You’ve been stretching/training/following your passion diligently for the past 5 years or so. You went through it all: the first exciting discoveries, the learning experience, the downfalls, the good days and bad days.
When I was looking for flexibility coaches, I had to do a long and grueling search that led me many times nowhere. Living in Las Vegas, you'd think I have it easy right? With all the shows, artists and performers.
Even though I don't consider myself an expert (I've only been doing this for 2 years), being an Exercise Science major and a personal trainer for more than 10 years have definitely helped me to understand better my experience of "adult contorting", or at least figure out partially what my body is going through. Here are some questions I asked and answered myself through research and experience:
What the hell am I stretching?
What is happening in your body when you stretch? Basically, your muscles are the ones mainly stretching. Your ligaments stretch when your muscles are maxed out. Your ligaments are thick and resistant, NOT very flexible. Tendons are not flexible.
Should I put ICE or HEAT on a muscle?
HEAT,HEAT and HEAT! Ice is good for decreasing inflammation right after sudden injuries (like falling and twisting your ankle). For everything else (soreness, pulled muscle) you want heat, which promotes blood flow and healing.
Something hurts... what happened?
It's not uncommon to overstretch/strain muscles in contortion. Of course you wanna avoid that by warming up really good and gradually sink deeper into a stretch without rushing. But if that happens, don't panic: a strain can heal in few days or few weeks, depending how severe it is.
Why can't I do this everyday?
An adult body can't perform contortion every day with the same intensity. You will have to alternate hardcore with easy, till you don't get more experienced. If you can backbend no problem everyday... well lucky you lol.
Can I do contortion AND ...weights, pole, aerial, crossfit?!
This all depends on how far you want to go with your contortion and also how old you are. If you're under 25 you might be able to train different disciplines without necessarily affecting negatively your contortion improvement. But in my experience I had to make a drastic decision and cut out almost all other training I was doing, because they would get in the way with contortion (my body would get too stiff and sore). Beside contortion I still do cardio (run, stepmill, bike or elliptical), body weight workouts and floorwork/no-tricks pole dance.
How do I heal a strain?
(FYI Strain: damaged muscle tissue. Sprain: damaged ligament tissue)
It sucks. But as I said earlier, a muscle can heal! You just need patience, heat packs, massages, little rest and lighter training on the affected area.
Am I stiff or sore? What's the difference?
This is how I classify stiff and sore:
STIFF--> many causes, often not identified (could be hormones change, dry or cold weather, sitting too much, walking too much, standing a lot, high heels, not sleeping, drinking alcohol/being dehydrate, be mad/stressed and so on... basically having a life lol). The feeling is very annoying and hard to get rid of, usually some cardio to warm up the body, light stretching or a hot bath helps.
SORE--> usually the cause is previous training. It feels painful but gets better while warming up. I prefer sore rather than stiff... the worst is when you have both, ahah!
That's it for tonight's blog.
Stay flexible, friends!
All my life I've been quite stubborn and thought I could figure things out on my own, like when I was doing fitness modeling and preparing for fitness competitions, dieting etc I never had a coach and learned everything through mistakes, studies and trial and error. When I decided I wanted to become more flexible though I was short on knowledge and it seemed so hard to find valuable information. I tried yoga and some stretches I had seen around, reminiscences of ballet and foam rolling. I really couldn't figure much out on my own though and online and on books there were either extremely advanced poses or too simple ones. It was very helpful when I started taking flexibility group classes and I learned things like warm ups and exercises using blocks and yoga belt.
But only with one on one training under the supervision of my coach I began to really improve fast and understand a lot about my body.
There are many benefits of training with a good coach (I was lucky to find one of the best, I know not all coaches might share the qualities I'm going to list), those are just few examples :
A coach has been there
Whenever you feel sore, stuck, hurt etc, your coach knows exactly what you're going through. They've been there before you, and through their experience, they can help you.
A coach is emotional support
Whether you're extremely happy because you did a hard move for the first time or you're very sad because your body can't bend that day, your coach is there and will likely celebrate your success or reassure you.
A coach is a motivator
Some days you feel you should skip stretching. Or you are just not in the mood. Or you didn't sleep well or you worked so much and have no energy. A good coach will push you these days and after you'll thank them for doing that.
A coach knows more than you
This is pretty obvious but great, because they will guide you and will make you avoid mistakes, correct imbalances and personalize your training.
A coach understands your body
This is important because sometimes you can't be objective about what's happening in your body, you're not sure what's bending in your back or how something is supposed to feel. Being inside your body and dealing with all these new feelings can be confusing and scary! Your coach will answer your questions and doubts so that you know you're doing things correctly and can focus on your training rather than panicking.
A coach is support
Literally, because some exercises there is no way you can do them on your own, you need someone to push, pull and support your body to improve and challenge your imaginary limits. Your coach is also a mental support, because won't let you be down if you're having a bad day or let your fears or worries prevail over your desire of being flexible!
Those are some examples I experienced with my coach :) If you're very serious about flexibility I suggest you to have a coach and see them often enough.
My coach !
Not long ago I wrote a post about the top 10 excuses about flexibility training, today I want to talk about which common mistakes I see people do (and I did too) that set them back with progress and makes flexibility training uneffective and at times dangerous too. So here we go, in no particular order: 1. You don't know what you're looking for.
What does flexibility training mean to you? A way to learn a difficult pole move? Better balance? A sense of connection between body and mind? Relief from sitting all day? Getting splits? Handstands? Deep backbends? There are several schools out there that uses flexibility in different ways (contortion, gymnastics, yoga etc), with different technique, goals, training philosophy. Make sure you know what you want out of the time you spend training and what better fits your needs.
2. You don't commit to a method/teacher, rather jump from one thing to another.
This is very common. You started out following someone's DVD, then got into this circus stretching class, then suddenly switched to more yoga, but then changed your mind and went back to the DVD, taking in the meantime a couple of private classes with different instructors as well. WOW your body must feel confused ! It's highly unproductive to jump from one thing to another, and this apply to any training (and diet as well). Your body is a creature of habit, and needs TIME and lot of the SAME STUFF over and over to actually show you it's capable of improvement and change. So make up your mind, pick a studio, a gym, a class, a coach and COMMIT to it. Spend a good amount of time (1-3 months) before deciding if what you chose is not working for you. Few things works better than too many, always.
3. You don't know how to warm up.
This is very common too! You just do few arms circles, couple leg swings, some cobras and then... 5 minutes have passed and you think it's time to get to the hard stuff. Not really! I'm not saying to warm up an hour (even tho I can spend an hour warming up easily!) but at least give your body 20 minutes to raise its temperature, start greater blood flow and gentle opening up what's about to be stretched. I love warming up because it's also the time I start getting my mind ready and focus.
4. You jump to the hardest stretch without allowing your body to gradually open.
No wonder you feel stiff... You need to go from easier stretches to harder ones. Stretching is like a video game: you can't go to level 5 before passing through level 1,2,3,4, right? The easier stretches are necessary to open up your body, gradually and safely, so that when you attempt to do something harder, you put your body in the best condition for it. Do you think I go to the gym and flop into a cheststand? It takes me at least half hour ;)
5. You stretch only when you feel good.
If I had to stretch only on "good days", it would be probably once a week lol. But that doesn't make any progress happen! You need to get your body accustomed to the stretches, on good and bad days. Once I was told actually, the biggest growth you make it on bad days, not good ones. So if you decided to stretch 3 days a week, you will do it, no matter what.
6. You avoid stretching when stiff.
This is similar to the previous point. You'll need to stretch even when you feel you'll suck. Obviously you won't go so hard (keep in mind stiffness is one thing, being injured is another), but you gotta do it, because of what said in mistake #5. You'll feel better afterwards, and most probably you'll get rid of some of the stiffness, too!
7. You take long breaks.
This is highly counterproductive, and another very common mistake. You are trying to get your body more bendy, and you started maybe later in life, like me. You're basically trying to domesticate your muscles, tendons, ligaments, nervous system to another way of being, which is pretty uncomfortable at first if you ask me. And you think you can take 2 weeks off? Your body can't wait for that and reverse everything back to the previous state (before stretching), especially at the beginning. But that means basically flush down the toilet all the efforts and tiny changes in progress. Do not stop stretching especially if you're a beginner.
8. You switch your routine/exercises too often.
You try few times a certain pose, take a good picture of it, move on to something else. Or you keep getting distracted by Instagram craze challenges, or something you saw on Pinterest but wait, you already forgot. Get your brain out of social networks and into YOUR TRAINING, YOUR GOALS, YOUR PROGRESS. Forget what others do, and don't think just because you're getting tired of the same stretches, they are no longer effective. You can always get deeper and add variations to them. Have a stretching routine and do not change it, beside after few months, to add something new.
9. You look for stretches on Youtube.
Youtube if full of crap, be aware. Following a 10 year old doing triple folds doesn't sounds like a great idea, anyway.
10. You get out of a stretch the moment it feels uncomfortable.
There is a difference between uncomfortable and "I'm gonna die here, now". The uncomfortable is where the stretching process STARTS. The "I'm gonna die here, now" is where you actually make the real progress and set a new limit. Of couse I'm exaggerating, but what I mean is, you need to keep in mind flexibility involves a good dose of uncomfort, that sometimes it mixes with fear and desire to get out of a stretch right away. But as long as you're well warmed up, breathe, take it slowly and are in good teacher's hands, you'll be fine. Try to hold your stretches little over the uncomfortable level, just few seconds more and will make a big difference in the long run.
Hope you enjoyed this post, questions are welcome, and if you like, you can share it too!
I like to take notes of my body changes with training contortion, and lately I just came to a new interesting conclusion. Basically, the newest body part that improved in flexibility (by opening and stretching deeper to a new limit), it's also the first one to get stiff, sore and refuses to reach the new limit all the times. I'll try to be more clear: My 29 yo body didn't improve its flexibility all at once. It happened gradually and in "sections".
The first section of my body that got more flexible was my hips, it didn't take me long, also because of all body parts, my hips received some attentions in the past (through yoga and some stretching on my own). That's why I don't think I'll ever lose my splits. They are solid, they've been around for a while now, I rarely feel stiff in that area. My hips are definitely my most flexible body part and the first one of all to feel open.
my first split in 2008
When I started contortion I began to work on my back flexibility for the first time. I remember of all my back, my lower would get incredibly sore, and because of my long body, that area would naturally take a lot of the bend. I would rarely get sore above my lower back. I wasn't aware of the rest of my back (middle and upper), I couldn't tell what I was bending, beside when receiving passive stretches from my coach. With time the soreness on my lower back decreased, my body "accepted" the new flexibility: it stopped fighting against it and I started bending more evenly throughout my whole spine. Definitely the second section of my body to become more flexible was my lower back.
Lower back work in 2012, the beginning of contortion
After that, it was my shoulders. I spent lot of time creating more space in shoulder flexion, with many shoulder stretches and variations. I had way more muscle than flexibility there, but I feel my shoulders opened pretty good (even with a small past injury on my right one) with no major resistance from my body. I got some soreness, but definitely stopping altogether heavy pole practice and lifting weights helped a lot. I still have work to do but I'd say shoulders was my third body section to open.
Opening them up !
Now I can definitely say the newest section that started to finally give up and open is my middle and upper back. After approximately a year of contortion, I started really FEELING my middle and upper back getting more engaged in each stretch. I actually try to minimize lower back work and focus primarily on middle and upper. I need to actively relax my legs, breathe and send all my concentration to that area, and slowly I feel a response. So out of my WHOLE body, this is the part I'm taking to a new level lately and let me tell you, my body doesn't like it ALL the times. That's why on a stiff day, my middle and upper back are the FIRST to refuse to cooperate, they get stiff and leave hips, lower back and shoulders all the work. This is what the title of this post is about, the last body part that opens, is the first one to close and go "on strike" every now and then, a newborn flexibility that can hypothetically even disappear if you stop trying. So do not take breaks, you should be working your hardest on your most challenging body part. You could have the opposite situation of me: a very bendy back and stiff hips. Let's say you work a while on your splits and one day you finally get to the floor, yay! Then you try another day and... it's not happening. WHY! Your body has not forgotten you did the splits, it's just having a hard time making it happen all the times, but eventually it WILL. So don't get discouraged, give your body the time (could be weeks, months, or more...each body is different) to be ok with the new way of being you're creating for it. When you set a new limit you will get it gradually more often, as long as you practice and don't stop :)
This question reminds me something I used to be asked a LOT when I was doing fitness: can I build muscle and lose fat at the same time? Well in total honesty and from my humble experience, our body doesn't like to do more than one thing at a time. To some degree you can become flexible and strong, but I don't believe the two can happen together, you'll have to work first on passive flexibility (lengthen), then on active flexibility (lengthen+strengthen). Working only on active flexibility will not deepen your stretches, but control them better. First off let me define what active and passive flexibility are: active flexibility is "the ability to assume and maintain extended positions using only the tension of the agonists and synergists muscles while the antagonists are being stretched", like for example lifting your leg as high as you can, with no help from your hands. Passive flexibility is "the ability to assume and maintain extended positions using only your weight, the support of your limbs or some other apparatus (a chair, blocks etc)", splits on the floor are an example of passive flexibility."Research has shown that active flexibility is more closely related to the level of sports achievement than is passive flexibility. Active flexibility is harder to develop than passive flexibility; not only does active flexibility require passive flexibility in order to assume an initial extended position, it also requires muscle strength to be able to hold and maintain that position."
I believe active flexibility works best with those who already have good flexibility foundation and actually need more muscle strength and control for their sport, or they tend to be more supple than average people and unstable in the joints so strengthening is a priority (kids are the perfect example). Passive flexibility works best for everyone else who lack muscle suppleness and the ability to relax (tend to be stiff -->most adults, over 20-25 yo). If you're starting out as an adult I'd learn first how to RELAX your muscles with passive stretches, create space, lengthen, learn how to breathe and let go of unneeded tension. Adult bodies are stiff and active flexibility alone won't increase dramatically suppleness, I'm not saying it wouldn't work but I would integrate it later on when a basic foundation of passive flexibility has been established.
Me in passive stretching, oversplit on couch
and active, from standing going into bridge
On good training days, toward the end of my practice, I enter this "super wise/happy" state ( thank you endorphins) where I understand very clearly some aspects of life, I get great ideas, think motivational quotes and overall I feel a positive attitude toward everything. It sucks that it doesn't last long, but if you can catch some of the thoughts you have during this state and write them down, it can help you on less-happy days. So today I was thinking how much I can relate contortion training (or training overall) with life. Those are some examples:
1. There will ALWAYS be good days and bad days. On good days you'll push yourself forward, on bad days you'll push yourself ... Just enough. But overall you'll always need a "fighter mentality", getting depressed or feeling miserable have really no benefits. You can be mad, cry, let it all out, but then pick yourself up and keep going. Nobody can do it for you, to get over something like a bad day there is only one way... Go through it.
2. Motivation will be high some days, low others. On low days, remember yourself why you do what you do, and think: "today is difficult, but if I go through this, I'll definitely be stronger tomorrow". Motivation helps and makes the journey enjoyable, but if one day is not there, doesn't mean you can take a break. Like a chore, just do it.
3. Pain, fear (as in challenge), fatigue. Life and training share those too. If you train your body to deal with those, your mind will learn and use this approach with different matters other than training. I'm a strong believer that strengthening the body strengthens the mind as well.
4. Patience, perseverance. With contortion I learned even more how important is to be patient. Whenever you want to build something solid, real and long lasting (like a skill, or career, education, relationship) you'll need time. Lot of it. If you stay committed and focus, you'll get there. You have to be serious with your intentions and don't get distracted.
5. Commitment and choices. In life you won't be good at everything nor you'll have everything you want, but SOME, yes. You'll make the conscious decision of what this will be (if you're lucky!), and dedicate your time to it, swear by it, love it and take care of it. Just like marriage, you'll have this approach to a person or a passion (mine is training! If you didn't get it yet lol).
That's it so far! My "high on training" is fading away :)
At some point, starting out or few months in with flexibility training, you'll question if what you're doing is actually realistic and worth it, you'll have doubts and often you'll tell yourself something to justify the journey's difficulties (that's the purpose of excuses). If you believe in an excuse, you think you have a reason to quit. But guess what, excuses are not a reason to quit, more like an obstacle to overcome. Here are the most common flexibility excuses, many of which I personally experienced:
I'm too old. This is by far the MOST common excuse, and it's understandable, but it's not our biggest limitation (our MIND is). It's understandable because as we age, flexibility decreases, but with consistency and dedication, you can be more flexible of a teenager who stretches inconsistently and with no dedication. Also, you have to set goals that are challenging yet realistic.
(I started to stretch at 27 yo!)
I'm not naturally flexible. Well, so is the remaining 80-90% of the world population. So you're not alone! You can teach your body how to become flexible.
My bone structure doesn't allow me do certain stretches. Ok, first of all, who said that and why? Do not believe anything you hear, unless it's proven and comes from medical sources. Second, what about trying different stretches? There can be some positions or exercises that feel particularly uncomfortable (I personally don't like to push too much my lower back) so it's totally fine to do different ones. That's one thing I love about flexibility, you can always find new ways to stretch your body safely and without unnecessary pain.
I get too sore. It's gonna happen. But it will also get better with time. Make sure you rest and take hot baths to help your body recover.
My legs/torso are too long. That's my excuse sometimes! But again not enough to make me stop. We all have different body proportions (people with short back can head-sit easier, for example). I have to work extra hard to control my long body (I'm 5'10") and sometimes it feels very heavy to maneuver and bend.
(I have a love/hate relationship with handstands. So damn hard!)
I have no time.
Not a good excuse, if you find an hour a day for Facebook/TV, you can find it for stretching ;)
I'm scared to push myself. It is very scary to go deeper into stretches at the beginning, because mostly your mind doesn't believe you can do it. Remember your body can do double, triple of what your mind thinks. Relax and breathe. And have someone with experience on your side to assist you in case.
My coach always makes me feel safe!
I'm naturally stiff. This goes hand in hand with the "I'm not naturally flexible" one. If you knew you can reach a goal, but it would take you extra time and work, wouldn't you still go for it? Believing is achieving. Others are way better than me. Who cares! You are not them. You are you. Find what set you from the rest, don't try to be someone else. Why would you wanna be someone else's bad copy? Be your own best. Somewhere I read "Comparison is the thief of joy". It's so true. I have past injuries, I can't do it. You can always work around injuries. Actually, all active people go through injuries all the times, it's quite normal. I myself have a not so great left hamstring and right shoulder, but I have my ways around it and warm up really good. Some old injuries will always stick with you, they'll come and go. Other ones will heal completely, and stretching will help the process.
Do you stretch? What's your excuse?
Anytime in my life I had a goal, desire or passion for something, and fulfilling that certain dream was up to my own decision and action, I gave all myself. The first time I remember doing it, was for a wrong cause, but at the time I didn't know it. I was 16 and I wanted to be a fashion model. In Italy models are extremely skinny (seriously, fashion world is sick and I now hate it)
So being a teenager and not knowing any better, I wanted to be like them... to the point where the more bones were showing, the better. I dedicated a whole 3-4 years to that purpose. I left any interest and close person behind, I don't have many memories of that time because my brain was zooming in one only point: being skinny and whatever I had to do in order to become that way. It was the most brutal fight I had within myself, I was fighting hunger everyday, dieting was my sport, losing weight was all that made me happy, really. I expressed my feelings with drawing, I remember drawing a skinny mean Sofia beating up the good pretty Sofia, or the good Sofia trying to escape...
I don't even want to spend too much time talking about it, anyway my goal turned into a compulsion and I became victim of it. I lost track and it ate me up, I was trapped. Slowly and painfully I got out of that sickening mentality and found a "healthier" passion (wasn't so healthy as it sounds). I literally fell in love with fitness and weight training, I loved strong, fit bodies and since I was coming from a past of obsessive control, the idea of controlling my body diversely (to be lean and strong) really excited me. I could eat! But extremely controlled still, and everything had to be in a certain way (no oil, no butter, no wheat, no carbs, everything measured etc). I started getting some muscle but still I wasn't getting the point: beating myself up wasn't necessary the best way to reach a goal or fulfill a passion, nor being isolated from the rest of the world because I had to go home and eat my three egg-whites...
So again I learned a lot from that, I got better, ate more, still I was going thru a lot of body-mind conflicts. I couldn't find a balance, I was happy to train, cook, go to the market, study the body, test my limits but deep down I knew something wasn't right. I just didn't know how to live differently anymore. What did it mean "eat whatever you want"? "Train tomorrow relax today/go out with friends/do something different"? I was still drawing, better situations, bad Sofia now was friend with good, fit Sofia. But she was still there...
With many ups and downs, body weight fluctuations, I kept fitness/body building as my steady passion for many years. I really loved weight training and how it made my body look. I competed several times and did fitness modeling.
When I found pole dancing, I started to feel the desire to explore a part of me I never knew I had: a sensual, "sexy" side, which was nothing but my woman/feminine side, that side I neglected all my life with my insanely strict diet and training ! So all in a sudden I wanted to nurture that side (surely not thru food). Pole dancing did nurture it, and beside feeling completely awkward and disgraceful at the beginning, I loved it. So at that time I had weight training still my #1 passion, and pole dancing right up the alley. I started drawing pole dancers and heels ;)
I wasn't completely out of my body-mind war, still controlling a lot my food and training, with little to no time for anything else (beside school).
I'm talking about years here... So all I said so far is about a 10 years evolution. Now, this is the last biggest part. While pole dancing my butt off day in and out, I started to grow more and more interest for flexibility. At the beginning I wanted to be more flexible to be better on the pole. But then, about six months after, I lost some of my pole enthusiasm (it turned out I preferred Floorwork) and figured that I would dedicate myself fully to flexibility, and more specifically, contortion!
Few months into contortion, I realized there was NO WAY I could keep up with weight training, at least the way I used to. So slowly I had to take it out of my life :( Leg training was actually the HARDEST thing to give up to. I LOVED training legs. I loved squats, dead lifts... And I mean, pretty freaking heavy. Wasn't squatting 10lbs just to clarify, more like 130-140lbs. I said bye to my round full butt and opted for a smaller one lol, still trained my body but very differently, whatever was making me stiff was off limits.
But the biggest change I experienced with discovering this new passion (contortion), was that I didn't need to focus so much on my appearance (therefore diet); that draining control on food wasn't necessary anymore. All I had to do was training! And yes eating healthy, but at least not to the point I had to refuse going out for dinner, go to a bar with friends, hang out at a party etc... So I ended up fueling my body better and my mind "flourished", I became more social and relaxed, finally BALANCED. I felt a new way of happy...The happiness of freedom. Freedom to move, go out, eat... Flexibility has a huge meaning to me. So I'm sorry if sometimes I talk about it so much but 1. It's my passion and I give all myself to it 2. It gave me the greatest freedom I ever had
And bad Sofia is no longer in the drawings. It's only good Sofia, and she's very flexible :)
This is just to show you what was my training like 2 years ago, before I started my flexibility journey! There are not many exercises that develop strength (and incredible back stiffness) like rows and deadlifts. So I worked against my flexibility for a while lol...
It doesn't matter if you start from zero or you feel too old for something new and different, with the right steps everything can happen. The body is an amazing adapting machine.
No excuses :)
From Wikipedia: "Yoga is the physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines which originated in ancient India with a view to attain a state of permanent peace of mind in order to experience one's true self."
"Contortion (sometimes contortionism) is an unusual form of physical display which involves the dramatic bending and flexing of the human body."
In 2008, before starting pole dancing, I had a few months of devoted yoga time, more specifically Ashtanga/Vinyasa yoga. I chose Ashtanga because at the time it seemed the most "hardcore" one (I tried Bikram too, but I couldn't stand the heat). What was I looking for in yoga? Honestly, I wanted to be more flexible. You see I had this desire already back in 2008, but little did I know about contortion or flexibility training, I thought yoga was the way to go. It lasted for a while, then I got bored. I got bored of sun salutations (why so many?), of poses I wasn't getting a sense of challenge out of it, of its philosophy, I wanted it to be fully physical, mind and body work, without the spirituality and the mantras (ommmmmmm).
Yoga is great don't get me wrong, but wasn't for me. In my experience yoga (Ashtanga) trains the mind-body connection, and it gives a solid foundation of flexibility, but it doesn't take you further, because "the goal of this style is not to learn the more difficult asanas but rather to learn to maintain internal focus throughout the practice" (from Wikipedia). It has flow (vinyasa) and develop core strength (bandhas), challenge your balance and create great alignment, but I think it doesn't focus on a personal and unique path of discovering the body and its capabilities (my interest).
Contortion, first of all is considered an art, and it's spirituality-free. Contortion in my experience focuses on the poses and the stretches that get you to the poses (that make up an act to perform), it's very straight forward. Also, contortion is not for everyone. It's very hard and difficult to learn, especially after a certain age. It can be extreme and scary. Yoga is rarely extreme and scary. Contortion is mainly based on back bending, splits, handstands and such; while yoga I believe it's more about perfect alignment, opening hips, inversions, some shoulder and lower back bending, but there is zero neck lengthening and little middle/upper back work. The breathing is also used differently. Yoga is very popular in Western society, while contortion is rare and not well known. You can learn yoga with an average instructor or by yourself, but you can't learn contortion, because you can get hurt and beyond every pose there is a long preparation for it, which you need an expert teacher to guide you through. I feel so blessed because I met my coach Otgo Waller, who happened to be a Mongolian contortionist (check her page here) and one of the few professionals familiar with working with adults. I owe her so much and look forward to train with her as often as I can. So I'd say yoga's primary goal is not advancing the flexibility but creating a deeper connection with the self through the practice, it's still a good way to get flexible, just with a different approach and a different philosophy. Contortion is pure flexibility training, the deepest way to test your limits and will, and to take down your fears. It also transforms your body completely. To me contortion takes you above and beyond any expectation you might start with, yoga has an ends in itself. But again, this is just my experience :) whatever you choose, make sure it's right for you and it makes you happy.
Me doing yoga
Me doing contortion
So last post I wrote about the most dramatic changes I felt after my first year of contortion ( btw I forgot to mention my bruised chin aha!), today I wanted to address another topic related to flexibility training, which is how to know what works for your body, what don't, what's worth to try and what is not.I primarily refer to people who start their quest for flexibility at a later age (over 20-25 yo), we have different bodies than kids of course, one of the main aspect that we lack compared to kids is: our body has a story already written on it, we are not a blank canvas anymore. You might have noticed kids can pretty much do anything, they don't have pre-existent injuries, imbalances and body-habits, because they didn't live enough to develop them yet ! But we did, and so we have to work either around injuries, work to correct imbalances and bad habits (postural or training induced). So you'll get frustrated because someone can do a certain move with ease, and you can't even get close to it. But then you'll find you're great at something else, while the same person you thought was better than you, can't. So this is what's interesting, you need to create the flexibility that your body is willing to accept! It can be very challenging and a long trial and error, but you need to give it time and see how your body react to the stretches, it will either take it and make it its own, or you'll have to find an alternative way to get in the pose you want to be, or either avoid the pose altogether.
There are things that with time you'll able to correct (like imbalances), other won't really happen, because again how your body has grown its own stubborn habits, or it will be because of your proportions (height, bone structure, torso-legs ratio etc), your background and lifestyle: those have all a huge impact on your ability to develop flexibility, you just have to find the right key (the right stretches) to open those doors, and sometimes there will be no key at all. For example, something I worked (and still work at it) to correct is, I have a tendency to drop my left hip lower when I do a chest stand (and I look crooked), if it wasn't for my trainer Otgo, I'd have never known. Something I'm not so good at, but it's worth keep trying: handstands, I don't think being almost 5'11 helps, but I can't even use it as an excuse. Something I don't think will ever get fixed: my aerial splits have a turn out so strong, I can correct it on the floor but in the air it's so natural to turn out that I can't avoid it, but I don't sweat on it, because I have a tons of other stuff to work on :)
So my message is: don't get obsessed to fit into a pose, without first testing out how your body feels about it. It is painful, uncomfortable, but it's getting better, almost each time ? Then go for it. It feels completely unnatural, painful, and simply not designed for you ? Then skip it, or you can always re-try again later on. But don't make excuses, it will always "hurts", to some degree ;) you just have to learn if it's a pain that your body will take to make remarkable changes and adjustments, or not.
So my body after a year of contorting at least 3 times a week, feels like finally has started to accept the new way of being, and nags way less about it. There have been months where I personally doubted why I was putting myself thru all that strenuos training. It was painful and scary, but so rewarding that quickly I could't help it but keep going. There are not many things that fascinated me like the human body, and pushing its limits. I really feel like the bumble bee, I probably shouldn't have done contortion given my age, little flexibility background, height etc, but there wasn't a real reason for me to not believing in myself, so...
Now the biggest changes I started to experience so far, are:
Lot of cracking. My back cracks every day, even just standing up or slightly twisting. I love to crack my back to release tension. Cracking per se it's not bad, it means your joints are more flexible and the little gas molecules inside, with a pressure change, make a pop sound.
I'm more sensible to cold, sitting, walking or standing for long time. Those are the most common reason for my back to get stiff.
I never felt more free in my life. I have the greatest freedom of movement and a deep sense of relaxation after I stretch. I cant imagine how constricted must feel the regular population lol!
I developed a fine tuning between mind and body, a profound connection and communication. The fear is what keeps mind and body apart. If you don't take down your fears, you can't fully see what's your body potential. You need a mind free of fear to guide a body into defying logic and common sense, because contortion is none of them aha!
I'm less hungry (don't know why, probably I started eating less, it's awful to be full and stretch!)
I sleep in weird positions.
I sit even in more weird positions, every time I have a chance to be on the floor I go not thinking twice.
My mood often is related to how my body feels. If I'm stiff, I can get very pissed :-P
And lastly, I get way less sore than in the beginning, Yay!
Well, it's been quite a while since I've been here, probably my writing is rusty too, but I'm willing to come back, because this blog is special to me, it's like a beautiful memories container, my storybook and online diary. Also I thought I write and post many thoughts on my Facebook page, that get lost down the feeds, so it makes more sense to blog and save those thoughts :) Since my last blog, those are the most meaningful updates from my life up to today:
1. I live, talk and breathe contortion. I invest a lot of my time with flexibility training.
2. I moved to Chicago! And yes, I miss Vegas.
4. At the moment I'm focusing a lot of my time working with my online classes and teaching at two great pole studios in Downtown Chicago. As I get better with my contortion, I'm really considering to perform more often, I'm going make it a part-time job, hopefully.
5. I got back to driving. Ugh, it still terrifies me every time. So I'm still in the process of getting comfortable with it.
6. I'm trying to travel somewhere every few months, either to Vegas to visit my friends and my coach Otgo Waller, which I miss terribly, or Florida, for workshops and the beach (TOO COLD HERE!), or less frequently Italy, to see my family and do more workshops. I love travelling, I think it recharges you and keeps you from sitting back and froze in a routine.
7. About my back, last post I was writing about acupuncture because I was going through some bad muscular pain, but it went away itself! My first year of contortion was pretty painful at times, but it's common when you just begin, your body is not accustomed to the new way of being. I still get sore, but not as bad.
That's it for now, I'll be back soon! Here's a picture from yesterday at the gym
First of all... Wow, I'm back blogging! It's been so long, I almost considered deleting this blog, but then I thought that there are so many posts I care about and wrote in different moments of my life, I wanna keep them available to anyone interested in reading. So as many of you know, I've been training pretty intensely on my flexibility for the last year or so (about 5-6 days a week), and noticed a lot of changes happening in my body. First biggest thing I saw was that my body couldn't keep up with the amount of weight training I was putting it into, so I found myself at a crossroad: I had to either re-think my training in the gym or be ok with a 'little' flexibility. I wasn't ok with that, I wanted to be the most flexible I could! So priorities switched, and flexibility took place NUMERO UNO. First I tried to go days with no weights at all... but then, like a subconscious need, I was taking a day off stretching to feel that blood rush coming back, the pump, throwing weights here and there, my body would just miss those feelings!... but then I would slack on flexibility because I'd be too sore, too stiff for too many days. A little about me: I've been lifting weights since I was 16 and I'm 28 now. I dont remember taking more than a week OFF my weight training and cardio, they just became an habit. I had to find a way to keep some weights or body exercises in my life to keep myself 'sane' and my muscles still nice and firm, while achieving my dreams of flexibility.
So slowly, with a lot of trial and error, I found out what worked for my body in order to avoid stiffness (some soreness is ok) but at the same time keep exercising in the gym or at home or wherever, this is a list of discoveries I made:
- Cardio is good (running, stairmaster, elliptical etc.). It doesn't affect my flexibility training, but I do only 1 session a week, no more than 45 min. I do it mostly to keep my heart trained too. If you like swimming, that's the BEST 'anti-stiffness' activity you can do! Too bad I don't like swimming lol.
-Shoulder/arms/back training: OUCH. I couldn't make it work. When doing back bending, you're not just moving your spine backward, there an ENORMOUS amount of muscles involved, at a superficial and deep level. Your neck, traps, shoulders, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, QL, multifidi... all stretching and pulling, so if you do heavy weights, you'll probably have a hard time adding flexibility there, and you might have to spend some time working on softening knots, scar tissue and all that comes as a consequence of weight training. (NOTE: I'm talking from a 'contortionist wannabe' point. Not all of you wanna be contortionists, I know. So of course, this is my experience, maybe for some of you just lowering the weight and adding reps would work. I used that technique a lot before quitting training my upper body with weights).
- Push ups, pull ups, handstand press ups (on the wall), handstand practice: there you go, few classic exercises that strengthen your upper body without getting in the way of flexibility too much. ALWAYS STRETCH IN BETWEEN SETS
-Abs: I do abs maybe every two weeks. Again, sore abs means stiff hip flexors and a harder time back bending... so you choose. In my case it didn't make a huge impact, so I still do abs here and there. ALWAYS STRETCH IN BETWEEN SETS
-Legs: The only body part that I managed to train every week! Seriously, who can live without training legs? Someone like me certainly can't. So this is an example routine for you, all those exercises do not add stiffness on my back (my biggest concern), just some healthy and needed soreness on legs:
1. Plyometrics. Yes! Jump as much as you want. I wear ankle weights during my whole workout, so I jump with them (like jump squats)
2. Squats with weighted bar. I know what you're gonna say... NO PLATES? JUST THE BAR? Yes. This is what you gotta do, what you always thought it was ineffective to build a great butt... it's gonna be of great help for your back flexibility. Won't add muscle on your legs, but it will keep them firm and strong. Add more reps and sets. You're welcome to add few plates, NOT the 45'...
3. Split squats. Lunges. Side lunges. Step ups. All those exercises you can do using your body weight are great. Add more reps and sets. Enough to feel the burn!
4. Kickbacks, side kicks, leg extension, leg curs, butt bridges. Yes! But light weight.
5. NO'S --> DEADLIFTS. Hell no. Even if they're amazing to build strong legs and butt, they destroy your back flexibility. Deadlifts were the first ones I eliminated from my workout. LEG PRESSES. Again, no for the same reason.
Always remember to STRETCH in between sets! Add reps if you don't feel working enough, I know at the beginning you might feel you're not doing much but it's not true! You're training and saving your flexibility. Wear ankle weights the whole session. An example of stretches in the gym, between sets:
-Pole dancing: surely pole dancing add strength to your upper body, but with strength comes stiffness. I don't think you have to stop pole dancing to get more flexible, especially if that's the reason why you wanna stretch! To be more flexible on the pole :) Just make sure you spend at least half hour after your pole session, to work on your neck, shoulders and back flexibility. I hope this post helped you to understand more how weight training and training for flexibility work together. There will be always one that has to sacrifice more in order for the other one to progress, but at least one doesn't have to exclude the another one ;)