Beauty on hands – why giving up on my dreams was the most liberating thing I did in the last six months
22nd February 2018
If you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders – invert. Drop it all and instead, just carry yourself. Let your strong hands carry this body, your home for the time you spend here, carry it tall and carry it proud. Look at those hands, breathe in, breathe out. Be balance.
This, to me, is what it feels like to stand on my hands. On a good day, granted. And then there is also a fair bit of swearing, frustration, slow progress, alignment drills, working on shapes, conditioning, and many, many days on which I feel that I will never be able to call myself a hand balancer.
However, I must remind myself that there is progress, and as far as physical learning goes, I’m a turtle. That’s good, because turtles, on average, get very old. They need that time because they aren’t necessarily known for their speed or being particularly dynamic. That’s not so good in combination with the fact that I am an impatient turtle.
It feels like a long time ago that I went to various circus schools with the intention of one day being a top notch circus performer and athlete. In case you were curious, I have not accomplished this goal. Sometimes, I still ask myself if this was me giving up on my dreams or simply experiencing a shift in priorities along the way.
I will never forget the day of my very first handstand. It was forced by a PE teacher and assisted by a wall. I was maybe 9 or 10. Never having been a particularly sporty child and always afraid of inversions, having to kick up into a handstand, my head facing down, only supported by my arms and the – thankfully padded – wall, seemed like a very daunting feat.
Nervously I watched the line dwindle in front of me as every other kid in my class kicked up against the wall, held their handstand for a few seconds and then came out of it unharmed. It looked easy enough, but this perception had previously fooled me into thinking that, if everyone else could do it, so could I. Especially in PE, this often couldn’t have been further from the truth. The last in line, I apprehensively approached the wall, the teacher ready to spot me as I placed my palms on the floor. With all my force, I kicked my legs up high over my head in the hopes that they would reach the wall behind me and comfortable rest against it. Everything happened way too fast for me to process as I did what is best described as a forward roll, inconveniently interrupted by a wall. After all, nobody had told me that keeping my arms straight was an essential part of this exercise.
Maybe it was for the best that there were no smartphones around on that fateful day of my first handstand, but here you go with a more recent fail video of mine.
I quite possibly did not do another handstand for the next 10 years, until I enrolled at circus school and made an astonishing discovery. You know that nagging voice that always goes on and on and on about stuff in the back of your head? Like how you really need to do laundry, how you should really watch your budget this month, how you should hit the gym more often and eat fewer brownies, how your partner is probably going to split up with you soon over some nonsensical fight you had the other day…? One day, I found myself in a slightly dodgy, not very balanced handstand for about 2 seconds. And in these two seconds, I was just staring at my hands in awe, surprised that they were holding me up, and I wasn’t thinking. Not a single thing. Just blissful silence in my head. That’s when I was hooked. I started handstanding everywhere. I still do that a lot.
After my circus school days, life went a bit haywire. A lot of things happened that weren’t exactly according to plan. Maybe the day things went awry was when I injured my spine and five minutes after having been given a hot water bottle to ease the pain, said hot water bottle burst and I found myself lying in a puddle of hot water, marvelling at the irony of life. Maybe it was the day me and my ex’s car broke down in the South of France and I made the snap decision to leave most of my circus kit and identity behind at the side of the road. Maybe it was all those days in which I couldn’t figure out my next move. But no matter what was going on, my fascination with hand balancing has not waned.
For a long time I kept thinking that I wanted to return to full-time circus training because despite the physical and mental challenges, nothing was ever as easy as those 60, 70 hour weeks of my first year in London. Get up, stretch, eat, train from 9am to 5pm. Work next door to my circus school from 5pm to 10pm. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. My schedule did not leave any time for worries, depression, sadness, anxiety. I had to keep up. My social life was centred around the circus school and the café/climbing wall were I worked. I was not confronted with the future, with making decisions, not even with myself outside of the context of facing my fear of heights and my bodies limitations and there was a certain beauty in that.
At the end of last year, I wrote to a circus school in Porto, Portugal. I knew I could not afford to attend circus school fulltime anymore. I had to make a living. I had to find a certain level of stability to keep going, mentally, physically, psychologically. Years of working, moving, stressing, and being in an unstable relationship had taken their toll – but maybe I could make circus school work again? So I sent an email to Salto International Circus School (https://www.saltocircus.com/), an extraordinary place with great training facilities and even better teachers. I asked if there was any chance of me training there in exchange for my work, time and commitment. And sure enough, a short time after I received a reply from a great man, the director himself, inviting me to a training day.
The training day itself went poorly. I had no energy, I was feeling ill, cold and not as enthusiastic as I wanted to be despite all the equipment, instruction, friendly company and opportunities I could ever wish for. And after I while I realised that I was not coming back. I was not returning to fulltime circus school. I realised that I did not want to be a top notch performer anymore – heck, I had hardly enjoyed performing the previous summer.
I wanted to train, just for myself, for the infinite joy of looking at my hands and being in balance, of unlocking new moves, combinations, building strength and simply feeling happy.
I wanted to train because I liked dangling upside down and getting better and learning and doing fun stuff. I was sick of trying to impress myself and others, of waiting for my Instagram fame to kick off and the cruise ship contracts to roll in. I wanted to teach, to share the secrets I had learned about posture, alignment, exercises, physical maintenance and the best thing to ever pass on to another person: realising that you can do so many things you never thought you were capable off.
And when I allowed myself to let go of my dream of returning to full time circus school, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.
For me, my physical journey and training (circus and non-circus) includes being happy without pressure, healing my body from constant stress and physical imbalances, and kicking out the nagging little voice that doubts my whole identity if I decide that I’ll rather be a boring freelancer instead of a professional circus artist or that tells me that I have to train at least 30 hours every week, never drink a glass of wine and don’t ever eat meat again.
Now, when I put some savings aside, I won’t have to invest every penny in more years of physical training or even think about it. Instead, I will be taking myself on vacation and literally do those handstands on the road.
Does this mean I will stop beasting myself at the gym or doing stupid reps of handstand drills and push-ups? Quite the opposite. I’ll just enjoy them more and try not to lose my shit over the days where I don’t. Because this is also the year when I will finally get my one arm handstand and the ever-evasive straddle-press.
Watch this space for more on my mind and body journey on hands.