03 Mar Interview with hand balancer Yuval Ayalon
Interview by Christine Moonbeam, March 3, 2017
Last summer, Aaron and I had an amazing opportunity to train with master hand balancer Yuval Ayalon in his Parisian home. He has spent the last 15 years honing his handstand practice, and has performed over 3000 shows in La Reve in Las Vegas. When Aaron set up the lesson, Yuval told us he would need to keep us for 4 hours. My eyes got big and my mouth dropped; I didn’t think I could last on my hands for 4 hours. We traveled by train to the country side where he lives with his family of four. It turned out to be challenging, fun, and showed us what high-level handstand training is really like. He spoke about what to feel in handstand as if he was a painter speaking about color, abstract but focused on technique and inner experience. It was especially informative to observe Yuval do his daily training in between coaching us. What a treat! He even made us lunch afterward and asked us about what we do. It was so inspiring to work with someone who has dedicated so much time developing his skill set and technique. The way he spoke about his practice and and how we can further develop ours was invigorating. I had the pleasure of interviewing Yuval recently to ask him a bit more about himself and his journey to train, perform and teach handstand.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up in Israel and at around the age of 8 discovered gymnastics. It didn’t take long before realizing that I had found my thing. At age 16 I made it to the national team and started competing for Israel around the world. I participated in 3 world championships, European Championships, and other competitions. I received a full Athletic scholarship from the University of Illinois, and competed as a student Athlete at the Big 10/ NCAA leagues between 1994-1998. After my last competition season in 1998 I retired from competitive Gymnastics at age 26 and took a few years off to search for my next career. It took me a little time before realizing that Gymnastics, Acrobatics and later on circus and handstand was my calling and so 2002 I started working actively towards returning to the familiar environment of my youth.
What inspired you to become a hand balancer?
The Funny thing about hand balancing, was that I had already spent thousands of hours on my hands, when I started exploring handstand as a non athlete or circus artist for that matter. I remember it taking me about a week or two to “figure out” that one arm handstand thing. I learned it through watching some videos and simply through trial and error (and practice). Although my technique at the time was not great, my extensive background as a gymnast helped me in the first stages of this process. At that point I started researching and searching for a teacher that would provide me with more knowledge and direction in this field. After watching Samuel Tétreault’s (from 7 fingers), and reading that he studied with a old handstand teacher called Claude Victoria, I reached reach out to the French handstand teacher. I got a hold of Claude through one his students, and received an invitation to study with him. I learned a few words in French, and flew over to his small village in Eastern France. That week with Claude (who was 72 at the time) is perhaps the place and time that I realized that I’m a hand-balancer, or at least that I was hooked. During those 6 days he basically gave me the foundation to my practice, after which I had spend the last 11 years exploring this fascinating discipline through daily practice (mostly on my own).
Could you tell us a bit about your performance experience?
Interestingly enough, a few weeks after that first private workshop in France I auditioned in Barcelona to a water show, created by Franco Dragone (who directed a bunch of Cirque shows). I finished the audition and knew I nailed it! A week later I was walking in Tel Aviv after some theater class, and received the telephone from Vegas… A few weeks later I found myself in Las Vegas starting my next career (in retrospect). I didn’t have an idea how long I will be doing it, but ended up spending 8 years in this show, and performing around 3200 shows. I was hired as a “generalist” which means that my track included acrobatics, dance, handstand, theater, diving (both into and under), and adapted to the 10 show per week, life style. Looking back I never thought I would stay for such a long period (no one does), and just found myself signing a new contract year after year… Besides loving this extreme work environment I also met my wife (a performer at the show) and we had our two daughters (Vegas babies), and on the side devoted as much as I could within my performance schedule to handstand which has become my personal practice and my identity as a circus artist. In retrospect I can call it my 2nd career, this time as a circus performer, and my preparation to my current stage in my professional career since leaving the show 3 years ago.
Upon my arrival to Vegas, I started sharing material on youtube, and later on on FB/IG and suddenly found myself being part of a growing online community of people around the world that are interested in handstand. Interestingly enough, from the moment I left Vegas and moved to France with my family I started traveling around the world and teaching handstand workshops – It kinda happened… Besides enjoying and sharing what I do with students, this life style (of teaching) has allowed me to practice in a much more consistent and focused manner and led improvement in my practice as well as my growth and experience as a teacher.
How have you maintained your shoulder health? Any tips for keeping shoulders healthy?
I think the question should be how to maintain not only shoulder but also wrist health, and the answer to that is rather simplistic. If going after handstand, you gotta do handstand on a regular basis (daily) and allow you body to adapt to this activity. Different people from different backgrounds will need to focus on different areas when going after the handstand. Focusing on correct technique, handstand line, daily joint mobility work are all part of this practice, but the secret (as I see it) is to develop a long term daily handstand practice.
I really like what you’ve said here about being consistent in your practice, the body needing time and repetition to adapt to handstands over time, and that different people need to focus on different things. In the acro community, lack of shoulder mobility and wrist injuries are common. I am not sure, but I think it is either due to lack of preparation, poor alignment, or lack of mobility. Do you have any tips for increasing shoulder mobility for a more efficient handstand line?
I think that any specific answer will be misleading. I don’t think that “opening the shoulders” or shoulder mobility is a priority. In short, my approach is as follows: Rather than work on shoulder mobility in order to do handstand, I prefer simply to work on handstand on a regular basis in order to improve shoulder mobility and health of the joints involved this activity. Although ideally we want “open shoulders” in our handstands, one can still do a great handstand without the “ideal/perfect” position. Rather than search for the ideal handstand, I always prefer in the short run to go for the optimal and comfortable position and develop mobility as part of the learning process of this skill. I have a similar approach towards the wrists. Although a good wrist preparation is something I personally do on a daily basis, again the key is to practice handstand on a regular and daily basis in order to adapt to this activity. In my workshops I share many specific drills in preparation for handstand, yet the heart of my workshops is teaching the correct technique through different drills on the wall as well as free standing. The drills I share (or any teacher or coach for that matter) are effective if applied correctly and on a regular basis.
What advice could you offer to students who want to develop a stronger handstand practice.
Go to workshops (at least in the beginning), study with teachers/coaches, advanced practitioners, and then again:
DO THE WORK.
Could you share a couple of your favorite strength building/ mobility exercises?
I would recommend maintaining or developing certain fundamental/ basic abilities such as Forward bends, Back bend (Bridge), splits, straddle pancake, and then work towards achieving a solid free standing HS before going after more advanced skills such as presses, mounts, HS variations, and more.
Could you talk a little bit about your training philosophy when you work with your students. What skills do you try to build before others?
Start with handstand from day one. I use the wall extensively in my workshops, and teach how to use them effectively in order to achieve a better line, improve shoulder mobility. Then learn how to balance. Once free standing HS is achieved (the time varies between practitioners depending on their background, mobility, strength, etc.) it opens up a whole world of possibilities with really no limitations.
How do you stay motivated in your training?
I continuously strive for improvement by setting short term and long term realistic goals. The constant and slow progress which I have experienced over the last decade continues to fulfill my search for growth. When I was a kid I had the opposite problem of not allowing myself enough time to rest. My Gymnastics coach used to ask me to rest on the weekend so that I’ll return back to the gym in the beginning of the week “hungry” for gymnastics. I believe this advice is relevant for handstand training as well. You want to keep yourself motivated so that you are always hungry and excited about your practice (which is highly repetitive and required long hours relatively), and thus “showing up” and doing the work. I like that concept in its simplicity and relevance for handstand and other physical practices for that matter.
Where can students find opportunities to train with you? Any upcoming visits to the US in scheduled?
I’ve just returned from Thailand where I hold my 5 days intensive (for the 3rd year in a row). Most of my workshops are held around Europe over the weekends, but I’ve also been holding events in the US once a year. My next one is in Miami, where I’ll hold a beginner/intermediate and an advanced workshop. For more information and registration for this event CLICK HERE
To see Yuval doing his personal practice, traveling and teaching follow him on IG @yuval_on_hands