Updated: Dec 16, 2019
As a passionate Yoga Teacher I am always looking for safe and effective ways to make it easier on my stiff students with their stretches. That's how I stumbled across the term CONTORTION. We've all seen these incredible acts with people seemingly made out of rubber in the circus. But how healthy is this contortion? Through social media we see very flexible, young fairies, male and female and get the notion that they're doing yoga, but are they really? This let the following question pop up in my head: Is this still Yoga what they're doing? First of all we need to understand what contortion really is, before we can start do draw the line between yoga and contortion.
What does contortion mean?
The term contortion ( lat. contortio ‚twist, turn‘) describes a form of sensual acrobatic perfomances where artists twist their bodies in such a way, that I - as a Yogi already cringe in my seat because of the fear of pain or spinal disc prolapses in my own body. (Just to let you know, I am not super bendy and I might never be able to sit on my head in this life time- and I'm ok with that.) Contortion often happens in a circus environment like the Cirque du Soleil from Canada.
Most Contortionists are already naturally very flexible which even increases through years of training from a young age. This ability of bending the body in extreme forms has led to the description snake or rubber humans. Being extremely bendy in forward folds has coined the term of a Frontbender. Extreme backbendy people are described as Backbenders, depending on the spine and in which direction it is more flexible. Rarely a body can do both. Being able to fold oneself into a suitcase or small box with the head between the crossed legs is called Enterology.
Contortion is not a sport that can be done by anyone. It is more an art form, that requires years of training to achieve a more than usual amount of flexibility. In physiotherapy and rehabilitation and yoga it is more about relearning and regaining the natural amount of flexibility. In Contortion not only muscles must lengthen but also tendons and ligaments and even the length of the organs increases. As for chin stand, it is potentially dangerous to rest all of the weight on the ribcage which can lead to broken ribs or even damage to the tiny end of the sternum.
In short, young people under 20 can practice contortion risk free with a good teacher. On a long term it can lead to joint wear or more serious problems (like spinal disc injuries) if there is no slow ending of practicing which might take a couple years for the body to slowly decrease the amount of flexibility.
INTERVIEW WITH CATIE BRIER
My longing for more information has led me to get in touch with a beautiful, unbelievable flexible and strong lady, which is why I desperately needed to ask her the following questions from my yogic point of view! Catie has been a professional contortionist for the last 20 years. As a former contortionist, she lives in San Francisco and teaches contortion online and in groups.
Could you describe yourself and your profession? What is mongolian contortion?
I started contortion training at the age of 11 after having been a dancer from a young age. I moved to San Francisco when I was 16 to pursue my dream of becoming a real contortionist. Luckily, that panned out and I did become a professional contortionist! I performed for many years, but I recently retired that life to start a family and shifted my focus to teaching.
The reason I teach Mongolian contortion is quite simple, it’s the best! (and safest). When I first moved to San Francisco I started training with a Chinese coach; I quickly found that the Chinese contortion method was too harsh for an (almost) adult body. Shortly after training in that style my back got very seriously injured. I started to take it easy and not push my back too much because it became very painful just to do a simple backbend. After some time, I started training with Mongolian contortionist Serchmaa Byamba. She changed my life. She taught me how to warm up really well and so many wonderful back flexibility exercises to target each different area of the back: hips, low back, mid back, upper back, shoulders. Before then I thought it was just “back”, I had never understood that each area could be stretched in different ways and focused on. This is the Mongolian way.
Now, having that contortion training under my belt and having been a dancer, I developed my own teaching style that encompasses all of the exercises and techniques that I found to be the most effective and beneficial. I consider what I teach to be the Mongolian style because of the approach and understanding of what backbending really is. I put a lot of emphasis on leg flexibility as well, specifically active leg flexibility, which isn’t as common in Mongolian contortion, but I find it to be so helpful overall with students’ body awareness and overall strength. If I have been working with a student for a while, and we have yet to do a split upside down (like in a forearmstand or handstand) they will usually have an almost flat split once we try it because of the amount of work we do on legs.
I love what I do. I get to go to work every day and help people achieve their flexibility goals; sometimes just understanding how to square their hips in a split, sometimes sitting on their head. No matter what the student’s goals are, I find great joy in helping them find a way to get their bodies more flexible without injury. Every body is different. Every body needs a different push, a different verbal cue, a different approach. And I find that challenge to be really rewarding.
Why did you get into contortionism and what do you love the most about it?
I was at a dance camp when I was 11 and a friend of mine said, “check out this thing I can do!”. She did a chest stand. This was before the world of Instagram or even (for me at least) the internet. I had never seen a more amazing thing in my life. I had to do it. This was my destiny. So, that afternoon, I went back to the place I was staying and the woman hosting me happened to have some early Cirque du Soleil videos. One of those early videos had 4 young contortionists doing this impeccably choreographed contortion act. I fell in love with contortion at that moment. Something I loved about this specific act was that it was 4 girls with very different body types and flexibility, I could look at them and go, “I’ll try that trick!” then realized I wasn’t flexible enough. This happened quite a number of times. But, eventually, it started getting me to notice that different bodies were different (for an 11 year old this was mind blowing), some tricks looked good on some but not the others, some could sit on their heads, but not all. So I watched that video over and over and over and over again and learned as much as I possibly could from those 4 young contortionists. That video was my driving power. Those young girls and that beautifully choreographed act completely inspired my entire career. Being a dancer, I loved movement and movement quality and choreographing. Realizing that I could mix all of that together and create something entirely original (again, at the time there was no Instagram and not every dancer could bend in half) and inspiring, inspired me. Being able to express anything with just your body is what I love most.
What is your favourite ,trick‘? and which one would you say is the easiest to learn for newbies?
Aw man. I don’t know where to start! Some of my favorite things in contortion weren’t really “tricks”. I was really drawn to the in-between moments. Those moments of honesty where you can connect with the audience and look calm while being bent in half. That said, I love handstands the most. Anything in a handstand was my personal interest.
As for newbies, it actually really depends on body type and natural flexibility. What is easy for some is really hard for others who, for instance, I have very short legs. I know that sounds silly, but short extremities makes some very simple tricks very difficult. But in general, I usually consider “easy” tricks to be circle (lying on your side holding both feet making a circle. also known as donut, and half mountain.
What is the danger of contortionism? How healthy is it really? Would you recommend this to everyone? What age is the best to start with?
This is a very loaded question. I think working on flexibility is good for everybody, but I consider contortion training and flexibility training to be very different. Here is how I view it, contortion is the most extreme flexibility, is trick based, and requires some natural ability or a young starting age. Whereas flexibility is something anyone can achieve and work at, but it’s relative. Increasing overall flexibility is great for adults to decrease pain from their day to day work: sitting at a desk, standing all day, being an avid runner, etc. But I consider increasing flexibility and contortion training to be very different and feel they should be viewed differently. This is why I don’t really consider age to be an issue. If you want to increase flexibility, go for it at any age. If you want to be a contortionist, focus on flexibility first, and if you have a knack for it and don’t find that it takes too much of a toll on your body, go for it at any age!
I have read in your description that you offer personalized and SAFE techniques. What distinguishes your training from other methods?
There are many different approaches to teaching contortion. One style of teaching is just to put the student in a chest stand wether or not they are flexible enough and call it “contortion”. That has the potential to be very dangerous. This is the opposite of my approach; I make sure students have the flexibility and strength to get themselves in and out of positions before trying them. Another style of teaching (this one is usually by people who were brought up in circus and trained from a young age) will tell you that pain is not a bad thing; I figure because when you are a child you might not understand the difference between pain, and a stretch or a muscle working. As a young child you might feel a muscle active for the first time and consider it to be pain, when it’s just a new muscle activating. Partly for this reason I don’t train students under 14. If they can’t communicate what the feeling is, I don’t want to work with them because it could be potentially dangerous. For lack of a better term, I would say I have a “holistic” approach to teaching. I don’t force people to do things that don’t work for their bodies. I’ll encourage them to try things even if it seems scary or unattainable, as long as I deem it safe. But if something just does not work for them, I’ll figure out what is limiting the movement and focus on improving that flexibility or strength first. If people learn to start thinking of flexibility and contortion in this way, and really think about their body’s ability and range of motion instead of focusing on getting a crazy trick, it’s safe.
I love your hashtag #notyoga. How did you come up with it and why? I think this is a very common and possibly dangerous misunderstanding, that yoga and contortionism are the same. I think many yoga students will be happy to read about your opinion.
I would love to claim that I made up that hashtag, but I definitely copied it. I saw it and it really resonated with me. When I was performing as a contortionist, I had this feeling of being “better” than yogis, because I myself didn’t really understand the difference, it just annoyed me that they were considered similar. Since I’ve been teaching and really focused on learning about how the body works and how to safely teach this extreme flexibility, it’s not about being “better”, it’s just that they’re different. The approach and attitude going in are different. My view on it is coming from the contortionist standpoint, but I will try my best to explain.
In short, yoga is spiritual and contortion is not. The mindset of walking into a contortion class and a yoga class are completely different. Not everything in contortion should be relaxing or feel good or help you in some way. Sometimes contortion hurts. Contortion training is that of an athlete. You are training to be the best and have incredible endurance, and on top of that perform with grace and elegance. Not only are you training as an athlete, you’re also training to be a performer. As for Yoga, it is spiritual. You are working towards being more at peace with yourself and becoming one with the universe (at least that’s what I feel it’s for) It’s more for bodily health and mental health purposes.
I feel that this potentially dangerous attitude can be largely attributed to social media now (namely, Instagram). There are so many yogis with this amazing, contortion level flexibility. But that’s not the point. Those people may have gotten more flexible by doing yoga, but that is not going to happen for everybody. And it’s not the point. To try and achieve extreme levels of flexibility through a medium that is not actually designed for that, is what makes it dangerous. Not to mention, a lot of yoga instructors go through teacher training and then just start teaching. There is no reason that they would know about how the body works and be able to teach extreme flexibility, especially if they themselves are not very flexible. To be fair, the same can be said for people who teach “contortion” classes who have never done contortion, or are brand new at it. I guess I just feel that whatever your goals are you should find a qualified instructor who has done it themselves and has a very good understand of bodily function and anatomy.
Why do you think is it important for adults to maintain or relearn a certain degree of flexibility?
Mainly to help relieve pain. In this day and age everyone is always sitting on front of a computer or staring at their phones or binge watching anything on Netflix. Stretching and an active lifestyle is so important for mental wellbeing. This is why I think it’s great that Yoga is more widespread now. It’s healthy. It’s a great way to just be in a place while not staring at your phone and be active and stretch and just relax.
Have you ever tried yoga? If yes, why didn‘t you like it? ;)
I have! (Once. hah.) I had a hard time not just pushing my limits and treating it like contortion training. I couldn’t get into the spiritual side because I was so used to circus training (straighten your knees, squeeze your butt, etc.) Plus, the teacher disliked me for this reason so it wasn’t all that fun.
What would be your 3 tips for yoga beginners to deepen their stretches in a safe way?
Before I delve into these, I want to be clear that these are pretty much the opposite of what is taught in yoga. But as stated above, yoga and contortion are not the same! So, these are my top 3...actually 4 :) safe and effective flexibility tips:
Squeeze your butt! To keep your back, especially low back, safe during backbending, it is really important to squeeze your “under butt” which is technically your high hamstring. This will help you to push your backbending into your hips and out of your low back.
Stop doing back bending with your feet together. This, again, will help keep your low back safe during backbending. Most people don’t have enough flexibility in their hips to push it into their hips with feet together, so the entire backbend will be forced into their low back. (I have worked with yogis who had bad back issues just from doing standing backbends with feet together)
Actively straighten your legs while doing forward folds. When you are doing a stretch in hopes that your hamstrings will get more flexible, it is important to straighten your legs fully (that doesn’t mean lock them out, just use your quadriceps to straighten them). If you don’t fully straighten them you won’t stretch your whole hamstring and will not see improvement as quickly!
(I’m adding a fourth because 3 wasn’t enough!) Engage your core in your backbends. I hear a lot of people say RELAX into your backbending, this is another common issue with students who have low back pain. You want to keep your core “activated” while backbending. So you’re not squeezing your core like there’s no tomorrow, but you’re keeping it engaged to support your backbend and not over use your back muscles.
Thank you Catie for this lovely interview which was the most exciting thing to read for me! Sending Love to you in LA.
What is your aim?
We as yoga practicioners need to decide what we want to find the right way to go: Do you long for more spirituality and a healthy amount of flexibility? Then yoga is the perfect thing for you. If you want more than the usual amount, then you need to dig deeper into this topic, you need to understand your body, look at your age (for some this might unpleasant but important) and maybe you need to have a chat with your physiotherapist. Je later you start, the longer your body might need to learn extreme positions. Potential contraindications might me hipdysplasia, disc prolapse or degenerative diseases of the spine.
Find out more about Catie: