Transcript of Episode 19: Benefits of the Handstand
EL: Hello, and welcome back to the Handstand Cast with me, Emmet Louis, and my co-host, MIkael Kristiansen. How are things going?
MK: Yo, not too bad. They’re pretty much the same as last time, except I ate way too much candy today, so I still have a stomach ache.
EL: Still has a stomach ache, and he is ramped up on sugar and caffeine. So today is going to be a great show. He’s also had a day’s rest as well.
Mikael has graduated into the mature training zone of only training 5 days a week and not 7 days a week.
MK: Absurd, is it not?
EL: It is. I never actually thought you’d reach the point. We’d been talking about this for quite a long time – whether to rest or not. Mikael’s finally become a grown up and decided to train 20 hours a week instead of 30.
MK: Kind of grown up at least, sitting here with my epic sunglasses on the fucking thing. Probably as grown up as I’ll get. I feel a little bit like a Twitch streamer now, like I should be a totally fucking psycho man with his glasses on, playing Super Mario.
EL: Maybe we should be like Dr Disrespect, which is topical at the moment. We should just get wrestling characters and that’s our thing.
MK: You can be the heel. We can have a feud and that stuff, set all that shit up and earn loads of money. What are we talking about today?
EL: Today we are talking about the benefits of handstands, what you get out of them, and possibly we’l go into some of the disadvantages of handstands towards the end. Stuff like that.
It’s a topic suggested by our producer Elise. What’s the benefits of doing handstands? You get to stand on your hands. That’s the show.
MK: You get to look kind of cool. That’s pretty much as far as it goes. That is it, now fuck off. Thank you for listening to the Handstand Factory Podcast.
EL: I think for myself, and for you, and a lot of people we know and interact with, particularly the internet version 1.0 crowd we know; a lot of people just learned to handstand, or do a trick, or anything else, because it looked cool and we wanted to do it. There was no real discussion of the benefit of this, or justification for the activity.
MK: That discussion of the ‘functional movement’ within said discipline.
EL: There’s definitely benefits that come out of it, but particularly when you look at the broader category of circus and other skill based disciplines that are not pushed too far on the physicality – though they are physical in their nature – is the benefits do emerge over the years. You look back, and oh, that’s where I got that from, or this from. But we don’t go in like, I’m going to learn to handstand because I want to be consistent in my life.
No, I do handstands. I enjoy it, and then I realize to get better at them I have to be consistent. Then my consistency and training gets better. If you want to be consistent with training, you have to be consistent in your daily life.
I have a metric I use with people: for every hour you spend in the gym in a week, you have to spend 15-20 minutes doing stuff outside the gym to facilitate that. That’s either washing your gym gear, precooking meals, packing stuff for the next day…simple bits and pieces that go into it.
If you want to get good at anything, you have to be disciplined. The need and the space this thing takes up in your life is what begins to force the discipline upon you. Then you become disciplined.
MK: I think it’s obvious to most people who have done it for an extended period of time that it doesn’t necessarily have these massive direct carry-overs into one and the other thing. Of course there are many things that it will impact for sure.
For my own sake, it did help me a lot to organize myself in one self, as I’m a total mess of a person in general. It’s a thing – consistency – is perhaps the primary parameter of the entire thing. You need that ridiculous amount of repetition to get absolutely anywhere. It makes you need to do it.
It’s a double edged sword, which we just talked about now. My cardinal sin is basically overtraining and overworking all the time.
EL: Maybe you’ve over-optimized your life. You need to form as a life optimization guru, and teach people to optimize their lifestyles to train 7 days a week, for 10 years consistently.
MK: Yeah maybe. I need to hire…I just need a get rich quick scheme.
EL: Optimize your life through handstand training, and excluding all else!
MK: I remember when I first got into it. I love to compare hand balancing to a backflip. I’m not great at backflipping at all, all my friends know this, but there is a distinct difference between them.
A backflip is very hard to try to do; it has a high daring threshold unless you have a crash mat and teacher. Whereas a handstand has a very low threshold. Doing a very good backflip of course takes loads of training and years, but to get around on a backflip doesn’t take a lot.
Loads of kids decide to learn, try 200 times, and they’ll be able to backflip to some degree or other. Of course you find people who do this too, but the handstand does have this thing of requiring a lot of practice. It’s very easy to try, very hard to master.
I think a lot of people get caught up in that – I certainly did when I finally found there was a massive world in learning this thing. Of course, it did help me to learn a lot of other acrobatic styles and skills, for that awareness upside down, building a lot of upper body strength, flexibility, and all that. Physical preparation wise, it does a lot.
For me, the changes have been more fundamentally on the mental side of the game, and how I am as a person rather than as an acrobat.
EL: I’ve noticed this a lot with a lot of the hand balancers I know. Same with jugglers, actually, when you push it to a level, along with a lot of other circus disciplines. I’m sure people I know who do other disciplines will jump down my throat on this. It does seem to generate more mental changes. I know from the juggling research, a lot of interesting stuff came out a few years ago on the neuroscience of juggling. When you’re doing this sort of repeated action, it increases the cross connections in the brain. Because it’s symmetric, and you can do lots of repetitions, they looked at children who were traumatized, or were parents of alcoholics. They tend to have a personality type that is either very extroverted or very introverted; attention seeking or retreating behaviour, basically.
If you look at the brain studies, they don’t have a lot of cross linking between the hemispheres of the brain. They discovered that juggling can increase the cross linking in the brain. Juggling was the ideal thing.
Before someone sent me this study, I’d seen it so many times in the juggling community. I don’t know if a lot of people know, but a few years ago I was very big on juggling. I’d go to a lot of juggling clubs, meet up with a lot of people, go to a lot of conventions. You’d meet people who weren’t from any sort of issued household or anything, but your standard introverted STEM person. They take up juggling.
Then you get to know them. Maybe I’d teach them, maybe I wouldn’t. 2-3 years later, you have someone who is suddenly a new person. “I’m doing a show, I’m quitting my job and I’m going to become a performer.” Whereas before this person would die in front of a crowd of 3 people, or not speak at social functions. Suddenly they’re just a new person.
One of my suspicions is I think this happens in handstands as well, because it is a symmetric action for a huge part. A lot of actions in the body are not symmetric. There’s a lot of unilateral or asymmetric.
MK: There’s also the thing of starting to do something, getting good at it, finding social acceptance as well. It’s hard to study in a vacuum.
That’s one thing I think a lot about when I started this, also connected to performing – the change in a person. There’s getting good at something, and handstands, because of the thing I said before about it being easy to try but hard to master, as well as an impressive looking feat, it becomes this bastion for a lot of people, where they feel they have their thing. If I master this thing, I’ll feel good about myself. There’s that entire train of thought, and I was certainly there, especially in my youth in breakdancing. When I can do the thing, then I’m a cool dude. All the stuff you don’t want to admit when you’re a teen or younger, but are actually the primary driving forces.
EL: When I do this, the girls will like me. When I juggle my balls.
MK: Yeah, all that shit. Then I’ll be cool. Then the years pass and you either get or do not get the affirmation you sought. But since these types of practices are such that if you put in enough hours, you will likely get good at it, it becomes this grind, and a proving yourself to your self. This can be both good and detrimental, and it certainly has been both of those for me.
That’s something I recognize a lot with hand balancers, this very obsessive trait. There’s a book by a guy in Stockholm, John Paul Zacharini, who’s now a circus artist. He works at the University of Dance and Circus in Stockholm. I don’t know if he got his PhD in circus there, or is working on it. I think he’s done at this point.
EL: He should be done by now.
MK: Wait, he was done a long time ago. What am I talking about? I’m an idiot. I even spoke about it with him.
EL: Just a side note on John Paul Zacharini; he’s a fantastic circus director. Very creative, very interesting. And to segue slightly, a lot of his shows had themes of gender politics and gender play. Going back to 2006, 2005, I remember seeing some of them. It’s quite interesting that he had his finger on the pulse with things that are quite topical nowadays in the political sphere.
If you ever have a chance to see anything he’s directed, do go and see it. It’s amazing; I really like his stuff.
MK: He’s a really clever guy. I’ve also seen several of the things he’s done, mostly here in Stockholm. He basically wrote a lot about various…he was using a psycho analytical methodology looking at various circus artists.
I’m totally not going to try to cite or remember too much, as I read it very many years ago. What I found very interesting from the general idea of what he was writing, was how circus artists, and a lot of people, tend to use these various high physical disciplines to ‘deal’ with themselves. That I find fascinating, and recognize a lot in how obsessive people are, who gather and focus all their energy into one certain field. By mastering and getting good at that, you also master and get better with yourself as a person. I found that really hit me quite a lot. I’ve seen many hand balancers have used it as a calm zone in themselves, or a challenge, or way of expanding themselves through this practice.
There’s some common denominators there between practitioners.
EL: I think you get this a lot in powerlifting as well. People who don’t even compete, literally just against themselves. With a lot of these skills, particularly the ones that have a high risk component, but a low physical risk component. With handstands, you kick up, will you not make it? Powerlifting: will you not make it and it will go on the racks? Juggling as well, you see the same thing. Do I throw and catch my balls? There’s no real actual risk if you fall out of a handstand, twist out and go onto your feet. There’s no risk in juggling. But what they do is put you into direct confrontation with the self. I propose to do this, then I didn’t. It’s only me and gravity dictating if I make it or not. Gravity is a constant, so it’s just me, a direct confrontation between what you think you can do, and what you have actually done. It’s very interesting when you get into this.
MK: It’s also you versus the federation in some ways. Did I succeed or not? That’s where the bad or dark side of this can come in. Then suddenly it becomes, if I don’t succeed, I’m not worthy of feeling good about myself.
I think that is a rabbit hole that is really deep, and I know very well how it is to go down that way.
EL: Speaking of the Federation, do you know Marlo Fisken? She wrote an article, I haven’t read it yet, but it’s making some waves, basically about toe point superiority and the expression of the Federation in pole dance, I suppose.
MK: I saw it come up, but haven’t read it yet either, but wanted to see the arguments. There’s certainly a lot to be said for that, and also in circus, with all the traditions and what they’re built on. It also depends on what perspective you are looking at it through. I would certainly tell someone who is learning a complicated skill to point there toes, in case it gives you a better sensation over what your body is doing.
That is more how I look upon it. We’ve also talked so many times about line. I don’t give a shit if people are always saying, “Line, line, line, line, line.” Why do you want it? Is it because it’s the parameter you choose your worth as hand balancer over? So you can be part of the crew that can do this specific thing? It’s dictated by the culturally decided factor that a straight line is pretty. Sure, it has some aesthetic components to it. But why only that?
EL: Did we a line episode? We should do one, just bitching about the line.
MK: We’ve barely talked about the line much. We don’t talk that much about the line. If you want to learn the line, there’s very specific physical things about the line you need to learn. But that aesthetic quality is only that: an aesthetic quality.
EL: As I say, we have to learn all these things, like the scales you learn when learning to play an instrument. When you want to play music, fuck around as much as you want.
MK: I wanted to get back to that dark side thing, since I had something to say. A lot of people that start with this and want to master it put a lot of social or regular value into it. That becomes a judgment of good/bad. I managed to stay up and held the move/I did not hold the move. I dropped the ball/I caught the ball. Like you said, there is the direct confrontation with the self, and the socially accepted loss of the trick or disciplines or whatever. This dictates whether or not you can feel good about yourself for succeeding.
First of all, I think it is absolute nonsense. I think anyone who says they aren’t affected by this is a total wanker or liar. Everyone is affected by what they do and what they experience, but they can be affected to different degrees. The effect this had on my 10 years ago when I got super frustrated about moves would be way stronger than the effect it has on me now. Sure, I can have a shit day and get really pissed off, but it won’t happen as often as it used to. You get jaded, then stop caring as much, as with happens with most things. Then you’re basically able to cope better. I think it’s easy to give these constructs a bit too much power and value over your life, in a sense. That’s the good v bad there. It can certainly bring a boost in confidence, and it should. You learn something and you’re allowed to be proud and happy about that, replicate it, and feel good about it. Then you switch your focus, start something new. Maybe you never managed to do this thing, you get frustrated and annoyed. That is also fine. To what degree do you allow that to dictate? It’s not like you’re not allowed to feel bad for sucking. Sometimes you do. Sometimes that sucks. But there is a scale and continuum of energies here, rather than a black and white.
EL: It’s a process I talk about a lot with some of my students. I call it the virtues and vices. Every physical practice, no matter what it is – stretching, origami, everything – it has a virtue. Our goal is to get in and get the virtue, but don’t go too far into the vice. You will always get a bit of vice with the virtue, but if you push too far then the vice becomes emergent.
A simple way to think about this is: squatting is good. You want to build it up for some activity. You squat too much, explode, and can’t do that activity. Simple. That’s the vice of squatting. You’ll do too much and explode.
In other ones it’s subtler, but there is that one. It’s always that idea of tempering yourself. That’s one of the benefits of handstands.
You will push your body too far. That’s what I like about handstands. When you break yourself doing handstands, it’s not actually that bad compared to breaking yourself doing motocross or something. It’s the injuries we tend to get in hand balance; generally overuse or inflammation based. They go away and are easy enough to rehab. Whereas crashing a motorbike…
MK: That’s the funny part. To be able to deal with yourself better in these skills scenarios…I’ve even had a couple people contact me on Instagram and say, I struggle a lot with training because I put so much pressure on myself that I destroy myself.
At least it’s good you see it’s having a negative effect on yourself. It’s good to acknowledge it, because it’s really easy to just run that mill. You keep pushing, you get smashed, and still don’t want to recognize that you might need to change something.
EL: It’s good when someone starts recognizing that. I’m smashing myself in training, I know it, I’m still smashing myself. It’s very good in terms of having a moment of awareness there. You’re aware of your own actions and the positive and negative effects on your body. Maybe you can’t change it at that time, but it’s still bringing a level of consciousness to what you’re doing.
MK: You’re at least seeing what you’re doing. But there’s usually a long road between recognizing the pattern and being able to change it. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance to cover it, so you don’t even have to think about it.
It’s on more of a philosophical thing, but you need those levels of hardship and fuck ups to be able to change. At least for my own sake, the one thing that changed me the most, both in performing and training, was I basically nuked my lower back doing this ridiculous scene.
It’s a really scene, and we’re going to do it again next year – I can’t wait. We had played this show way too many times in a row, and I was an idiot and had trained way too hard in between. I would train before or after the show, train on off days, train then sleep. We’d finish the show really late at night, I’d be adrenaline pumped out of my mind and have a meal, come home, and be fucking tweaked until like 4am. It was a bad period. I was busted, and pulled something, maybe the hip flexor on the right side. Something in that area got a proper bust. I barely could walk when I woke up one morning.Essentially what I was doing in the show was, I had a harness on, and that was connected to one end of a slack rope. The other end was attached to the other side of the stage. My friend Alex would lie down on the rope. I would start walking forwards, pulling the rope forwards, to lift him up while he’s lying on his back balancing on the rope. Then I would proceed over to the side of the stage, grab the truss, and start climbing it with his weight hanging from my lower back from the harness. I would climb it up, and at that point in the show I was so soaking wet from sweat, and super duper warm. It was in the second act of the show, with that physical readiness you get from adrenaline. It was at 100% at that point.
I would clown the scene, kind of pretend I was falling. I would hang in flag with his weight pulling me back, climb the truss. Then there was a carabiner I would hook him onto, on the truss, then he was actually fully hanging from that. Then we’d do a lot of other nonsense.
One night we did this and my hip was sagging behind. I remember, oh shit, it felt much easier when I pulled my hip forwards. So I thrust my hip forwards really fast, and felt this tiny explosion close to my spine. Shit, that hurt, whatever. I went on, did the rest of the show. I went home, and the day after we did it again, the full show.
Then a friend of mine said, why don’t you stretch your hip flexors. So I put the foam roller under my sacrum, pulled my left knee towards me, and let the right leg (the side that was busted) elongate. I lay for 2 minutes and couldn’t get off the floor. We had to get a replacement in, and it took me 6 months. I could one arm and stand on my hands, but I could not do a leg lift to save my fucking life.
The worst thinkable thing would be to lift to a meathook, where I would do a leg lift and twist towards the injured side.
I remember I was at the cinema, and literally brought a handstand block to the cinema so I could put it in my lower back, so I couldn’t slouch at all. Slouching and standing up, it would take me 30s to straighten up, and I would feel like it was 75. Dreadful. It was a prolonged amount of time before I was back to action.
Then for some reason, the one thing that saved me was we were going to Chile to play shows. It was 3 weeks until that. I was like fuck, better call them and get my friend to replace. I grabbed one of those ab wheels or rollers, and did 3×10 on my knees. I was like hey, why can I suddenly bend forwards and sideways again with no pain?
I kicked up into handstand, and did a straddle flag. I couldn’t bend in the side whatsoever for 6 months, and could suddenly do it. I did 3×10 ab roller for 3 weeks, then went to play the show. Somehow that helped, for whatever reason.
It changed my approach quite a lot. This is not sustainable, so I started taking significantly more care. Even now, I’ve been smashing myself the last year. Now I’m in another one of those. I’m thirty fucking five. I shouldn’t train 6-7 days a week anymore. Maybe it’s not a good idea. Maybe it was never a good idea.
Imagine that Emmet, imagine if it was never a good idea to train 7 days a week. Guess who did that for 7 years in a row, 365 days in the year. It’s not smart, not cool. Don’t do it.
EL: Let’s bring us back on topic. One of the things I’d like to segue into, and I’m not sure how much experience you have with this, but I’ve had a lot of students over the past 10 years, people who have trained with me who were dyspraxic. Dyspraxia is like physical dyslexia. It can be coordination issues, with multiple causes. It’s one of the things that’s well beyond my scope in diagnosing etc. People just come in and say, I have dyspraxia, and blah blah blah. I’ve had a huge amount of success helping these people, a serious amount. It’s the classic story where as kids they had developmental issues, or were diagnosed with this between 4-10. They were never going to be good at sports, always clumsy, always going to be last picked in gym class. The classic story.
My interpretation or explanation is a bit different. Maybe what we give our children, if we look at primary education, is probably what I’d consider the minimum physical activity to keep them same. We don’t give them a lot of recess time. We make them sit down. Maybe, just maybe, some children need more than that recommended dosage. They need more time, more practice, then they’d be okay.
Maybe I’m wrong with that, and I’m completely open to being wrong. If anyone listening is an expert, voice note us. We’d be keen to talk about it.
These people come and say, I want to do X, or movement, whatever they’re saying at the time. As a matter of course, the two things I generally teach everyone is handstands and juggling. They’re not really part of the training but I suggest them to people. With the handstands, what I’m noticing, is people who have gotten fairly good, there’s just this level of challenge to the body that begins to fill in the gas\ps of their physical awareness. I can almost track it over the course of their training, how much more coordinated they get in everything they’re doing.
Before they might have been doing bodyweight training, or normal weights, and still feel disconnected in their body. There’s something about the handstand training, maybe being upside down and challenging the body in ways it’s not normally challenged. With handstands in particular, we have to force the mind into the body. We have to get you to feel your kneecap. Is one contracting and the other not? Why did you externally rotate one leg but not the other? Why were your toes pointed but now you unpoint? Just constant self checking in on the body seems to fill some proprioceptive gaps people have, that isn’t done in other skills.
I think particularly in the early stage of handstand training, like basic wall drills and alignments, they’re complicated. They have variety, but internal variety. It’s why was this rep different, or this setup? It’s not an outside variety, like you dodged the ball, but it came at a different angle. This repeated action – my hypothesis – seems to be giving these people the chance for more practice at something, so they slowly start filling in the gaps. It’s interesting as they all report the same thing. It’s observational evidence, so take it with a a grain of salt. They say, I feel more in tune with my body, more connected, I feel things I wasn’t able to before.
Maybe they just weren’t trying to feel these bits before, but there’s definitely something to it and it’s worth exploring. I’ve had about 20-30 of these clients over the last 10 years, where we seriously got to the point – and it’s been universal across all of them – where they say, I don’t feel the dyspraxia anymore. I’m more coordinated in my day to day life, things that were challenging before aren’t. They’re still not going to be natural athletes, or picked to play football at a top level. But there’s something in the practice, because it’s simple.
That’s why I teach it and am so fascinated by it. Though I’ve never pushed it to Mikael skill levels, it’s kept me captivated because of the simplicity. It’s simple to just turn yourself upside down and stand on your hands, but something in your body isn’t allowing that at the time, so something else has to change. Then you have to find that. It brings people in contact with their body.
I was using the dyspraxia as an extreme example, but it’s the same with this kind of consistent practice. In a pushup, say, you’re moving the body up and down. But handstands have a kind of skill tree to it. You see how the body works, how the mind and body coincide, and you want to make them work together. Now you’re balancing upside down, and you’re in the chaos of balancing. Your whole proprioceptive map you built up is gone and you have to find it again.
MK: In one sense, you’re basically re-experiencing what you experienced as a baby learning to stand. None of us remember how it was to stand, but I must assume for baby brains, there is something that makes us try to do this thing. If the baby brain makes sense in the same way as the adult brains do, perhaps there’s some sort of satisfaction reached with this being able to stand thing, that makes you constantly try it. I often thought about that, how at some primordial experiential level, we’re practically relearning standing. Of course there’s no way to find any concrete evidence in regards to that.
On a practical level, that is what we’re doing.
EL: Even on the mytho-poetic level, you’re learning to stand again.
MK: Reflecting back to things we talked about before, when I got that injury they sent me to a sports doctor to get checked if I had a hernia or whatnot. He didn’t think it was that. But he spoke a bit with me about the practice, because he was more interested in the psyche and the psychological part of this. He asked me, how is it when you practice, resting, all that.
I said, it’s one of the things where you combine everyday and never know exactly where it is. It’s always like fresh meat; you never know if you can. Aha, he said, a need for control. I said that’s it, 100%. He spotted it immediately before we even had a proper conversation about it. I think that is partly why a lot of people tend to choose handstands; it’s all about control.
There are many pathological ways of using various things to control how you feel, or things that are very hard for people like eating disorders. These also do similar things; you control an external factor to feel better about yourself. I’ve never had one of those so I can’t associate to how it feels, and I’m not comparing that directly to doing a handstand.
I think there is something about this check whether or not you are in control, and that allows you this “good feeling.” Since it’s so blatantly direct with a handstand compared to other things – I can land a flip, do a flare, dance well and remember the choreo – but here it’s, I can actually hold it. You’re so hyper present all the time, it’s not like a move where you execute it and there’s adrenaline and the rush and force. Here, I was there. You’re experiencing the fullness of it. That is part of the state and awareness thing that goes into it.
Speaking of that, I think I find, and a lot of people will associate to this, it brings you in touch with both a very furious and very calm parts of yourself. I remember that is still one of the core things I say for why I do handstands. I think it’s because it gets me in touch with many facets of my personality. It gets me really calm and focused and into the moment as I do it. Then there’s a lot of mental and intellectual analysis of how it works, what I did, all those details.
There’s loads of fury when it doesn’t work, or frustration. It’s the Sisyphean task where you constantly push this rock up the mountain and it rolls back down again, but you’re happy to keep pushing it up. The fact that it touches so many things in a person is why I think it can have such a strong impact and make people want to repeat the task.
Of course, the first time it’s a rush to manage. Time 500, it’s no longer a rush but it’s a test of some sorts. You constantly keep pushing trying to learn new things and all that. You find yourself in this area of learning and testing and challenge. I think the fact that it has all these facets that give you both something that is beautiful, and something that is utterly soul destroying frustrating. What you’re constantly doing every single nanosecond is problem solving. I think that is a very large one; you’re always problem solving, and there to experience the problem solving.
EL: Something you touched on back there is you have this constant thing to return to. Some people on Handstand Factory who have tagged us on Instagram – one girl in particular, I know behind the scenes she’s been going through some difficulties in her private life. She posted recently about whether she’s obsessed or addicted to handstands, but through all the terrible things she’s been going through, it’s one constant to always return to to keep her sane. And it’s one of those things where if you stick with the practice you can have it your whole life. It will just be there. The practice will be the practice. It will just be the practice, that’s all it is. But, in the practice itself, as you touched on there, there’s a infinite amount of things to be found. It’s the self. Even the sensations to be found when you’re just doing a handstand, exploring and mapping the body, or even letting yourself swim in the sensations and seeing what you notice.
I’ve been doing handstands a long time, and had this breakthrough recently about my point of contact on the ground. My hand is at the point where I can feel down to a square cm where the force is going directly through my hand, or the coagulation or…summation of forces through my hand. I can feel exactly where it is. Now I can tell, just paying attention to my hand, if the weight is slightly towards my thumb, or under my ring finger, or slightly forwards or back. I can tell what my line is doing exactly, if my back is arched, my hip is piked, all this without having to scan the zone in the body, just focusing on that.
That was a new revelation. It’s the same with the one arm training. I’m on the quest to get my one arm back. Now I don’t even care what my limbs are doing. I can even tell if my feet are not pointed hard enough by paying attention to that. I just sink the point to what I want, push down through it, and everything sets up nicely. It’s a level of sensation. I’m much better back in the past than I am now, and trying to get back to some modicum of this. But that’s something I didn’t notice back when I was better – why not? – but now I can.
There’s always something to be found in there to keep you interested.
MK: Yeah. I found some stuff yesterday that I remember having the feeling of a long time ago. But now I see this is a note to keep paying attention to in a certain movement. It doesn’t feel exactly like that, in this exact angle, then it isn’t going to work.
I’ve done the thing for many years, but suddenly I experienced a new thing with it. When you do that…it’s when you go into a one arm L sit from a one arm handstand, and press down. There’s a certain angle; if you feel the shoulder is lowering even a mm there, you will land hard on your arm and feel weight over your fingers more than you should. You need to squeeze the block a lot more, and there’s no way in hell you’re getting back up. Whereas when you do it with this thing i sensed yesterday, which is, when I come to a certain point, I feel my shoulder being the only pivot point. The pivot point stays fixed, and doesn’t feel like I’m sitting on my arm when I’m sitting on my arm. There isn’t force and weight going into my elbow. When I can’t do that movement, it feels very painful on the wrist and can be dreadful on the elbow, as there’s so much force that travels into there. It’s really interesting to see, this is old yet it’s new in the sense of how I feel it.
I think it happens a lot with handstands. You have a lot of time, a lot of repetition. If I take flares from gymnastics or breakdancing as a counterexample, if I want to experience flares for 15s, you’re doing lots of them and it’s rather exhausting. You need to be at a high level to do that. You’re going fast, you’re not experiencing the exactness of each angle for many microseconds for the time you do 15s worth of flares.
But in the handstand, you constantly sense and, as I like to say, you’re hyper aware and almost forced into a flow state type of thing. If you’re not there, it usually equates to falling. I love how that lines up.
EL: To bring it back to the point of swimming on the sea of sensation, as Mikael was saying, and he’s obviously very high level, if you’re still finding new sensations, which I love to find in a movement, then that becomes the whole lynchpin of what I’m doing. All I need to do now is replicate that and I’m 100% agreed that I’ll be able to do this movement out of it. If I don’t get that sensation when I’m in that setup or the thing, it’s going to be heavy, fail, or not work.
When you’re first learning, all these sensations come to the body but you don’t pay attention to them, or maybe you just don’t have the capacity at that moment to pay attention. This is one of the things handstands gives you as well: the capacity to focus under pressure and keep a general sphere of what’s going on in the body. I have the body in my frame of reference, then I can allow my focus to shift to one thing, like my hand or my elbow now. The rest of the body stands up when it needs to pay attention.
It’s like that movie with the man who plays like five different characters, including the beast…I don’t want to say Face Off…someone will know. It’s some guy who’s got multiple personality disorder. It’s one of the movies that’s the follow on the Glass, the Shamanalamadingdong guy. M Night Shyamalan.
MK: Oh, then it’s probably bad then.
EL: It’s really good! It’s not Unbreakable, it’s part of the same series.
MK: That guy made a few that were brilliant, then went on a trash binge.
EL: Split. That’s the name. It’s brilliant, really good. James McAvoy is in it and kills it. He has multiple personalities and plays all of them. My analogy here is the sensations you get here is kind of like the personalities standing up. Sometimes they become super important, and the main thing you’re focusing on. Then something else in the background stands up and you pay attention to that. The bodymap can go deeper and deeper. First, superficially, we’re working with tension in the body. How hard am I pointing my toes? How hard am I squeezing my quads? Are my glutes pulling my legs apart hard enough in the straddle?
Then it starts to go, I can do a pike handstand, and not be paying attention to what my quads are doing, but what my femur is doing. I know if I have the feeling of my femur and pelvis right, the alignment is right. That’s the thing we’re going for, deeper and deeper into the body. It’s interesting to me.
MK: The funny thing is, when you’ve actually got it, you stop thinking about most of those things. I’m trying to think now, how do I feel when I do a one arm? I feel that point in my hand. I feel the forces trying a bit, and try to stop the forces. Those are primarily the things that I feel.
Certainly if I change my position or do a movement I concentrate more on certain parts. But like all things, as they become ingrained you need less focus on the part and so on. It’s also a very fascinating journey, when you get into all that, or learn something new. How you experience something and how that changes over time as you repeat it enough…
I think handstands is a concrete one, but it’s a hard one for me to associate with that for because it’s been so many years since I haven’t been able to do it. But in learning other skills, this feeling of seeing I’m better at something is more direct, when my coordination or something has done a small jump up in levels.
I think one of the most concrete experiences I had with that was when I learned to write with my left hand in university. I would just sit in lectures and do what we did in primary school, just loop writing the same letter again and again. It was a very distinct sensation. First, I know how all the characters are supposed to look, but I felt like I was moving the entire wrist to try to do the movement, this micro twitching of my index finger and the thumb. They’re supposed to do these fast little twitchy motions to do the writing. What you’re doing is wrist and big finger movements, but over a couple of months I saw, I’m actually moving faster. Then suddenly I was moving from the fingers, writing properly, but fatiguing really quickly. The fleshy part of the thumb would fry really quickly, then it got really good. Still today, I can write about 80% as well with the left as with the right.
Brushing teeth with the left hand, and I’ve practiced that a lot more, it’s a lot harder than it is to write. You’re using all these weird wrist angles when you brush your teeth. But if you brush with your good arm, you keep the same rhythm of the relaxed wrist shaking back and forth while you change all these angles. This is not as easy on the left arm. Very very dumb trivia, and it doesn’t connect that well, but you get what I’m saying.
EL: You touched on the sword and shield hypothesis of lateralization of brain functions, where the brain functions are lateralized. Different sides of the brain do different things.
Sword and Shield – the left hand is the shield, keeps things away and extends. The right hand is more about precision. You’ll see this in nature, in crabs. They will have a big claw on the left side, then a smaller one on the right side, more precise for putting food into the mouth. The left one is the ‘stay away from me’ one.
It’s interesting to see this in the asymmetric tonic neck reflex as well. It’s a reflex kids develop, the basis of almost all sports. When you turn the neck in one direction, the arm will go out or bend in.
It’s like boxing: one hand goes out, one goes in. Head turns, head turns. All these things. It’s in javelin, throwing a stone, lots of our sports are predicated on this. It’s interesting you notice the right hand can do all these complicated finite movements, whereas left hand is a bit special.
I think we’re getting away from the benefits of handstands here. I think this is a benefit of handstands – when you get really into it, you can really wander in conversations.
MK: One of the perks of handstands, maybe a primary one, is suddenly you make a podcast. Bam it happens. You need to pass level 65, complete a couple of quests, then you get a podcast.
EL: The mic just turns up. At a certain point in your handstand training, you begin to think your opinions are important and you have to share them with everyone.
MK: And as soon as you see a not straight handstand, you get this intense twitch, and have to tell the person, or go home and just…pray to the handstand gods for their sins.
EL: Let’s stop here. So, benefits of handstands. To sum it up, the main benefit is you get to do a handstand! And then more complex handstands.
MK: Then you can analyze yourself down the rabbit hole and it won’t really matter because you’re probably going to do handstands tomorrow, then over train and do all those dumb things. Maybe you’ll learn from those dumb things one day, and that could be great.
EL: Or maybe not. Other than that, thank you for turning in and listening to us on the Handstand Cast. As you know, we are supported by Handstand Factory. If you want to learn to do handstands, from beginner all the way to one arms, presses, and everything in between, please pick up one of our programs on handstand factory dot com.
If you have any questions for our minisodes, please just DM them to us on Instagram, or send them to @HandstandFactory on Instagram. Or, if you go to Anchor dot FM and find us there, you can leave voice questions because they’re novel and we haven’t got bored of them yet.
Other than that, thank you for tuning in, and thank you Mikael.