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 self–image 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 . 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. Don‘t 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!” or “I 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 can‘t 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 million “I 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 Yes–Yes–Yes 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 Yes–track.
I believe that the experience of having succeeded at mastering something difficult is a lesson for life that sticks. It is the experience of the “Yes! 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 that‘s it.
Thanks for writing this. Glad to read other people think about this, too. Practicing in Tokyo.