I took my first handstand class in the fall of 2004 and I absolutely hated it. At that time, handstands were not sexy or cool, at least in the mainstream way they are now. Gymnastics and bodyweight training were not popular. Instragram had not yet revolutionized the way we watch each other. The cold hard facts were this: handstands were really challenging, kind of boring and didn’t feel awesome physically. My wrists hurt, my shoulders hurt, I couldn’t breath and everyone kept saying to “take the arch out.” I did not go back to handstand class for a few months. I stuck with taking other classes, which were more active and exciting to me – acrobatics, tumbling, and trapeze. I remember the Artistic Director of the acrobatic performance company that I really wanted to work with explaining to me, “Unfortunately, there is no other way to get good at everything else without training handstands.” I will never forget that, mostly because it is true. Whether it’s aerial/circus, martial arts, gymnastics, or any kind of training, really, it significantly helps to have a descent handstand, and understand the components of handstanding. I firmly believe this.
I have been teaching handstands since 2007. I am not a hand balancer – meaning I don’t typically work on hand balancing canes and I don’t perform hand balancing as a circus act. I have performed handstands before, but not in the ways most people think of. Relative to all the amazing performers and athletes out there, I’m not really even a great handstander. I have, however, spent a LOT of time working on handstanding, watching people learn to stand on the their hands, and I feel I am very good at teaching the basics of it. My enthusiasm and love for handstanding is contagious.
Learning to stand on my hands was not a short or easy path. In fact, I have worked up to free standing balances on hands for up to 1 minute a few times in my life only to switch teachers and have my form and alignment changed and adjusted, causing me to regress back to only being able to balance free standing for 10 seconds at a time. I am not a naturally flexible or mobile person. When I started working on handstands, my shoulders were not as open as they needed to be. The stretches I was given did not do much to help my cause. I was not yet a trainer, so did not even have too much awareness of this stuff at the time. Not to mention, the attitude in the circus world is often “keep working on the skill until you get the skill,” with little regard to progressions or other components that might actually help more. Due to my lack of flexibility, improper training techniques, less than good alignment, overuse and probably several other factors, I have had many injuries, mostly with my neck and shoulders, and I also have had surgery on my wrist. It is a wonder I’ve stuck with handsatnding as long as I have.
I love handstands. Truly. Probably more than most other things in life. I love training them. I love watching them. I love teaching them. I love thinking about them. How did I go from hating to loving them was not a direct path. Initially, I could see how training handstands lead to other cool tricks. They are also great for conditioning – I got a ton stronger in my upper body and core training handstands. Then I got my first few seconds of balance – pure magic! Typical to handstand training, after that initial moment of balance, I could not do it again for weeks. I hated handstanding again. But I stuck with it. Probably because handstands can be so empowering. I feel like they represent true physical autonomy.
Students often come to my classes believing that taking class once a week and maybe training handstands another day or two on their own will help them get a free standing handstand in a month or so. It’s a bit of a wake up call when they realize that won’t happen, especially if they have never worked on handstanding before and have zero background in gymnastics/acrobatic movements. Even students of mine who are amazing aerialists don’t often start balancing for the first several months. Handstands take a LOT of time and practice. Depending on the person, half that time might even be stretching, which no one likes to hear.
Handstands are like meditation. In the beginning, handstanding is so uncomfortable. It can feel impossible to even get your body into the right position. Slowly, with dedicated practice, you get more comfortable with the discomforts of handstanding – both physically and mentally. They can be infuriating. Even after you start getting more control and are able to balance consistently, some days you have zero balance no matter what you do. Handstand training is non-linear. One day you’ll achieve a new skill, and then you will not be able to do that skill again successfully for days or weeks. The more I do it, the more I realize that I cannot be chasing my handstand. I have to work wherever I am for the day, even if that means kicking up and falling out over and over again. Handstands are about showing up, putting in the time, and being ok with whatever happens. Handstands can teach patience, humility, and a sense of humor (because if you can’t have a sense of humor about them, you will surely quit).
Time is a big part of teaching. The more you do handstands and watch other people do handstands, the better you will become at teaching. And I’m not talking about watching the Cirque performers. Watch beginners. Watch the people who are just starting to balance. Even if you don’t know what you would even correct on someone, watch. And watch yourself. Learning more about my own handstand and the struggles I have had have make me a better teacher. The exercises you pick to teach often don’t matter as much as long as they aren’t too advanced for your students. You don’t have to do hands-on spotting. Give your students the information and let them work. Practice without too much feedback is time well spent for handstanding. Giving small, simple cues and adjustments can make a big impact. Knowing the flexibility work that is often needed, can also make a significant impact. Having fun, giving positive feedback, and celebrating even the smallest victories can actually make the MOST impact. Handstands are empowering and magical – teach with that energy.