First Published, 26th November, 2013
This weekend I attended four hand balancing workshops taught by Yuval Ayalon, a professional circus performer and hand balancer. It was hosted by Guillermo Just, another very talented hand balancer and great teacher.
It has got to be one of the best experiences of my life. I know this sounds a little dramatic, but since I started training handstands in September 2012, I’ve not had anyone physically with me coaching me. To have the opportunity to be coached by someone of this standard I feel has been priceless and an unbelievable opportunity to help my training progress.
Yuval started training gymnastics at the age of eight and went on to compete in the European and World Championships for Israel. He has spent the past 10 years specifically training hand balancing, the last 8 of which have been spent performing in Le Rêve, one of the biggest circus shows in Las Vegas.
He has now decided to move on to coaching workshops and sharing his experience and knowledge with other people. So when I saw he was coming to London I immediately booked my place.
The weekend was split into four workshops each lasting three hours. Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning were the Handstand Fundamental workshops, designed for any ability. They covered the basics of handstands and how to progress to a freestanding handstand. The Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon workshops were Intermediate/Advanced. The pre-requisite for these was to have a solid 30 second freestanding handstand. I was able to attend the Intermediate group and I felt so grateful that my training was paying off. There were only 10 spaces so I was really fortunate to be able to participate in both. I was one of the few people attending all four workshops, but I didn’t want to waste any opportunity to learn from Yuval. Here is what I’ve learnt.
1. New mobility and line drills.
The importance of preparing your body for any sort of training is essential. You start at the beginning of a movement and build it up, engaging the correct muscles and switching on your CNS. What I loved about the mobility drills and the initial warm up was how gentle and relaxing it felt. We started to learn about the line of the body, followed by moving in and out of stretches, connecting them together to mobilise joints, loosening everything up and get our bodies ready for training.
2. It doesn’t matter how strong you are, a plank still sucks.
We worked on holding the plank position. It involves protracting the scapular, squeezing the glutes, pointing the toes and so on. All basic stuff. But it doesn’t matter how strong you are because when done correctly it is HARD. It definitely highlights weak areas. We worked on this individually and in partners. This meant our partner could give us feedback to improve our hold.
In the afternoon classes we covered more challenging variations, which involved adding in movement and more partner work.
3. Stick to alignment.
We used wooden sticks to help with our alignment. There are different ways of practicing moving your body into alignment. This can be done against a wall or on the floor. We held the sticks over our heads to simulate hands on the floor, which helps with opening the shoulders and elongating the body.
4. The wall is your best friend.
You can always go back to the wall. It’s easy to think “I can hold a freestanding handstand now, I don’t need to work on the wall”. But you can ALWAYS learn and improve by going back to basics, to work on strengthening areas that can become neglected as you progress to more challenging movements.
We did chest to wall holds, which develop and improve your line. We also faced away from the wall, which is a way of working on balance. The wall is there for you when you feel nervous and adds that extra bit of support and reassurance.
When you become tired and still want to work on a skill or do some endurance you can go back to the wall. It takes away having to balance, making it easier to focus on other elements.
5. Move your head.
There are many different head positions when holding a handstand. None of them are the correct way, they are all important to learn. Each head position changes the alignment of your body and the way you have to balance.
As part of my own training I have just started playing around with tucking my chin to my chest while moving into tucks and straddles so this really helped. Yuval told us to play around with different head positions, and I will integrate more of this into my training.
6. Freestanding – “You are never in a neutral position in a handstand”.
When you are in a handstand you are constantly re-balancing. Your body is moving in and out of alignment and you keep correcting yourself. The majority of your weight goes through the heel of your hand and you use your fingers to push into the floor to stop your body falling. Pulling your shoulders forwards over your wrists, then pulling your hips over your shoulders and straightening your body out stops your body falling backwards. It’s only a very slight amount of movement and it gets smaller as your handstand improves, but it is always happening while upside down. You are never still.
7. Get upside down.
There are different ways of getting into a handstand. You can kick up, tuck up, straddle up, pike up, press up… I usually kick up because that’s how I was taught when I did gymnastics as a kid. But recently I’ve been trying to vary between kicking up and tucking up. We worked through each of these techniques in a lot of detail and some of the cues that were given were really helpful.
One thing I can’t do is straddle up. Even with a jump I just can’t seem to get my body to do what it needs to. But it was great having assistance from Yuval and Guillermo, and being able to practice the movement while someone was spotting me. Again with the presses I am lacking strength in several areas of my body, but I got to have a feel of the movement with lots of help. You can’t get this kind of feedback when you train on your own.
8. “Look for the easiest way to do each skill”.
When you start out with handstands you are never going to get a perfect line. In fact Yuval said you will probably never get a perfect line in a lifetime and he is constantly working to improve his. With a handstand the hands and the feet should line up. If you can achieve this the next step is to connect everything between your hands and feet. You slowly learn to line everything up, your shoulders, your hips, you squeeze all the right muscles. But it takes time. So as an example, it is far better to have an arched back (we called this being banana backed in gymnastics) if the feet and hands line up, than it is to be planching, with your feet and hands not in line.
This also applies to balancing a shape. The tuck handstand requires your knees to come down towards your chest but in order for this to happen you have to counterbalance by arching your back and sticking your bum out – something you do not do in a straight handstand.
9. Make shapes.
This is where things become more fun. It is seriously worth persevering to get consistent solid handstands because then you can play with moving around.
I have found that the more I can play and the more time I spend creating patterns and shapes, the more control I gain being upside down. It is also really important to be able to hold a straddle and a diamond for one arm handstand work.
10. The One Arm Handstand.
I’m not able to do a one arm handstand, nor am I ready to properly start training one. However, I know it is somewhere in my future. It was really exciting to learn about how to train them and even have a go at some of the drills myself.
When looking at different progressions Yuval emphasised that it is really important to only move on to the next progression when you are consistently and comfortably able to hold the progression you are working on. Too many people rush trying to learn this movement, but there is NO RUSH when it comes to handstands.
11. What to do when you have an off day.
With handstands I have found progress can be one step forward, ten steps back, which gets very frustrating. Luckily I stuck with it and my handstands have gradually become more consistent but that doesn’t mean I don’t still have days that feel like one giant fail. Sometimes it’s possible to push through fatigue and suddenly because you don’t think, it suddenly clicks. But not always.
However, if this happens it doesn’t mean your training session is lost. There are simple things you can work on to compliment your handstands, which are still an important part of training. You can work on endurance for example 1 minute hold, 1 minute rest x 5. If it’s too much to do it freestanding then you simply go back to the wall and don’t worry so much about your line.
Flexibility is key when it comes to moving in and out of a handstands and creating shapes, for example, holding a straddle handstand or performing a straddle press to handstand. So work on your pancake, work on your pike, hold the splits.
You can work on other skills such as a handstand push ups, where you don’t need great form, and this is another exercise that can easily be done against a wall. The point is not to be deterred if you feel like you are having an off day.
12. POINT YOUR TOES!
I have saved this one until last because I feel it is one of the most important things to learn to do when holding a handstand. All the floor drills and wall drills require it. It shouldn’t be any different when you hold a freestanding handstand. It is something that should become automatic and naturally part of the hand balancing movements. Yuval had many clever exercises and insights to help with toe pointing.
I have worked really hard to get comfortable pointing my toes and now I do it without thinking. It has helped my line a lot and another bonus is it’s very aesthetically pleasing.
To sum up my amazing weekend: It was so great to meet so many people who share my love of handstands. I got to see some real talent from the other students, which was extremely motivating. The most motivating factor of all, of course, was Yuval. He is unbelievably talented and I am in total awe of what he can do. Not only that but he is a brilliant teacher, with a considerate and relaxed approach. He is able to accommodate any ability. I didn’t feel under pressure to perform at any point, and he didn’t make us push past our limits. Training in such a friendly and chilled out environment only added to the fantastic content and overall experience of the workshops.
Yuval said that hand balancing is something that can become an obsession. The more of an obsession it is, the more you will achieve, like with anything. I think about what I have achieved in a year, and then I think about what I can achieve in two years, five years, or even 10 years as my obsession and love of handstands grows.
For anyone who wants to learn handstands or is already training them, if you get an opportunity to attend one of Yuval’s workshops, don’t hesitate to do so. I will say this again, it has been amazing.