Contortion

The happiness of freedom

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) Fashion-Model-Health-thumb-375x561-63474

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.

Image 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 ;)

 

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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!

 

Image 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 :)

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Stiffness and hormones

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Alert: this is a post about "women's stuff" ;) Sometimes it's scary to think how our reasoning and mood is affected by hormones, it makes me feel like a robot that works on some mysterious chemical reactions. Above all, I wanted to learn a little more about estrogen and progesterone, the two primary sex steroid hormones in the female body, so I did some research to hopefully figure out what connection (if any) exists between muscle stiffness and hormones. It looks like women goes through a lot of hormones fluctuations (drops and rises) especially 1-2 weeks before their menstrual cycle, those cause several symptoms like anger, moodiness, fatigue, hunger, depression... AND joint/muscle stiffness !

It's hard to determine exactly what causes what, but right before a woman's period there is a high concentration of estrogen and progesterone in the blood, that suddenly drop right when the period starts. This drop releases the stiffness and rebalances all the above discomforts.

Here's a more detailed explanation of what happens:

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"The graph shows the normal hormonal fluctuation seen with menstruation.  Day 1 of the cycle correlates with the first day of menstrual bleeding.  The first phase of the menstrual cycle is called the follicular phase.  Estrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest as the uterine lining sheds through menstruation.  The follicular phase lasts 10 – 14 days, or until ovulation occurs.  Just prior to ovulation estrogen and FSH (follicule stimulating hormone) rise, and LH (luteinizing hormone) surges to stimulate the release of an egg from the ovary. The luteal phase begins when ovulation occurs. Progesterone is exclusively released from the developing egg.  Both estrogen and progesterone work in concert together to prepare the uterine lining for pregnancy.  If fertilization does not occur, estrogen and progesterone levels decrease causing menstruation to occur." (drlauraruby.com).

So LOW levels of estrogen and progesterone seems to work magic with flexibility, at least in my experience.

Another interesting point this author makes is "estrogen dominance, resulting in changes in the ratio of estrogen to progesterone are the underlying cause of many of the symptoms seen with PMS". So this could solve my question about what causes the stiffness. Or at least I'm getting closer to an answer. I'm sure this can be slightly different from person to person ;)

To show you where I experience the most stiffness: my middle/upper back. They refuse to bend on those pre-cycle days !

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Artsy vs Freaky

I want to show you how even in something extreme like contortion there must be a balance, or things can get too far and from being beautiful and artistic they become inconceivable and sort of disturbing. Take this picture of a faceframe pose from Zlata

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and this same pose, from Natasha King

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They both do the same pose, they are both talented contortionists, but I wouldn't pick the first one as my favorite. Why? Aren't they the same? No. Flexibility wise, the second is less extreme (not grabbing the knees and lifting the chest as high, feet are not completely flat on the floor), but way more beautiful and tasteful to me.

Another example, elbowstand with back arch (fold)

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and handstand with back arch (Zig Zag pose)

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Again, I'd pick the second one. More interesting and graceful. The first one is just too deep and foldy, it gives me a sense of no strength, no control, no emotion, like a lifeless noodle.

Another inconceivable example of a pose:

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I mean what is even going on here? No thanks. I'm sure this lady worked very hard for her skills (respect!) and I wouldn't say no to some extra flexibility, but this is ugly to me!

What is beautiful to you? Maybe none of those pictures, but you can compare this post to many other things, like I don't know, make up. Doesn't too much make up make you look ridiculous and actually not pretty? Too much is too much, in anything.

I want to create something aesthetically pleasant with my body that people can love and appreciate, I want to impress but not scare. So long life to beautiful, delightful, elegant contortion :) No No to freaky, disturbing, tasteless body-bending.

Yoga and contortion

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

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Me doing contortion

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Finding what suits you : tailoring flexibility to your body

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.

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