Kicking the Wall

I’m told that summer has arrived to much of the northern hemisphere. Here there have been a smattering of warm days and fleeting glimpses of the sun from behind the omnipresent blanket of clouds. On these rare gifts of sunny days I traipse down to the beach (slathered in sunscreen) to get my handstand on. Apparently so does the rest of the bay area—the traipsing, not the handstanding, but I can usually eke out a bit of shore on which to turn upside down.

I get sheepishly excited when I first arrive. I forget everything about how to actually do a handstand and become, however briefly, ten again. I fling myself up and careen over without even a moment of balance. I’m so excited just to get to the handstand that I forget how to get to the handstand. Repeat this process three or four times—Fling. Thud. Fling. Thud. Sometimes with so much zeal that I end up in urdhva dhanurasana, but usually I’m more cautious than that. Suffice it to say those first few happy attempts though well meaning are not very productive.

So, like everything else in life, it seems that handstand is much more about the journey than its conclusion. After finally realizing that the handstand is not coming I back off; she doesn’t like it if you come on too strong. I finally decide that I will just kick up and if I get up great, if not, great. I take the time to make sure everything is as it should be: shoulders are over wrists, right (quirky!) arm is rolling inward and not splaying outward as it tends to. Tailbone is more or less neutral. Back leg is straight also slightly rolling inward to keep the hips level. Kicking leg (for me that’s my left dominant leg) is under my belly, bent, coiling to kick gently.

I kick up. And the magic comes here. No, I don’t immediately rise into a flawless handstand and stay there until sunset. I kick up too softly and don’t quite make it up. But the magic is in the feedback I get from that kick up. I practice on a slope at the shore so the amount of power needed to rise is less than the flat surface of the floor at home, but I have to figure out how much is needed. The second kick up brings me slightly closer. And on the third kick I find balance. My body recognizes the feeling of balance. I can feel the point of it, like a knife blade, and bring my kicking leg up to meet my other leg, toes reaching up to touch the sun. I stay for a few breaths even as the tide comes in and washes over my hands soaking my jacket sleeves (yes, jacket at the beach: 62°).

I never used to put much importance on kicking up. I tended to just want to get up and then wonder why I didn’t magically understand how to get into handstand. And by “getting up” I’m referring mostly to the crutch of the wall. In the beginning of the handstand journey the wall is a great safety net, but the wall really isn’t your friend. I haven’t learned anything from the wall (strange as that may sound). Usually when first learning we kick up, thud against the wall and just sag there for a bit until our arms get tired and we come down. The next phase involves a laborious game of footsie where we take one leg away from the safety of the wall and tap-tap-tap with the other foot trying to find balance. In my experience the wall really doesn’t teach you how to sense that knife edge and (I think) that’s where the journey starts to get interesting.

I propose you give up handstand. Step away from the wall. Find a park, or a beach (or in a money is no option type of world, a gymnasium with spongey mats to cushion your graceless landings—god I miss those—mats, I still do the landings) Find someplace where you can fall without cracking your tailbone, taking out your neighbor, or the mirrored closet doors. And just kick. Take time with the journey. Notice everything Feel everything. Sense when your arms splay, when your legs bend, and address these issues one by one. And keep kicking. Slowly. Gently. Practice, but play. Laugh when you fall over. And the moment when you kick up and find that sweet spot where everything lines up perfectly and you finally know somewhere deep inside of you what it feels like—let it go. Because you have to come down. But you’ll be able to find it and lose it again and again and again.

(Then switch your non-dominant “goofy” leg and repeat the whole process and flail madly.)