I’ve been upside down before. Aerial arts have been my default weekly workout for close to three years now and I was thrown in the air a couple hundred times for varsity sport years prior. I even did a tiny stint in gymnastics as a kid before quitting because I was the oldest in class (an illogical decision I still regret to this day—but hey, guess who can now do a sloppy cartwheel!) Balancing your total bodyweight on your hands, though, was another thing to me entirely. It was almost like a superpower where people who could do it either had the innate ability or the right rigorous training in their foundational years.
Strangely, I began to see a surge of people on social media mastering the feat early this year. How it especially gained traction during the global lockdown because Boredom + Celebrities = Handstand T-shirt challenge (thanks, Tom Holland). Also, the answer to your question is yes; I did join in the inane trend. But could it really be—dare I think it—possible for a regular person to one day attain this inverted nirvana?
Sure, I’ve attended a handful of technique classes, but always left disappointed that I wasn’t able to stand a solid minute on my hands the next day. I soon came to learn it was the wrong approach. While it’s admittedly cheap of me to dislike spending on coaching when there exists a well of free resources on the Internet, the hard truth is that it all boils down to drills, drills, and more drills. That said, classes are a wonderful start for beginners to instil proper posture with a qualified instructor present to correct wrong practice, preventing long-term injury.
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There are multiple disciplines where inversions are taught, but the popular ones for adults are Yoga and Calisthenics. I could tell you that Yoga focuses on endurance while Calisthenics concentrates on mobility, except I’d be lying. Besides the respective eastern and western roots of the two, the next biggest difference observed is the dominant gender of their participants. You may as well rebrand them as Gymnastics for Ladies and Gymnastics for Big Boys. Of course, there’s the spirituality factor in the former, but let’s pull back to inversions.
Health benefits include stimulating the endocrine system by increasing circulation to the thyroid, pituitary and adrenal glands which in turn influences hormone levels and metabolism, the obvious strength building, even stress reduction and relieving short term depression via the calming effect of increased blood flow to the brain. None of these improvements are fully backed by scientific experts, but they were enough to embark on my journey to the Upside Down.
Beginning with baby steps, I worked on supported headstands by practising common entries—tuck, kick, straddle and pike—and switching feet against the wall. Again, it’s extremely crucial to ensure the precise position to avoid strains, which I did by videoing the process and constantly post-evaluating. It was extremely disheartening to fail to see any significant development after a month of nearly daily (excluding weekend breaks) repetition, but somewhere in the second month, it happened.
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It was as though something clicked and the body finally registered what I was continuously attempting. In reality, it was simply that the target muscle groups required for the move were now sufficiently trained to go into and hold the pose. The epiphany was inspiring. Hard work does pay off, because I achieved an unsupported headstand within two tries. The practice was alongside handstand drills—L-holds, chest-to-wall, jump to tuck, Crow and Firefly poses because the yogis are not wrong—which contributed to the progress.
The most substantial change was the heightened body awareness and degree of control. I was able to stop throwing my legs against the wall waiting for it to catch my weight, and instead, discern the angle to hold without touching it. There were days where everything went poorly and felt like all skills were lost, but those occurrences were rare and perhaps, just the body’s way of telling me to chill. In times where training felt like a chore, switching up the routine with variations of wall holds helped. I did it for the ‘gram and you have every right to judge me, but it was great fun.
There still are many instances where giving up feels natural, but they say it takes 21 days to build a habit, so as with all exercise, pressing through the “don’t feel like it today” phase and showing up anyway creates a sustainable regime. Going a week without inversions now has me feeling like something is amiss. Plus, the sense of breakthrough upon nailing a move after numerous unsuccessful attempts is beyond rewarding. The longest freestanding handstand held thus far is a mere five seconds, but that’s five seconds more than when I first started.