The creative process

This post is not about handstands 🙂

It is about the process of making a performance and about the creative process that accompanies it.

– To give you a bit of context: I am making a new performance! It is going to be an outdoor show, I am aiming at 30 minutes length and the preliminary or “working” title is “Stones and Water”.

Previous to this performance I have made two full length shows, each one hour long. Both performances have toured in theaters and at outdoor theater festival. The first one was “Selfie with eggs” a solo show and the second one was “Natalie Inside Out” which digital artist Mark Morreaux and I made together. –

I wanted to share the process of making this new performance because the act of creating something new, from scratch, deserves a close up. We often have to create raw sketches of something radical and new: a vision for the future, a vision for our life, a new mental attitude. We have to venture into the unknown and start an education, a family, or a job. The act of reinventing life can be scary. From the vantage point of the present, the future seems chaotic. Navigating this task well is crucial to development and the artistic process is a prime example.

I want to make art, I know that much, but when I start to create I really haven’t got a clue what is going on and that is the point of it. So here I am on day 1 in an empty studio. I am in a total state of panic. Every doubt in the world torments me.

I am about to start my residency at Jacksons Lane theater in London to be continued at the Lyric theater in Bridport in Dorset. (An artistic residency means that a theater or arts organization gives you their space for free. This greatly helps with writing an arts council application to further fund your artistic activities, meaning that you can pay yourself a weekly salary for the time that you are spending creating a project. You can pay for materials, travel, accommodation and most importantly you can pay other professionals to help and inspire you, for example a choreographer, or set designer or an acting coach. The other good thing about a residence is that it takes you away from home, helps you to press pause on your normal life and provides framework for you to actually start making stuff.)

I had procrastinated until the last minute to even think about what I was going to do on day one in the studio. I had ordered a bunch of plastic sheets and tarpaulins, some acrylic glass sheets, shaving foam and food colouring. As a rough starting point I wanted to do something with those materials. I also knew I wanted to write texts, make handstand choreographies. I wanted to reflect on my life and my art and the times we live in, in order to find a suitable topic to base the new performance around.

You cannot work towards a creative goal in a structured way, as in having a plan and then ticking off all the stages to get to a desired result. At least, I cannot work like that. If you are too focused on quick results, you are only going to repeat yourself and not make anything new. In order to make something new you have to embrace the possibility that it might not be good, or interesting or novel. You need to face the possibility that you may not be able to come up with anything at all, in other words: that you may fail! Without accepting that failure may be one possible outcome, you will not create the void in your brain that allows something novel to fill the space. You are then more likely to create something that is very similar to what you have made before because that is “safe”. Without facing the blank canvas you don’t have the chance to create. That blank canvas is mighty scary and frightening! So you need to find ways to distract yourself from the task at hand.

You cannot work towards a creative goal in a structured way but you can structure you exploration time. You can set yourself games and tasks. My morning task would for example be:

  • Make five arrangements with the plastic sheets and take a picture of them. Then name the pictures.
  • Give each of the plastic sheets a name and write a three sentence description for that sheet as if it was a person, taking into account its unique qualities.
  • Write a page of something based on the word “plastic”, anything is valid as long as words are on the page, meaning it does not need to make sense.

I also like to set daily tasks for myself. For example:

  • Write down ten questions, any type of question. They don’t need to be about the piece.
  • Get distracted by a random thing that really fascinates you and get lost on Pinterest or Wikipedia.

In the afternoons of my residency time I do a proper physical warm-up and practice handstands. I play the funnest music and try to move to it in a handstand. My guideline for the afternoons is that I do not have to be original. This is a good way to remember the things I am naturally good at, which may not be original but they are the foundation of my work. It is important to remember that when you are trying to make something original not every single part of it has to be truly novel. I don’t have to reinvent myself entirely, I only have to make a new performance. I am still Natalie the handbalancer who is doing the performance. When you try to radically change it is useful to know which parts are not going to change as they form the core of what you are doing.

During my creative tasks I frequently get confused, I get stuck, I have doubts or I don’t know what to do next. I then listen to whale singing on YouTube. This somehow helps me through the confusion and then eventually I come up with something. This is a trick I learned from my friends at Collectif and then. For a good week I continue in this way. I try to give myself tasks that distract me enough from the goal of making interesting art. Which is when I start to explore with an open minded curiosity. During this first week I listen to whale sounds a lot!

At some point my initial panic subsides and I start to remember that I am good at this: when I explore with an open mind I quickly stumble upon things that interest me and that I want to change into something more striking, or essential, or vivid. This is why I am an artist. I am fascinated by arrangements of movements, words, spaces and situations that create a feeling or an experience in a spectator. This is my trade: I assemble symbols, situations and actions in unusual ways. Thinking about these assemblies and arrangements and what emotions and thoughts they might cause fascinates me. An idea for a scene, a piece of music, or a text fragment can haunt me for years. It will keep popping into my mind and I will wonder what it is about and what it means to me. My mind won’t rest until I found out what it means to me and that is why I want and need to make these performances.

When your art becomes your profession, it stops just being about you and your thoughts though. There is an art industry around you. You need to make things that tour or sell. You get confronted with opinion and judgment. Your friends, teachers and parents all have something to say about what you made. The pressure to succeed (whatever that means) starts to make it very difficult to make any kind of art at all. What you used to do quite intuitively, becomes laden with heaviness, fear and worry. The hardest thing for me in my entire career in the arts is to silence the voices in my head, the expectations, including my own, of what anything is or needs to be. I find this harder than making the performance itself. The harder I strive towards any notion of “success”, the harder I try to grab it, the less likely I am to achieve anything.

As I continue to work in my residency and the days pass with me trying to keep a daily rhythm of creation time and handstand practice my mind wanders in many directions. I think about what brought me here, how and why I started to be a performer and I think about the previous performance that I have made. Gradually this continuous dialogue with myself in an empty room crystallizes around the themes that really matter to me on stage: control and loss of control, biographical stories, making a big mess that contrasts with the perfection of the handstands and giving the audience a “behind the scenes” view of a circus performer. I “stumble” upon things, I don’t know if I blindly found them or if the imaginative part of my brain let loose has conquered this new territory. It does not feel like I am working because I cannot see any structure or pattern. For sure it is exhausting though.

At the end of two and a half weeks I have written a dozen texts and made 5 scenes with the plastic sheets and handstands. I filmed a long improvisation session in Bridport where at 10pm one day I decided it was the right time to make a gigantic mess with shaving foam in the quiet and dimly lit beautiful old theater. On the video I am throwing myself around in the foam, sliding and falling and laughing like a kid.

I eventually remember what I forget every time I make a new thing: When you start to make a new thing you don’t know what the thing is just yet. You need to venture into the uncertain. Then when I made the new thing it becomes such a sure item in my artistic repertoire that I forget about how once upon a time this thing was unknown to me. Like for example robotic movement in a handstand or that I talk about my body in a handstand. I discovered this once, it was brand new and exciting at the time. Today it feels like I have always done this, always known this material, but that is not true. Once upon a time I was in an empty room doing stuff and then I played this really glitchy electronic music and then I tried to do a handstand as glitchy as the music. Then I looked at the video and thought “Wow, this looks great, it looks like fast forwarded movement!”. That is how I discovered the glitchy handstand move.

I need to remind myself of this.

Everything I am doing now has once been discovered because I ventured into the uncertain.

I need to keep stepping into the unknown in order to evolve and move forward in my art and also in my life. It is terrifying and rewarding and it takes courage.

“Stones and Water” is supported by Arts Council England, Jacksons Lane theater London and The Lyric theatre Bridport.


Learning new movement

I want to start this with a quote from one of my favourite books: “The choreographer’s handbook” by Jonathan Burrows. A book about the creative process, the body and perception. It is made for choreographers but I find the insights can be transferred to many areas of life.

He says: “Learning motor skills is emotionally stressful.” I had to re-read this when I encountered it first because it seemed obvious and wrong at the same time. I mean, I know learning a new skill is hard on the body, it can be frustrating, it is a slow and long process. I have however never considered that all those feeling are stressful. Yes, they are stressful! There is a lot to process and many voices in your head to appease.

“How”, he then asks, ”can we make this process less stressful?” He also says that this type of stress may be just the right thing for some people. What type of stress is useful for you?

I have written about the inner dialogue of learning in the post before. A big source of stress for my students is when they get a correction but cannot immediately implement it. Someone may be convinced they are a slow learner because I have explained to them how for example the weight transfer to a one arm handstand happens, yet they cannot do it like that, not even after a week’s practice. They will ask me why they cannot do it? They are looking for the missing piece of information. Mostly I can see in their attempts that they have understood the correction and are trying what I asked them to do. All I can do is explain it again, in more detail. It now just needs 1000 repetitions.

Repetition can be a beautiful process in itself. Firstly because you can loose yourself in it, it can be totally immersive and absorb your focus so completely that it becomes quite a meditative state. Secondly because every attempt is another chance to learn something. It is not all hit or miss, failure or success. It is rather that in one attempt you have gotten a bit closer to where your body is supposed to be and in another you are a bit further off. Both attempts though, have told you more about how your body works. You have created dots on the map, created a better understanding of the movement you were trying to do. You are on your way.

In juggling (having learnt my handstand stuff at a circus school, I have talked to a lot of jugglers about their work) every throw is important, even the throw that drops the ball. With every throw you have gained more information about how to throw the ball in order to keep it up in the air in that particular pattern and catch it again. When you drop, you know how NOT to throw the ball and that information is as important as knowing how to throw to succeed. I learned a lot from juggling about the process of repetition, failure and success because juggling is as laborious and frustrating to learn as handstands and it is equally obvious when it goes wrong. When you drop the ball, when you loose your balance, it is obvious. You cannot hide it, especially not on stage. That is why in juggling, “the drop” is the big fear and in handstands it is losing your balance.

To gain mastery and confidence requires a huge amount of perfection and precision and this precision has to be acquired through ten thousand attempts. Ten thousand repetitions, and after that you are much more likely to be closer to your desired outcome when you try the handstand, the movement, the juggling pattern you are aiming for. You have not become perfect but a lot more consistent. Consistency is what you should aim for, not perfection.

I think being in an environment where everybody is learning difficult skills like in a circus school makes it easier to accept the struggle that accompanies you through all the repetitions. You also witness everyone else’s struggles, so it is easier to accept it as a given that repetition is at the core of learning. It is not about getting it right but about trying so many times that eventually the likelihood of doing it approximately right is relatively high. It still is not a guarantee, every time you do the movement or the handstand it is a new attempt. For a movement that you have learnt, the chances are high that you will get it. For a movement or handstand you have not mastered yet the chances are less high. You will however never master it 100%, you have approximated the movement and over time the goal is to keep the approximation as accurate as possible by repeatedly practising. The wonderful and maddening thing is that movement changes, it does not stay the same, so in order to keep the skill that you have acquired you need to continuously practice it and make sure that your map is still correct. If your body changes, which it does over a lifetime, then the parameters of the movement change. This means that you need to adjust the dots on the map and relearn a part of it.

I love the stories that my circus colleagues tell about when they “lost” a trick. The acrobatic move, the juggling throw or the hula hoop pattern they have confidently performed hundreds of times on stage is suddenly “gone”. It does not work any more, it is as if it has been wiped from the brain and the body. It can then take months to get it back. It basically has to be relearned. A baffling process for someone who is a master of their skill.

Don’t look for success but rather accept the struggle of repetition. The struggle of trying to repeatedly approximate a very precise physical process is a worthwhile one. In every attempt you learn more about your body in general and about how it feels today. It is a daily task.

Jonathan Burrows closes the paragraph on learning new movement with a quote: “The subjective discomfort of attempting to maintain prolonged periods of unusual concentration, together with the inevitable poor performance at this stage, is highly stressful and requires considerable emotional commitment to sustain perseverance.” (“Human Movement – an introductory text” by Churchill Livingstone). I loved this because it means that it is ok to not feel great when you practice. It is ok to struggle through it. It is normal to fall left and right and only occasionally get it right. It is normal because you are attempting to master something difficult and the harder the task the more rocky the path. It does not mean that you are slow, it is just what it is: The process of learning through repetition.

I take part in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, this means that if you click on the links below and then buy the product I get a small commision at no additional cost to you. I only get the commision if you actually buy the product not just by you clicking on the link.

Human movement – An introductory text
Jonathan Burrows – A Choreographer’s Handbook


The inner dialogue of learning


Next time you practice handstands I invite you to pay attention to your thoughts. You may find that your mind is much busier than expected.

When I practice I can often observe a dialogue with myself that comments and encourages, evaluates and compares what I do. Sometimes the dialogue refers to the previous moment, sometimes it refers to what I think of myself or an event in the past. It can also happen that all thoughts are absent. That is when handstand practice becomes quite meditative. It is a state of mind I enjoy very much. With all those hours of practice over the years you cannot help but sometimes forget about what you are doing and why. You just practice out of habit. It is your routine. I find both states very interesting, the inner dialogue and how it relates to motivation and learning as well as the empty state of mind.

The inner dialogues, or micro communications between your mind and your body happen at the intersection of movement and the parts of your movement that are available for observation to your conscious mind. This is funny because a great many aspects of your movements are not available to your conscious mind at all so the parts that you are evaluating are quite selective. It is a mix between how you feel during the movement and what you think it looks like when you see yourself on video or in a picture. Most movement is so complex that we can only refer to one or two aspects of it at a time. Simultaneously every movement has an overwhelmingly clear feeling connected to it. A full-bodied sensation. How we evaluate movement and our progress should be looked at in the light of how little we know about the movement or handstand shape at the time when it happens or during the process of learning it. I find that a liberating thought because it means that harsh judgments of your performance are not really appropriate as your perception is too selective to give you precise information about what is going on.

At times, I find keeping a mental distance in training valuable. It gives you lots of cues about how your body, your expectations, your experience and your selfimage are all connected. For the sake of clarity I divide the inner dialogues here into four categories: 1. Sensation what the movement feels like and how you experience it. 2. Expectation what you expect of yourself in terms of results. What, when and how much you should practice or how fast you should progress. 3. Comparison to others or to yourself at different times of your life. 4. Aesthetic you evaluate the look through a video or picture. Looking at your thoughts does not necessarily suggest that you should change your internal dialogue to the better.

I think all the four categories above can have benefits. It is more about realizing what is useful. The most interesting part is to find out more about yourself through observation. What can these dialogues look like while training? Sensation is how you experience your body during a movement. This can be heavy, smooth, quick, clunky, energetic, straining, lithe or swift. On bad training days I feel like an elephant that is falling left and right. On good days I feel like a feather with precision navigation. If something is new the movement feels clunky. I prefer if it feels smooth and lithe. I dislike the heaviness and the chunkiness, it makes me want to stop doing the move. Then I remind myself, that I can get to the smoothness, the litheness. It has happened in the past. That keeps me going through the heaviness. Sometimes though I like the heaviness. I can attack it like an animal and bash my whole body against it, grind it down, struggle with it. That gives me a sense of victory. To me, sensation provides one of the most useful dialogues with yourself because you are very close to your lived bodily existence, it is immediate and instant and makes you focus on yourself.

Expectation means I go into training with an idea of who I am and what I want to achieve. In this dialogue I am negotiating a lot with tiredness and pain: I want to stop but I feel like I should keep going. When it goes well, then this dialogue motivates me to practice longer. If it does not go well I am constantly disappointing myself. At this point it is useful to remind yourself that this is just one training session of many. It can also be useful to just focus on the repetitions.

The comparison dialogues are the trickiest because they go along the lines of how good am I? How fast is my progress? Where should I be at and where are others at? If you have been injured you may constantly be thinking about where you used to be at. There are a lot of parrots sitting on your shoulder and only one is remotely objective. The others produce general chatter and have nothing to do with you. The conclusion is often: I am failing! This conclusion kills your motivation to practice in general and also the ability to push yourself. These are not questions you should be asking yourself regularly at all. These are questions that you should sit down with once a month when you review your training. Then you can get to the conclusion: I am trying hard but I could do better? What can I change to structure my training or my day better so that I am more prepared, more focused or stronger?

The aesthetic dialogues evaluate visual cues. It is always a shock to see yourself on a video because it looks so different to what it feels like. Give yourself some credit before you harshly judge a look. If it feels good then you have done at least 50% right. If it feels good then you only need to work on details to make it look good, assuming that you want a shape to look clear, strong or easy. You may not want it to look like that. Maybe you want it to look explosive or powerful. Try to think about how you would like your movements to look like? Is there a movement quality there that is already really great because it is unique to your body? Your focus should be on technical or aesthetic fine-tuning. Dont ever allow the machete of generalized judgment to creep into your head while you are looking at pictures or video. “It is all crap” “I am fat!” orI will never get this!” are never true. Those are big waves in your mind that will pass once you focus on useful details to improve.

A negative dialogue often arises when the tasks are too difficult or not well-structured. When someone is unprepared and or overwhelmed. With every attempt of doing an exercise that is too far out of your comfort zone you are thinking: “I cant do this!”, “I am failing!”, “I hate this!”, “I can never do this!”, “I want to get out of here!” Therefore as a teacher, providing information in small digestible pieces is one of the most empowering things you can give to people because they experience a series of Yes! Yes! Yes, I can do this! A millionI can do this!”- steps will have assembled a difficult move or skill. That is why the internal dialogue matters. As a tool for teaching, for self reflection and also possibly for personal change. When you practice by yourself you need to keep the YesYesYes road going by structuring your training well and regularly assessing what you have learned with a focus on progress. You can have fails in your mind too. They should be in the minority though and help you to work harder. When the fails become too many it does not mean that you cannot learn the skill, it means you need smaller digestible bits to get back to the Yestrack.

I believe that the experience of having succeeded at mastering something difficult is a lesson for life that sticks. It is the experience of theYes! Yes! Yes, oh no fail! Ok, what went wrong? Try again! Yes, Yes, got it!” –dialogue over a longer period of time. It is crucial to learn a difficult skill. Once someone experienced the fact that step by step learning, patience and determination lead to a result, they will be more confident in venturing into unknown areas of knowledge to repeat that experience. You may think this is obvious but I think that many people are not granted this experience ever in an education system that is based on competitive selection. Learning in a competitive environment teaches you an inner dialogue that is based on the fear to fail and on winning because someone else lost. It never conveys the wonder of discovery that is contained in a successful learning process that is based on encouragement and support.

Handstand training offers a great chance to observe your inner dialogue. Apart from observing it is also useful to sometimes switch it off completely and surf along the structure of your daily training, knowing that with every unexciting set of repetitions you are somehow contributing to the bigger set of skills. It takes ages anyhow so there is no use to evaluate anything really. I find that reassuring and calming. It matters and it does not matter. Progress is far too big a matter and too long an affair to evaluate in a particular training session. This means that I am freed of my judgment, my expectations and the expectation of others. At that moment and I simply practice the handstands. And thats it.


Are we there yet? – Practice and time

When you practice handstands it can sometimes appear as if the progress is very slow. It feels like even though you are putting in the time, you are not really getting anywhere. I encounter this frustration in many of my students and sometimes in myself.

In this post I wanted to share some of my training experiences especially from my childhood in the hope that you find motivation in the fact that learning a difficult skill really takes time, no matter what age you are at.

It always confuses me a bit when people say that children learn faster than adults and somehow, it is implied, effortlessly. To me this sounds as if the fact that I had learned how to handstand as a child somehow means that I did not put real work into it. As if all the practice was play and fun and then zoom one day there was perfect body alignment.

That is really not what I remember. Yes, as I say in one of my performancesThe first time I remember doing a handstand was when my teacher held me up by my feet, and she told me to stay, and then she let go and I stayed. I was five years old, I weighed 18 kilos, I could almost do splits and twenty pull ups (if I had had a chocolate bar just before)” I was a little shrimp and I could do a two-second banana shaped handstand, legs waving into all directions. So that was the fun part but really, after that it was ten thousand repetitions. For a while my coaches strapped two pieces of cardboard with tape to my arms when I practiced because I kept bending my elbows. (Sounds a bit awful, but it wasnt. And anyhow my coaches gave up on that after a while cause the cardboard would break every time from my bending arms…)

So, as a child you learn faster and you learn with ease. I find that both unfair and incorrect. I remember my years in the sports acro club as years of hard work. I remember long afternoons in the gym when the fading light outside made the shadows grow longer and I had been practicing the same odd move for the past hour and a half. I remember the harsh fluorescent lights as we practiced until late in the evening. I remember how we had a quick lunch on a half hour break. I had acro practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday night for three hours and at the weekend between ten in the morning and six in the afternoon. I sometimes enter a sports hall and the smell of the mats, the smell of sweat and smelly feet and bathrooms with leaky pipes brings me back to those many evenings and weekends spent in the gym. Looking back at my childhood it appears to me that learning was neither easy nor fast. I dont think I learned faster.

The difference was I accepted that progress takes time. I did not measure my success on a daily or weekly basis. I was wholeheartedly invested into learning acrobatics and handstands. Time mattered less and I did not have any concept of how fast I should learn. I surrendered to training as a long learning process. I was not easily discouraged. I had a lot of people around me who were in the same situation and I could see with my own eyes every day that they were putting the exact same time and effort into training as I was. I knew that all of this would take an awful long time and some of it would never happen. I had no Instagram or Youtube that would have fed me quick fixes and delusions about progress. I put in the practice and the time without thinking about the time.

Impatience and frustration are in my experience with my students the two biggest obstacles for progress in handstands. It takes a long time to learn a simple straight line handstand. Learning a handstand press or even a one arm handstand takes even longer. You better stop measuring success in weeks, especially when it comes to the more advanced stuff. The biggest mental challenge in handstand training (and a hugely helpful mindset to acquire for many other parts of life) is to switch off your judgemental mind and put in the time without immediate expectations. I dont meanwithout goalsbut without immediate expectations. The times we live in value fast progress and also assume that with the right technique you get quick results soon. No technique will spare you from repetitive practice. As I like to say to my students at the end of a workshop: Unfortunately the only real secret is: you have to practice!

So my advice is: write a practice plan and stick to it like a Zen monk (I dont know so much about Zen monks but it sounds good ;)). Stick to your plan with a calm and determined mindset. Switch off comparison, do the repetitions. Look at the stopwatch, count your repetitions and just do the thing, stick to it! No self evaluation on the day. Just do the exercises, your body will carry you through. My second advice: Film your training at the beginning of each month and keep the videos. At the end of the month (this is for beginners) sit down and look at the videos and evaluate your progress. If you are working on more advanced stuff go back to your videos every second month. For one arm handstands evaluate progress every three months. If you are working on your one arm handstand, most of the time no noticeable change occurs within a month. When it comes to one arm practice, start planning in years rather than months. While this sounds tedious it is actually wonderful! You now have a companion: handstand practice. Slow and steady, always by your side, constant refuge in the form of repetition from the busyness of ever-changing modern life. It is like a little caterpillar that transforms to something beautiful very slowly and you get to be the creator, every day.

Ditch your impatience and allow learning to unfold at it’s slow and steady pace.



The mindset for efficient handstand training

For a while now I wanted to write about the difference between habitual repetition and intensive practice. Understanding the difference between the two can mean that we get more out of our daily training. It took me a while to know the difference myself. When I read Daniel Coyle’s book “The talent code” I realized that what he calls “deep practice” comes very close to what I call “intensive practice”. Daniel Coyle tries to pin down what exactly leads to excellence across a range of fields from writing to basketball. His conclusions are that what people call talent is in fact mostly the result of a specific type of practice that breaks a skill down to manageable small parts. He also talks about how operating at the limits of your ability and actively processing mistakes intensifies your practice and strengthens the neural connections you need for that specific activity. Anders Ericcson calls this type of practice “deliberate practice” in his 1993 essay The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”. Both their findings resonate with what I have experienced throughout my training and education. So this post will be inspired by their ideas as well as my personal experience and will hopefully tell you more about how to progress faster in your handstand training.

Before I continue I would like to point out that training does not necessarily have to be focused on progress. If it is fun, keeps to fit and gives you quality recreational time that is great! Rather than ideologically advocating self optimization (radical optimization and climate change have in common that they are guaranteed to ruin you and everyone around – so please, my friends increase your carrot cake intake!); rather than telling you what you have to do, this post is a quest into my ongoing fascination with what makes my students progress. Alongside that quest I am also trying to remember how I progressed and what the crucial moments in my learning curve were.

When I was 12 I was determined to become part of the German sports-acro national team. Our sports-acro club had a six week long summer break and I was in total despair over how much training I was going to miss out on. So I wrote myself a summer practice plan to keep fit and improve, so that I could go right back to training properly after the break. The practice plan consisted of precise exercises for every handstand move I wanted to learn, with an exact amount of repetitions that I would increase every week and the plan also included targeted conditioning exercises. I had a laser focus on everything I did with a really vivid picture of the moves I wanted to learn in mind. The practice plan was set out for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. My grandmother was deeply concerned about this “training obsession” and thought I should be outside playing with the other kids. She had a point there! BUT in those weeks I learned a one arm handstand by myself as well as many other handstand shapes and I set the base for more than twenty years of handstand training to come. In these six weeks I became a handbalancer, I still stick to the structure of training I wrote for myself back then and it took me a long time to realize how remarkable and important these six weeks were.

What made this summer so important was not just the time I put into the practice. I was very focused, I practiced without music playing in the background or any other distractions purely focusing on what I would now call an efficient body mind connection. I was really trying to figure out each move in a physical, not in a logical way. It is hard to pin down what happens in the complex flux of muscular impulses and in the split second feedback between body and brain. Bodily learning means that you need to find a system to make sense of what you feel in order to know the difference between right and wrong movements.

Within that system you then need to break a move down into parts that make sense to you. So when you get a correction or feedback your job as someone who wants to learn a handstand is to break the information down into digestible bits and have a laser focus on the body part that needs to implement the correction. In order to facilitate this process as a teacher I try to give precise visual examples (show the student), provide somatic images (“imagine your legs are like laser rays”) and precise physical instructions (“curve your upper back”).

When you have this type of focus in your practice, you don’t need to put in long hours. I don’t ever practice for more than three hours a day. While I have accumulated many hours of practice over the years for sure, I do not think that long hours of training are useful. Regular practice is important but not for hours at a time. What really makes a difference is the quality of the instructions you get and the sharpness of your awareness while you are training.

When you are engaged in deep practice your awareness is entirely in your body. This does not mean that you are actively thinking about your body it means that you are actively feeling it. This feeling is not the equivalent of merely observing your body. While it is important to be a good observer, you need to develop a holistic feeling of your body as one whole connected space. It means detailed, intrinsic, felt knowledge of the body so that it becomes both a database and a map upon which you mark new territory. Your body becomes a canvas onto which you draw a picture. Learning a knew physical skill, especially as an adult means that you need to find a method of processing instructions and images in a way that allows you to translate them to bodily knowledge or kinesthetic intelligence. So this poses the question of what happens to information within the training process? If a handstand student is told to tilt their hips more to the front how do they make sure this actually happens? Why does it not happen sometimes even though we have clearly understood the theory of the handstand and the importance of tucking the hips in? Once upside down the world is suddenly different. Even though it is the same body, standing on your feet or upside down, one is in control the other is not. How is it possible to bridge that gap?

What I suggest is to consider yourself an explorer, a cartographer of unknown territory. Your body is foreign land and you are trying to create a map that consists of intrinsic, bodily images, not words. The words sit in your brain, the intrinsic images are your physical map and guideline against which you can execute corrections. Try this: when you practice break the movement down into sections. Work on two pieces of information at the most. Say you want to correct your straight line handstand, pick two very specific areas you want to work on, let’s say pushing the shoulder out and pushing the ribs flat. Before you do the movement think of what it means to push the shoulders out or to keep the ribs flat. Physically try it out whilst standing or in a prep exercise. Put all your awareness onto that specific movement/body part. Try to be very clear about what this feels like! What it feels like! Ask yourself: “What is the physical sensation of my body being in this position?” Then memorize it! Press save! Then press copy! Now do the move and try to recreate that feeling when you are doing the handstand with your mind completely focused on the thing you want to correct. This is the process of learning: 1. understand the problem 2. understand the correction 3. while standing or in a prep exercise execute the correction 4. save the feeling 5. copy and paste into the move 6. repeat it a hundred times to anchor it in the body. While you repeat the movement, also repeat the correction feedback process every 30th of 40th repetition (roughly) to make sure that you are still on track. With each repetition the correction will become more body and less thought. It becomes automatic. If you stick to this process you will improve, it is an incredibly efficient way to physically learn. Make it a habit to have your mind like a laser on the body part that has to execute the correction. When I struggle to coordinate a movement and my limbs keep doing the wrong thing I sometimes stop and think with big, bold, loud words: “At this point (picture the physical position) your left leg will do this” (kind of do it + picture in which direction it will go = towards he corner). Think again: “Towards the corner! This one is my left leg!” (I then pinch or pat my left leg). Then I do the movement and think: Left + corner, left + corner. – This is much faster than it sounds and it becomes a habit.

The physical map you create will be the base upon which you apply further learning and corrections, so that your physical knowledge builds in complexity just like your knowledge of a language builds. So even if you are processing feedback about what you are doing from a teacher or from watching yourself on a video your awareness should be in your body. You are not trying to solve a logical problem, understand an abstract theory or construct any other framework outside of your body. Your thoughts have to refer to the great unknown which you are trying to map: the body. This way you can break a big goal like mastering a handstand down to a thousand little steps of which you can take two every day.


Intensive handstand training

Every type of physical activity has its own charm.

One of the charms of handstand training is the intensely strenuous, grinding work.

Handstand training creates a pumping heat in your body, your muscles burn, you feel the pressure in your joints, and there can be that ill feeling of your body tearing at its seams that comes with touching upon your physical limits (sounds like a fun activity right?). All of it is paired with an intense mental and physical focus. In this post I would like to talk about the states one passes through when trying to advance in handstand training as I feel like understanding them better will enable you to value each state more as part of your progress.

We love the fleeting moments of lightness in our handstand training. Some days it all just feels effortless, our body is light like a feather. We wonder what all the stress was about, this feels so easy. These are the moments we work for. Moments when we appear to have full and effortless control over our body. These moments of lightness often come as a result of descending from the peaks we have climbed in previous training days. When we have recovered from a very strenuous training time or our body has adjusted to a new level of training intensity we can feel light, powerful and almost weightless in our handstand training. As much as this feels pleasant I think the moments when training is hard offer valuable experiences and should be seen as more than just a chore.

In handstand training, after having learnt the basics, you cannot progress without a tight training routine that systematically pushes your limits further. Let me repeat: you cannot progress without those training sessions where you feel close to the absolute limit of what your body is able to cope with. When you get this pumping heat all over your limbs, your forearms swell and you feel a bit like a jelly fish in a sauna, strangely lacking in substance, close to melting and very help-and hopeless, that is where your handstand training starts. Such high intensity training does however contain the risk of damaging your mental and physical body. Your awareness narrows, your movement precision decreases and you are entering into a mental dialogue with yourself about having-to-become-more-than-your-are which can be harmful if you are not paying close attention to it.

So how do we challenge and push ourselves to work very hard without injuring ourselves, without crushing our joy, our self-esteem and critical judgement? My answer to this is: slowly and carefully get used to working with a quiet and self assured ardour.

Ardour comes from the Latin word ardere which means: to burn. It translates to anything ranging from enthusiasm to passion, devotion or zeal. Ardour is the burning heat in your body and mind. Ardour means to love or want something so much that you are ready to take whatever hardship it requires. You want to progress at handstands, you want to have more stability, endurance or learn how to do a one arm handstand. This is what you want on the surface. If you cannot connect to the underlying personal goals that your wish, goal or passion is based on you may fail to hold up the discipline it requires to do the necessary work. Now I have dropped the second most important word: discipline. Discipline sounds rather grim. Its connotations range from control and enforced compliance to strict rules and punishment. Discipline (you know by now, I pride myself of my Latin ;)) comes from the Latin word discipulus which simply means student but not just that, it also defines a person who learns from another in order to then become a teacher themselves.

It is important to note that ardour and discipline are both in essence directed at something and describe a process of becoming. Discipline has an idol in mind, a teacher, another athlete or a clearly outlined achievement. Ardour envisions a future self or a new way of being that comes about by fully immersing yourself in the object of your passion. The physical process of training hard is thus a process of becoming. Your hard work always happens in dialogue with a vision of you, your future self. What motivates you is a sketch that you have drawn of yourself of what you may become in the future. This is very different from ticking off a box for having achieved a higher number of repetitions or more seconds in holding endurance handstands. It is a process alive with personal reflection where you continuously need to check in with your future self-to-be along the way of hard work, pain and sweat.

This may seem obvious but it is not. A lot of people are disconnected form the hardship of training as a tool for leverage because they do not understand the dialogue and introspection that needs to take place on the way. In that case handstand training will be very mechanistic and merely toying around with exercises, training tools and drills. If you really want to benefit from the intensity of handstand training, do understand what you are aiming at, who you want to become (not just a better handbalancer) and who you are doing this for (not just the Instagram likes). I like to call this process “developing a perspective”. It means that you start to understand yourself and your unique set of circumstances as a person and in life better.

On a very practical level “developing a perspective” means that you have to pay very close attention. The biggest potential intensive training has for personal development is the hyper-awareness and focus it requires. When the training gets tough your awareness needs to sharpen, your body is in a more dangerous place than ever, you may get injured, you want to push your limits but how far is safe? How much can you toe the line of what is safe? That is the main question body and mind try to negotiate throughout strenuous training: What is safe? It is a very exciting state of mind.

If you accept this as not just a physical but also as a personal process, you can welcome the strain and the pain to teach you more about yourself. That way hard work has a taste of discovery and becomes a stepping stone to progress rather than just a tedious chore to get to a higher skill level. Finding joy in strenuous training, finding meaning in ardour and the potential in discipline means you need to find your personal project.


Developing your own practice

My students sometimes ask me why my online handstand course is only available for streaming for twelve months. (online handstand course available here) This is not because I want to restrict access to the program or get people to buy it a second time. This is because on the one hand twelve months are a good time frame to prevent you from procrastinating. Ten year gym contracts calculate on the fact that most people don’t start until nine and a half years have passed. Limiting time means that you will make better use of it. On the other hand there is a more fundamental concept behind this time frame:

I hope that in a year’s time you won’t need this program anymore because you will have moved on to more challenging ways of moving. I hope that your understanding of handbalancing as well as the knowledge of your body will have expanded and you will have developed an appetite for learning other things. I hope that by that time you have built your own practice from the tools I gave you and that you will be off on your own journey to discover and explore your physical homeland.

Let me explain the mindset of learning that theses thoughts are based on: I believe that your competence in making critical choices about the way you want to train grows with every hour of exercise you put in. So do trust that growing knowledge of your body and use it. When you have understood and mastered a skill up to a certain extent you don’t need to go back to square one all the time to remind yourself of the exact wording of every phrase, the exact task, the exact exercise. By the time you are in college you don’t need to keep in touch with the wisdom of your primary school maths books.

Learning by copying someone and by repeating exercises hundreds of times is often the way to acquire a new physical tool. That is a fun and very important process in itself. You can really dive into a new way of moving and trust someone else to guide you through it. This is the stage of learning where you expand your physical horizon, you discover a whole new range of moving and being. You practice being precise, accurate and goal oriented. Every athlete and mover knows times when one is totally obsessed with perfect technique, maximum repetitions and optimum training plans. I believe that this a very important stage but only the first of many steps of physical learning and personal development.

So here you are doing my handstand exercises that are supposed to serve you as a tool while you learn and familiarise your body with new pathways of moving. For a while you follow my patterns and build the awareness as well as the muscular grid to safely execute more and more advanced exercises.

Then comes the point where you are ready to move on.

The next step to master is to take critical choices about how and what you would like to continue practising. This sounds easy but it requires a lot of trust in yourself and also courage and determination. It is in a way a lot harder than just copying something. You need to check in with your goals, assess your needs and abilities and take decisions about what suits you and what does not. You need to be creative and write training plans for yourself. You need to develop a vision about where you want to go next with your training. This is nothing you need to rush towards. To start with you should continue to do all those new exercises until you feel like you really understood what they are about. When you feel like you know them well enough you can take your own decisions about whether to take or leave them.

You will be able to tell that it is time to move on when you notice a growing impatience with what you are doing (not to be confused with the challenge and potential discomfort of learning something new). As time moves on you will find yourself losing interest or find yourself just less intrigued by your teachers training plan. The whole things just gets a bit boring. That is the stage at which you are ready to examine what you have learned, take what has proven useful, make it part of your own practice and then move on. I would be very disappointed if you stayed my student for ever.

Tailoring what you have learned to suit your needs, your life and your goals can be a joyful and empowering process. Once you get used to it you will find that it becomes a habit which leads you onto a path for continuous development. This development is the process of becoming an independent mover and of creating your own practice. Becoming a confident and independent mover (and person) means that you learn to trust that your body “knows”, to trust that it stores and owns the knowledge that you have exposed yourself to. Starting your individual journey of physical learning and development does not mean that you stop to acquire knowledge from others via copy and repetition. It just means that you are aware of your own path and actively work towards crafting your own personal physical journey.

My beginners online course for handbalancing is only a seven week training program and it may take more than that to rock your boat. I hope that in between the lines of my exercises you notice that I would like you to become an independent, reflected and confident mover. I would like you to become a person who knows their body well and has enough confidence to take decisions for themselves. Within everything I teach there is a core principle: Get to know yourself. Know what is good and necessary for you, for your particular body type at this point in your life. Learn how to listen to the repercussions any movement has within your body. Be aware, curious and critical and actively shape your future training.

Now go and forget about all the words you have read and dive into your handstanding body! Enjoy what you have learned, trust what you are building and expect much more to come.