Willpower And The Art Of Hand Balancing

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, describes willpower as the “single most important keystone habit for individual success”.

I recently participated in an excellent—and extremely challenging—hand balancing workshop hosted by GMB Trainer Kirsty Grosart of Garage Gym Girl here in Toronto. I have always admired gymnasts for their ability to have complete control of their body. Unfortunately, by the time I decided I wanted to learn the sport, I was older—and taller—than I should be to start. More importantly, gravity was a very real threat to both my ego and physical well-being, fueling visions of my feet barely making it off the floor doing a cartwheel, or falling and seriously injuring myself. 

The trigger

Then I started dance classes last year. As part of our workout, we would do the crow pose. While everyone progressed into more advanced positions, no matter how I tried I could not get my feet off the floor and balance on my hands, even when I practiced at home. I was frustrated and knew I was missing something in the core technique, so I looked up adult gymnastic classes and signed up for Kirsty’s next workshop.

The workshop

On the day of the workshop, we worked on three fundamental hand balancing techniques that serve as the foundation for all others: crow, handstand, and one arm balance. For each of the techniques, one of the first things Kirsty taught was how to bail safely. When I had previously practiced the crow, I had bruised my knees and shins on more than one occasion and this, along with the lack of progress, deterred me from practicing more. Learning how to bail safely from each of these positions gave me the confidence to practice and push myself harder. By the end of the workshop, I finally learned the basics of how to balance, how to bail safely, and some key drills to build my strength and mobility capabilities. I finally had the tools to work toward my goal.

So what does hand balancing have to do with willpower?

On the surface, just as willpower is control over our actions, hand balancing is control over our bodies. But there are three similar underlying elements at work to get to that point. 

1. Getting to zero point

As Kirsty explained, the goal in hand balancing is to get to a “zero point”—the point at which minimum effort is exerted—automatically. This is also true with willpower—to get to a point where you require the least effort to resist your temptation to do or not do something—to make it a routine or habit. With willpower, this is particularly relevant as it is a limited resource that gets drained as you go through the day (ever notice the same temptation is harder to resist at the end of the day compared to the beginning?). So the key is to get to the point where we reach our zero point as quickly as possible. But this cannot be done without the next two components which allow us to build the confidence and capability to get to that point of automation.

2. Bailing safely (if-then)

One of my biggest hurdles in attempting any balancing activity has been the fear of falling. But the point of balance and the point of falling are so close together, that this fear impeded my progress. By learning to bail safely, I knew that if I got to the point where I feel I might fall, I could bail using one of the techniques Kirsty taught—my “if-then” plan.

One of the reasons we find it hard to exert willpower is that there is usually one or more points in which our willpower is stressed the most, and it is often triggered by some anticipated discomfort or pain. Research has proven that having an if-then plan is critical to reinforcing your willpower. Such as “if I want a cookie, then I will have an apple instead”. Or “if I don’t feel like going to the gym, then I will just put on my gym clothes”. It’s these small steps that help us to overcome any temptation and get closer to our goal.

3. Strengthen those muscles

With body strength, we tend to think that each of us has a minimum capability that we were born with, but we also know we have the ability to strengthen our muscles beyond that. However, when we think of willpower, we tend to think of it as something that is fixed.

Research has shown that willpower works like a muscle. By working on it consistently, you can build and strengthen it, and it will not only strengthen for the area you are focused on, but will also benefit you in other areas. For example, being able to focus on finishing a report for work without checking email will also help you to push yourself to go for that run. It works the same with physical strength and training—like doing running drills to help with your mobility on a tennis court.

You don’t get to a handstand position in one workshop. Nor do you exert willpower overnight for something that requires it. In both cases, you need to exercise the right muscles to build up the strength. The key here is consistent practice over time. And like every other muscle, if you stop using it, it gets weak again, and you need to build it back up.

Two birds, one hand (balance)

I will be continuing my hand balancing practice with Kirsty over the next six weeks and will be using this as an opportunity to also exercise my willpower “muscle” to ensure that I do my practice every day to reach my goal.

To quote F. M. Alexander, “People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.” Willpower is a critical ingredient in developing and maintaining the habits you choose, whether personally or professionally. By regularly exercising your willpower “muscle”, you are reinforcing the foundation for your habits, which in turn will help you achieve your goals.