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The Discipline of Handstands

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

About three months ago, just as we were going into lockdown here in the UK, I started working with a handstand coach for the first time. I initially wanted a coach to help me learn the press handstand, but as soon as I started working with him he quickly pointed out to me that I needed to do a lot more work on my freestanding handstand before I threw myself into the press. It was quite humbling but also made a lot of sense! We went right back to wall drills, to refine my line and develop more stability, control and awareness of my body.

Over the course of two months, I practised four or five days a week. Each session lasted around two hours, and also included quite a lot of flexibility work. There were definite ups and downs throughout the process the first couple of weeks I felt myself improving a lot but they were definitely weeks when I felt I could hardly balance on my hands at all. I was so tired out by the wall drills, that when my coach asked me to do freestanding handstands, I couldn’t even kick up to handstand and find the balance. This was actually really tough for my ego and it made me feel very frustrated at times. But I trusted the process deep down, and so I kept going, believing that eventually the progress I was making against the wall would translate to a stronger freestanding handstand.

Around four or five weeks in to the training, I started to get niggles and pains in my right shoulder and then a couple of weeks later in my left wrist. I was doing so much handstand training that all my other training has gone out of the window. I will quickly realised that the shoulder pain was coming from some kind of instability in the right shoulder, it seemed to be a lack of activation in my lats. The shoulder pain more or less went away once I started training my lats more. I continue to get some pain in my left wrist but I was more or less manageable and I didn’t worry about it too much.

At the end of two months of training, my handstand line was better than it had ever been before, but it felt like handstands had kind of taken over my life. My mental health seem to depend on the quality of that day’s handstands and, if the session went badly, I started to feel really low. That week, I hurt my left wrist quite badly - I couldn’t weight-bear and I had to take time off more or less all my training.

It’s been about a month now since I stopped handstand training, and so I felt it was time to reflect on the experience. I have been doing quite a bit of work to rehab my wrist, and have gently started doing my handstands again. To my surprise, I’ve probably retained 80-90% of the progress I made during the intense training, even though I’ve basically not trained at all in 4-5 weeks.

I don’t regret training with my coach, but it definitely didn’t feel like a real relationship with my coach. He didn’t really know me - we never met and only communicated via email, and so I feel like the coaching was applied like a template one-suit-fits-all. I did definitely gain a lot of skill and technique from the training and the video analysis, and I’m very glad I did it, but I think as a student, I needed more support in the mental side of the game: I put too much time and attachment into the practice and it left me feeling pretty broken.

There’s nothing bad with technique or discipline per say, but personally I have a tendency to be all work and no play - and I think this is something that really affects a lot of people these days!

My conclusion from this rambling is that if you’re a perfectionist, a workaholic or a very self-disciplined person, handstands are going to reinforce those habits. Sometimes the things we are drawn to are the things we already have the most of. I think it was Mark Walsh who said that most yoga students go to the wrong class: the relaxed calm loose people go to yin yoga to get more relaxed, and the high functioning high powered frenzied people go to fast-flow active vinyasa classes. We are often attracted to what we are, yet we need balance. So for me, that might mean choosing a more playful and less dogmatic practice. For someone who struggles with consistency and attention to detail, handstands might be the best thing for you.

I will continue to handstand, and probably will keep working to learn new handstand skills, but I hope I’ve finally learned the lesson that less is more, and that work and play go hand in hand. The training should support the playing, otherwise what is the point?

Disclaimer: this is not a rant or a complaint against my coach - they did an exceptional job doing what they do, and I never reached out to them to share my mental struggles or to discuss pains and aches - that’s all my own doing. I simply wanted to share the struggles I went through with the handstand in the hope it might be helpful for someone else.

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