Demystifying Contortion training

Contortion, the art of bending your body into forms you don’t see every day. You’ll find contortionists in Cirque Du Soleil, doing handstands with their feet in front of their faces on top of other contortionists bent into human pretzels. As you watch them in awe, the thought that you could be doing something like that doesn’t even dare to cross your head. I mean, where do you even start?

Can it be just a hobby?

True, traditionally contortionists start their training at a very young age, but even if you didn’t – the ship hasn’t sailed. Just like adult gymnastics is a thing, adult contortion is a thing too. Sports like pole dancing, aerial arts, belly dancing and others got more adults without any background interested in expanding their body vocabulary. My contortion coach says she’s fascinated by training adult bodies and the challenges they pose.

And although the contortionists you see are doing this as their full-time gig, it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to reach a high level of flexibility by keeping it as a hobby. It’s like Olympic lifting, you can be a professional dedicating their life to it, or a Crossfit weekend warrior.

Stretching is all levels

Here’s the nice thing about stretching as a group class activity, advanced students usually work on the same exact exercises as beginners. Most of the stretching positions are attainable at any level, it’s your body that dictates how deep you can go into it before you encounter resistance (that infamous stretching pain). You’ll work on your hamstring flexibility by bending forward to your leg, and so will the girl with the oversplits. If you aren’t as flexible as her, you just won’t bend as far as her, but essentially you are doing the same thing.

That being said, there will be skills which will require some flexibility, body awareness or other skills. Otherwise what would be the fun, right? You’ll need to master basic hand balancing in order to start working on your contortion handstands. You’ll need a decent back, hip and shoulder flexibility before you can grab your leg over your head.

All the stretching and contortion classes I’ve been to were suitable for beginners even when not necessarily being fronted as such. When they are explicitly not, most likely there is a beginner friendly class available in the same place. There are always more beginners than advanced folk, so the market always leans towards beginner training. If the class is working on an exercise you’re not able to do, the instructor will always modify it to your level or have you work on a more basic one.

All the classes that I’ve attended had a wide variety of levels among the students. There were people still working on their flat front splits, those who work on oversplits and everything in between. Those who just started to push up into a bridge, those who work on compacting it and those who hold their ankles in a bridge. Actually, the advanced ones where rarer to encounter in class, and very inspiring to watch.

What happens in class

Let me take you through a typical class so there won’t be anything that mysterious about a contortion class.

You start with a warm-up to get your body ready to work. It usually includes some core conditioning, which is important for backbending. The class will then be divided into two parts, leg flexibility and back flexibility. Some classes/instructors put more stress on one than the other or separate them altogether. In each part, the instructor will take you through a series of stretches and drills. They will come around to correct your alignment and may or may not push you further into the stretches.

Leg flexibility includes working towards flat font splits, middle split, and pancake. You’ll be stretching hamstrings, hip flexors, hip rotators, quads, calves, ankles to name a few. Then you’ll do the splits themselves, sometimes in more than one way. Some classes indulge in frontbending too, which is mostly hamstring and hip flexibility as well.

Back flexibility includes shoulder, spine, and some hip flexibility. For shoulders, you’ll be stretching your lats, pecs, and others for a better overhead position. When it comes to spine flexibility, there’s a more of a progression. Entry level stretch may be cobra pose, camel pose, puppy stretch on the wall and bridges, and as you get better you can push your limits with elbow bridges, hand balances, chest stands, and so on.

Just do it

So even if all these splits and bridges look miles away from you, as you can see the road to them is actually very feasible. When I started working on my flexibility, I was already an adult, and not a tiny bit flexible. I’m almost flat in my splits and I work on my chestands. All you have to do is show up and put in the work, the results will follow.


Mary Nightingale

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