In this episode of the Handstandcast Emmet and Mikael discuss the topic of failure: Asking how to define failure in regards to handbalancing, how much failure is normal in a training session, managing the concept of failure in a performance and the pros and cons of training to failure.
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S2E56 – Failure
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Transcript of Episode 56: Failure
EL: Hello, and welcome back to the Handstandcast. I really want to start this with, “It’s that time of the week again!” But that only works when you have a set schedule…
I’m Emmet Louis, here with my co host Mikael Kristiansen. How are things going, Mikael?
MK: Yeah..not terrible. Haven’t done much today, a bit of training. I got a haircut too. I’ll tell you all my best haircut story.
When I was…like 15 years ago, 2007, I had long hair to my shoulders or a bit longer. It looked cool sometimes, but mostly it looked like shit.
I was in Oslo Central Station, when we were allowed to break in there, on a corner, doing shit with my friends. Two girls come over and say, “Sorry, can we talk to you?” Sure.. They say, “Can we cut your hair? We have an assignment at hair dressing school for cutting someone’s hair, about your length. Could you be interested?” I was like, sure. “Come by tomorrow to the studio.”
I go there, sit down in the chair, and find out that by cut my hair, it’s the classic ladies’ fringe where your entire hair looks like a helmet.
EL: The ‘Can I speak to the manager’ haircut.
MK: They cut me, and I look like a horror story. They did that cut, then there was suddenly no time and everyone had to wrap up really fast. “Come by tomorrow and we’ll fix it.”
I get up, looking like Prince fucking Valiant there. What do I do now? At the time I was wearing bandannas and shit, or Kappa, all Hip Hop like.
I contacted them the next day and they didn’t fucking answer, so I had to go elsewhere and say, fucking help me. The end.
There are no photos; I was wearing a cap the entire time. Then I cut my hair short and haven’t looked back since.
What’s the topic?
EL: Do we have a topic? Our topic today is very topical on that hair cut point: the topic of the episode is Failure. Clearly you had a haircut failure. This is a haircut podcast now.
The main question we proposed is, the appropriate amount of failure per session, when learning new skills. We could get into categorizing what failure is, and what it isn’t. Just because you fuck up and fall out, don’t do what you intend – it does not mean you failed.
There is this idea in circus, I think, that stuck with me. I did a workshop many years ago, I forget his name, but the original director of the company Archaos.
“The Tour of Metal Clown was met by financial difficulties after the tent was destroyed by gales in Ireland.” That led to the demise of Archaos. What is the director’s name?
Anyway…it was an open circus workshop for all circus artists. He was mainly talking, doing some exercises. His main point was on why circus was different from dance and theatre – circus proposes the risk of failure.
We do this a lot in training. In aerial we say, I’m going to fly across the air and grab this bar. It’s very binary, if you done it or not. Circus gets a bit away from this with its dramaturgy. But there was an idea that jugglers and hand balancers are still closest to the idea of proposing and dealing with the risk of failure.
At the end of the day there’s a lot of safety equipment in aerial and it doesn’t rely on that dramaturgy anymore. Mats and safety equipment do remove the illusion of failure. This forces you to find different dramaturgy in circus, once the death defying part is out.
With hand balance, we are always dealing with the proposition of failure. We have something we are proposing to do. Then we either do it, or do not achieve it.
If we go back to our beginner, the kick up to handstand. They propose the risk to themselves: will I get the handstand or not? Then they fail, or get it got 5-10s. There is a binary failure thinking.
But what we really want to start getting is: did I get specific on my failure? I’m trying to kick up, but not getting one. But I’m trying to isolate one component of it, and did I fail at that, v the whole picture at once?
MK: I would almost say that circus fetishizes the idea of success and failure, because even a dancer can fall or mess up or do something that doesn’t work. Things can go wrong on stage in theatre. You are proposing, specifically, the difficulty and physical risk and humiliation risk in circus.
I’m sure you’ve experienced and seen the juggler who starts the act, it goes great. They drop a few times, get increasingly stressed, and it goes down the drain. You’re just suffering with them as you watch them on stage. They just lose their shit at one point and can’t keep it up.
That happens to many performers in anything, sports, or even singing or instruments.
It’s very evident since you are presenting it so clearly, this principle of managing or not managing.
EL: I never thought of this concept of risk as basically endemic, the battle is endemic in sports as well. We propose to hit or kick the ball.
Circus almost fetishizes risk. You take the concept of risk…
MK: you specifically remove it from competition. It’s no longer failing the other, or losing against the other. What’s funny is it becomes about losing face, or you are showing a certain vulnerability of not having mastered the situation, and the entire…sub communication that happens with people, when you see someone feeling safe and secure, and the micro shift that happens in all the mannerisms of the person in the moment.
The person becomes insecure, they go from being intuitive and in the moment, then suddenly are in their head, thinking about each and every step and what is happening.
This happens on stage when you suck: you’re in your head, thinking about it, and feeling yourself sucking. You feel the audience is seeing you being in that state. The audience sees and feels your suffering, then it becomes this terrible loop that you learn to deal with. Then you’re good enough at faking it, or keeping your shit together until you can do it.
Even outside of circus, this bleeds into various practices. If we dissect it, all the way to the bottom of why it’s there, it’s a social thing, the human animal thing.
Various symbols and signifiers of value are being proposed and presented. If you do not achieve or manage or present them wrong, the said symbol and signifier isn’t interpreted correctly by the ones viewing it. It equals that it was not correct or good.
This is also what we talked about with the Federation concept, where you are in your own head saying it wasn’t good enough. You learned you should be saying that in this particular context.
EL: I think it was from maybe Kabuki theatre, the concept that even if you do a show in your room alone by yourself, there are always two people watching.
Even in your handstand practice, when you’re doing your practice, someone is always watching. It might be in your head or that idea, but because you present that risk of failure – even to yourself. You become the reflection of the audience’s anticipated reaction.
This leads to a lot of frustration. People think they are being watched. Handstand training is frustrating.
Going to the gym and doing curls or squats to failure, to the point where you have to put the bar on the safeties and can’t finish. If you get stapled it’s embarrassing if someone has to bail you out. But if you can’t finish a lift, it’s not really a thing.
MK: If you’re training to failure, you did what you were supposed to.
EL: Even if you didn’t get to failure and trying to get there, there’s no thing to it. In handstands, I want to do 25s but did 24. Failure and shame upon you for doing that.
Even for our educated listeners here who know we are on a constant process of refinement, there still is always the idea of the shame from failing.
MK: These are entirely human and normal. Rather than pretending it doesn’t exist, you can accept it. It is part of how you function, and does not need to be such a big deal. Pretending you don’t care makes it a bigger deal, at least it’s what I observed in myself and others. The more I am ok with not being that great, the calmer I am around it.
If I care a lot, I say I don’t really care, it’s all the process. But in the end, it’s a buzzword I learned to say. It’s also great to be entirely soul crushed. It needs to be proportionate. If you pour passion and love into it, sometimes it is going to be frustrating. That is fine.
As for the concept of taking this with you, gym training is an excellent example. This period I’ve had now, it’s the first time in my life where I did one session with chin ups once a week with weights, and I’ve done that for six weeks. Seeing how extremely simple it’s been to make consistent gains with those. I have zero expectations of what it means to manage or fail.
I have a very distinct understanding of that in handstands. But here I go in, put on some weights, do some reps, now I’m tired, put it down, forget about it, repeat next week. Boom, I’ve had outstanding gains in those weeks.
Also, you are in a focus on the process. We look at gym training and weights as such a degenerate…simple practice. You go in and do the things you’re supposed to, and that’s it.
With handstand training it easily becomes a thing where you’re supposed to do a bunch of things. You want to try something cool because you’ll feel cool if you manage it. You try 8 times, you’re tired at 3, and you can’t do the rest of your planned practice because you kept trying the same fucking thing 17 more times and it didn’t get you anywhere.
That’s the impractical side of failure. If it becomes a constant chasing the dragon attitude, where what you’re doing when you train is you’re trying to give yourself dopamine by getting the sensation of success.
If that’s what you’re doing, it’s hard to keep a consistent practice. Of course you need to have fun as well, but if you have some sort of system to it, you might at least avoid going to the trap of trying a gazillion times on loads of different things with no real purpose, other than the hope of managing for the glory of it.
EL: There’s an interesting experience I’ve had a few times that I’m sure a lot of people can relate to. You’re failing but you get it. I can remember the clearest experience I had of this when learning to juggling five balls.
Juggling did not come easy to me at first. I was learning five balls, just trying, not much technique. We were just doing five balls. Practice three, do it higher to get the rhythm, then do five.
We’re doing it, and I remember one day. I had five catches, or dropping, or… but one click. It changed from not knowing what you’re doing, throwing balls in the air, to you’re failing but in the right way.
You feel this at a few points in handstand: learning entries like kick ups and straddle and tuck ups; in shifting to one arms, Mexicans, stuff like this. There’s a transition zone, something going on.
It’s a change in sensation; the body has learned to process the information. Here you can start failing productively. Even though you’re not getting it right, you have a very clear idea of what right should feel like. That hones the perceptual basis you have of the body. This is right, this is wrong. I did it wrong, but I know what right is, versus throwing stuff in a dark room and hoping you find a teacup.
MK: A lot of the things we were just talking about have to do with the kind of emotional and social side of failure. The practical thing of the task at hand, you attempt, and it works or not, that is something that is slightly different, though very connected. This is what we are talking about now. This is where it’s relevant, in a practice sense.
You’re able to distinguish, at least slightly, between these two nuances of failure. The fact that, you can’t do it all on your first attempt, so you need to go through lots of attempts.
A good comparison is, let us say you have a person that is strong enough to do a stomach to wall handstand. It can be done in 10 s, and it’s safe and ok and can be repeated several times.
That person can then successfully do it until they’re so tired that it’s unproductive much more. It’s not very complicated to ensure that the person will be able to repeat it as much as necessary. Done. There won’t be any real failure in it.
What you’re doing there is get the body to experience the thing you want to do for a full 10s several times, whereas on a kick up, if you struggle with them then you have to try a ridiculous amount of times.
Each kick up, you spend so little time in this motion, getting there and falling back down, or over, so you’re there less than a second. It all happens so fast and you’re traveling through space.
Each angle you travel to, you’re there for such a short time. For your body to be able to process and understand and get this intuitive sensation of what is going on in this movement will take a lot of time. That’s where it’s very important to know that in the beginning, you’re not trying to kick up and stay in handstand. You’re trying to teach your body how much momentum you need with legs, how much pressure from the shoulders, where to put the hands, where to look at the floor, how to tense or bend the legs or not – all these need 100s of repetitions to build a consistent pattern with.
Those are the things you can do: focus on one piece, know you won’t get into handstand. You still succeed at working at the particular thing that will lead you to handstand.
EL: One other side of failure is not being willing to fail. That occurs at different stages in the practice. You get some people who are just like..the very basic fear when learning handstand, “What if I fall?”
This fear of failure or what might happen is something to deal with. The people who are unwilling to work on their balance and other stuff, but then push the conditioning too hard. “I can’t do it, it’s too hard.” It’s too hard because you haven’t tried it enough.
It begins to creep in at the intermediate level as well. If we are training solo, you fall a lot, you twist out. Then people stop challenging themselves and pushing their skill. They want to get infinite precision and are unwilling to try new stuff into the failure zone. It’s like an avoidance of shame.
MK: I would definitely say, on very high levels, the shame avoidance thing really comes into play. I’m pretty fucking good at this shit, which means it’s a huge step down to try other things and that’s a big barrier.
When I was in circus school, it was a large reason I never got good at acro. I was so good at handstands but so shit at acro that it felt bad to go and train acro. It didn’t help that when I did train, I trained with teachers who had me do really difficult stuff that I kind of managed. I never got it safe, the sensation that I’m mastering it.
I never got into it.
It is totally fine, you don’t have to be good at everything. But the idea that you don’t dare try something you actually really want to because then you have to take off the ‘superhero cape’ and be a normal scrub that sucks like everyone else. You become very cerebral and start coming up with excuses not to.
A lot of people who got exceptionally good at things are kind of naive, and just try it. I remember a Spanish guy in circus school who learned Swedish the fastest. He spoke so fucking bad but would just speak to people on the subway, with his crumbled Swedish. He would try and try and try, zero shame. He was so innocent in his mannerisms that it worked.
It’s very important to see where this comes in and it can be interesting to try new things at various stages in one’s practice. Say you’re good at two arms and want to learn the one arm journey. But can you walk? In a circle? Sideways? Can you do weird stuff you maybe hadn’t imagined with the structure of the handstand?
If not, are you interested in trying it? If not, why? Asking yourself these questions can add quite a lot to be ready for going into that zone where you’re still failing again, so potentially still learning again.
With this perceived infinite sharpening and precision of stuff, it’s not a dead end, but it’s not as alive as one might think it is. You’re going to get super sharp and really good for a while. Then two months pass where you had to travel or do something and couldn’t train and boom, back to square one.
EL: You see this a lot in juggling, and I can think of two counter examples and won’t name names. But jugglers who get caught on technique, pushing the numbers. Even the vertical skills stagnate.
If you look at Jay Gilligan, an amazingly creative juggler, I remember meeting him a few times. He would push tricks to 100 catches, or even 50 catches. Then he was done with it; he’d put it away and go learn something else. He was always pushing the limit of what he could do.
If you’ve ever checked him out, he’s amazingly creative and inventive and has a very large technical range because he tries all sorts of things, and has to keep sucking at things.
I think it was 2001-2002, and he was headlining a show, really nice guy doing workshops. One of the guys organizing the show was in a student hall union place. He asked Jay if he wanted a drink after the show. Jay returns, “No, I don’t drink.” “No problem,” says the guy offering the rounds. “Do you want a coke or some water?” “No, I don’t drink…I only get my liquid nutrition from food.” Then he proceeded to eat 2-3 packets of crisps. That’s my Jay story.
MK: that’s an interesting way to do it. He’s not dead.
EL: Anyway, there is one point here. Something I learned that applies to startup design product: fail often, fail fast, fail cheap. To take this idea to handstands, you need to fail in handstands. That’s ok. Fail often. Fail fast: when you’re learning something and can fight, sometimes a lot of injuries happen when they fight a bit too much and don’t fail fast enough. These are shades of grey and not binary thinking. You pushed to failure too hard, or in directions you’re not prepared to – this is not cheap failure, you risk injury. An expensive failure is when you have to sit down for a month or two after.
MK: As you practice you will fall over, be trying to do whatever task at hand, and trying a bunch of times. If you learn something on the guitar, you have the comfort of your fingers not getting tired that fast, so you can try those grips for hours.
Sure they get sore, but you can keep trying. After a while, you likely won’t be that much worse than when you started.
With physical training like this, it’s very skill focused, but your shit will start to deteriorate because your tiredness is catching up with you. Being able to see this as well; there’s a difference in failing in what you do because you’re too tired to bother but are stubborn enough. That’s a different type of failure than trying, and my trying means I’m calibrating, compared to just being too dead to bother and doing it anyway.
In terms of what kind of criteria you set for yourself when training, I had several periods where I was like, I need to do 4 of this one, 5 of that one, before moving on. It can be useful, but it can also be something that gets you needlessly stuck on certain days. You’re trying and trying. You did 3.5 and get annoyed and spend loads of energy getting the 4th, so things further down the line are garbage.
It’s important to think about these.
If we are speaking balance, I’ve thought more about the technical elements of entering. When you’re in there and doing the stuff, as we spoke about before, what we try to do with teaching is take the conditioning and technique as boundary conditions, within which you can learn to balance and do so effectively. That learning process is falling and failing and struggling and trying to stay on your hands. When you’re in that state, if you are focused on balancing and stay for a few seconds and fall out, you can usually trust that even if you did not stay a long time, your brain was calibrating and doing stuff. Thet total accumulated time of doing stuff will add up over time. Hence, a set of 8s can be very worth it. It might be so that during that 8s you did such a good job compared to your normal 15 that you fell out at 8. But the calibration might have been better. You can never know with these things, but only see the results adding up over time.
EL: handstand practice definitely pays in compound interest. It does not pay in linear balance.
Physical failure, when talking about muscular and not technical or balance failure in training – I don’t suppose I’ve heard many people talk about it, but maybe we should. When we get into the conditioning aspects of our programming, we are, in particular, the way I would normally program: you warm up, have a technical exercise to get into your practice, then the main sort of practice goals of the day as the middle block. The last thing would be conditioning. Depending on how advanced you are it could be something different; presses, strength work, whatever. Something that raises the physical capacities.
One of the things we are looking for here is almost incomplete rest and recovery on these sets, as a measure of practice.
Use a beginner as an example: you’ve done your kick ups, some heel pulls and toe pulls, playing with balance. Now it’s time to push the capacity. We go back to wall handstands, or tuck at the wall, to reduce the balance while we train that.
Let’s do some holds, maybe with some strict rest periods. I want you to do 4×20-30s tuck handstands, rest one minute in between. This is incomplete rest in terms of strength training zones. Hopefully you accumulate fatigue. You might do 30s on the first set, and if you rested 3-4 minutes you could repeat the 30s. But that’s not what we want to do; we want to build up the pushing into the burn.
The shorter rest, the next set is 25s, then 20s on the third. This performance decrease shows. Maybe you do 3x20s. Then 30, 25 20. Then next week you might do 30, 27, 23. This idea of pushing to failure but slowly incrementally going up.
It can be straight body or dish holds, or even free-standing tuck handstands. It should be a feature of your training, but a lot of people don’t have it as a formal idea, like they would if they were doing strength training.
We are inverted and need a bit of a safety tolerance zone, so you can’t go alllll out to failure. But there should be room in your training to find exercises where you can push to failure for other muscle groups.
MK: In any training block where endurance is the focus, you are purposefully trying to push yourself and your numbers, say from 45s to a minute.
One thing I love to do with that range is set up your balanced handstands, stomach to wall, stay until you literally start losing balance, then put your feet back on the wall and stay longer. Then you add to the actual time you stay in balance, and go into the burn without going down yet.
Obviously rest times are directly relevant. There you’re trying to overload muscles so they compensate but getting the literal muscle capacity increase. Learning to adjust so we don’t have to crank the fingers and so on is part of it. We need to be able to crank them to a certain degree; if you stay up for a very long time, you’re going to have to use them significantly.
There’s lots of trains of thought on training to failure or not. For the physical and development, you need to push yourself. If intensity, frequency and volume are all low, you’re basically not doing anything. If you crank one of them, you might have to crank quite a lot. If you crank two, you don’t need that much. If you crank all three, you need to call up that shady guy in the gym and ask him for access to the power source.
EL: A benefit of a good coach who can spot well, for one or two arms, is you can get a lot of time and work on your capacity. When you make a technical mistake the coach can get you back into balance, or not let that mistake get out of the zone of corrections. This allows you to really get in. Some of my most burning shoulder sessions have been with a coach, just making sure I stay up for a minute on an arm.
Coaches can start with gentle corrections, then hold your legs, or just holding you in place over your shoulder and casually lifting you… I wouldn’t go all out every session in these sets, but there its he advantage of almost beyond-failure training. It is, actually.
It starts with a balance assist, then to a position maintenance assist. If you know what you’re doing, you lift up and deload the person. Instead of weighing 70kg they weigh 60kg. It’s like a drop set for handstands.
Same with spotting presses, and other stuff.
MK: I used that stuff in Copenhagen, when I taught a girl who was so close to one arms. We would do 10-15 transfers from one arm to another. I would slightly spot her hips. When she started getting tired, I’d hold the legs. In the end I was literally lifting her.
Those kinds of things can be very useful, but it is high volume and gets really intense. If you’re doing that kind of work, you need to ensure you get the recovery you need, or else you’re playing Russian roulette with wrists and shoulders.
EL: I think Charles Poliquin said for natural trainers, only have one intensity technique set per week. If you’re doing some beyond failure or drop sets..do one exercises per week per muscle group, not every single one as drop sets.
MK: Drop sets, you’re trying to get fucked.
EL: Beyond failure, super high intensity training. It’s interesting to play with, if you have a spotter or want to learn to spot your friends, it can be nice to play with.
Sometimes it’s nice seeing how far you can actually go before you have to quit. Once again, you set a proposal to hold a three minute handstand. The spotter makes sure I stay up for three minutes. Do we suggest every single handstand is like this? No. Do we try to achieve it? Yes. Do you safely try it with a spotter? Yes. Are we proposing you fail like this every single day? No.
MK: The only time I worked real endurance work was when I worked on the cruise ships years ago. I had absolutely meta fucked my wrist. I did a jump switch on a cane and it all moved like hell. I performed on a fucked up wrist, and took tons of Ibuprofen and used electrical tape to make basically a battle gauntlet. I had to one arm on it, as I was walking a circle on canes.
On ships that moved, it’s a pain to balance anyway. The wrist was dead for weeks on end, and I would do endurance sets on my elbows. I can do a one elbow balance on the forearm, and I’d do that stomach to wall, hand to hand, since I couldn’t load the wrist.
Maybe I did twice a week or so, and then my mindset was basically that I couldn’t train much on the ship because it was moving a lot and I didn’t have any space for hand balance. I couldn’t do real training on my own. I had one wall at the suite I stayed in. I would just do this, and since I did no other training, every time I went to the wall I had two songs I’d put on. The goal was to get through both of them: ten minutes.
I remember I’d push myself. Endurance, I hate pushing myself past a certain point. I’d rather do something very short and intense and power focused, than drag on forever. Fuck planks.
Here I was going and going and going until you feel your arms are literally gone, but you’re still standing on them somehow. When you come down…I think I got up to 30min or something.
Each time I was going way beyond. By the second or third week I was up by ten min. It can be effective if you have the time.
EL: Ain’t nobody got time for that.
MK: If we think about all things failure related, I’m so tired of the dumb quotes. It’s good to push yourself past certain points, to allow yourself to fail and all that.
The most important thing is what we started off by saying, this judgment we carry to ourselves and others. Many people are very good at being good to others, but when they judge themselves, they’re the worst in the world. I did that for so many years and it brought me fucking nowhere.
I decided to drop this act. It does not help. Being kind of..allowing yourself to not be that ashamed by not managing the thing is generally a very good quality to have, particularly if you want to do this for a long time. That’s inevitable for it. You slowly and surely come to peace with it.
EL: I remember having a conversation with a lady while working as a personal trainer. She was worried about how people would perceive her. She had a bit of weight to lose but the situation was not that bad. She was concerned about what would people think of this fat person? Once again, it was body image based.
I pointed to her: of everyone in the gym, the only person judging you, is you. Even me, paid to judge you, is not judging you. We have a plan and we are going to do it. That’s the thing. If you’re worried of people watching at the gym, they aren’t. If they are, they are probably impressed. Even if you are doing a wall handstand. The fear of the other is unfounded.
The only thing circus people properly judge you for is not pointing your toes, and not locking your knees. Everything else, if you fall out, circus people always fall out. Generally they do it with nice knees and pointed toes, so that’s ok. Microbending is failure; everything else is ok. You can fail, just make sure at the right thing. 😉
MK: From the anthropological standpoint, it’s very common to imagine you can live without passing judgment upon anything. Most of neuroscience and anthropology argues is we pass judgment onto the world all the time. But that doesn’t mean we’re doing it necessarily in a good v bad thing. As we understand the world, we put value on certain things. We use that as a tool to navigate. Having a critical view on that, and knowing I have in-learned ways of looking at things, and I can critique them and look at them. Is this useful?
When it comes to practices like hand balancing, which tend to attract self flagellating people that love to use this as their metric of personal success, I think it’s important to be able to put that as a distance. You end up putting way too much demand on yourself and the perfection of all these lines, that needs to be like X or Y to be correct. It’s all a fantasy, something in your head.
No one is judging around here but you., like you said. I worried about these things often, training and falling. Shit, now everyone saw me fall.
When I was younger and doing breaking, I would almost have to demonstrate I wasn’t happy about my failure, because I should be doing better. I’d get angry. Then I realized I’m just pulling an act and being a little shit. Shut the fuck up and relax. It’s ok. Because I don’t manage to do the thing, I don’t manage to do the thing. Ok. No one needs my excuse; they’re in the same situation.
You’re going to come in tomorrow, and two years, and fuck up the same things. It’s ok, and become ok. It will be a long process to do so, but start it.
EL: trying to battle gravity – you’re fighting a planet. You cannot win. You will fail. That’s it. Literally no winning in this handstand battle.
Let’s leave it there.
Thank you for listening to the Handstand Cast. No notes this week. Catch you next week.