I wandered down the street looking for a kids’ playground here in Atlanta today. The two men I asked directions from seemed both friendly and suspicious; and they did tell me where the park could be found. I wonder if the ‘stranger-danger’ POV has tipped too far in the direction that the rest of the US seems to be in these days (able to be experienced at any airport): the state of high alert?
Anyhow, I found a lovely park under a railway line; clean air, grass, wood chips, and ladder bars: everything the non-gym junkie needs for a workout. Today, though, it was all about “HS”, to use Coach’s terminology: the free handstand. I had planned to repeat the series Olivia, Robin and I learned from Yuri at the last workshop in C’ville, but there was not a suitable wall (or tree) to be found, so having had a few days off from the 90-day HS challenge (so, for me the count restarts today), I decided to try to kick up into free HSs.
Before I describe today’s events, though, let me describe the drills that we had practised with Yuri. Many of you will be familiar with the chest to the wall preparation element that Coach teaches: for me, the hardest part is the pulling down of the ribs (lat tension pulls them away from the body in this position), and maintaining the essential hollow and all glute and leg contractions.
But it was Yuri’s approach to the back to the wall version of the same preparation element that has had the most effect on my understanding of how to achieve balance in a handstand. The rule sounds like simplicity itself: simply have your fingertips a few inches away from the wall and kick up into a full handstand. Then concentrate on all the usual cues: pressing the hands strongly away from you into the floor; squeeze the glutes; tuck the tail; and extending the legs up towards the ceiling in the plane of the wall and thereby lengthen the entire line. Once in that position though, Yuri’s approach is then used.
He told us not to try taking one leg at a time away from the wall or even to try to bounce both legs together away at the same time but use a different approach. Once in one’s best, straightest and tightest position, Yuri recommended simply pressing the fingers into the floor while keeping the entire body tight, and using the finger–hand–forearm strength to press the insteps away from the wall, pivoting around the wrists. And if you pay attention in the same position you can simply tilt yourself back into the wall support by pressing the heel of the palm into the floor. This simple technique teaches the body–mind exactly how to use the strength in your forearm to control the critical forwards–backwards whole–body movements when in the air.
It works: I kicked myself up into a handstand using the method I favour (which is to have the shoulders well in front of the fingertips in the kick up position). After a few attempts I got to the balance point and immediately squeezed my glutes and reached my legs up into the air with everything held tight. For the first time ever I was able to move my whole body forwards and backwards and I stayed up in the air I guess somewhere between 15 and 20 seconds—but not by accident; I was feeling as though I was actually controlling the movement for the first time.
A number of things amazed me in this first attempt. The first was that, of course, compare to someone experienced like Yuri, my corrections required much more strength and of course the timing of them was nowhere near accurate enough so I used too much strength backwards and forwards many times (so, too much correction and over-correction). I remembered Yuri mentioning that (just like when one is shooting a rifle or pistol) there is no such thing as a still fixed balance position; there are only more and more subtle movements around the balance point. I competed in the Olympic pistol event over a number of years and this was my experience with the sight picture perfectly: no matter how good you become the pistol is always moving. The better you get, the circle simply become smaller and smaller, exactly like the handstand.
In the space of the next hour I repeated this hold, about six or seven times. In the last two I made myself say aloud the “one Alabama, two Alabama, etc., etc.” mantra out loud to make sure that I was actually breathing properly. I was able to get to ‘three Alabama’ or ‘four Alabama’ both times. How ever long the hold was (let us say around 10 seconds) the biggest lesson for me today was not the length of time held, but that for the first time in my own body I could feel how to balance, and felt the balance. What a rush!
And as I sit here looking at my hand I can see that the whole heel of the palm, from the base of the thumb to about halfway up the side of the palm, has been quite strongly abraded by the concrete I was working out on. Another thing that I have noticed is that the fingers and the palmar surface forearm muscles have had the most tremendous work out. And in a couple of the balances where I was just about to lose balance (going over backwards) I could feel that I was pressing my fingertips into the concrete with literally every gram of strength that I have. Now I understand part at least of why Yuri’s forearms are like Popeye’s!
As well as I was becoming a bit more tired I found that I was letting my elbows bend and yet I was still able to push myself up into a straighter handstand once I had achieved that critical balance and I could feel that the elbow bend is an emergency correction of the position as well.
Of course today could be a complete fluke and perhaps when I try again tomorrow I may find I can’t balance at all! If I do find this I will immediately go back to the to the wall drills that we have spent so much time on.
So closing today, may I simply publicly thank Yuri for his magnificent handstand tutorials during the last workshop we ran in Charlottesville and also thank Olivia for the hundreds of repetitions of the floor preparation drills that she has made me perform. It is all the floors drills that allow one to feel one’s body’s line once in the air; I am certain of this.