This is the 7th issue of my ALL ABOUT HANDSTANDS Interview series, which I have started to share the many beautiful souls out there who dedicate their time on one or two hands instead of their feet. And my curiosity seems to be endless when it comes to picking the brains of my favorite Instagram Handbalancers, as I am "just" a yogi who loves being upside down, compared to professional contemporary circus artists who have turned their passion into their profession for life.
MEET MIKAEL KRISTIANSEN
I've met Mikael for one of his workshops in Berlin a couple of years ago and was amazed by his lightness of being after having trained with very serious and strict people. With his background in breakdancing and his love for circus he is exploring the world mostly being upside down on one arm either on canes or the floor. If you scroll down you will be able to watch and listen to Mikael's super cool and informative Ted X Performance. Let's start by finding out out more first:
1. Tell me something about yourself: Who are you, what did you do in the past and what are you passionate about?
I'm a circus artist and handstand teacher. I used to study anthropology and do breakdance but then quite literally ran away with the circus. As a child I was mainly into video games and the trading card game Magic: The gathering and I was in pretty bad physical shape. I did Tani-Ha Shito Ryu Karate from 14 to about 21 and then got really involved with breakdance. Fast forwards several years and I took a bachelor in circus arts at DOCH (University Of Dance and Circus), Stockholm and have worked as an artist and teacher since then. I am passionate about a number of things, but to mention some, handstands (obviously), funk music, origami, really really REALLY bad movies, and snow leopards!
2. Your IG name is @mikaelbalancing What is your favorite thing or body part to balance on?
There are many practical surfaces to balance on but the hands make a good candidate of course since they have fingers. I really like 1 arm L sit of course but it doesn't always like me! Though difficulty of the elements matter less for performance purposes than people often think, I enjoy to train things that are challenging.
In general I like strength movements because they make you feel like you are flying when they work. When they don't though, you feel like you are made of lead and failure.
3. At what age did you start training? Did you do Ballet or…?
As I mentioned, I was pretty out of shape as a kid and I distinctly remember being ashamed I couldn't finish the 3km run at school. I started Karate at 14 but my physical capacities didn't really change significantly until around 19 when I got into breakdance. I met a circus artist named Cory Tabino at 23, trained with him for a few months before I applied to circus school and somehow got into DOCH. For me it went really fast to learn 1 arms because of breaking. I had already done loads of 1 arm moves and had the strength and sensation. Within half a year I had quite a strong vocabulary of 1 arm positions.
It was never really a desicion to change anything. After I discovered that I actually could learn physical and “cool” things, it just became something I had to master. With breaking in my early 20s it was a lot about identity and “being someone” etc. I think I had a strong urge to break free from the feeling of being “the fat kid” and my current life is to a large degree built upon an unreasonably large overcompensation from that!
Incidentally, we actually did have ballet at school haha! However, the teacher was a bitter and dreadful man who got fired after just a few months so we ended up with twice the amount of scenic improvistation classes which was very influential to my class.
4. You’re very flexible and strong at the same time. What would be your best advice for men to get more stretchy?
For my profession and level I am not that flexible but of course in relation to the general public I'm pretty decent. Handbalancing is one of those disciplines where most things can be made significantly easier by being very flexible. I have had the need to use more power as I'm less bendy than many others at a high level.
Regarding advice for men (or anyone) wanting to get more flexible, I think the first thing is to figure out why you would want it. To me at least, it kind of needs a purpose for it to have a significant enough driving force to bother going through the process. Other than that I think it's important to find someone who has experience with flexibility training as it is very easy to spend an enormous amount of time getting nothing done if you don't know what you are doing.
5. Which are the 3 most important exercises you think everyone should do - handstand wise?
First off it's obviously the handstand. It's not a complex skill in itself and with a decent training protocol it shouldn't take people too long of a time to get some control of their 2 arm handstand if they are reasonable physically fit. What is necessary is basically combining wall balance work with specific exercises for the upper back and forearms while at the same time practicing bails and kick up technique. It is not "easy" to learn a 2 arm handstand, it will take some time, but it is pretty simple as long as you have the right tools for the job.
The second is the press to handstand from standing. The reason for this is that it uses the same dimension of push as a strong handstand does. Ideally, the bottom of a press is just a handstand with the legs hanging down. Building up this capacity is oaf big importance if you want to take your hand balancing practice far. The full press from L or straddle L sit isn't necessary for high level balancing per se, but is a good thing to have. The by far most consistent method of building it up is to learn negatives (there is more to it but for the sake of not writing a novel here, we'll keep it compact). Negatives will tell you exactly how strong you are at your press. You should likely have a 10-20 second negative before you can start actually pressing back up.
The third pick for me would be skin the cat. It is just such a great exercise with so many planes of movement and massive involvement of the entire upper body all the way down to the hip flexors. It is also a reasonably accessible exercise to start building some straight arm strength and it can also easily be turned in to an advanced element by doing it with a straight body. The easier versions of this is way easier than the other two exercises but still a great one.
6. Handstands are every where these days. Why do you think everyone is suddenly fascinated with this skill?
I think the main reason is that it's an impressive skilll and it feels good to look cool. I think this is the black sheep that feels cheesy to admit, but I think it's true in most cases. However, over the years, the actual love for the practice itself might slowly start to take the drivers seat.
Handstand is also one of these “easy to try, hard to master” things that makes it accessible to many. It's also very addictive once you get some degree of success with it. It does have several large "roadblocks" though, so you will most often see people not bothering going for the harder skills as it takes exponentially more time to get them. That is entirely fine though. Being really good at something isn't necessary to enjoy doing it.
7. What are the most common mistakes in training handstands and how to solve them?
The most common mistakes I see are to focus on less important parts of the body and that there is only one way to do a handstand.
In handstand, your main focus needs to be in your hands and shoulders. Your balance comes from there, and not your core or hips. Hip wobbling, low back arching and so forth is in most cases a consequence of destabilization in your shoulders. Of course, having some degree of tension in legs and butt is important if you are searching for a straight shape, but shape and balance are not correlated in the way people often think it is. Balance and alignment can be developed with separate exercises so you can actually have enough headspace to concentrate on each thing at a time, then as it becomes internalized you can start to bring them together.
The other issue is that there exists this idea that there is one single way to do it “perfectly”, disregarding the actual differences in anatomy that people have. Bone structure, strength to weight ratio and so forth can drastically influence how your “optimal” handstand should be.
Another classic is that everyone tries to open their shoulders too far and do not understand the relationship between shoulder position and the straight handstand. Straightness comes from placing the shoulders well, not by how you tense your abdomen. In fact, I have lately collected statements from the "core" in handstand from many professional handbalancers and they all do not put specific emphasis on the stomach area at all. Neither do I. I have some low level of tension in the legs and glutes, as that keeps my position as I want it, and the rest of my concentration goes to shoulders, hand and balance.
8. Do handstands require a certain amount of strength or is balancing „just“ a skill? How would a short training sequence for strength building look like?
It requires both. Strength is an expression of capacity in a specific position. You can be killer strong at one thing but useless at the next if you haven't worked on it. Also shoulder flexibility can affect the amount of strength needed to a huge degree.
For an absolute beginner I would recommend a tweaked version of “greasing the groove” method of training. (Google Pavel Tsatsouline if you wanna read more about it)
I would simply recommend doing stomach to wall handstand for between 10-30 seconds now and then throughout the day. This assures you that you dont build up as much fatigue per mini session and you can get quite some time on your hands per week. The only thing to watch out for is to take a bit of time to warm up the wrists.
Building up to a total of 2-3 minutes of total tension per day, 4-5 days a week with this method is not too hard and doesn't require more than a wall. There is of course a lot more to it than this, but it's a low threshold starting point many can easily begin at.
9. Let’s talk One Arm: One arm Stalder Press is pretty impressive. Is there a prerequisite for One Arm Handstands? For example a 2min 2Arm Handstand? How to start working on One Arm?
Yeah thats a rough move. Probably one of the hardest things I ever learned.
1 arm handstands is where everything gets complicated. Not only because of its difficulty, but because peoples bodies matter a lot more here than on 2 arms. Developing a 2 arm handstand is reasonably linear while a 1 arm is a mess.
2 minutes handstand isn't a bad goal before working on 1 arm but you can have a 5 minutes 2 arm and have no better starting point as the skill is entirely different and extremely technical. I have seen it happen faster, but usually it's about a 3 years of training from a solid 2 arms to a semi solid straddle 1 arm.
As I mentioned, it's going to be different in every case, but the main thing I would want to see as a prerequisite for starting wroking on 1 arm is full control of the legs on 2 arms. You should be able to move the legs slow and fast into almost any position while the shoulders stay solid in place.
The ideal starting scenario would look something like this:
1min 30 sec+ straight hs with good alignment
full control of legs movements
looking at toes handstand
Press to handstand from standing. Preferably several in a row. If pike, even better
Decent straddle and pancake flexibility
10. How do you eat? Meaning, what style… vegan, veggie, paleo etc.. Do you use protein powder or other supplements?
I eat the things. I don't follow any specific diet and I seem to function rather well. I occasionally use protein powder but it's sporadic. I try to eat reasonably “healthy” and not eat too much junk but I want to have a relaxed enough approach to it. The added stress of micromanaging everything I eat would likely not make me any more healthy if I would obsess about it.
I think the organism is adaptable and able to thrive off of a number of things. The fact that people claim they feel amazing on diets that are polar opposites of each other also seems to point in that direction.
11. What was the last book you read?
21 rules for the 21st century by Yuval Noah Harrari
12. What was the last thing (tool, toy, food… anything!) you bought that made your life easier?
A stanley knife and 3 enormous square rulers for cutting origami paper!
13. Where can I train with you? Any upcoming events?
I offer online coaching which you can read more about on www.mikaelbalancing.com/coaching
I will be teaching at the "Acrobat" festival in Antwerp 9th-14th of July.
And I will also teach a retreat with Emmet Louis in September! To read more about it go to www.handstandfactory.com
Watch his TEDx PERFORMANCE here:
Curious to find out more about Mikael? Click through the following links:
Thank you Mikael for letting me pick your brain. Hope to see you again some time for realsies.