Upside Down Lessons
Updated: Nov 18, 2021
An intricate cocktail of corporal coordination, concentration and sheer willpower, handstands will let you look at the world from a different perspective (heh).
Years of negotiating with gravity to balance the rest of my body on my hands have rewarded me not only with an increased awareness of what my limbs are up to at any given moment, but also a few legit lessons learned. Hence, with little to no quasi-religious agenda of advocating their general rad-ness, I’d like to share with you a few ways in which they enrich one’s life.
1. A breathtaking revelation.
When I was 4 and really into climbing traffic signs, my parents enrolled me in a gymnastics club in hopes of channeling that chaotic energy into something safer. That intense realm of competitive gymnastics gave an excellent foundation for the art of handstands: the shoulder push, the core control, the legs kept straight and together. Yet there’s one thing all experts failed to mention, and realizing this was revolutionary to my post-gymnast teenage self figuring out how to keep up the skill on my own. How could no one have told me of the importance of inhale-exhale?
If you’ve ever handstood, you’ll know how easy it is to forget entirely to breathe. Face reddening by the second, lips pressed to a raisin, every muscle straining to avoid faceplanting.
But by merely paying attention to your breath, you can ease into anything, really, and teach yourself to be comfortable with discomfort (I’m no expert, obviously, but the cold exposure devotees, yogis, and meditators are definitely onto something). Your reaction to discomfort, be it physical or emotional, teaches you so much about yourself. Are you prone to giving up the minute something feels hard? Or will you see where it takes you, if you just…hang on…a little longer, and sit with the feeling?
Though I couldn’t find the author of the quote, here’s something that resonates with me: “this breath is the most freedom I’ll ever have.”
Just like breathing, all we do comes down to the balance of taking in and letting go. Messing with the balance of that isn’t a great idea – that way you’re holding onto stuff you shouldn’t be, such as tension in a handstand, but this point carries over to the rest of existence, too. After all, it can get stressful around here, and you’re really just a container of oxygen and water and soul. So, if something as simple as becoming aware of the air flow connecting you to everything around you is all it takes to have a better time on this planet, it sounds like a darn good deal to me.
In other words, breathe. Breathe your way through discomfort, and few things can stop you.
2. Change of perspective (in all senses of the word).
One thing that never changes, is you have to touch the ground with something (no offense to any levitators out there). But you don’t have to let your feet do all the work. Or your butt, for that matter, though it is the cutest pair of cheeks out there, if ya don’t mind me saying.
Anyway, cliché as it sounds, sometimes all you need is a change of perspective. As opposed to being upright, well, standing on your hands feels different. With all the blood flowing to your head, you stir things up a bit. Like when you want to get all the good stuff from the bottom of the juice bottle.
I do believe that intentionally flipping some things the wrong way might just have the effect of setting other things the right way. The immediate nature of handstanding contributes to this: you get to clear your mind of clutter such as time and to-do-lists, precisely because of the undivided attention it requires. Handstands are an art form of which no trace is left behind – no finished painting for the future generations to admire, and that’s all part of the beauty. Although the manufacturing takes time, the end product is a creation tied to the moment, a quick dance with time, a test: just how present can you be? It might not last long, but for a moment you took control of the laws of physics that usually dictate which way up your body is.
While we’re on the subject of perspective, if you ever need to quickly rearrange your perception of yourself and remind yourself that you’re 100% That Bitch, being able to comfortably capsize at any moment is pretty badass.
What’s more, you can quite literally get jiggy with it, which brings me to my next point:
3. Sprawling out of the box.
The best part about handstands is they’re fun.
In gymnastics, the focus is on the clean, controlled, solid stand. But lo and behold: there’s more. Discovering laws-of-physics-defying handbalancers on Instagram and meeting cool circus people turned my world upside down all over again (heh). As it turns out, it doesn’t have to be that serious.
Like with any creative outlet, learning the basic techniques allows for increasing amounts of your own creativity to pour into the work. So, as you become comfortable with inverting, you get to unlock new levels of freedom of movement. Even better, you get to let go of what you’re “supposed” to do with your body. It’s yours, after all! Go on and turn it around even if it’s just to prove a point. Because you can. There.
Embrace its weirdness, all the ways its joints can be turned, all the range its limbs have (this is patient work, btw, I wouldn’t try to copy Biles on the first try). For example, lately I’ve been super into making waves (think leg and spine wiggles that distinctly resemble waves). It has a symbolism to it, too: waves are kind of all we ever do, aren’t they? The ebb and flow of our actions and their consequences, inevitably reach the shore somewhere, in someone. Sometimes ripples, other times tsunamis, but always there. You can’t know if your waves are going to throw someone off their course, but if you’re lucky, someone might just have a blast surfing yours.
My friend once made a gif of me in a handstand, clapping the soles of my feet together like applauding; a ridiculous move I smugly take credit for because I haven’t seen anyone else do it (gif inquiries to my email please).
Anyway, it’s an endless (upside down) world of possibilities, and I can’t stress this enough: lose the box. In fact, sprawl, crawl, pour, run out of it. The box has nothing on you. Play around and have fun with it, whether ‘it’ be a handstand, your singing voice, a paint palette, the words you utter to the bus driver that has a good vibe about them… you name it. Dance something new into being, make something where nothing was, something you can call yours, and better yet, share.
PS. Being aware of the fleeting, fragile, and disposable nature of this skin case you’re in, and the inevitable decay it is heading towards, what else is there to do but make the most of it? Exploring its elasticity, renewability, or durability are some ways, or you can just have plain stupid goofy fun with it.
*fervently wiggles limbs to demonstrate point*
4. Self looooove.
For a long time, being (fine) alone was hard for me. Drowning out the sound of your own thoughts with anything that is louder, you know the drill. But years, people, and places went by, and movement stayed. Eventually handstands became a safe space: in order to move, all I need is myself. It’s a way of resetting and staying sane. And it never fails to lift your mood.
Not to mention the fact that in order to be able to move in the ways I want to, maintaining a regular strength and mobility routine is crucial. So, thanks to constantly taking care of my body this way, feeling at home (and alive) in it, respecting it, and knowing what it needs have become easier than ever before. Progress and mindset are so closely intertwined, they depend on each other to thrive. Handstands will teach you to be chill with things being a work in progress. In other words, handstands give you confidence in what wonders the vessel carrying your soul around is physically capable of and the places pure perseverance and motivation can get you.
That increased awareness of what your limbs are up to does feel good too. Having a pair of hands is a whole ass miracle, I’m telling you. They let you hang onto the earth while your legs literally wiggle out into the endless space. It’s hard to put into words, but there’s this thing. Once you’ve looked at your ten fingers spread out onto the ground, casually holding the planet while the rest of your body is afloat in the air, gently caressed by the breeze, your relationship to your hands, and dare I say, the whole world, changes.
5. Soil love.
Roll your eyes all you want, but I can and will use every opportunity to manifest the importance of getting yer hands dirty.
Let us resort to the the wisdom of The Beach Boys, for example, philosophizing about feet health: “If you wanna do the right thing for them / just take a walk in the grass” (1)
Simple yet brilliant, right? It applies to hands as well. Handstand shenanigans in nature are a whole new way of connecting with the earth. Being with the soil purifies the soul!
So, next time you’re, say, in one of the many gorgeous parks us Amsterdam-based beings have a privilege to roam, let your hands find the ground and kick up. Why? You’ll feel like a plant at the mercy of the wind, but with all the freedom. The wet grass or cool mud under my palms is what it’s all about. I want to feel the planet. Let’s take this outside, I say to my hands as soon as they get too comfortable with my living room floor. How are you going to experience this world if you’re shielding yourself from it?
To sum it up, the gravity is yours to defy, or to befriend and play with. So go, give your soul container a shake, and listen to this masterpiece as you do.