Mid-Handstand, I Learned The Art Of Failure

Photographed by Erika Long.
Really, it's testament to the extent to which humans can delude themselves that I ended up here. Nine days and three online classes into 'learning to do a handstand', I am moments away from crying and shouting "I HATE this!" at my wife as I hold myself upside down against the wall.
No one is making me do this. It was entirely my idea, a real end-of-December pitch: why don't I see if I can do a handstand in a month? Won't that be fun?
The intentions were good and the motivation clear. This was to be the redemption of my 14-year-old self — the chubby, sweaty girl standing on the edge of the mats in gym class with her arms crossed as popular girls, seemingly unencumbered by puberty, casually did flips, cartwheels and handstands. I am, of course, the only woman alive to have had an insecure and awkward teen girlhood, and those doing graceful handstands had effortless, easy lives. This redemption arc is entirely necessary. But there was something defining about this particular physical ability that filled me with envy.
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Part of this was run-of-the-mill body insecurity. Thanks to the demographic of those PE classes, those who could do handstands were always slimmer than I was. But it was more than that. I couldn't believe that you could be so effortless in doing something that was so scary. To my teen self, it seemed physically impossible that you would willingly throw your head at the floor and trust your arms to keep you up.
In many ways, it still does. I am no longer 14 years old and desperately trying to conceal my stomach in a garish purple leotard. I am a tax-paying adult with a job and a therapist and the ability to recognise when I'm projecting. But the handstand still feels elusive and powerful. Handstands and flips are for the Buffys and Lizzie McGuires and other girlboss heroines of the early 2000s. Doing one shouldn't be an impossibility. I am now someone who can touch my toes AND feel mostly neutral when I look at myself in the mirror. I now exercise for fun, have a proper sports bra and can recognise that learning to do this won't really mean anything but will be incredibly satisfying. So why not try? A new year, physical challenge that has nothing to do with body shape or weight could hardly be harmful.
Unfortunately, what I failed to factor in was that upper body work is my worst enemy. Without sounding too petulant, I just hate it. Cardio is a delight and lower bodywork is satisfying but I have cooked spaghetti arms because I find upper body exercise so unpleasant. This is why it's kind of baffling that I thought I'd be able to enjoy heaving my long body above my head.
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Photo Courtesy of Sadhbh O'Sullivan.
I really went in with the best of intentions. I carved out a wall space to practise against and diligently followed the BLOKtv course on learning handstands. The first time I went (nearly) 180° it felt surreal and I was almost delirious to be doing something so unfathomable with my bag of bones. But the delirium quickly faded, replaced by thinly veiled frustration which bloomed into unnecessary contempt.
The problem was that the classes, rightly, focus on strengthening your shoulders and practising the movements necessary to do a handstand safely. Working those areas – the weakest part of my body – felt horrible. I struggled to make myself do these things even in short classes because it was so far outside my comfort zone. The fact that I found this groundwork so unpleasant made me realise that the reward of doing a handstand would require far longer than a month, and doing one comfortably considerably longer. And so the motivation to work through the hard stuff fell away.
I'm sure I could have achieved this if I really made myself keep going. The lessons were engaging and succinct, the teacher clear and kind, and the action itself not entirely out of the realm of possibility. But the barrier was that making myself keep going meant forcing myself to go against all my mental and physical instinct. The reason I could never do a handstand is because I simply am not built for it! I am not built to enjoy this kind of challenge or relish strengthening my shoulders. Nor am I built to push through my instincts for the sake of arbitrary goals anymore.
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I am hardly unique in reckoning with an obsessive personality. I have ridden the highs and lows of what fixation on goals can bring you and have ultimately come to the conclusion that it will only ever benefit you and those around you if you enjoy what you're doing. That's how you end up doing a half marathon in three months if you discover a joy in running, or writing a book when the flow takes you and writing is an escape, not a requirement. Equally, that is how you end up with abandoned Duolingo accounts and languishing gym memberships. There is benefit in regularly pursuing things even when they don't bring you joy but specific feats are not worth anguishing over if they make you cry.
It's trite to say but everything is so messy around us right now, for so many interconnecting reasons. In that environment, it no longer makes sense to me to punish myself with something I don't enjoy, or for dropping a goal. I may not have learned to do a handstand but it reaffirmed in me the art of letting go, of failure as release, not a burden.
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