Upside Down Lessons

I spend a reasonable amount of time balancing the rest of my body on my hands. 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 in this way 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 the awesomeness of handstands, I’d like to share some of their teachings with you.

1. Breathing.

When I was 4 and really into climbing traffic signs, my parents enrolled me in a gymnastics club in hopes of providing my monkey tendencies with a less dangerous setting.

I have to thank the intense realm of competitive gymnastics (and my parents) for an excellent foundation for the art of handstands. I was lucky to get acquainted quite early with the crucial building blocks: the disciplined practising, the shoulder push, the core control, the legs kept straight and together. Yet there’s one thing the 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, all energy directed to avoiding faceplanting. 

However, by merely paying attention to your respiratory system, you can ease into anything, really. You can teach yourself to be comfortable with discomfort. This is what the cold exposure devotees, yogis, and meditators all have in common, and they’re 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 of life is an act 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’re better off without. Tension in a handstand is an example, but I’m going to go ahead and apply this to existence in general. After all, it can get stressful around here, and you’re really just a container of oxygen and water and soul, so learning to relax by being aware of the air flow connecting you to everything around you by the magic portal of your nostrils is a useful skill that will guarantee you a better time on this planet.

2.  Change of perspective.

One thing that never changes, is you have to touch the ground with something (no offense to any levitators out there).

Gravity remains gravity. But you don’t have to let your feet do all the work, or your butt, for that matter, though they’re used to carrying your weight and do it well. The Beach Boys knew what they were talking about when they advised you to “Take A Load Off Your Feet”!

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. Kinda like shaking an Albert Heijn juice bottle to get all the good stuff from the bottom. 

And 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 helps too: you get to forget about things like time and to-do-lists, precisely because of the undivided attention it requires. Handstands are an art form of which no trace is left – no finished and permanent painting to admire and leave to the future generations. Although the manufacturing takes time, the end product is a creation that is very much tied to the moment. It’s a test: just how present can you be?

What’s more, you can quite literally get jiggy with it, which brings me to my next point:

 3. Losing the box.

The best part about handstands is they’re fun.

Gymnastics traditionally focuses on and is content with the clean, controlled, solid stand. But wait: there’s more.

Discovering laws-of-physics-defying hand balancers 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 creativity. So, as you become comfortable with inverting, you get to unlock new levels of freedom of movement. And let me tell you, it’s empowering to let go of what you’re “supposed” to do with your body. It’s yours, after all. So embrace the weirdness! For example, lately I’ve been super into making waves (i.e. leg and spine wiggles that vaguely resemble waves). It’s an excuse for me to get all pseudo-philosophical, too, because waves are kind of all we ever do in life: the ebb and flow of our decisions and their consequences, inevitably reaching the shore somewhere, in someone. Sometimes ripples, other times tsunamis, but always there. We can’t know if our 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 so far I haven’t seen anyone else do it. Gif enquiries to my email please. 

Anyway, it’s an endless (upside down) world of possibilities waiting to be explored, and I can’t stress this enough: lose the box. In fact, the box has nothing on you, if you refuse to sit back in it. Play around and have fun with it, whether your ‘it’ be a handstand, your singing voice, a paint palette, the words you utter to the friendly clerk at your cornershop… You name it. Dance something new into being, make something where nothing was, something you can call yours, and better yet, share. 

4. An important self-love lesson.

For a long time, being (fine) alone was hard for me. Drowning out the sound of your own thoughts by anything that is louder, you know the drill. But years, people, and places went by, and movement stayed. Eventually it became a safe space: in order to move, all I need is myself. It’s a way of resetting and staying sane. What’s more, I always have a good time doing it!

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 training routine is crucial. Sticking to it pays off: thanks to taking care of my body in this way, feeling at home (and alive) in it, respecting it and knowing what it needs have become easier than ever before. That increased awareness of your limbs does feel good too. When you’re passionate about something, it’s easy to be consistent and get results.

In other words, handstands have given me confidence both in what this vessel carrying my soul around is physically capable of, and the places pure perseverance and motivation can get me.

PS. Being aware of the fleeting, fragile, and quite frankly, 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 and durability is one way, or you can just have plain stupid goofy fun with it. 

*fervently wiggles limbs to demonstrate point*

5. Soil love.

Roll your eyes all you want, but I can and will be a complete hippie about this and use every opportunity to manifest the importance of GETTING YER HANDS DIRTY.

Let us again resort to the wisdom of The Beach Boys song quoted earlier, philosophizing about feet health: “If you wanna do the right thing for them / Just take a walk in the grass.”

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-inhabiting 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. To me, the grass or sand or, yes, even 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.

To sum it up, being able to comfortably capsize at any moment is pretty badass. The gravity is yours to defy, or to play with. So go, give your soul container a shake, and listen to this masterpiece as you do:

Take A Load Off Your Feet (Remastered 2009)


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