If my first goal with flexibility was simply to become the most flexible I could, now that I've seen how far I can push myself, I've slightly changed that initial goal into a healthier, long term, safer one.
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.
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!
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
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?
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!
No more just stretching sessions, foam rolling, yoga and what have you. I decided to give it a try: I'm gonna train to advance my flexibility to the max, and what's better than training with contortionists and first class performers, directly from Circus de Soleil? I attended my first class on Sunday at Shine fitness, a studio managed by Circus professionals here in Vegas. Spacious, peaceful and super friendly people. The class from the beginning was no joke. We focused mainly on back flexibility (my request lol) and I was surprised to see how many ways (unknown to me) there are to stretch your neck, vertebrae, lumbar muscles. For example, laying with our stomach down, we used a belt to wrap one foot around, pulling our leg up and reaching back with our hands. The teacher, David Owen, was also following each student individually by "squishing" (Circus terminology!) the pose we were holding for 5-10 seconds. I never felt so much tension in my body, I thought my shoulders were gonna pop out and my back break in two!
Overall was an amazing experience that I'm determined to repeat every Sunday. I don't wanna work in the Circus but I'm really interested in learning new techniques to be the most flexible I can be. After class (I did almost 3hrs, pole as well) I had a big tasty meal, hot bath and cuddle time with hubby :) Watch out Circus, I'm down for the challenge!!!