Do you remember when you were always upside-down as a child? Do you remember the endless afternoons practising handstands, cartwheels, aerials and backflips? Do you remember what it was like being fearless?
If you do, good for you, your childhood was probably healthier, more adventurous and more fun than mine. Hold onto that memory, it will come in handy.
What I do remember is that particular Sunday when, aged 29, I was asked to walk my feet up a wall while taking my hands as close to the same wall as possible. I’d never held a wall handstand before but it looked like a simple task to accomplish, and it didn’t seem to require supernatural levels of strength, flexibility or coordination. It was so within my reach… Only it wasn’t. I walked to about 30 degrees and there I found my obstacle.
Fear is an ugly beast. Do you remember Fear? The vampire waiting in the darkness at the end of the corridor, the winged demon staring from the top of a roof, the blind creature at the bottom of the abyss. I never really dealt with my monsters, I ran fast and shut the door behind me. I ran until my monsters grew tired of chasing me, and doors didn’t need to be slammed anymore.
On the wall, I couldn’t run, and for the first time, I chose to face my fear. It was terror, in fact: death had never felt as real. I remember knowing I would capsize and break my neck. Yet everyone else was there, they were alive and their hands were close to the wall. My journey towards verticality against a wall was long and exhausting, it was also very lonely.
Let’s take a look at the origins of fear and at ways to overcome it.
STRAIGHT ARM STRENGTH
If it’s true that fear tends to be irrational, this is possibly the most reasonable cause of fear while being upside down: the doubt in our own ability to support our whole body with straight arms. Having your arms straight and elbows locked is, in fact, a strong position to be in: bent elbows will make your muscles work harder and fatigue faster. A simple way to verify this is to perform an overhead press or a jerk: the difficulty is not so much to hold the weight overhead with straight arms but to get it there. Often you will find that the hardest part of the movement is the third at the bottom, and using momentum to move the weight up fast from that disadvantaged position will allow us to use heavier weights.
Focusing on keeping the elbows fully extended and externally rotated will allow you to practice in a strong position without fear of face planting.
SURROUND YOURSELF WITH FRIENDS
No-one is afraid of the wall. The wall is a friend, a certainty, a solid support. On the other hand, in front of the wall, is the Void. The first step to take while fighting the fear is to fill the empty space in front of you so that you just can’t fall. One way is to get a friend: the friend will be your second wall in front of the wall. Your friend will be there close to you and never let you fall as you find the confidence to walk closer to the wall each day. If your friends are not available, build your own wall: make it soft by piling mattresses on top of each other, or use plyo-boxes if you practice in a Crossfit gym, use a narrow corridor or even a corner between two walls. Build an obstacle to overcome an obstacle.
It takes time to acquire proprioception upside-down. Sometimes we feel vertical when we’re barely in a plank position with feet elevated. The simplest way to realise where we stand in space is to take videos of our attempts. Watch your recordings right after attempting going upside-down: it will allow you to connect your perceptions to an image, feelings to evidence, and it will show you how far you are in reality from flipping over.
You don’t need to be in a handstand to practice your handstand. Your handstand shape is the same prone or supine on the floor, standing or hanging. Holding your handstand at 45 degrees against a wall is so much harder than it is holding the same shape freestanding (because of lack of alignment), and it will build strength in your shoulders, forearms, wrists in preparation for a well-aligned handstand. Practice a little every day: we are scared of the exceptional, but very rarely of the boring facts of our routine. Make being upside-down your daily bread.
Once you will have walked your hands close to the wall, it will be time to practice ways of getting safely out of a handstand in case you overbalance (lose balance towards your back). There are essentially two ways of saving yourself: the first is to forward roll out of it, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you were practising on a soft surface –and even then, I would avoid repeatedly hitting your back on the floor; the second is to twist. This movement is in between a cartwheel and a pirouette, but smaller than both. I advise you to start practising the twist with your friend –the one who didn’t let you fall. Starting against the wall, you will practice shifting your weight to a single arm, moving the opposite hand, shoulder and leg forward and to the side to turn your body and come out of your handstand. Having your friend there with you will allow you to practice within a safety net, you’ll feel the movement without the barrier of fear. Once you are comfortable falling out of a wall handstand, it will be time to take your friend to the centre of the room until you can start practising on your own.
Conquering fear is a rewarding process. It takes time but taking time to understand yourself will be an excellent introduction to the practice of handbalancing. As of today, I can tell you nothing else has given me the same sense of fulfilment, the same connection between my mind and my body.
The natural selection that can be observed in most sports is especially evident when it comes to handbalancing: the ones who make it have not only the necessary strength and mobility to perform the patterns that are peculiar to the sports, but they are the ones with a persevering mindset. It took us a considerable amount of time and effort as kids to start standing on our feet. We spent days trying and failing, alone and with the support of the adults around us. It was only natural for us to stand because our body's designed to stand vertically on feet, and because that's what everyone else around us was doing. Surround yourself with people who can handbalance, and the task will lose its mythological proportions, but practice carefully, because our wrists are not specifically designed to sustain our whole body weight for long periods. The journey towards being able to stand on hands is a journey of balance between what's necessary for the mind to understand and the body to adapt and what your body is prepared to endure. In a world where everything can be bought, where everything happens quickly and we are losing the patience and the perseverance to fight even for what we care about, handstands are a jump back in time, where change happens slowly and letters take time to arrive. If you can, remember what it was like to wait for those letters. Remember the anticipation, the excitement, remember how you checked your box daily. Sometimes they took so long that you'd think they might be lost, that you would never get to rip the envelope and recognise your friend's calligraphy. But that rarely happened, eventually it would be there, after travelling across the world, slightly wrinkled but so precious. Handstands are a gift that comes to those who don't give up.
You can't rush a good thing.