Transcript of Episode 25: Handstands and Pregnancy, with Special Guests Zoe and Signe
EL: Hello, and welcome back to the Handstand Cast with me, Emmet Louis, and my co-host Mikael Kristiansen. We have a stunning show today. There’s a question everyone asks me and Mikael quite a lot: training while pregnant, having babies while handstanding, and all these kinds of things.
MK: So we’re joined by Zoe Jones, and Signe Anderskov Even me as a Norwegian, I will butcher that name as I’m Danish, so sorry about that. We are joined by two people who are more capable to speak on the topic than me and Emmet. For me this will be really interesting; finally something new to learn about handstands. Not that I know everything. I’ve been introduced to a lot of stuff, but here is something where I’m completely blind.
EL: Hey. You’re not meant to break the illusion that you don’t know everything about handstands. We know everything. Everything.
Anyways, Zoe, why don’t you introduce yourself a little? Tell us about your practice and background, and all the bigger questions?
ZJ: So my name’s Zoe Jones. I’m a hand balancer, calling myself a semi retired circus artist at the minute. I’m having a transition period. I have been a hand balancer for 12 years now. I did my training at the National Centre for Circus Arts, and I had my daughter Marlin – she’ll be 2 in October – so it’s been 22 months since I had her.
EL: And Signe, why don’t you give us a little run down of everything?
SA: My name is Signe; I have been a hand balancer for almost 20 years. I studied at the circus school AFUK in Copenhagen, and then I went to Moscow for 3 years. I’ve been performing, teaching and directing since. At the moment I’m doing a Masters in contemporary circus at DOCH, the circus school Mikael graduated from. I have two children; two sons. One is one year old, and the other is five. I have been dealing with pregnancy training and training after giving birth, and managing to not retire yet. I’m still busy with upcoming shows.
EL: Cool, cool. We’ve got some questions compiled that have been asked over the years. As I’ve said we’re free to go completely off script here. If there’s anything people need to know that we’re missing from our questions, please let us know as well. As we said, we’re in a bit of a blind spot here.
The first question that always comes up is: Can you still train while pregnant? I suppose we’d have to break pregnancy up in stages as well. Did you still train while pregnant?
ZJ: I’ll go first if you want. I think I kind of wrapped things up around 38 weeks, which is officially like, from then you could give birth. I was still active, walking around and stuff, but stopped doing any official workouts at that point.
I actually found the first trimester to be the most challenging for me. I got quite bad morning sickness. I think that psychologically, it was a lot to take in and process. Even the thought of how my body would change was affecting how I approached my training. I feel like I didn’t do a huge amount in the first trimester and kind of took a break. Then I really felt like shit because I wasn’t training. I was missing it. Coming into the second trimester when morning sickness had passed for the most part, I went back into training. I found in the third trimester, weirdly, when I was the heaviest and most pregnant, I felt the best.
In a way, the baby has finished growing at that point. Your body is no longer being leeched of everything. But then you’re waddling around trying to do training. It’s quite challenging even though I was feeling better emotionally.
That’s the in brief of how I did that.
SA: I had two very different training situations. In the first one I approached it in a very scientific way. I researched a lot about exercising through pregnancy. I found a lot about exercise, but of course, nothing about handstands, except for some yoga science – which is not really science. I thought it was really interesting to train, not so much to do the handstand, though it’s supposed to be really safe.
I don’t know about the rest of the world, but in Scandinavia you were not advised to continue training 20 years ago. Today, they really encourage you to continue exercising. If you don’t exercise, you should even start doing it then. It’s good for you in many ways, it’s good for the baby, good for everything. There’s no reason to stop exercising, but of course there are more precautions to take as you get heavier and the body changes.
I did a lot of training, but the level of handstand training varied a lot because of morning sickness, dizziness, and your body is different when you gain 20kg. In the second pregnancy I dealt with a lot of pelvic instability-
ZJ: I actually had that too, and had forgotten.
SA: No matter how well I would plan any training, it wouldn’t be possible. The most important thing to make sure everyone understands is how individual every pregnancy is, and how you can not compare yourself to a mom you see on the internet.
When you do handstands, you’re probably a control freak. During a pregnancy there are so many things you can’t control and have to let go.
MK: One question that pops into my mind there, and probably other listeners who have been pregnant have consulted a doctor about recommendations. Of course I’m not a doctor, but I would really imagine that if someone came to me to ask about handstands and I were a doctor, I would see that as dangerous, or the same level as doing trampoline. There’s a difference between various physical disciplines. So did any doctors react or say anything specific when you tried to ask if you could continue standing on your hands?
ZJ: I asked my doctor mainly to reassure my husband, as he’s a worrier and I’m not. When I talked to my midwife, I just saw this look on her face. I just knew, what was the point in asking this question? She has no idea what I’m talking about. She has no idea of the level of training I was doing before I became pregnant, and what that means to me, as opposed to what it might mean to someone who had never done a handstand before.
Her response was that you should definitely stop doing that. I ignored her. I knew she was coming from no understanding of any of those factors. I did try to be sensible and not to get too woo woo and listen to my body. I knew I wasn’t going to get any kind of answer from my body. I don’t know how you felt, Signe, but that was my experience.
SA: I had a really cool doctor, and some really cool midwives as well. When I explained what I did to them they were cool and said that as long as I can control, and don’t do any abrupt falls or big jumps or contact sports – they asked about contact sports although I asked quite specifically about handstands – then the standing on the hands didn’t have anything dangerous about it. That’s also the advice I would give anybody: if you can control it completely and not fall, and professional handbalancers know more or less when and how you’re going to fall, then doing handstands shouldn’t be avoided. That was also the advice I was given.
EL: I just want to segue back to something, and it’s a question I’ve had a few times. I also met someone in Canada doing contortion training. For the pelvic instability, I get a lot of questions about pelvic floor, lower abs, distension, stuff like this.
I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about what went on with that, how you went on about it, whether you did any sort of training for it?
SA: The pelvic instability happens during pregnancy and you don’t really control it. It’s not about training wrong or anything. When the relaxing hormone kicks in, it makes the SI joint and pubic bone unstable. It cause a lot of pain. The general advice is to not do any unilateral training. You shouldn’t do lunges; you should do squats instead, for example.
If I translate that to handstand training, I would say, for example, if you feel you have pelvic instability, you shouldn’t do abrupt kick ups to handstand, or abrupt cartwheel bail outs. That’s kind of the twisting you should really avoid.
Other than that, there’s tons of stuff you can do to help with pelvic instability. I don’t think handstand plays a big role.
ZJ: I was diagnosed with what’s called ‘pelvic symphysis,’ and it’s exactly as you were explaining. The relaxing hormone loosens everything. The pelvis joins at the front, and there’s a weakness just there that can cause the bones to shift. I was saying I’d felt like I’d been kicked in the crotch by a steel toe boot for about 3 months. It was pretty unpleasant. I was referred to an NHS physio. I didn’t have a huge amount of hope for that. She was very helpful and gave some sort of Pilates exercises, where you’re on your side and strengthening the side butt.
That did seem to make the pain go away. I don’t know if the time passed and the symptoms relieved themselves on their own, or it was the exercise I was given. Anyway, it’s real and hurts a lot if you have it.
EL: I remember I was teaching a seminar in Canada, in Toronto, and met a girl who was a contortionist at the seminar. She was an aspiring contortionist, coming to it a bit later in life, but was quite flexible anyway. She decided that when the relaxing hormone kicked in that it was really the time to push her middle splits. She ended up separating – it was her second pregnancy as well, so she should have had a hint of it – she ended up separating her pubis symphysis and getting a tear there. Basically for the last 2 months of pregnancy she couldn’t walk, she said.
I have heard this before, more from the dance side of things. People say, “when I’m pregnant should I push my stretching?” I haven’t heard too many circus people in that. It’s probably a temptation you hear. The relaxing hormone comes in,-
ZJ: I found it didn’t make me any more flexible, but I was coming in from a point of greater flexibility than the average person. What I found is it made my joints so unstable. I rolled my ankles probably a dozen times when pregnant. I was all over the shop with my joints. I was about the same flexible amount.
SA: It makes your joints unstable. It is not a wonder thing to have flexible muscles. Your ligaments and joints will give you a higher risk of injury for most people, so don’t get your high hopes in becoming a contortionist when pregnant.
I didn’t feel it, and when I researched a bit about it, I learned that for women during the normal menstrual cycle, the level of relaxing also goes up and down. Most people won’t feel it that much.
MK: One thing I always wondered: I remember some pictures you posted years ago, I think during your first pregnancy, when you were basically posting pictures of your handstand with a growing belly. Fluctuating in weight is one thing, but here you have another person, doing a two person handstand. That is located on your belly side of things. How did it feel re your centre or mass, how did you experience the change from being previously very comfortable on your hands, then when the shift happened, and then afterwards?
I’m interested in the feeling when the ‘ball’ grows.
SA: I was surprised that it didn’t have a big effect on the balance. For me, it was more like when you perform and have to wear a really weird costume that is heavy on one side. You do a few handstands and then you adapt. Balance wise, I adapted very easily to the shift in my weight centre. Of course, as I grew heavier and heavier, when you do balance corrections you suddenly have bigger shifts of all the weight to the front side.
To hold a basic handstand, even 20kg heavier with a huge baby bump, it wasn’t that weird for balance when upside down in the handstand.
ZJ: That was my experience exactly, too. I was shocked at how easy it was to keep balancing all the way to the end. It was like a progressive weight training. It was heavier and I would fatigue more easily, I suppose. In terms of finding balance, there was a bit more weight here, so I adjust here instinctively. The same kind as when you’re fit and at your peak. You don’t have to think about it very much; it’s instinctive when you get to a certain point, I guess.
EL: A little warning for our listeners: these two are very talented hand balancers and quite skilled, on one arm, even. Your mileage may vary on that, but it’s definitely worth trying. It doesn’t all come on all at once, so you kind of taper in to the changes week by week. You can sense the little differences, but it follows the instinctive curve. You can keep adapting.
MK: One thing I start thinking about in terms of process: for our listeners, I think there is a big difference between someone who is very comfortable on their hands continuing to stand on their hands during the pregnancy, versus learning the handstand. That might be another thing. You might be in the stage of having to do a couple of thousand kick ups, and your risk of falling over is still there. During that stage it might be smart to either scale back to wall versions with stuff with a high degree of safety.
ZJ: When something is even a bit risky for you, and I’m sure even you, Mikael, have things where you think there’s some risk. You instinctively know it’s a risk, and we all know our limits in a sense. Even if we’re learning to train handstands, you know when you have a risk of falling when you do a certain entry, or whatever. You should always play it super safe. Always ride under the bar of taking the risk.
You won’t want to. You have this thing inside and don’t want to be risking that. I never felt like I wanted to risk anything. It felt stupid to. I think you’ll know…I hope you’ll know.
SA: It’s super important to play it really safe. You shouldn’t compare yourself to professional hand balancers, because they can still do a one arm on canes and play it safe. But you don’t know the before level. You should definitely play it super safe.
In the end, with my first child, I did some handstands on canes. I did positions where I would never, ever fall, yet still put down mats all around. I made sure that no matter how I went down, it would be a very soft landing. That’s what you do.
EL: Good advice there. Play it safe, guys. I suppose the next one is, when you had the babies you had to stop training for a period of time while you recovered from that. How was the training coming back, post partum?
SA: I can say now I had two different experiences. With my first son I had been training all the way until birth. I had a really rough birth. He was a breached baby. We should talk about that later, as there’s a funny thing with hand standing and breached babies. I couldn’t handstand for the first 2-3 months after birth. I would feel like shit, I was dizzy, and couldn’t do anything. I had been in really good shape up into the birth.
I was quite shocked actually. I started the week after with some very soft yoga, but couldn’t stand on my hands.
With my second child, I could do handstands right after. I wasn’t in better shape. It was a different kind of birth, my body reacted different. I could do handstands 2 days after giving birth.
ZJ: I had a textbook ‘good’ birth. It was very straight forward. I didn’t have an interventions, as they call them. My recovery after was quite quick. I did lose a lot of blood; sorry if that’s TMI. It’s the reality of it. I was really pale and light headed for a couple weeks after giving birth.
Once that sort of cleared, I think I tried a handstand about a week after I gave birth. It was ok. You feel kind of stiff and not quite in your body, but in terms of the handstanding, that recovered quite quickly for me. I think you’re right Signe, it is so much about your birth experience. If you had a really traumatic birth, you need to protect yourself and just heal. It’s silly to try…there’s a lot of expectations thrown at us from the fitness world and social media about snapping back and I just think it’s too much. You need to be consulting with your doctor and other people who have had the experience.
It was nice to compare notes with people who were super fit before. It’s not a question of fitness in any way. Each experience is quite different and quite unique. It doesn’t make you a better person if you are able to get back in shape more quickly. Though we are told that.
EL: As both a personal trainer and acrobatics coach, there is this undue pressure on people, that thing of “I’m back to my pre baby weight as fast as possible.” Even from a biological point of view it never made sense. You had a baby, you’re recovering from birth which is an injury to the body. You would never force someone who had a broken leg to feel bad about their body. You have your crutches, wear your cast, do your physio. But people see you had a baby and ask why you’re not back in shape yet. It’s one of the very toxic sides to social media.
Social media has helped make some aspects of child bearing more palatable, but some Instagram super moms who had six children and all of them are perfect, so why aren’t you in shape…
ZJ: It’s the weirdest experience. My body felt so weird for so long. I know weird is vague, but so many different kinds of weird. My ribcage essentially widened so much to accommodate that I don’t know what happened. My abs felt like they’d been over stretched like a rubber band. They cramp very easily in anything I have to do involving the higher abdominal muscles. Two years on, I still get that weird cramping sensation sometimes. What is that? What happened? I don’t even know if anyone can necessarily explain it. It’s very strange when you’re used to knowing your body so well as a performer. I knew my body very well, and all the little ins and outs. Pregnancy was like no, you don’t know everything, watch this.
MK: That’s very fascinating. What are your thoughts on this Signe, in terms of this finely tuned body map? Since you’ve both been performers and physical in many ways in your lives, it’s acute. You know what’s going on. You know what you can and can’t do. Then you go through all of this, which creates a significant change. How did it feel coming back into it?
SA: It’s really weird, and also fascinating as I mentioned before. When you do lots of handstands you are a control freak. Here there’s something that’s really out of your control. It can be difficult not to, to keep the spirit high when it continues to be difficult for many months after. You see all these other mothers coming back and you feel left behind.
Once you accept it, it’s a very interesting journey. It’s really interesting to suddenly feel your body in a completely different way.
One thing you hear a lot is the question, is the core important in handstands and does it need to be strong? It’s often a beginner question. Professional hand balancers tell you it’s all in the shoulders. But if you gain 20 kilos, give birth, and try to do a handstand, you suddenly see the core does matter a little bit. With no core control, you will wobble in new and weird ways. Once you gain a little more control of your core it kind of comes back to normal. That was really funny the second time. Every time I went up into handstand, the whole midsection would be out of control and do weird stuff.
EL: One question is about conditioning and other harder training. What was your experience with adding that back in? Did you titrate it up? Was it straight into crossfit classes?
ZJ: I was a bit stupid and started running. I was trying not to be stupid, I was told to let my abs have a bit of a rest. Your abdomen basically separates. It takes some time for them to knit back together, and often they don’t completely come back together. One thing that can make it worse is if you’re back to doing loads of V-Sits and crunches straight away.
I thought I’d do some running to keep in shape. It was too much too soon for me, and it set me back again. The main thing I had to avoid, because it didn’t feel right, was ab stuff. Leg lifts, V-Sits – awful. All that. It really makes you feel like, where’s my strength?
It’s more a question that the abs haven’t come back together and they’re not operating efficiently. As soon as my body healed, and it does take a lot of time – when you’re used to taking a long time to learn something, taking six months to heal feels like an eternity.
If you give it time, I felt like I could quite easily…it was very easy to get back to a good level of fitness once I’d let my body heal.
But it was my first child and I had no clue, so I tried to do too much too soon.
Signe, you probably are wiser than I am, having had a second.
SA: I think I did the same as you after the first one. I did a lot. I don’t know if it was too much, too soon, but I really made it a high priority to get back into shape. Maybe I should have been more patient. Why rush if you don’t have a really important contract you have to go back into, there’s no need to rush. You just had a baby; you’ve become a mother. It’s so much more important. If it takes 4 months, 6 months, 1 year to get back into shape…there’s no need to rush.
The funny thing about having the second child is then you have no time to train. This time, after the second child, he’s one year and I’m still not at all back into shape. I haven’t slept for a year, and with two children I have no time.
EL: If you’re coming at it from the injury point of view, birth can be traumatic. If you like at what you need to heal injuries, you need good rest, good food. It’s very basic. Then you have a newborn you have to wake up every three hours to feed and check up on, and all this. You haven’t got the ideal situation to heal. Even if you broke your arm, everything is going to be a bit slower to heal.
ZJ: Also it takes 9 months to make. baby. Your body has gone through a process of change over 9 months, and you want it to undo itself over 1 month? It’s probably going to take at least 9 months. It’s crazy we think it can happen so quickly. It took a long time for it to happen in the first place.
SA: Every pregnancy is so different. A woman could have gained 8kg and be back in shape in 3 months and feel fine about that. Another can gain 30 kg and feel like she needs a year. You can control it a little bit but it will be so different. For some it will be so easy, for others it will be so difficult. It can be hard to accept that.
MK: We spoke about this several times in our Casts, and you mentioned this earlier too. The obsessive mindset that correlates strongly with hand balancers – you called it control freak, and I completely agree. That is essentially what we are displaying, and challenging our bodies with ever single day.
I know for myself and for many others, especially when I was younger, for many years you would go to your practice or your show and be as if it were a test of me versus the thing I am doing. The need to display the control for myself, and to others, I suppose.
Of course, like Emmet mentioned, there’s injuries and you have to make a significant difference, but how was that, coming back into it?
SA: I’m not really sure I understand the question completely.
MK: I meant the mental side of releasing the “I could do all these things that I can’t do anymore.” The sort of ‘control freak’ that needs to let go, basically, is what I’m trying to ask.
SA: I had two very different experiences with the two children. In the first one, [inaudible[. With the second pregnancy, as I mentioned, I’m doing this Masters of Contemporary Circus at DOCH. I turned the pregnancy part [inaudible] creative researching project. I’ve been approaching the pregnancy in a really artistic way, thinking not about fitness or handstand skills or getting fit again. That was very nice to not be obsessing about the fitness level, skill level, or quality of training, but to go into another mode of thinking, which is a more performative way of thinking. It’s a more philosophical way of dealing with control loss.
For example, I’m doing a research project. Among many things, I’m investigating the potentials of transitions and in betweens in handstands, and the relation between awkwardness and virtuosity. Then pregnancy happened, and awkwardness and virtuosity suddenly became two very, very different things – from the inside, and from the outside.
That was a gift for me to have something like that to think about during training, instead of always worrying about what I’m doing now, how is the training going, what should I train today and tomorrow and the day after, to make sure I come back into shape or maintain my shape?
As a performer it was wonderful to dive into an art project instead.
EL: I’ve got a lot to think about. This is really interesting to hear about all this. I just know we’re getting close to the end time, and I know you guys have to run.
SA: I have one more thing. I briefly mentioned it before with the breached baby. That’s a question I got a lot. A breached baby means that the baby is upside down. It’s funny for a handstand person. Normally, one month before the baby is born, the child will turn head down, so the head will come out first in the birth. A breached baby means it’s upside down, so it would go out with the butt first. I did handstands throughout the pregnancy, and people often said, what if the baby turns? And we would laugh at that. But then a couple of weeks before the birth, the baby was upside down. One of the advices you get from doctors and midwives and everything is to do handstands. It’s really funny because I did a lot of handstands, and look what happened.
They tried to turn it and it didn’t work. The birth was rough, and they had to take him out, butt first, in a perfect pike. I talked to a lot of doctors about this, because I was really curious. Was it like the myth goes that if you invert too much, the baby will come out the wrong way? People told me it was very unlikely. Nobody suspected it to really be because of handstands, and the second child came out the right way. I don’t suspect it. But it’s interesting and it’s a question you’ll get if you do handstands in pregnancy. People will come up and ask, are you sure you won’t get that?
ZJ: I got comments on social media when I posted pictures of myself pregnant doing handstands. It put me off putting up pictures of that. I didn’t want to deal with other peoples’ judgment of what I was doing. I didn’t feel like I was putting myself or my child at risk, but it’s horrible to have people feel like you are, even if you’re not. There’s a lot of armchair doctors that will diagnose you from their computer screen.
EL: In training terms, if towards the end of your pregnancy and you’ve been training for an hour, hour and a half, that’s 5-10% of your day that you’re inverting. How long do you hold a handstand when inverting? 30-40 seconds, maybe a minute. You’re probably not doing conditioning at that stage. So it’s a minuscule amount of time compared to how are you sleeping? What about all those babies that come out breached without the mother doing any inverting? I think it’s an unpredictable thing.
I’ve heard that myself with social media comments about the baby coming out breached.
MK: It’s probably something that makes a lot of sense on paper, though in reality it may not be the case whatsoever.
ZJ: I just wanted to address what you were saying about the control thing. In some ways, I feel like having trained as a hand balancer for so many years, that made my approach towards pregnancy and giving birth quite different to a lot of people I met who were also pregnant at the time. I kind of approached it like this great big challenge. I think that you’re always setting yourself – and it’s not just hand balancers – but I was always setting myself training goals i was trying to achieve. I had a lot of resilience towards that.
I always thought I was lazy, but looking back I’m like, you’re an idiot. You’re not lazy. That’s also how I went into my labour, which was…I don’t know, I had this crazy will of steel. I decided I didn’t want to have drugs if I could get away with it. I didn’t. I’m not trying to say everyone has to have a drug free pregnancy, because that’s not how it will be for everyone. When I look back, I had a mindset that was connected to having been a hand balancer for so many years. I just couldn’t release the control that that was my decision I had made. Hell or high water, I was going to achieve it. That’s not meant to be a judgement statement. It’s just something when I reflect, where I do think that possibly, my training led towards that kind of experience.
EL: If I remember your background before you started circus, it was gymnastics at quite a high level in the states. That could also be a mindset; it comes in from sports a lot.
EL: I can remember from circus school, and me and Zoe were there at the same time. I would never have pegged you as lazy in a small amount, or at all.
ZJ: Well let me tell you that my coach did make me feel like I was lazy, so it didn’t just come from my head.
EL: Personally I would not have said that at all in the slightest.
ZJ: I think that’s something we share, this always berating yourself for not doing enough.
EL: Maybe you’re not! And that’s the problem! Am I, or am I not?
ZJ: You’ll never do enough; that’s the thing, right? The bar is always moving higher and higher.
EL: You only know when you’ve done too much and blow yourself up somehow. You have to get surgery and it’s like, yes, I finally did too much! Achievement.
I’m going to have to wrap this up, as I know our guests have a limited amount of time. They have responsibilities, and me and Mikael don’t.
Zoe, if people want to get in touch with you, or if there’s a project you’d like to let them know about, where would it be best to find you?
ZJ: One of the places i tend to be most active is my Instagram, which is @hanstandswithzoe. I post less than I used to, but you can always DM me on there. Don’t be a creep, but you can be in touch.
MK: How about you, Signe?
SA: I can be found on either Facebook or Instagram under my name, Signe Anderksov. I’m not posting very often, but a little. When I start my new project I will post about new performances and research projects, and teaching, whenever I do that. @signe.l.anderksov
MK: Both of you do teach as well, right?
ZJ: Sorry, I forgot to say, I was teaching at the Circus School in London for a long time. I stopped that. The nature of our situation right now is I’ve had to be home with Marlin. I haven’t been teaching very much because I don’t have the time. I probably will have more time in a couple months; she’s going off to nursery.
EL: Just to wrap up, thank you both for coming on. This has been a great episode for me; it’s been super interesting. For our listeners, I don’t know if you’re up for it again, would you be up for doing a second episode? I think we’re only scratching the surface of the topic.
Guests: Yeah, sure.
EL: Awesome. We’ll organize something in the future. For our listeners, as you know you can always ask us questions, either via Instagram on @HandstandFactory, or via the contact form on HandstandFactory.com
If you have more questions you’d like to ask for Zoe or Signe, hit us up and we’ll try to organize this again.
Other than that, you’ve been listening to the Handstand Cast with me, Emmet Louis, and MIkael Kristiansen, and our guests. Thank you so much.
MK: Thank you.