There was no one singular moment that finally persuaded me to give up my job as a high flying acrobat. During the 20 years I had been traveling around the world to perform high above a stage or ring there had been many challenges to deal with alongside the exhilaration of it all. Most of which I chose to ignore as I focused instead on the powerful feeling of accomplishment I got from performing, not to mention the obvious rush from having survived another day at the office and the intense camaraderie that develops while sharing the responsibility of keeping yourself in one piece with my performing partners. The best performances were the ones where I felt I had somehow shared a moment of intense emotion with the audience as if I had reminded them not to close the door to their dreams.
Even as I write this now I wonder what on earth is wrong with me – this is clearly a most unusual, privileged and fulfilling job and I have worked extremely hard for years to get to and maintain this level of skill. You might even be imagining a very romantic version of performing life and thinking that I am crazy to walk away from this opportunity. Certainly, there are many artists for whom that romantic vision is a reality. Somehow for me, it is not.
I still don’t know how my career didn’t live up to my ambitious yet naive dreams despite my fervent efforts. Looking back over the years, I wonder how I did not enjoy all this as much as I should have. Wasn’t I supposed to be having fun? And I did have fun at times. Many times. But there is a limit to how many times I can haul myself on stage with a raging fever and sick with the flu, or broken-hearted and exhausted after a night in Emergency having an early miscarriage, or numb and dangerously distracted after learning that a dear friend had just been killed in a traffic accident, before those good times fail to pull you through.
Those are among the more extreme examples. The more mundane irritants such as staying up all night comforting a child sick with a virulent case of the stomach flu, in a caravan in the middle of winter with no running water because the hoses had all frozen, and 3 shows to do the next day, or trying not to faint from heat exhaustion as you climb up your apparatus to perform your act during the intense sauna-like summertime heat in a tent that reeks of hot dogs, were part of the job description and too numerous to name. Don’t even get me started on the blue-lit faces in the front row that somehow didn’t hear the announcement requesting mobile phones to be switched off and who wouldn’t disconnect for even 5 minutes to watch me expend buckets of energy trying to persuade them to be fully present, as I had to be, so we could share this singular moment together.
I have performed with amazing groups of fellow artists for crowds ranging from 15,000 to 50. I have even won awards. And I think I have had enough. Circus has been a passion for so long that it is strange to feel it fading. As much as I am thankful for how it has enriched my life, I am starting to feel trapped. I have not managed to figure out another passion that seems financially viable or that calls to me incessantly as circus did. I was lucky the first time around. I KNEW circus was it. I was completely convinced and made it all happen. I walked away from a hard-earned university degree, a job offer in the industry of my degree and an acceptance to a masters program in order to become an acrobat.
So I suppose I figured a new passion would inevitably surface and started toying with the idea of a second career a few years ago as I became aware of my ever advancing age and my undeniable inability to continue defying gravity forever. At first, I gave myself time to figure it out. After 2 years I started to feel a certain amount of panic surrounding the question. What if I don’t have another passion? Maybe I should just count myself lucky to have been able to live my passion for 20 years and now it was time to turn to something practical that would allow me to plan for my old age or my kids’ future? Isn’t that what most people do?
The frustration with the endless search for a meaningful new career has left me with a sentiment somewhat approaching rage when I read motivational advice urging people to, “Do what you love” and everything will work out. Isn’t there a point in almost everyone’s life when they realize that this is all there is? That all of those dreams and aspirations are not going to come true? That some precious core dreams turn into nightmares and others seem to remain stubbornly just out of reach? Are hard work and dedication really always enough? That becoming an adult is a series of compromises and often a release of our childhood dreams?
By now I have dragged you into the spiralling whirlpool of despair and you are looking for a way out. So was I. The answer was a hoop. It had crept into my consciousness as I worked alongside an amazing hooper, watching her from the wings every night after my act, shifting my position constantly to be able to get a good vantage point without stage lights in my eyes. Upon my return home I found myself standing in the hardware store touching tubing and trying to figure out how to fashion a hoop. I brought a length of completely inappropriate tubing home, filed down a connector and dug through my art box for an old roll of sparkly decorative Christmas tape. That evening, after I got the kids to bed, I started hooping. Never mind that the poor thing flew apart 5 minutes into my session and I had to duct tape it back together.
I practised outside on my deck with the stars as my big top and the crickets as my audience. It was instant love. I hooped almost obsessively in the beginning, celebrating every new trick learned, delighted by the ability to depend only on myself until one evening the hoop smacked me in the nose while I was trying to learn foot hooping. I lay flat on the deck, tears flowing, nose aching, feeling ridiculous. I was never going to be a good hooper. I wasn’t as fluid, as skilled, as innovative, as enchanting, as pretty, as young. The hoop went into my closet.
I was still approaching hooping as an extension to my circus career. I was still living it from the point of view of creating a sellable act. And I was failing miserably at finding an answer to the question that kept coming to mind, “why would someone hire a beginner 48-year-old hooper instead of an experienced 25-year-old? Crickets.
A few weeks went by and I wallowed in my defeat, thinking that it had been a preposterous idea in the first place. The big bump on my nose went away and people stopped asking me what had happened to my face. The thing was, I missed my evening hooping sessions.
I decided that I would hoop without an agenda or a long-term goal. Just because. Just because it was fun. I watched hooping videos and was inspired by so many different styles, so many different bodies, so many different smiles. I couldn’t resist joining the circle of people who hoop because it brings them joy. I needed joy and I found a way to access it with a crappy plastic circle. I put away my requirement that this new activity would be my future circus career and was outside every evening, dripping with sweat, scaring away the wild boar until well past midnight. I would keep at it until I felt that I had actually achieved something purely for myself that day, something with no other purpose, something selfishly wonderful. It made me happy. It gave me hope. It swirled my stars. That was the beginning of the trade: finding a new way of bringing people hope, sparking the imagination and reaffirming their belief in the impossible. Becoming an extension of creativity and allowing myself to remember that mystery and wonder are as essential as broccoli and air. That is what performing had been all about to me. That is how I have served mankind for the last 20 years. And I am not at all done.
I am going to share two breathing exercises that I use to improve my handstand endurance outside of actual handstand practice. I'm not going to pretend you can go from practicing breath control while contemplating the ocean, to holding a handstand on top of your trusty base's hands or with a hula hoop spinning around your foot with these two exercises alone. They will, however, make it much easier to hold the pose/position/trick for long enough to really show off your skills or remain equanimous, depending on your goals. I would also mention that these exercises can help you improve performance in many endurance type sports. Getting better at breath control is a process that requires practice and time. Are you surprised? I didn’t think so. It’s ok to sigh a bit and then get ready to work.
I practice breath control in a setting outside of handstand practice. That is what helped me get from huffing and puffing to holding my handstand for one minute without turning beet red, and in a surprisingly timely fashion at that. Here are the steps for practicing breath control outside of handstand practice:
Warning: I am not a health professional and advise you to consult your doctor before practicing these exercises.
Exercise 1 - Stealth Breathing
GOAL: To BREATHE THROUGH YOUR NOSE ONLY, making NO NOISE and NO MOVEMENT visible to an outsider. This will require slow controlled breathing. You do not want to breath out through your mouth as this releases too much CO2 too quickly and prevents you from optimizing oxygen saturation.
BENEFITS: The result of doing this exercise successfully and consistency will be to reset your tolerance for CO2 which will allow your CO2 levels to rise higher in your blood without causing as much discomfort, which in turn prompts you to gasp for air. You will be able to hold an uncomfortable inverted position for longer despite the restricted air volume available to your lungs and you will be able to recover faster from this effort.
PREPARATION: Sit in a comfortable position. You can also stand if you prefer. The idea is to be comfortable, you do not need to be in lotus position by any means. You do, however, need to sit up, spine long, top of head floating up the sky. If this is difficult then use some pillows or a chair to help maintain the position.Now place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly.
1. Start by breathing in and out, as you normally do, but only through your nose, for a count of 10.
2. Then breathe silently and invisibly (stealth breathing) for a count of 5.
3. Repeat the cycle 5 times.
If you have to gasp for air when you finish a round of Stealth Breathing, then you are pushing yourself too hard. You want to be able to keep control of your breath for the entire exercise. If this is the case then scale back and breathe normally through your nose for 10 counts, then Stealth Breathing for 3 counts, or whatever you can maintain without gasping when you return to normal breathing.
I will also mention that you don’t want to push yourself and get lightheaded. Breathing is obviously essential to life and you need to take responsibility for your well-being. Start slowly and build up. We are building our tolerance to CO2 not trying to do ourselves harm. When you can comfortably do 5 rounds of 10 counts off, 5 counts on, then you can start to increase your rounds and/or your counts of stealth breathing.
My goal is to be able to breathe like this for 5 minutes, but it not as easy as it sounds. If you feel lightheaded then please stop! Rest and then start again on a smaller scale. I usually find a general feeling of panic starting to spread through me rather early on and a strong desire to stop this exercise after a few rounds. Pace yourself.
Exercise 2 -Step challenge
GOAL: To take as many steps as you can while holding your breath and then be able to begin breathing again, slowly and calmly, with no gasping for air or accelerated breathing.
BENEFITS: This exercise resets your CO2 tolerance which will allow you to deal with restricted air volume and maintain composure. Walking requires more effort than sitting and so you will feel the urge to breathe sooner than if you were sitting still. Learning about your body's cues.
PREPARATION: Get your journal and a pen ready. Remember that your mouth remains closed throughout this ENTIRE exercise. Find a space the is sufficiently large to either walk in a large circle, or head outside and walk in a straight line. You may feel silly walking through the park holding your nose; consider this when choosing your spot.
1. Breath in and out normally through your nose.
2. Next, exhale and then hold your nose closed with your fingers so that no air sneaks in.
3. Start walking at any pace you choose, but try to keep it your natural stride so that everyday you will fall back into this pace every time you practice.
4. Count how many steps you can take before you feel your body contract because it wants air.
5. Now release your nose and gently breathe in through your nose.
6. Write down the number of steps in your journal.
7. Rest for 1 minute. Repeat 3-5 times.
ONLY take as many steps as you can so that you can release your nose and breathe in slowly and calmly through your nose. If you need to suck in air rapidly when you release your nose and then take a few more quick breaths, this means you held your breath for too long! Learn to understand your body's cues. We are trying to get our bodies to accept higher levels of CO2 and rapid breathing will expel the CO2 we have built up by holding our breaths and defeat the purpose.
With practice, you will be able to take more steps before your body tenses due to the breathing reflex. You should aim for 80 steps, but don't be surprised, depending on your fitness level and age, if you start somewhere between 15 and 25 steps. Also, walking faster might make your progress look better on paper, but if you are going to take the time to do this exercise, why cheat yourself out of the full benefits.
The same warning applies as for exercise 1: if you feel lightheaded then you are pushing yourself too far, too fast. Scale it back! Prefer to be the tortoise than the hare collapsed in a heap in the middle of the park with a crowd of onlookers milling around.
Again, as you read this you may be thinking, this sounds like the easiest thing; I could do that all day! If you are a trained freediver then yes, you are now laughing at the rest of us. Otherwise, I invite you to try these exercises and decide for yourself. I was surprised how uncomfortable I got and how much I wished I was doing anything else at that moment. Look at it like HIIT training; it is going take some motivation and you are probably going to be looking at your watch wondering when the heck it is going to be over. But you can't beat the results.
Becoming proficient at controlling your breathing will be very useful when you are stuck in that uncomfortable strenuous upside down handstand. First, you will be able to tolerate the higher levels of CO2 and continue to breathe slowly and calmly. Second, You will be familiar with how to breathe with minimal changes to your best alignment that you have been working so hard to get into and to maintain.
In my post Upside down breathing - why you are gasping like a fish out of water, I covered the mechanics of breathing and why being in an inverted position makes something we do every day all day, without even thinking about it, suddenly quite laborious. Now I am going to add another difficulty into the mix.
When you are doing a handstand your arms are pushing your body up off the floor and doing so requires strong muscles and a properly aligned body. This alignment, combined with the muscular force necessary to maintain this alignment, makes it very difficult to expand the chest outwards and impossible to expand the chest upwards since we are already fully extended with our shoulders up near the ears. Good alignment requires keeping the rib cage closed and I’ll talk more about this in my post The path to the perfect handstand alignment (or as close as you’re going to get) which is coming soon. Sign up for my newsletter so you will never miss a post or the opportunity to join me for a challenge!
In my post, Why handstands are so HARD and what you can do about it,I mentioned breath control being a critical factor if you want to hold a handstand for more than three seconds. This is where we figure out what that means for our handstand practice routine.
How to practice breathing in a handstand?
Get into a handstand with the wall for support. I suggest practicing with your stomach facing the wall because it helps to reinforce proper positioning and alignment. See my post on Proper handstand alignment coming soon to make sure you are on the right track. Did I mention that you can sign up for my newsletter?
Now begin to count your breaths in your head. Try to breath slowly and with minimal body movement. When I examine videos of my torso in a handstand I see my abdomen expanding but I do not see any chest expansion.
How many breaths you start with depends on many factors, so you will need to just for your personal fitness level and handstand level. A complete beginner will probably start with three breaths. After these breaths, come down from your handstand and KEEP BREATHING SLOWLY! The same rules apply as for exercise 2, which I describe in my post Two game changing breathing exercises and which I highly recommend practicing if you are serious about improving your handstand endurance. If you need to gulp for air then you stayed up there too long for the purposes of this exercise. Scale back, give yourself a break and remember, little steps get you there too and you might be able to enjoy the sunshine along the way.
Work up slowly to more and more breaths. You will also be contending with increased muscle fatigue as you learn to hold the position longer and build endurance in the shoulders. You will even probably start shaking at some point. If it is your last attempt for the day, then by all means stay a little longer through the shaking if you can maintain calm breathing. Come down before your arms give out and you end up in a pile on the floor with a sore head. Yes, this has happened to me and I was forced to admit that determination and positive mindset are not always going to be enough. Some things just take time.
I will say that in my career I have performed several partner acrobatic acts where I held handstands while balanced in someone else’s hands. I tended to hold my breath as I got into the handstand position and then forget to start breathing. Eventually I would be able to shift my focus from maintaining my position and remember to breathe. This would probably start with a loud exhale releasing the pressure of my held breath and wanting to quickly reduce the CO2 and get as much oxygen in my lungs as quickly as possible. When I look back on this now I see that I was just asking to get tired more quickly and less efficient for the next trick that was coming up. I knew how to control my breath during the dance and movement that was in between the tricks but not at all while upside down. I would definitely put an emphasis on breath training if I were to start doing this kind of act again. Read Two game changing breathing exercises next to find out how you can get better at breathing in a handstand without doing a handstand!
As more people discover the joys and benefits of being upside down whether while developing a yoga practice or through an aerial silks, trapeze or even pole dancing class, they are eventually confronted with the following question, “how on earth do I breath while holding this completely unnatural position?”
If you haven’t spent much time upside down then the answer might seem quite simple, “the same way you do right side up!”. Of course, you’d be completely wrong and one handstand against a wall for 30 seconds will leave you panting with the rest of us.
We breathe, while right side up, using our diaphragm to pull air into our lungs. Our bellies gently expand as the diaphragm tightens and drops to create space for the air, followed by an expanding of the chest to allow even more air into the lungs if necessary. This creates a vacuum which draws the air into the lungs. When the diaphragm relaxes and rises, the air is pushed out of the lungs and the cycle is ready to begin again. Interfere with that expanding action and you will discover very quickly that you are no longer able to get enough oxygen and must work ever harder to keep up with your need for oxygen.
Have someone sit on your chest for a while and you will tire surprisingly quickly as you fight to pull air into your lungs. Now have them sit on your abdomen - carefully of course. Also don’t choose someone that weighs twice what you do, be reasonable. There is a distinct difference to how you breathe in these two situations which can help you understand the nuances between chest breathing and abdominal breathing.
Through meditation we learn to breathe from the abdomen using the diaphragm as opposed to mostly filling our upper chests with air, often raising our shoulders up towards the ears which leads to short shallow breathing. Deep low abdomen breathing signals the parasympathetic nervous system to relax. Short shallow breathing creates a feeling of tension and even fear which can lead to hyperventilation, but we’ll get to that later.
Stand in front of a mirror with one or two hands on your belly and breathe in. You want to feel your hands being pushed out almost as if a balloon is being blown up, then possibly see your chest expand outwards, but you do not want to see your shoulder rising at all, creeping towards your ears. The only time we want our shoulders up by our ears is in a handstand, the rest of the time we want out shoulders down, with the shoulder blades pulled down and together, expanding the chest.
But lets get back to upside down breathing. When you are in an upside down position you no longer have gravity helping you to drop your diaphragm to make some space for air. On top of that, gravity is actually making it harder to move your diaphragm towards the ceiling (don’t forget we are upside down) and you have to move it farther since just by being upside-down it is being pulled towards your head leaving you with a smaller space for you lungs to begin with. You also have internal organs pressing down now further reducing space and forcing you to push them out of the way when you fill up your lungs. If you have ever been pregnant, you know only too well what I am talking about.
Would you be surprised to learn that humans can’t survive for very long in an inverted position?
To learn more about breathing in a handstand, read Mastering breathing in a handstand, my next post. If you would like to skip right to the breathing exercises then click on Two game changing breathing exercises to head right over there now.
Lets face it, for most normal humans, holding a handstand is incredibly difficult. Understanding what exactly makes handstands so difficult can help us figure out how to properly prepare our bodies for the challenge and finally experience some consistent success.
Not to state the obvious, but when you are in a handstand, your contact with the floor is made through your hands. Aside from the fact that our wrists are nowhere near as strong as our ankles, or are our index fingers as strong as our big toes. Our hands and wrists are also far less accustomed to holding all that weight and making the necessary continuous small adjustments to maintain balance. But the factor that may the least obvious is the fact that our hands are not as long as our feet. This means that even if we were to build up strength in our wrists and hands, they would still be at a mechanical disadvantage compared to our feet; our fingers simply have less leverage than our toes.
To make this concept easier to grasp, imagine your body exactly as it is except for your feet, which have suddenly shrunk to tiny baby sized feet. Can you see how difficult it would suddenly be to stand still without moving your feet around to maintain balance? Now imagine you had gigantic feet, say Chewbacca minus all the hair. Or maybe not, who knows…In any case, maintaining balance would suddenly become extremely easy. Running would suddenly become difficult as you had to lift your legs way higher to clear your monstrous feet and not trip onto your face, something you may actually have experienced trying to run away from a fast approaching crashing wave while wearing diving fins on vacation near a dreamy snorkeling spot.
You can try this out for yourself simply by standing on your toes, which effectively shortens your feet and drastically reduces your foot’s leverage. Not so easy to maintain balance, and that is even though we are using our strong, experienced ankles, feet and toes. Of course, you also raise your center of balance by going onto toe point which changes the game as well, but let us not complicate things unnecessarily.
Now let’s talks about our shoulders. When in a handstand, our shoulder replace our hips. One quick look in the mirror comparing the muscles available to your shoulders compared to the ones belonging to your hip joint and not much more need be said. Our shoulders are also not generally used for long periods of time extended over head, even less so holding weight.
Hold a heavy book in each hand overhead and press the book as high towards the ceiling as you can. Imagine trying to get your shoulders high enough to touch your ears. Now hold this position for 30 seconds. It will become difficult not to let the shoulders sink back down towards the floor. You could probably hold the position for far longer with your shoulders down, the joint itself holding the weight and not the muscles, but this is NOT how to hold a successful handstand. You will need to be pushing those shoulders up towards your ears for the entire time you are upside down. This gets very tiring, very quickly, once you are resisting your entire body weight. Your muscles will eventually get so tired they would really like to let you crash down onto your face. If you are not careful, they will.
The other issue often holding people back from finally holding a handstand is shoulder flexibility. If your shoulders are too tight to be able to align your torso directly over your hands with your shoulders fully open you will be required to have far more shoulder strength. Stand sideways in front of your mirror and raise your hands overhead. Push your hands up to the ceiling and try to touch those ears. Do your arms extend up directly overhead or do they stick out in front of you slightly? A whole lot? If this is you, then the whole time you are upside down you are fighting to keep from folding at the shoulder. To maintain balance you will also have to place your shoulders farther forward over your hands than someone who can maintain extended shoulder alignment. All this is tiring. Even more than it already is!
I would say that these are the most critical factors the render handstands difficult. However there are two more factors that I will mention because they can also make or break your handstand success.
Core strength. Yes, in almost any activity core strength seems to rear its ugly head and contribute to holding efficient positions and protecting our backs from injury. In handstands, the core has to be able to hold the legs, which make up a significant portion of the body’s weight, in a proper aligned position. When the body starts to fall out of balance, the core has to be able to maintain that alignment while the wrists and shoulders struggle to bring everything back over the hands. If the core gives up while the shoulders are trying to do their job and the body position changes, then far larger movements are going to be required to save the handstand which, in turn, require far more strength and open the door even wider for the trick to fail all together. Think Weeble Wobbles without the advantage of a weight near the bottom to prevent it from ever falling over. And yeah, you just figured out what generation I’m from.
So what is that final key factor to your handstand success? Breath control. This aspect is so important that I have dedicated an entire post on breathing and how it is actually and often overlooked reason for handstand failure and quite honestly why doing handstands can feel like climbing Mount Everest. Read Upside down breathing - why you are gasping like a fish out of water and sign up for my newsletter so you won’t miss any upcoming posts. Not many people are talking about this skill, but I believe it can improve your likelihood of holding a handstand for more than 3 seconds. Because honestly, if you just want a 3 second hold, who needs to breathe at all?
However if you are hoping to do longer yoga style handstand holds or are hoop obsessed and dying to add a foot hooping handstand to your repertoire, you are going to want to be able to hold that position for at least 20 seconds, if not more!
I will mention here that I will also be posting about how to get into a hooping handstand for those of us who are not contortionists. Don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter to make sure you do not miss this essential post for us less bendy folk.
Now that we have figured out the aspects that need to be focused on to finally nail that handstand, how do we improve our training to see fast results? I am going too be totally honest here and say, don’t expect fast results. Handstands require commitment and regular practice. It isn’t very exciting and to tell you the truth, I could have been a lot better acrobat if I had had the discipline to practice this skill regularly. I was always drawn over to the trampoline or up into the air to be tossed around and experience that adrenalin rush that acrobats generally crave.
To build up the necessary strength, muscle memory and precision takes a lot of practice. Most professional handstand artists I know practice meticulously for several hours every single day. It is rare for them to ever take even a week off. A week can throw off your precision. If you have ever spent a week in bed, when you do get up to rejoin the world, your first few steps were probably tentative.
Handstands are all about correctly aligning the body and then maintaining that alignment and constantly making very small and immediate corrections to keep the body from straying too far from center. When you are out of practice you do not have the same reflexes to immediately feel the falling out of balance and as a result, you have a lot more work ahead of you to bring everything back into alignment. Lack of practice also means you will probably not properly gauge how much force you need to put into your save. You will most likely try just a little too much and end up falling over the other way. Then you need to immediately stop the fall again and a few more of these wobbly saves will leave you exhausted, your feet on the floor, hopefully not your face. Practice really does make perfect when it comes to handstands.
So how can you develop this skill?
My other posts will delve into these handstand fundamentals and give you the tools to develop a pragmatic handstand practice. Join me in building up to that one minute handstand hold! I hope you’ll send me photos of your progress, and I’ll be sharing my quest for a solid foot hooping handstand with you. Achievement is fueled by dedication and encouragement, so don’t forget to be your own personal cheerleader.
In my career as a professional acrobat I practiced handstands and became pretty good at certain positions. I remember a time when holding a simple handstand was so easy, I just popped up into one wherever I could. Travel photos often included some version of a handstand just to mark my passing. As time passed, I ended up flying through the air and being caught by my hands an awful lot and my shoulder adapted. They became stronger and less flexible. I also sustained some injuries and was definitely guilty of overwork. I ended up with a very permanent case of raging tendonitis in my left shoulder. Yes, that is the medical term. I am obviously to blame for the loss of flexibility as it is possible to gain strength and maintain flexibility and I suppose proper physical therapy would have helped me recover from my injuries more completely.
In any case, proper alignment has become more challenging for me over the years and I eventually stopped practicing handstands all together. I think I went a year without doing one. I couldn’t even entertain the idea. Until I saw a hooper in a handstand with a hoop expertly spinning around her foot. That spark was all it took to get my motivation back, and I am now rebuilding strength and flexibility as I convince my tendonitis to tone it down a notch. Or hopefully two.
But I didn’t wait for all that to happen before I just jumped in a gave it a try. I figured 20 years of experience should hold me in good stead. Needless to say it was a complete failure. I wasn’t surprised that the hoop flew off my foot and across the room narrowly missing the orchid I kept on the kitchen counter. I was shocked at how bad my handstand was. Catastrophic. Aside from the intense pain due to the tendonitis, my lack of flexibility made it much harder than I remembered to maintain alignment, well honestly even get into proper alignment in the first place and I no longer had those well honed balancing skills. I corrected far too late and far too little, or far too much. I was bright red and huffing and puffing after a few attempts. To be brutally honest, I sat down and cried. My daughter ran over thinking I had hurt myself and I had to check myself because I almost I blurted out, “No honey, I just realized I am old!”
Once I managed to put aside my disappointment that I am, in fact, not superhuman along with my guilt about having been lazy coupled with my fear that it was too late and that I would never get it back, I started training. These negative feelings are not gone, but I have managed to put them in perspective and whenever I start to feel too discouraged I throw on some music and dance. Just for me. Read my post, Do you dare move without your hoop? to learn more about letting your body free to tell you its story.
My motto for handstands is, “little steps and lots of fun”, because otherwise it is just not going to happen. This is where the hoop comes in. Trying to keep that plastic circle spinning around my foot while also trying to maintain balance and alignment is far more fun! Of course, I do need to practice handstands without the hoop, and I do so as a warm up, looking forward to the hoop craziness that is soon to follow. I also put away all my potted plants and breakables now!
Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing my journey with you along with my secrets to solid handstands. Luckily I have a deep understanding of this trick and many years of experience to fall back on, and so I know where to start.
Sign up for my newsletter so you don’t miss future posts that are in the works, such as:
Handstand warms ups
How to hold a solid handstand
6 essential foot hooping warmups
Essential foot hooping stretches
Secrets to building handstand core strength
Hooping in a headstand
Proper handstand alignement
The spring weather made it impossible to work on the computer! I live close to an Abbey founded in the 10th century by Benedictine monks and it turned out to be a beautiful and private place to hoop.
Every Saturday morning I take a dance class to give myself the chance to continue to discover new ways of moving. We don’t do improvisation in this class, but one day the teacher was mentioning that she had done an improv exercise with the kid’s class that takes place right before mine. She also immediately specified that we wouldn’t be doing that because adults are generally uncomfortable with improvisation.
I can be a pretty shy person, although I know that sounds rather paradoxical for a performer, and I do remember a time when I was petrified of improvisation in dance class. Whenever we had choreography to create, I did my best work creating with nobody around. I had this idea that I didn’t have the vocabulary to improvise, that I would look stupid, that I would look ugly, that I would suddenly have no idea what to do and freeze up. I wanted to control what people saw.
Many years have passed and even though I still have a little extra stress when it comes to improvising in a group, fear is an old friend now, sometimes helping me to do my best work. Not that I don’t wish fear would take a hike sometimes. Luckily, it will often oblige if I just get down to business.
A few months ago I decided that I was going to learn to hoop in a handstand and needed desperately to get back into handstand shape. I was working all the important muscles and exercises but I was also bored stiff. I was feeling defeated already pretty sure I wasn’t going to manage to stick my training regimen. I flashed back to my time at circus school when I was standing in a corner during handstand class dreaming of jumping on the trampoline or being flung off the end of a teeterboard. I was bored then too and didn’t really apply myself. In fact I spent most of my time day dreaming and making plans to take to the sky.
So in order to keep myself motivated this time I decided that I needed some music. While I was resting in between a handstand, the music distracted me from my little dark cloud and inspired me to start moving. And I just didn’t stop. Another song started and I kept going. Every so often I took some time out to do a handstand but then I was right back to moving, dancing, flying in a different way. When my alarm went off letting me know it was time to go pick up the kids from school I didn’t want to stop. I had been filled up with the most satisfying energy and knew I was smiling in a way I hadn’t in months.
I wonder now how I never figured out that taking time to dance for myself drastically improved my mood? I do remember many a dance improv during my professional career that was deeply rewarding but I certainly never did one on my own, without any particular goal in mind. In my mind, I suppose improv was a tool to create and it is an important tool to have in your back pocket, but it was not something that I ever considered as a personal practice.
One of the things that drew me to hoop dance in the first place was the endless ways for creativity and inspiration to take hold, but while I was watching a recording of one of my hooping combos I was struck by how static I was. Yes, the hoop was moving and flowing and was clearly the star of the show, but my body was merely a motor for the hoop. Achieving a high level of technical prowess often boxes us in to a certain movement pattern, usually one that is highly efficient and allows us to reproduce difficult skills time and time again.
The thing is, this is not what I am all about. Performing is a means of communication that can touch people emotionally, spark their imaginations, as well as remind them that so much exists beyond what they already know. When done well it doesn’t show or tell, it allows you to discover something deep inside yourself.
My goal is to be able to allow my emotions to shine through my skin, to share a moment with you that is singular and brings you along with me on a journey into the unknown. And so I have changed how I am structuring my hoop practice. Yes I still practice tricks, and there is something almost meditative and addictive about trying something 20 times in a row. But I also always include an improv with my hoop now because I want to get to the point where my body is just as important to the moment as the hoop; I don’t want either to become window dressing.
It is easy to fall back into using the hoop as a sort of armor, feeling secure as long as we are whipping it around, knowing that the hoop is the focus. But what if it wasn’t? Do you dare?
My name is Laura Smith and I am a professional acrobat.