’s like, I’m just going to do a handstand. And I’m going to keep going until I’m done. A lot of people have that kind of resolve.
In my own training I had a revelation when I was a teenager. I was never naturally sporty, nor into sports. I just went to sports days in school, played rugby, stuff like that when I was younger. It didn’t really interest me. I wasn’t good at it naturally, so obviously why would I bother? But then I had this revelation that came when rollerblading.
If I just practice enough, I actually get good at something. Oh wait, so then all I have to do is do the thing and practice. Practice was a very vague concept, it was more, get on the fucking skates and do it.
Then I was like, I’ll do it with skateboarding. Once I got good at that as well, I went back to rollerblading and got even better. But it was the idea that there was a very clear relation with my resolve. I go skate for an hour, two hours a day. And then I get good.
You see this a lot in people with handstands. Many people I know who are good at handstands, even at pro level, aren’t the most physically talented people. I can think of, even in circus school, many of the aerialists started more flexible, stronger, more physically capable, but none of them had the resolve to see the handstand training through.
There’s times you see someone who says they will learn a one arm. Really good splits, really good shoulders, strong and flexible…when you train in a circus environment, if you want to learn a one arm, you have all the tools available. Someone will know, will tell you your sticking point, either a coach or someone who’s done it themselves. It’s a very open, sharing environment. There’s no limitation on knowledge, or problem solving. Someone will have encountered your problem. But…you see these people who want to learn a one arm. Three weeks later they’re just not doing handstands anymore. They’re just kicking up every now and then.
It’s interesting, that level of seeing people who might have the same base physical substrate, but they go, I’m going to learn this. I’m going to learn it no matter what. And they get there. They get better and better.
MK: It’s really a ‘calling’ personality type. Maybe that’s a broad stroke, but there are certain traits, a deep desire to have to do this. A personal challenge kind of thing, or an internal drive to just get it. It makes sense as well. The investment to reward ratio is pretty bad. If you want to have a cool looking trick, I’ve taught many people who saw a guy get a one arm in six months, and decided they’re going to have it this summer.
I’m like, yeah sure you are, show me. Oh, boom, two months pass by, they train too hard, I told you not to do that, boom, wrist is wrecked. Six years pass by, still no one arm. Still barely any handstands involved.
Whereas if the guy went, yeah! gonna have a backflip this summer, he’d probably get one. If he went to gymnastics club or had some mats, or whatever, he’s probably have that backflip this summer. That would have been it.
Let’s say maybe that person would be into acrobatics and do loads of flips. Of course, all these things are really difficult, but on a different level. Let’s say you start out tricking, or basic tumbling acrobatics. You have at least a few things you get early on. You won’t get your round off back handspring full twist quickly, but there’s loads of small stepping stones.
EL: Handstands are not one of those things to impress people. If you start out with no handstand, and never really trained, six months go past and you still don’t have anything impressive. If you’ve done tumbling, in six months time, you will be able to do something that someone finds cool. Side flip, backflip, cartwheel, no hand cartwheel, if you have a structured practice.
Whereas handstand is like, nothing might happen in that time. There’s an interesting case of passion, but not too strong passion as well. You see if people are too passionate, they train too much and blow themselves up. You see this particularly when things start working. The passion keeps going, they want to do more and more.
We’ve all been guilty of this at some stage.
MK: Me definitely, so much. There is something there too, about being able to do something cool. I think that most people that try to deny that they don’t want to do something cool, you’re likely lying – to yourself, or to others.
It’s not a bad thing. When I look back on my practice, it’s very trendy to say, my practice is for me, I don’t do this for others, blah blah blah. All this basic Hollywood fucking “life wisdom” about how you shouldn’t really care about others. Of course you should care about others. We’re social beings. We’re fuck animals. We care about what other people care about.
These things are an expression of that, to some level or other. What I find interesting about that is, to relate it back to Eastern philosophies, and stuff like that, yes there is a point where your practice becomes more important than impressing others or making an impression, or doing something that will-
If you look at it anthropologically, what you’re doing is something within a system, and want to achieve value. The one arm handstand is a signifier for value. I have achieved this level of value, and people will respect me for that. More importantly, I will respect myself for that. There’s a lot of these things.
At one point, it starts growing and the practice itself, you’ve done it for a long time and have maybe experienced getting that recognition. For me, that was a thing. Suddenly I was standing there on stage in front of hundreds and hundreds of people each day, and taking the applause, and yay yay yay. Yeah, it’s cool, but it’s also kind of hollow. That’s where it came to me. I kind of got this recognition that I searched for, first through Karate, then breaking, then circus. I kind of felt like I made it. Then you stand there like, do I just go home and chill? I’m good enough, and that’s a valid choice.
But I kept on practicing, and would see over time that it’s the practice started to become more important. I still think it’s nice if people like what I do. It’s just, there’s a larger percentage that keeps me going.
When I’m home for Christmas, I go on fucking New Years Eve and Christmas Day to the training hall when I can, and enjoy myself. It’s something in there, but it takes time to get to.
EL: To divulge slightly, I’m part of a system of Daoism, trained by Serge Augier. We have this concept in the school where the practice is building a temple. When you start, your practice has to be special for certain reasons. Say in meditation, you get some nice incense, a nice cushion. You set up in the same nice spot, and slowly building this temple. But then as you get more into the practice, you realize the building is kind of irrelevant. It’s just the practice. What happens inside it is the more important thing. This is kind of the thing. You build the practice up, you make your really nice temple. You’re in front of the crowd, getting recognized for the skill. Then you realize, they’re applauding the temple. But for you, the more important thing is what goes on inside it.
It’s that kind of thing.
MK: It’s funny how it’s kind of backwards, too. You need to come to a point, and it doesn’t need to be recognition. It needs to come to this point where you start to know yourself through this practice. You see over time, is this actually what I do?
One of my favourite interviews with Rodney Mullen, possibly the most influential skateboard in history, and basically created a lot of vocabulary and is really intelligent. He talks about this. It’s interesting to hear him talk about exactly that. I don’t think I know practically anyone who can say these words with as much weight as he can.
The guy won 34 of 35 contests he entered. He literally created most of the modern skateboard style.
EL: He’s done tricks that, to this day, other people can’t replicate.
MK: He didn’t create the style, but was extremely influential. Then he keeps talking in that interview, and says, yeah I’m going out to skate tonight. This guy is in his 50s. He’s done everything, and just found that he threw away all his trophies. They didn’t actually represent what he wanted to do with it.
I think those kinds of things take time to build. It’s a continuum.
To bring it back a bit to the personality types. I think there are often personality types that search for something. Hand balancing is an easy target for these kinds of people. It’s physical, a lot about meditation, in that you really need to focus on the moment and can’t be anywhere else. If you don’t focus on the balance, you fall.
Another thing that was really interesting that I thought of was once I worked on a piece for a show I was part of for 3 years. We had an extremely heavy tour period, and I was dead tired. I had sleeping problems because we played shows that were done at 10pm, so we were pumped with adrenaline at 10 each night. Then we ate food, the food kicks in at 12, and there you are, until 4 in the morning. This would go on for months.
EL: That’s why you have so many alcohol problems in circus.
MK: The company got us in touch with this sports doctor. He was a general practitioner, but was used to working with athletes. I meet him, and he says, I just want to hear about you. Okay, sounds cool. We just discussed back and forth about the training..then I said to him, hand balancing is such a thing where it always feels like fresh meat, and you never know if you’re going to manage. It’s as if you need to test yourself each day. If you take days off, you feel off. It’s almost like you need to prove to yourself whether or not it works.
Then he says, ah, the need to control. I snapped my fingers and said, that’s right. You fucking nailed it.
I think there’s something there. It’s such a test of control each time. It feels precious in that sense. If you go towards the limit of your vocabulary, or where you’re trying to master that next whatever step, your control is literally tested. It’s made physical, and it’s your mental state.
So many things go into that, and that’s also why it’s easy to get emotionally attached to these things too. You put so much of yourself into this. I manage, I feel like a good person. I didn’t manage, I feel like a bad person.
I think that can become rather toxic for people.
EL: Few disciplines actually train the three bodies, which in the classical sense are: physical, emotional, and mental. Mentally you have to understand the trick you’re doing, and exert this control. You need a level of conscious absorption into your own body, where you feel your body in space. This could be at a subconscious level, but you have to actually be able to challenge your proprioception of the space, and be able to feel it. At the same time, you’re dealing on a very basic level with success or failure.
I was going to kick up and do a 15s two arm handstand, but I did 14s. Now you have set something that will either be: I did 16s so I feel great. Or, oh I did 14s and failed what I set to do.
You’re dealing with the three bodies at once. This is also the gateway into meditation, in some ways. Not to say this is a meditation practice, or could be, or couldn’t be.
There’s always an idea in circus that we’re dealing with risk. We’re proposing a challenge, this is the risk I’m going to attempt. Take a look at it.
But in hand balance and a lot of the other stuff, it’s a personal…any flaw is very immediately punished. But in aerial, I’ve done a bit over the years, you go up to do a drop. You miswind the rope and it’s out by 5cm. You fall, nothing happens, it might hurt or you get a bruise on your skin that isn’t conditioned, but you still achieved what you set out to do.
Whereas hand balance, you squeeze the finger tips just a bit too hard, you push yourself off your own balance point.
MK: Hand balancing is also one of the least risky, in terms of physical danger. If you jump on a trampoline and make a severe mistake, you can die, or be paralyzed, or break things. With hand balancing, it’s so easy to take it so personal, whereas if you mess up a flip on a trampoline, it seems that with hand balancing it’s all you. You’re so present in each and every moment of what’s going on.
If I do breakdancing power moves, where you spin around and mess up, ok that doesn’t feel good either. But you’re in this fast roll or fast motion. The experience of the failure feels different.
You’re doing almost one arm holds, I think I’m getting it..urghhhhhhhh.
EL: It’s that idea of you have an idea of the feeling that would be achieved by the movement, and your ego accepts the challenge of, I must do it. You think you’re doing it, and when you fail, it’s almost like a smack to the ego.
Touching on the risk idea again, I remember I did a weekend workshop, with a director of a company that was very famous for doing shows that were chaotic. People going into their shows were like, we weren’t sure we were going to come out alive. Circus had never been done this way before.
The topic of the workshop was risk. One of the points he made was aerialists used to be the riskiest in circus. People were performing trapeze with no nets, no crash mats, improper technique…
But hand balancers and jugglers are now the people who deal with risk and control the most. The audience doesn’t get it. When your hand balancing act is good, it just looks too easy. When your juggling act is good, it looks under control. It’s kind of like an outside cam, inside turmoil. You get the same types of personalities that do very well at juggling as well as hand balance.
MK: I’ve also heard it discussed that there’s a similarity in the extreme repetitiveness of doing the same thing, and the progress being very slow. Also, the approach is very methodological. In juggling you’re dealing with numbers. Handstands you’re kind of also – I held it for 10 seconds. That isn’t as relevant in many other disciplines. Or it might be relevant, but not for each and every thing like it is in handstands. Everything is like, how long did I keep this control, or whatever.
I think that is also what leads into the very frustrating stage of it. I can tell you, I’ve been the worst. I’m seldom as frustrated nowadays as I used to be, partly because I’m older and more jaded. It doesn’t matter. You’ve gone through enough experiences to see this is how it is. I’ve been this frustrated before, it didn’t lead to anything good. Anyone can have a bad day; occasionally I can flip out too. It is what it is.
The thing is it’s rather rare at the moment. I don’t think there’s any point to well up the emotions either. Sometimes you just have a shitty day, and then it’s fine. What I used to do was rage, and people around me got annoyed. They were like, I’m training over here, and there’s a person over there being really angry at some shit. After facing the consequences of that, I was like, fuck, I can’t do this. I saw this wasn’t working anymore, and literally made the snap decision. There isn’t any point…so not letting any kind of annoyance bring out a reaction, as there isn’t really much point in making a reaction.
These kinds of things, whether handstands or anything else, where you put a lot of identity and personality into it…I think it’s a good thing to put a lot of yourself into something. Yes, when you fail, it feels really bad. But at least you’re really going for it. That’s something I value.
Then you need to accept what comes with that. Yes, if you have that shit day and everything is garbage, you’re going to feel pretty damn bad. But it’s ok. It is what it is. Over time you learn to process that better.
EL: It still leads into the idea of training environment. I think this is a big thing for hand balance. I’m noticing this a lot in my own training. I took a break from training from acrobatics for four years to focus on other stuff. I’ve come back to train hand balance. I’m now training in a commercial gym in Dublin.
One of the things getting to cause me to rage quit the gym many times was when people are just doing stupid shit around me. I have very low tolerance for stupidity.
MK: Like that guy yesterday screaming at the class.
EL: Two people skipping beside you, off beat with the music and each other? I’m out of there. Someone lying down on the floor and …I don’t know what they’re doing, but it looks like some sex positions in weight lifting, non erotically? I’m out of there. The music is Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, remixed, but there’s four different remixes on the same playlist that just keep going on loop. It’s that idea.
Commercial gyms are not the best situations. But even when you’re in certain training spaces, it can have an effect on you. I used to rage a lot when training in circus spaces. I’d be juggling or whatever, get fucking angry, identify with it, then throw all my props against the wall and fucking smash them around and storm around the room. And it was kind of ok, because in the space nobody gave a damn, we were all doing it since we were all 20 year olds who couldn’t control their shit.
But then, as you get into more professional environments, throwing your shoe across the room in rage isn’t the professional option.
MK: The environment thing is interesting, because it’s a very lonely discipline in a sense. You get on the floor, and it’s you, and you could say it’s selfish in a sense. If you compare it to hand to hand, you’re always relating to the other person. In team play you’re always part of a group. Here, you’re basically anti social, just me and the hand the shoulder. I am going to stand with my legs in this position. I am going to do this, that is all that matters for me, in terms of my quality of life today.
I’ve seen that a lot. Personally when I train, sometimes I absolutely love to train alone. I’ll go on a Saturday or Sunday, be perfectly alone and just do my thing. Also I like having others around me. Sometimes when I see people doing handstands, they’re next to me and they put in earphones, and I’m like, okay fair enough. I get it, it’s this kind of practice. I also like it more when we’re just hanging out together, we chitchat, I do some handstands, you do some handstands, then chit chat.
EL: There’s a level of things that is reassuring having someone’s presence in the room, doing the same thing. If you’re doing the training in a circus environment, or movement gyms or gyms that are more open to these things.
You may not be having a direct conversation with the person, but there’s a level of acknowledgement or witnessing in what you’re doing. Occasionally you hit a good set, or something new, and the person who knows what you’re training will go, I see that, awesome. Or they see that you’re happy with what you’re doing. They won’t know what you’ve done, but you’ll come down and be smiling. That kind of thing. It’s a two way thing, a weird…not like a team sport, nor are we in this together, but there’s still this kind of witnessing. A bit of empathy.
MK: I think that’s also really important, and something I want to cultivate with this training. I’m generally not so happy about competition in these kinds of things, so I find it nicer if people can enjoy together, share, and have a good time. And it’s circus, or even if you do this and aren’t a circus artist. That also leads me to think about the judgmental attitude we talk about. I judge myself very hard if I manage or not.
That also leads to the community, the thoughts about what is right and wrong. It’s very easy to be very judgmental. That guy doesn’t have a straight handstand. As if that is derogatory. Yeah, but does it matter if the person has a lot of fun? That should be the primary thing.
Sure, if you’re going to auction for a circus company and you might get the job if you do a good job, then yeah, present your best shit. But it’s also nice to create a good atmosphere around these things, and it’s also healthy. It’s a very obsessive practice; it attracts people that are obsessive about.
So being able to build a good mental state around the practice makes it likely to have more fun with it.
EL: If you’re working in a group, you don’t want to reinforce the obsessiveness to the Nth degree. You have to remember, there’s the shifting baselines, as well.
Toe point was a thing, if you could get your foot straight it was fine. Then it becomes, no wait, you need the claw, as it’s known in the business. Your toe point doesn’t go straight, but beyond straight. That’s the new baseline, and if you don’t have it… Most people, if they’re into the practice, and filming and self assessing, will already know a lot of the details that are already wrong. If people are picking up on them and reinforcing that it’s not a good handstand if not X or Y.
I remember one of the guys who was in hand balancing uni with me, his toe point was just bad. He was really flexible, really good at handstands, learned really quickly. His toe point wasn’t great by his own standards. It was perfectly fine.
I remember talking to him one day, saying it was fine, and I didn’t even notice it was bad. He was asking me some stretching advice and how to do it. He spent ages battling his toe point. He had people standing on his toes every day, they made some blocks of wood in a certain shape to basically do Chinese foot binding. Eventually the physio at the school sent him for an X-Ray to see what was going on, and he had an extra bone in his ankle. It’s a common thing when one of the growth plates doesn’t fuse. There was no way his foot was going to point straight. There was a bony limit.
But because he had picked on this detail, was obsessive, couldn’t get it to work, it caused a lot of mental frustration for about 2 years before it was picked up on.
MK: I’ve had similar types of experiences, where you get a certain detail pointed out, then that is all you can see. Again, since people do these things and are very aware of everything going on, the aesthetics and all that, it becomes so obvious when things aren’t exactly as they should be. This kind of brings me to think about how the internet led a lot to this.
Many of you read on various handstand groups and things around the internet. There’s such an obsession on things needing to be perfect. Everyone is ready to tell you you can do X a bit more like Y, A a bit more like B. There’s this constant talk about, I know it’s not so good, but do you have any advice for it to maybe be a better…
It’s good; I’m all for trying to do as best as you can, but if this is detrimental to your average enjoyment of what you’re trying to do, then it’s important to reassess exactly what we are talking about. The mindset around the practice.
You’ll just ruin it more for yourself than you need to. I’m also speaking from experience, I used to waste a lot of time getting annoyed by things that don’t help. It helped me in zero ways. It’s very important to just take a step back and see, it’s quite fun to just stand on my hands.
It looks pretty cool. I like this.
EL: Once you’re okay at handstands, and can do all the basic shapes and presses, you’re in a very small percentage group in the world. Bear that in mind. Yes, we are very cliquey and do stick together, but all in all, once you can stalder press to handstand, you’re someone.
Obviously it doesn’t seem like a big thing to people like us who are into it, but not many people out there could, or could ever.
This leads to a thing we touched on, the negative sides of groups. But what are the positive sides of group training? Depending on who your peers are, and it even comes down to attitude, it can really boost the level and act like a force multiplier. You see this a lot in object manipulation as well, just to segue slightly into that. You see certain groups of people who are kind of slightly isolated from others, but it becomes the norm to get ridiculously good at a certain subset of object manipulation: ball juggling, ring juggling, specific types. Then they burst onto the scene with a video or promo, basically inventing a new genre or subgenre of this.
You see this in hand balancing as well. It’s a thing I put down to the Kiev school of hand balancing. They’re ridiculously good, very resolute, very determined. But when I was talking to some of my students and a few other people I’ve known over the years who have trained there, we talk about what they do technique wise, and the technical advice. It’s good, but there’s other coaches out there in other circus schools who would give the exact same advice.
It’s as good as it comes, but the techniques have been disseminated everywhere. You still see, consistently, there’s even subgroups that come out of Kiev in certain years, where whatever came together in the 4-5 people training hand balancing at the time, they just push themselves to reach that next level, which other schools just can’t get into.
MK: It is known for being the best school for hand balancing, and it is for a reason. It’s them, and China, in terms of pushing that raw, technical, physical skill. I do think the environment plays a large role. I’ve seen that in many places.
In the early 2000s, Scandinavian breakers were really influenced by certain styles, and were all pretty good dancers. They had a lot of versatility and musicality and stuff. But their power moves were very weak, especially in Norway. Very few could pass. The best guys were actually tall, but you’d see France explode. Everyone could air flare. Norway had two guys.
You’d just see in these cliques, something kind of normalizes and becomes the norm. It makes it seem easier.
EL: It does make it seem easier. Say, like Diablo. Diablo juggling is like a giant yo-yo on a string. When I was learning Diablo 20 years ago, no one could do 3. It just wasn’t a thing. Then someone figured out a technique to do 3. I was one of the first ten in the world to do it, along with another crew of people. That was the new normal thing. I started going back and looking at what’s around now.
Now all the kids, 14-15 years old, they’re doing 4 diablos, or 5, tricks with 4, tricks with 5. Someone pointed out, they came into the level when 3 was kind of the norm. Everyone had done 3, so they see 3 as the normal. I’ll get that quick, then push to get the 4 and 5.
If you walk into a room where everyone does presses and one arms, and you’re willing to stick it out in that room, it becomes the norm. If you don’t know much about what came before, whether the history of the skill, or how long these people have been going, you will raise that level. There’s a level of physical empathy that people neglect. On a very subconscious level, we learn by watching people and replicating a sense of this in our bodies. It comes down to assessing threats of danger, you get coerced into it.
There are these theories about watching dance performances. Your body replicates the physical sensation, and you get to experience the dance while watching. If everyone has very good technique in the room, you have this level of physical empathy going on. Suddenly you find things working for reasons you can’t.
I actually get the same thing whenever we train together. Every single time we train together, my technique jumps up. I even remember the first workshop we took together. Mikael was teaching in Berlin, posted about it in Gymnastic Bodies and we decided we were going to go to it.
I don’t even know if I was training hand balance at the time.
MK: No, but I remember you had a good pike handstand.
EL: I think that besides playing around with it a bit in circus school, the head on chin subset wasn’t really a big subset in CircusSpace’s hand balance syllabus. You were just like, try this. I nailed it for a good 20-30s multiple times. But I think a lot of it was, Mikael is in the room! Okay cool, he’s a legend, better bring my A game.
MK: The normalizing of skills is fascinating. Of course, there are various driving forces. You see what is the normal, and think this is just what everyone does. Of course I’m going to do it. If we start speaking a bit more about personal practice, and the training aspect of it, and training effectively, I think there are a couple of things there.
For example, with one arm handstands, if you go into circus school, everyone and their dog is doing a one arm handstand. You start training there, and think, sure, the one arm straddle is just a basic thing. That is what you will internalize: that’s just normal, whatever.
You start training, and don’t put the move on a pedestal. You don’t see it as being so hard or crazy. Whenever you do that, you always respect the move too much. I’m not sure if I’m ready, rather than just trying. You end up trying enough times, because you can brute force a one arm, and not just by brute strength. If you try enough times standing on one arm, in the end you will be able to. It will suck, your body won’t be efficient and you’ll waste a lot of time, but it’s possible.
EL: All those dudes in breakdancing, with negative technique, yet they’re still doing it.
MK: Exactly, you can. I see this a lot on the internet, with all the discussion of you have to perfect this, basic that, return to basics, do more basics, then have this many seconds of this and this and that.
EL: And the quantification of it.
MK: I think it’s so funny, because the best hand balancers I’ve seen developing through the years that I’ve been active, including myself, have been people who really want to learn a thing, and will try doing it. They try a million billion times, and of course, I was in circus school under Sasha Gavrilov, and he would be telling me technically if I was bending my legs or doing things wrong. I wasn’t going to be like, oh, I need to perfect this exactly before being ready to move on. I would be just trying to do everything. I was working on one arm switches on blocks my first year, and training all the tricks. I thought, I need to practice them all. I learned them.
I’ve seen people after myself who have done a similar approach. A couple of guys who are now absolutely crazy good…this one guy had a meh one arm, but was trying to jump on block and switch arms. He wasn’t ready at all, but I wasn’t going to tell him. He’s working on his form in class, it’s getting better. By the time he can actually stand on both these hands, he has jumped 5000 times. He was 17 at the time, so had full power and capacity. I wouldn’t have said the same to a 40 year old, but lo and behold, that guy is a superhero at jumping. He jumps up stairs on one arm on canes at this point.
It can really work.
EL: An interesting thing on the environment there. If you’d gone into him and said you’re not ready for this at some point, maybe he would not have done those 5000 jumps, or waited and not be the monster beast he is.
MK: That’s the thing. If we’d come up to him and said, you’re not ready for this. You have to train this, then that, and if we’d put him down too much, I think he would have respected it too much.
Of course, this is not saying you shouldn’t do basics. Of course, all these things need to be really good. But in that situation, I saw that with the energy levels of this guy, it’s what he needs to do. It really works. Try to do the thing you do, or want to do.
EL: One of the secrets of the jump to coaching is to know when not to say something. There’s always infinite cues to give someone, but knowing if something will get better in time, or that it’s not important to give this cue right now. It’s a thing the internet could learn, “That’s great, keep trying, see you later.”
MK: Exactly. I’ve also seen people on the opposite end of the spectrum, who are overanalyzing their one arm every time they fold it. I was a bit soft in my hip, then felt this, and that. Stop feeling, stand on your fucking arm. Deal with balance, concentrate on staying up there. Over time you’ll get the sensation and be more detailed with it.
If you consequently analyze every little second you’re up there, you’re wasting that mental energy you need to spend on balancing, on itsy bitsy micro managing.
One person I seen was doing a lot of classes with another teacher. “But now this, now that!” As if they’re trying to write a book on all the various sensations. It’s not always necessary.
EL: Sensation wanking. You spend too long focusing on sensations. It’s the opposite of when you develop the microscope, to be able to look into the body and read the catalogue of sensations presented at every moment. Then you will label some as correct or bad sensation, but maybe your labelling is wrong.
“Oh I felt my knee bend and that caused me to fall out.” Well, maybe you were actually off balance already and your knee bent in response. The obsessiveness of what happens can be positive, but also negative.
MK: It’s easy to create backwards logic. As you said, certain things in your body happen as a consequence rather than being a reason for you falling, for example.
Technique and set up and so on are proactive things. You make a decision, this is how I’m going to try to do it. The balancing and mindset is reactive. There is nothing you can cognitively, thinking yourself out of an out of balance place into a balance place. It is something your body does. You need to allow your general mind state to be blank enough to let the body do.
A perfect example of this is: stand on two feet, have your friend stand behind you, and ask them to push you in the back at a random moment. You’re going to fly forward fast or slow, or maybe they won’t push you so hard that you will fall, but you have no time. There’s nothing cognitive you can do to regain balance. Unless that person pushes you too hard, you’re going to find back that balance. Maybe you take two steps, maybe your chest goes forwards and your hips go backwards. The body knows exactly what to do. You need to let the body try to do this again and again and again, so it will develop a registry, and the strength required to catch in a handstand when you’re falling down.
It is ultimately a reactive capacity you can’t think yourself to.
EL: it’s this idea of the fight, particular when you’re learning a two arm, one arm, even a head stand. it doesn’t matter. You have to have this mindset that I’m just going to fight. It’s the intent to stay on balance that makes the body go, this is what we’re doing. I will solve the problem with the constraints you’ve applied – not move the hands, but trying to do something with the torso, legs or shoulder, to maintain it on this point. It’s a very important mindset to develop. If you spend too long analyzing every micro mistake, you’re forgetting the important things. Put the mind on something it can pay attention to, and then fight. Just let the body do it. Almost ignore the sensations.
MK: Just deciding and being determined to stay on your hands when you kick up is more than enough. When that is done enough times, your body’s figuring it out. Trust that it’s a really intelligent mechanism that will figure this out.
As we said before, you can brute force the handstand. Try enough times and it will work. But if you try it with the good set up, good strengthening work and alignment and technique, you don’t need as many attempts, even as close to as many. You’re going to be a lot more efficient. The balancing thing, no one can teach you. It’s your body, reacting to the forces constantly. That can only happen if you allow that blankness to be present.
Let’s say when working on alignment, you do that with a wall, which is a really good thing. You set up by a wall and don’t need to worry about balance. You don’t need to be blank, it’s proactive.
You go upside down, your feet are on the wall, what do I need to do? First thing is point the toes. Now they’re pointed, I tense my thighs, I squeeze my butt. I need to push my shoulders high and look at the floor. How does this feel? You can even relax and tense, relax and tense, and do this several times over. You don’t need to react to anything. You’re not in balance, but you can get the sensation of how this is, then slowly but surely, get comfortable doing this in free space or balance by the wall, or whatever. You start implementing that in the balance as well.
It doesn’t mean that when you go into your first balances you shouldn’t think at all about the technique, as you’ll need it to set yourself up close enough to be able to do any balance work. But they don’t correlate, in terms of technique and the actual balance. I think the funny thing is…let’s imagine you take a random person, a Crossfitter. It’s someone who’s pretty strong, has decent pushing strength overhead. Maybe not the most flexible shoulders, but has general capacity and can maybe stand or walk on their hands to a certain degree.
That person will maybe not find the perfect trapezius pushing straight arm handstand to be the most effective or efficient position for them at that point in time. The reason for that is simply I look upon efficiency as being a subjective matter. Of course certain things allow you to go much further with the vocabulary, hence the straight technique for handstands and so on. For the person at that time, that is how the body solves the puzzle.
Let’s say the person bends their arms a bit, so they can use the triceps and chest and stuff to help with balance, and hold themselves up. That’s where they have power, something to work with. I think this is an important thing to consider when you’re learning.
Of course you want to attain and work towards a “high level of skill” relative to where you want to go with it, so you correct the technique. You need to be working from where you are at, and with the body you have.
If you don’t compromise the technique at any point whatsoever, you’re basically going to end up with what happens in many high level sports, coming to a point where, sorry mate, you’re not cut out for being the best so go home. That is what will happen.
If you’re not doing this for sports, and even professional circus artists aren’t doing it for sport. There is no criteria, or codes or points. So why do we need to judge it so hard? I don’t like this technique, that person…
EL: I think people always judge it so harshly because you’re generally only dealing with a static image, so it’s very easy to assess a static image. With a static shape i can go through the details. Whereas if you talk about a soccer player running to get a ball, it’s very difficult to assess someone’s running gait when running at speed, unless you really know what you’re doing. You’re not going to go, he’s running with a stride length that is slightly uneven and his arm swing needs a bit of help. Maybe you can spot this if you’re a running coach. But because hand balance is so slow, a lot of people end up thinking, I can tell what’s going on, and their internal process from this static image they presented, or static video.
So the speed of assessment is very tick the box, in terms of what is good and what is bad.
MK: They also use clear geometry, which makes it easy for almost anyone to spot whether or not the ‘correctness’ is there. If the person does a pike handstand, are the legs exactly level with the floor? Are the knees straight, the lines clean looking? These things are easy to spot, and since you stay in the position for some time, it becomes easy to see, and see those flaws.
I think that mindset wise, it’s very easy to only focus on those flaws, or judge from this paradigm of perfection.
If you look into circus arts and the people who do the most unique stuff, they often do very different and strange things.
There are tons of different styles. I appreciate a lot of clean and straight technique; I do a lot of these moves. It’s fascinating that a discipline such a circus that ultimately wants to present something unique has something that makes you stand out from the rest of the people that do what you do, but you end up chasing the same corridor of hierarchy difficulty, and nothing else. How deep is your Mexican? How perfectly level is your flag? How long did you hold your legs together, arm up position? So on and so on.
I found myself, when looking at handstand acts on Youtube, I was skipping through to see what tricks they’ve done with it. There was so little else to see. I think that comes back to how much time and effort you put into this practice. You spend so much time mastering that flag of yours, that position of yours, that it is all you can think about.
EL: To be honest, we can compare it to classical music, where you have people who are virtuosic at their instrument. Possibly, they’ve been playing since 4 or 5, gone through all the school, then they’re playing in an orchestra, and they’re playing someone’s music. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of variance in orchestras and conducting, but they’re almost trying to replicate this piece of music that was written 4-500 years ago to see if they can come as close to perfection as possible.
You get that a bit in hand balancing. I’m going to get these 10 shapes and make them as close to perfection as possible. It’s not even a perfectionism, though there’s definitely that perfectionist part. It appeals to the ephemeral quality of perfection. You can touch it sometimes, but you can’t…there’s always going to be a tiny flaw you can find. You might be doing a one arm, held it long, my toes were clean, my legs were clean, my shape was clean. Everything was working, but then you look at the video, and 5s in I bent my elbow slightly. But I restraightened it, but didn’t have that sense of perfection. You ignore everything else that is perfect.
Even when giving advice on the internet, and I have to remind myself of it too, is say something nice about the person’s technique. It’s very easy to be critical and pick the details, but when people post something into a group and go, how’s my form looking? Everyone will say something bad, things that are bad about the form.
Very few people will go, very good, keep up the work.
MK: I remember it really struck me when I saw some street workout dude doing a maltese on the floor. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a still rings element from gymnastics that’s a super difficult move, almost a mix between a planche and an iron cross, in terms of where you place your body. It is super duper ultra strength requiring. The maltese was pretty good, maybe not as good as the best one executed in terms of gymnastics code of points. The only comment was like, hey dude, you’re arching a bit.
I’m like, the guy is doing a maltese. This is one of the highest level elements. It wasn’t just some guy, it was pretty legit, a good maltese. It would have got a deduction in the olympics, but you’ll see a lot of the best gymnasts, unless they’re fully on point, they might do a bit of that too.
That’s the thing, these kinds of disciplines, and when they’re treated with very specific criteria you need to follow, it becomes very easy to see all these flaws.
It also leads me to think about how technique is an artificial construct we come up with, like certain aesthetic and mechanical parameters we want to line up in a specific fashion, then judge things based upon that. We need to remember, human bodies aren’t the same. There are joint structure differences, muscle insertion differences, some people lack certain muscles, have fusions of certain muscles. There’s a million things going on.
I was speaking to my friend who’s an orthopedic surgeon, as I’m always asking him about muscles. He said, when you open people up, it doesn’t look like the anatomy chart. It’s a total mess.
You cut them open, and there are tissues that are fused, you don’t know what you’re looking at. Why is this thing here? It’s always a puzzle to get through. He does lots of hip replacements. He says, if you know the name of the thing, just try not to cut there, find somewhere else. Of course, jokingly.
Essentially, we need to consider that what might be perfect technique for me might not be for another person. A great example is a hyperextended elbow. People have told me to put my head closer to my arm. When i’ve tried to do this, due to the width of my shoulders and my lack of hyperextension in the elbow, is my shoulders sink out to the side and my balancing is extremely inefficient.
Someone else with another shoulder structure or hyperextended elbows will have another placement. It doesn’t mean mine is worse. We’re just dealing with different bodies.
It’s so important to take into account that at one point, you need to adapt this technique to your body, and not just the body to the technique. Either you’ll hit a brick wall, and I know many people who bought into this narrative of having to do it exactly a specific way, or it’s wrong, and they end up getting very little done. It might not correlate or work with a specific person.
I worked with many students like that. One guy had to twist his left hip when he went onto one arm. Regardless of what he tried, what I tried, or advised him to do, nothing worked. When he didn’t twist in that direction on that arm, he would fall. I can’t explain why, but he can stand really well on that arm when he allows that twist.
Should that make him feel like a bad person? No, he can stand really well on that arm. It looks good too.
EL: You have to try as hard as you can to reach the technical constraints of what you’re doing, but also we have to remember these constraints are there to express an internal principle. Alignment is actually an internal principle expressed in a straight line, as that’s the cleanest way to express it.
At some point, you might have to adapt the technique to your body. Sometimes it can be much earlier. Some people I know will never be able to get a perfectly straight handstand, due to previous shoulder injuries, stuff like that. They can still express the principles of balance, straight line, and what will come with it. It’s just their shoulder might have to use the old school Chinese technique, where it was very flat up to the thoracic spine, then has a bit of an arch, then the shoulder can remain a bit closed.
Nowadays if you show people a picture of this technique, they’d go, it’s terrible. If you show them one person doing a one arm on a slack wire, on fire, and everything else, you cannot argue they cannot achieve technical and elite level mastery just because they haven’t got these things. It’s always the idea of educated experimentation.
There’s never really any wrong, but you have to know why you’re doing it, and have chosen to do it. That’s one thing I want people to do.
If you’re bending your back in your tuck handstand, do you know you’re bending your back? Yeah, I do. Did you choose to? Yeah? Could you close it and straighten the back out? Not yet, but I know how to work on it. Fine, I’m happy with that.
I want it to be consistent, and to enjoy the practice, but also not enjoy it too much to the point that they go back and do it. And as coaches, if we put in too much this is good, this is bad, many people will quit or increase their frustration. There’s a frustration threshold, where eventually you go, you know what, I’m too frustrated and sick of it.
There’s a level past the beginner stage, even when you can’t do a two arm handstand, but feel better at wall drills, the shoulders are more flexible, you feel it’s easier. Then you start getting the success of balancing. Then there’s the zone where you get up to 30-40s, I got this, you start getting some shapes.
But there’s a sort of dead zone from 40s and learning the shapes where things get better, but progress is slow from that point onwards. If you’re expecting to make progress every single session, it’s not going to happen.
MK: That’s a good thing to touch upon in terms of practice and mindset. If you want to increase your overall level of happiness, basically make sure you zoom out when you look at your progress curve.
Very little happens in a week, or a couple of months, but over maybe 3, 6, 8, 10 months or a couple years, you start seeing some significant changes. You can even compare this to certain things.
If you go into a gym on day one and have never lifted a weight before, you expect to lift loads more next week, it likely won’t happen. But give yourself 7 months, you’ll be lifting significantly more if you kept consistency with the practice.
Of course there’s many more parameters in hand balancing than just lifting weight off the floor. But you can have consistency of improvement, but really need to look from a zoomed out perspective.
Since there’s so many things that will influence how you balance. One is fatigue and strength and all that. One is focus and concentration. There’s probably tons of various neurochemical reasons why some days you’re sharp when balancing, and other days not.
I can still remember one of the best training sessions I ever had in my entire life was when I lived in Copenhagen. I’d barely slept, and was like this sucks, didn’t know what to do, didn’t eat breakfast. I found some noodles, ate them, and went to a buffet place where they had Thai food. The food was kind of bad, not very warm.
I went to the circus hall, had a coffee, and I absolutely destroyed it for like 5h in a row. I was on super fire. You can have a high degree of variance in the practice. If you know that at least, sometimes you will be so amped for your session and ready to kill it, you go in and everything feels great, and you end up a miserable pile on the floor. You can’t do anything and have no idea why. It is going to happen, and that is okay.
EL: The main takeaway from this is, to have success in hand balance, regardless of where you’re aiming to, a two arm, tucks, shapes, press, one arm, or to perform, the number one variable you have to optimize for is consistency. You have to find strategies that will make you be consistent.
Do the training. You’ll get involved, you’ll get annoyed. But you have to be able to come back and do it again. It’s the main takeaway from this.
We’ve been going for about an hour and twenty, so we’ll wrap it up there. We could probably come back and do another episode on this exact topic of mindset.
MK: If there are specific things you’d like to hear about mindset, whether training, or performing…those are things you can let us know. Send us a message, either on @HandstandFactory on Instagram, @EmmetLouis, or @MIkaelBalancing.
EL: If you’re interested in learning how to hand balance, we have our course on Handstand Factory, to take you all the way form zero to hero.
We can give you the technical information; you have to bring the consistency. No guarantee on the consistency.Other than that, thanks for listening to us. Hopefully we’ll meet up at some point.