Encounters on the Road to Balance I: Serendipity in Prague
13th November 2019
…or a humble attempt at catching up with the second half of the summer. Spoiler alert: I’m still practicing to get better at balance, in and out of the handstands context. As always, there’s a bunch of pictures of that, intertwined with the kind of stories that only life could come up with.
So if you like, treat yourself to a cuppa of your favourite autumnal reading beverage and enjoy!
The last I wrote was between two truly inspiring handstand workshops with Andrey Moraru and Jaakko Tenhunen from Room 21 Balancing.
If you’re all about the drills, exercises and learning how to handstand, go to their page, not mine. Also, go to their workshops. I cannot recommend it enough. I admit that I got a little hooked on the conducive atmosphere that arises in a room full of people pursuing the same unconventional means of self-improvement, namely getting better at balancing on their hands.
I have had the enormous pleasure to make friends with other practitioners of handbalancing and have come to find that those who have been practicing for a few years seem to be united by some deep-rooted desire to advance, not just in their practice but in life, in being human, in finding… something true, perhaps. While also getting really good at standing on one hand or the other.
Now, to quote a conversation I seem to be having a lot lately, while improving the self in any way is, by nature, a rather self-centred activity, I don’t believe that it is at all selfish if done right. In fact, I firmly believe that a centred, balanced individual, on and off stage or handstand canes, automatically brings their positivity, balance and happiness into every interaction they have, whereas someone miserable won’t exactly be a joy to be around and will likely not have a positive impact on their immediate community (if they choose to have one at all). That’s of course not to say that I always succeed at being this magnificent positive human that I’d like to be!
As for some of the more advanced handbalancers I have met, a lot of them struck me as patient; as kind, gentle, open, accepting. They have dealt with and overcome injury. They have dealt with and overcome plateaus and frustration. They stubbornly carried on standing on their hands whenever possible. They went into teaching or perhaps they are still performing, or even both. They make generous teachers and reliable people.
Admiring those qualities perhaps more than their ability to balance so well after years of training, I looked one way and went the other, immediately falling into a trap: I narrow-mindedly focused on little else but training for the pleasure (or consolation) of my own ego, because after over five years of handstands, it was time for me to get those nice Instagram shots, a good promo reel and to show the world that the former chubby girl with the hypoextending knees was strong and capable and beautiful and could finally do one armed L-flags and what-not, mainly to prove to myself that I had some kind of value and was justified in identifying as a handbalancer in the making…
What a silly motivation to train! It may come as a surprise to a very few that the value of a person is indeed not determined by their handbalancing skills! But as my ego is almost as stubborn as my heart, I carried on and soon became injured to an extent that I would wake every night with my fingers numb and a deeply irritating sensation all along both median nerves, running from above the armpits down the inside of my arm all the way into the fingers, supplying especially thumb, index and middle finger with sensation and motor control. Tension in my neck and arms wouldn’t subside and even long forearm massages did little in the end to alleviate the symptoms. Whenever I was able to train, I would train nonetheless (I have come to find that stubbornness and defiance are crucial to most people’s handstand journeys. As with any character traits, they can pose a huge advantage or a recipe for disaster. Here, I was using my stubbornness to break myself a little.)
In addition to the physical tension and injury, I became more and more irritable, depressed and lost. I still hadn’t found a community, or a place that felt like home for that matter, and no place ever seemed good enough to simply stay and be present. There was always room for improvement, which, by simply avoiding any emotional discomfort by fleeing into the somehow much more comforting realm of physical discomfort, obviously never came.
At the end of September, I traveled to Prague to perform for Refufest, a great initiative promoting environmental sustainability and social change, welcoming migrants to the Czech Republic and working on integrating refugees.
A beautiful experience in hindsight, back then I found that from start to finish, everything went wrong: I was unable to place much weight on my hands without experiencing disturbing sensations in my nerves, my wrists crunching and my shoulders seizing up. I was irritable thanks to a lack of training and organizational structure, but most of all, I couldn’t show off who I really wanted to be – a stunning young woman who had trained years to balance on her hands, defying financial and emotional hardship, for crying out loud! – and instead was an impatient, insufferable mess who binged on junkfood, complaining about everything she could have enjoyed while recovering from an insignificant setback in a self-imposed training regimen. In addition to that, I was staying with a good friend who, despite being a wonderful human and one of the most hospitable people I know, has a knack for bringing out my reactive, defensive side by unintentionally mirroring my behaviour with little filters.
By the time performance day came, I had agreed to teach kids workshops in the morning with a colourful Polish woman named Agniezska, whose zen approach to the sudden cancellation of our workshops all but saved them. There were no mats, no clear instructions and no kids. There were, however, bean bags, ladders, trees, her trapeze, patience and, eventually, a busload full of curious teens and children. In the end, my motivation followed.
While the festival organization cut our show short, we wowed everyone with a delayed fire extravaganza at the end of the night and if it hadn’t been for the positive energy of all the other performers contributing, I doubt I would have performed or shared anything at all on this weekend. I am incredible grateful to have met you all!
With the festival done and dusted, Monday rocked ’round and my situation hadn’t improved much, so I figured it was time to treat myself to some physiotherapy.
It was my birthday and honestly, the only thing I really wanted was to stand on my hands again. Maybe, if I knew whether I was suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, pectoralis minor syndrome, elbow tension or tight scalenes, at least I would be able to contribute to my own healing by doing the right kinds of drills to even out any muscular imbalances. I have always preferred a proactive approach to my own healing as it puts me in control. Now, in a country where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t really know a lot of handstand artists, I didn’t want to risk spending money on yet another physiotherapist or osteopath who would simply tell me to stop standing on my hands as it was quite obviously the source of my physical problems. I was tired of having to tell them about how there were other people out there, doing what I did at a much higher level, for much longer than I had done it, without the injuries I was suffering.
Luckily, I have always had a no-shame approach to reaching out to strangers – hi! I’m the girl that will walk up to you in the coffee shop to tell you that your wood green shoes look absolutely stunning. I’m the weirdo that will flash you a bright-ass-smile on your way to work. I’m the one that sends you an email about string figures, shamanism or the golden ratio because I liked a thing you wrote in a book, and sometimes the one that will spend three hours composing a message simply to never hear from you again and I would do it again in a heartbeat! I’m the one that ends up getting close to you on a long-distance bus simply because we took the time to sync our breath, never once speaking a word – and so it was only logical to contact the only handbalancer I knew in Prague, Jan Jirak, asking for his recommendation on physiotherapists.
Instead of simply referring me to an English-speaking medical practitioner, Jan humbly stated that he sometimes performed some chiropractic on his clients and students. If I wanted to, he could have a look at my problem and, should he be unable to help, refer me to someone else, which sounded fair to me.
My encounter with Jan and everything that followed was the best birthday present I could have wished for and in and of itself completely surreal.
When telling the following story to my little brother, he simply commented “I can’t imagine this happening anywhere else but in Prague – but there it happens on a daily basis!”
Waiting in front of a Starbucks we had agreed to meet at, I soon spotted the figure of a young man who had a sense of urgency about him, equally looking for someone in the small crowd of Monday afternoon pedestrians. His long coat and slender built suggested artist more than athlete but he was both. After a quick introduction, I quickly found myself following the flowing coat down an arched gallery away from the old town’s main square into what I remember to be part of the Academy of Performing Arts of Prague. Jan approached a concierge, quickly said something to him in Czech and was handed a hefty key.
We went into a room that is perhaps best described as an old-school physical arts studio with high ceilings and dark, wooden floors. Thick mats and theater requisites were leaned against a wall, big windows facing the streets of Prague’s old town buzzing around us.
Jan placed a worn yoga mat on the floor and asked me to describe my symptoms. We agreed to commence treatment on the left side of my body. While I wasn’t sure where exactly my nerve compression originated, it was clear to me that it was linked to something in the shoulder girdle, so I was a little surprised when Jan began treating my left foot, lengthening my toes and possibly cracking every joint of my tarsal bones in the process. At some point he wished me a Happy Birthday – taken aback, I blamed social media for him knowing and mumbled a thanks – and proceeded up my left ankle. In the same vein that he had wished me a Happy Birthday moments prior, he stated that my left ankle had recently been injured, less of a question and more of a statement asking, perhaps, for confirmation. Now, I know that injured soft tissue feels different to the touch that sound soft tissue, but in that moment, his knowledge of my injury could as well have been some kind of magic.
He proceeded to locate injuries in my body and his diagnostic and observational skills were so on point that I soon found myself connecting the dots between what I can only describe as physical and emotional injuries. He asked the right questions and gave me just the right amount of information to figure it out for myself… at some point he placed an old scarf around my neck, asking if I trusted him. I answered yes, realizing only the moment I heard myself say it that it was the truth. With a precise pull of the scarf, the vertebrae of my neck decompressed, loudly breathing a sigh of relief.
Refusing any kind of monetary compensation, a little less than an hour later, Jan and his flowing coat disappeared into one of Prague’s old-school trams, his last words reminding me of a book recommendation he had made during the treatment: “Don’t forget, Anita Moorjani, Dying to Be Me!”, which I proceeded to read within the week and cannot recommend enough.
Stranded, floored and relaxed, I sobbed with happiness and physically palpable relief, found the next best flat surface next to a small well and did my first painfree handstands in weeks. Also for the first time in weeks, I was in a genuinely good mood.
We had agreed to meet again later in the evening, when he told me about nutrition and the benefits of going vegan – something I had, except for a brief phase of vegetarianism, never considered as an option for myself – to which I was very resistant. It was all well and good for this handstanding stranger to put a scarf around my neck and ask for consent to pull my spine apart, but describing the benefits of his dietary choices on his life and training (I was tempted to initially write “lecturing me on nutrition” but it wasn’t even that, since he didn’t actively pursue to convince me to change anything about my lifestyle)? That clearly went too far! Looking back, I find it once more entertaining to see how much resistance there is to anything that may genuinely make us grow…
Letting it all sink in, I left Prague the same night (not before having done a bunch of birthday press handstands in my very surprised friend’s appartment) for Nomadways in Brivezac, France, to help facilitate the magic that was Body Poetry.
More about poetry in motion, encounters on the road to balance and deeper connections coming soon, but now it’s time for me to go train, teach and grow away from the screen! I hope you enjoyed the little read and will be back soon for the next installment of this mini series of summer encounters.