First Published, 1st August, 2014
I start from standing, step onto my right leg, and as I bend forwards my hands hit the floor with the force of my body weight jarring through my wrists. My right leg pushes up uncontrolled and bent then straightens out. I am upside down and everything is collapsed. My hands are flat and lifeless on the ground.
It has been a long time since I really trained or even thought about my handstand line. My straight line, that slowly gradually over time has become not so straight. I figured I was past needing to work on that since I had moved on to holding shapes, weight shifting and movement. But I will never under estimate the importance of having a solid foundation of technique and strength again.
July has been a crazy month of hand balancing and freakishly hot weather. I have spent the past month training with and being coached by Miguel Sant’ana, a 26 year old Brazilian hand balancer. With a background in capoeira, he has devoted the past three years to hand balancing and is now travelling and teaching. It began with the Yuval Ayalon hand balancing workshop in London, which is where I met him.
Everything about my handstand from entry to exist was totally exposed as being, well, a bit of a mess. It had some real issues that needed to be addressed. I had managed to start conditioning my body to be strong in an inefficient and lazy position. I was kicking up so aggressively, and falling out with no control. I had lost a lot of shoulder flexibility which was restricting my ability to push up, something I was completely unaware of. The result was closed, depressed shoulders, an arched back and piked hips.
The first time I put my hands on the ground in front of Miguel, he was less than impressed, taking my fingers and re-positioning them, spreading them out on the handstand board. He told me flat hands are dead hands. Lifeless and limp on the floor, they don’t connect to the ground, so your body doesn’t connect to the ground. How could I expect to balance if I couldn’t make that initial connection? I was kicking up and I kept going over. Unless he was spotting me and then I kicked him in the face.
Miguel teaches with a real intensity and focus. The way he talked about handstands, the way he communicated them with me, came from a place of passion. He kept things simple for me, teaching only what was relevant. But I felt like I was learning how to handstand from zero. I basically had to start again. I had to learn how to enter and exit my handstand in a slow and controlled way. This became even harder when I injured my right knee and had to learn to kick up with my left leg, the leg I never use for anything. And I had to learn how to correct my line, or rather start correcting it.
So he started developing my understanding of what I needed to do with different parts of my body and we worked on the details, for example, my hand placement and finger position, shoulders pushing up, stomach pushing in. As soon as I was upside down I had to try and fight to keep my position, not just hold until I fell out of it. Which to begin with happened most of the time.
I immediately wanted to get it, to be able to do it perfectly. It caused too much tension in my body and was confusing for my mind. I was thinking too much and trying too hard. He taught me the importance of focusing on the improvements and progress you make, not on the end result. I realised just how uncomfortable I can feel in my own body, and having someone there teaching me exposed this. He wanted me to stay relaxed, keep quiet and do what he asked, which I struggled with. Accepting that things aren’t perfect and allowing yourself to be vulnerable is the only way to move forwards with your practice, especially if you are being coached.
We spent a lot of time walking around London, exploring different places for photographs and training together. When Miguel got up to hand balance I sat and watched him move from the ground, pushing up and elongating every inch of his body. Slowly, gently moving through straddle, lifting one arm and placing it by his side. His head stayed in contact with his shoulder, his stomach and ribcage still as he breathed as if he were sitting down resting. I watched him perform figa. I watched him side flex as his torso became parallel with the ground. I watch him hold a beautiful straight line. Every movement is so deliberate and so precise. It always ends in perfect stillness. Everything about him is calm. It’s hypnotic to watch. Watching someone with so much uncompromising love and desire for what they do makes it so wonderful.
“This is life, it’s happening right now… It’s not a trick.”
Photograph taken in Canary Warf, London
I would hold the camera up and take photograph after photograph but it doesn’t compare with what was happening on the other side of the lens. I could capture the image, pausing time, but I couldn’t capture the way it made me feel to watch it. A photograph doesn’t capture the way he feels when he is upside down.
“You shut off the world and it’s just you… I have the power to control myself and the power to know myself better.”
As well as being an incredibly talented hand balancer, Miguel is also an incredibly genuine human being. His dedication to sharing his skills and his knowledge with as many people as possible is so obviously conveyed when he talks about teaching and training. The level of awareness he has with his handstand and his ability to just feel it and let go is what he is passing on to his students. For him “feeling” it is the most important thing.
What I’ve learnt over the past month hasn’t just been about handstands but about the connection I have between my body and my mind. It’s never been challenged like this. My mind can interfere with what I’m doing, causing so much tension and frustration in my body. I can try too hard if I feel insecure or self conscious and then I’m too rigid to balance. But what Miguel has given me is the awareness that I do this and shown me I can let go of the tension. I can just “feel” myself and most importantly be myself upside down.
Having the support, feedback and encouragement from him has completely changed my practice and how I feel about my hand balancing. Having someone physically there to work with you and get to know your body is something that is invaluable and if you can find someone who you can connect with then amazing things will happen. It has only been one month of training with Miguel, now he is going to be travelling around America, but it is a month I will never forget.
My handstand starts when I place my hands on the floor, fingers splayed apart. I grip with my fingertips bending them slightly. As I kick up with straight legs and pointed toes my hands are alive, connected to the floor.
If you want to see more of what Miguel does or get in touch then check him out here.