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Thursday, June 10th, 2010

By Alvin Tam

alvintam2-headshotBeing an acrobat is all about the interplay between balance and imbalance and creating alignment. Probably one of the most beneficial things I can do as an athlete to create proper alignment in my body is to make sure that I stay relaxed and fluid, especially after hard trainings. Using a Human Touch® massage chair is what keeps me aligned because it keeps me relaxed, refreshed and ready.

My wife and I own and operate a yoga-fitness studio called Barefoot Sanctuary that operates out of the largest Whole Foods Market in Las Vegas. We are very lucky to partner and create a community studio space with them because we also have the opportunity to introduce very unique courses into the schedule that we wouldn’t be able to do at other studios. One of those classes is my Handstand Class.

You wouldn’t think that spending an hour on your hands would be anAlvin Tam handstand on Human Touch massage chair enticing fitness offering, but it’s become quite popular. I’ve had people from all walks, none of them acrobats, come and learn the art of inversion and staying on your hands.

Perhaps the growing success of the class is due to the benefit of getting blood to your head, or the feeling of increasing strength in your shoulders and back but I think the real draw is because it teaches you the actual meaning of finding balance in your life.

Finding balance is a common goal for anyone who is too stressed, overworked, tired, and busy. There are many books and speakers who talk about how to find balance in your life and offer a multitude of tools to do so. Some work and some don’t, but the one commonality of all these tools is that they are all metaphors. They are ideas that you apply to your life by using analogies, symbols, and concepts.

When you learn to do a handstand, however, you don’t deal in concepts or metaphors. You either achieve a balanced state or you don’t. And when you don’t, you fall over. The feedback loop is instantaneous.

When I begin teaching handstands to someone who has never tried it before, I explain that learning to do handstands is not about finding balance, which kind of surprises most people. Learning to do handstands is actually about creating proper alignment.

Think of your body as being divided into three blocks. Imagine that the first block runs from your fingers to your shoulders, the second from your shoulders to your hips, and the last block from your hips to your toes. When you’re inverted in a handstand, your job is to align the blocks on top of each other.

Pretend you are five again and you are playing with a set of Lego blocks. If you put one block on top of the other but put it on the corner, then set the third block on top, again skewed on the corner, your structure might hold only if you secure it with rubber bands and nails. In other words, you’re able to build a tower but it requires additional energy and resources to make it stay.

Another note about balance – you can balance anything, regardless of its shape. Finding balance is really about finding the center of gravity of an object and maneuvering it so that you place its center of gravity directly over its contact point on the ground. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, try to recall images of acrobats at a circus balancing spinning plates, chairs, or even other people. They are able to balance the object even if it is shaped unusually. (I’ve balanced an unfolded six-foot step ladder, a bicycle, chairs, and people on my chin.)

The lesson is that you can find balance in anything, but that doesn’t mean you want to. What you want to do, especially in proper handstand technique, is to align the body so that balance comes naturally and almost without effort. Then you are using your structure and alignment to maintain your position while using very little energy. You are strong and efficient.

In other words, learning to do a proper handstand is about aligning the three blocks by making sure that your legs are directly over your hips, your hips directly over your chest, your chest directly over your shoulders and your shoulders directly over your hands. It sounds simplistic and it is. It’s simple, but not easy.

It’s not easy at first because aligning all these body parts requires subtle contractions of muscles that you rarely use and stretching of other ligaments that you hardly ever stretch. Most people come into the class with enough strength to hold themselves upside down, but lack the subtle strength and flexibility to position their body in a straight vertical line.

When you finally achieve proper alignment, then finding balance is not really an issue. Since gravity works only in one direction, and if your body blocks are directly on top of each other, then your handstand will be balanced. It can’t and won’t go anywhere. For example, try to balance three wooden blocks when they’re stacked exactly on top of each other. There’s nothing to balance because the alignment makes it balanced.

So, back to the metaphor of life and the issue of finding balance. My suggestion is to stop finding balance in your life and to begin creating alignment instead. Just like the crazy circus acrobats, you can find balance even if your life is a whirlwind with areas that are well over-extended and others that are completely ignored. You can find balance in an out-of-balance lifestyle – it’s just that you’re going to have a work a lot harder to keep it there.

When you create alignment in your life, you begin by identifying your values. Once you know what your values are, you line up three things, just like your body: your thoughts, your actions, and your words.

Having a set of defined values is like gravity to the handstand – you have to know how to position your body relative to the force of gravity. Once you have identified your values, you now also know how to think, act, and speak to align with those values.

Again, the process is simple, but not easy. If you have a life that is chaotic and out of control, then evaluate your ability to follow through with what you say, do, or think. Maybe you don’t fulfill commitments, which breaks your alignment, and forces you to be out of balance. Maybe you smile outwardly at people and cuss inwardly at their incompetence.

Perhaps you do act with integrity but your life is still out of balance. Then consider if your values are yours truly, and if they are reflective of who you are now. Contemplate whether or not you are still living a life based on borrowed values from parents, social circles, or religion.   

For example, one of my values is to help people. I remember writing this down on a piece of paper in grade four when we were asked what we wanted to do when we grew up. Since this is one of my core values, I make sure that my thoughts, actions, and words reflect this mission, which is why we have a yoga-fitness studio and I write on personal growth.

So you might not ever come to my handstand class or even try one on your own. I do recommend that you meditate on your values and evaluate your follow through. If you are aligned, then you end up being able to take on more and more work without exhausting yourself or working inefficiently. You experience abundant energy, daily passion for your life – and a sense of balance.