It’s time we ask a big question:
Can anyone become flexible?
Today, we’re asking three ladies who have made flexibility and contortion not just a part of their lives, but their livelihood. Coming from different backgrounds and having shaped their passions into different paths, what will their answers be?
Leah Orleans is a part of a two-person travelling comedy circus show, Acrobatrix. The 45 minute show incorporates contorition, comedy, hand to hand and icarian games. She has a background in theater, and circus arts, having trained with several contortion coaches throughout the US and CA, and has recently developed her own fitness program called the ABC’s of Fitness.
Catie Brier is a contortion and flexibility coach, and former professional contortionist. She started out as a dancer before training with Cirque du Soliel’s Debra Brown and Mongolian contortionist Serchmaa Byamba. After retiring from performance, Catie became the Contortion Dept. Head and Circus Center in San Francisco, and during her 5 years in this position she created a one-of-a-kind Contortion Intensive summer training program. She is now based in Germany and focuses on training students through her various online programs and in-person intensives.
Anya Shevelyuk is an aerial and flexibility coach and performer, exclusively certified to teach the Flexible Body Art program by Otgo Waller and teaches her own program called Kintortion. She also has a degree in Exercise Science with an emphasis in Health and Fitness.
- How long have you been doing contortion? What inspired you to get into it?
- How often do you work on your flexibility? What does your typical flexibility routine look like?
- Does diet affect flexibility at all? Are there specific foods or drinks that you would avoid for flexibility’s sake?
- Do you think that anyone could become “super flexible” if they were dedicated to it?
- A lot of people think contortion is just flexibility – but more of it. What are your thoughts on that?
- Do you have tips for anyone who is inflexible but wants to become flexible?
- Lastly, do you have anything else you would like to add or talk about?
How long have you been doing contortion? What inspired you to get into it?
I started in gymnastics, around 5-6 then got to that level where you kind of start to prepare for a competition, when I was about 10, and I got really anxious. I really didn’t like the idea of being judged for something and being compared to someone else, and I was really struggling to get my head in the mental space where I felt comfortable.
I was a theatre kid as well, so I found circus as a wonderful mixture between the physical demands of gymnastics, with the lack of judgement. because Circus is all about presenting, That’s really where I was like, “oh, this is it! This is the one!”
I found the Actors Gymnasium in a suburb of Chicago, so I would take the train up 40 minutes each way after school twice a week for circus class! One circus class that they offered was specifically contortion with a Mongolian coach, and I signed right up.
I continued that all through my teenage years, then trained at l’Ecole Nationale de Cirque for 4 summers throughout highschool.
I started doing contortion when I was about 11. I saw a girl do a cheststand at a summer dance camp and I thought “OMG THAT’S SO COOL”.
I grew up dancing (my mom owned a dance studio), but that was the first time I ever really saw contortion, and it wasn’t the same as it is now where every child who dances is really flexible.
Since there was no IG and virtually no coaches for it in the US, I learned by watching Cirque du Soleil videos and copying the tricks. A few years later I traveled to Montreal to work with real coaches, and when I was 16 I moved to San Francisco to train full time at the San Francisco Circus Center.
I started training flexibility in 2012 in my early 20’s. I would say that I am naturally stiff, ha ha ha!
When I started training, I already had flexible legs from training ballet up until the age or 19. However my back was a completely different story. I had no strength or flexibility in my arms or back. In fact, I had begun to develop a forward hunch after I stopped ballet. I wanted to be a contortionist for as long as I can remember.
The first contortionist I saw was Irina Kazakova doing her Snake routine for Rhythmic Gymnastics. At that moment I knew I wanted to become a contortionist. I was about 10 years old when I asked my parents to attend gymnastics. Unfortunately my mom said I was too old so I just kept working on my ballet training and forgot about contortion.
It wasn’t until I was 21 that I began flexibility training after finding out about a place that offered classes for that specialty. After my first class I was instantly hooked. Although it was a difficult journey, (I was weak, inflexible and I struggled a lot) I am glad I stuck with it.
I am very lucky to have actually gotten a chance to do what I dreamed about even though I started late. It really must have been meant to be for me.
Photo: Anya Shevelyuk
How often do you work on your flexibility? What does your typical flexibility routine look like?
My current structure of my year has a touring season, and a training season. So, currently, I’m performing. So, during our touring season, I’m not working on anything new, I’m not really pushing my limits. I’m performing eight shows a week, so I’m taking my rest days to rest. So, I’ll stretch, do a light workout, and do a lot of self care on my days off from work.
When I’m in training season, we usually train 4-5 hours a day, 5 days a week. Some of that is contortion, some of that is partner acrobatics, part of it is our comedic work and our timing and our lines – so it kind of depends on what we’re working on.
Contortion is one of many disciplines I love, including clowning, and hand to hand acrobatics.
Over these past two years, I’ve kind of made the decision to ease back on my contortion training. I trained super heavy for about four years prior to that, training with Diana Larsen in Montreal, I really liked her as a coach and we worked really well together.
We would train for about 4 hours per week total together, as well as independent stretching I would work on outside of our lessons.
I was getting really great gains, and really advancing and setting humongous goals for myself and making it happen.
After learning a contortion push up, walk arounds, and deeeep backbend work, I needed to make a choice on the toll it was putting on my body- especially because contortion is not the only thing I do in my show, and it’s very rare we have an opportunity to put high level contortion tricks in our performance set list.
We perform in places where I can’t properly warm up, or more likely, if I did warm up, I’d be too bendy and loose to maintain the next 30 minutes of hand to hand acrobatics and Icarian games.
I still train and perform contortion, but I’m not with a coach pushing my limits to their MAX anymore.
contortion, but I’m not with a coach pushing my limits to their MAX anymore.
I don’t train anymore myself, but when I was performing professionally, I would have 3 very intense training days a week, then 1-2 days of lighter training.
When I was in full-time training mode, my intense training days would look like this:
- 1-hour warm-up
- 1-hour leg flex
- Warm up back for tricks
- 1-2 hours training tricks and handbalancing
- 30-45 minutes conditioning
On lighter days I would usually focus more on active flex drills and maintenance training, and handbalancing.
As a coach, I will have students come early for classes and get really warm by doing cardio, then work on specific muscle activation exercises, then splits/oversplits, then more end range active flexibility before moving onto backbending.
For backbending we focus on warming up really well before doing any tricks. We will do activation exercises and stretches for shoulders, hips and upper back, then put it all together to be really warm and ready for deep backbending. We follow all this up with a LOT of core work to restabilize, and to help protect the back from injury.
Honestly, my training routine has always been different from month to month, and year to year. When one thing gets easier, you find a more challenging version and focus on strengthening that. Rinse and repeat.
When I first started I was doing ballet stretches at home because that is all I knew. I then began taking yoga, flexibility and contortion classes about 2-3 times a week to try to speed up the process. I was desperate and impatient so I was just trying to do anything to get my back flexible, fast!
So, for the first year I was training about 5 days a week, and about 8-10 classes. This is now my 7th year and I primarily train on my own about 2-4hours, 4-5 days a week. Training to me is just like brushing my teeth. It is a daily habit, and I always feel better afterward even if its just basic movements.
Photo: Catie Brier
Does diet affect flexibility at all? Are there specific foods or drinks that you would avoid for flexibility’s sake?
Personally, I really like eating, but also, I like fueling my body when I train. I’ll make sure that I have a really big, protein-filled breakfast before I train flexibility.
When I start to shake a lot, my body is telling me I’m lacking nutrients. I try to avoid ever getting to that point, because stretching, even though you aren’t moving around all the time, is taxing on your muscles, and you MUST stay super hydrated.
I also like to eat while I train; I’ll keep protein bars and protein shakes around and I’ll snack. Everybody has their own personal preference, but I definitely know I train better if I’m properly fueled.
I also avoid feeling starving afterwards. My body wants to start rebuilding those muscles as soon as you tear them, essentially, so I don’t like to let myself get to that hungry point.
It can for some people, but generally speaking, the key is staying hydrated, getting adequate protein. Eating foods that are high in potassium is also good for muscles! (bananas, coconut water, etc.).
You mainly want to keep your muscles happy, so eating foods/taking supplements that aid in muscle recovery is key.
I get a lot of inquiries about what to eat and supplements to ingest to become more flexible.
The honest answer is, eating healthy in general is good for your body. There is NO scientific proof out there YET that eating certain foods or taking vitamins and supplements with help you stretch better. The drug industry has been marketing to all sorts of people making claims that a supplement will do this or that to achieve greatness. They aren’t your friend, they are your drug dealer. These unregulated supplements are designed to sound good and sell fast to make a quick buck. Once the body has 100% filled each reservoir of any nutrient, the rest gets urinated out. Unless you are dangerously deficient in a certain nutrient, taking more of any said nutrient is only going to make you feel more alive at best.
Progression is all in the mind. Only your mental state can help your body achieve greatness. If you are calm and truly doing the right exercises for your body to achieve a certain goal (assuming you have no handicaps or restrictions), you can attain that goal. If you are frantic, scared or full of dread/anxiety… throwing yourself around to achieve something without focus or understanding the steps and sensations will make you feel stiff and defeated.
Something I realized about my own training recently is that I used to eat snickers bars and drink lattes every day before training. A big myth is that sugar makes you stiff right? I disagree, and here’s why.
Although my body loves sugar and salt, these days my teeth and gums aren’t loving it. The past year I’ve been eating more normal foods and less cakes and chips. Now when I train, I feel less bendy then when I was training on a sugar high. The sugar/caffeine rush gave me more energy which allowed me to achieve flexibility quicker and go deeper. Now I find myself going slower, but I do feel more controlled and super focused. So, eating less sugar and salt made me hyper-aware and mindful, but it didn’t make me more flexible.
Long story short: It’s all in the mind. Eat smart, don’t overindulge, and stay hydrated.
Photo: Anya Shevelyuk
Do you think that anyone could become “super flexible” if they were dedicated to it?
Okay, first I want to say I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scientist, I have not coached enough people to see enough progress to properly answer this-
But consistent practice does gain results. I’ve seen many people commit fully to getting more flexible, and then, they get more flexible.
I think that it’s all about mindset.
If you have contortionist goals– not just a really nice oversplit, but if you wanna sit on your head, and you’re past puberty, and your body’s not growing anymore, it’s probably going to be very difficult to get there unless you have a dedicated coach and dedicated time.
Experience and age play a big part in this. I believe that the kinds of techniques that can help when you’re younger are going to be very different than the kinds of techniques that can help when you’re older.
It is absolutely possible for anyone to greatly improve their flexibility! But it’s really important as an adult to take your time and focus on longevity, rather than trying to get flexible really fast, or to force a great looking pic for Insta.
Yes, absolutely! However, it also really depends entirely on how much time the person puts into their training and their mindset.
I find that most people who are stagnant in their practice are either don’t fully understand the exercise, using the wrong technique or aren’t putting in the right amount of time. At the end of the day, I truly believe that if you really want something, you will find time.
I personally view my flexibility training as a habit, not a choice. I had to learn to schedule myself into my own work calendar first, before anything else. I was very methodical about the days and times I chose to eliminate any excuses I could possibly use to get out of training.
Once I made that a habit, I never had an excuse to not train. If it is important to you, then it will become a part of your weekly routine.
Photo: Leah Orleans
A lot of people think contortion is just flexibility – but more of it. What are your thoughts on that?
Yeah, they are not the same!
In my opinion, there’s a big difference. If you look at a girl doing a chest stand, and you go, “Oh, I want to be flexible like that! I’m going to take yoga classes and try doing this on my own!” You’re setting yourself up for injury.
Just because it looks like just more flexibility gets you into contortion, there’s a very large difference in the mental space that you’re in, and the state that your coach would be in, versus if you have a flexibility teacher or a yoga teacher.
Personally I say that I teach flexibility, and perform Contortion.
I occasionally coach contortion one-on-one, but I would not say that I am an experienced contortion coach.
The difference in coaching for me, is grounded in knowing how to push someone’s limits very far, in a very safe way. The contortion coaches that I’ve worked with, you feel it. It’s not a relaxing, “Zen” sort of thing. There’s work involved.
I have many thoughts on this! To me, the purpose of flexibility training is to improve flexibility, and the purpose of contortion training is to learn tricks. In order to be able to safely learn contortion tricks, you must have a certain level of flexibility and strength. I see a lot of people get injured trying things their bodies aren’t ready for, so I feel this distinction is necessary.
Think of it this way: you wouldn’t go into a ballet class and immediately learn pirouettes, or go to a tissue class for the first time and do roll downs, or go to a gymnastics class and start off with backtucks. You would go to those classes and start by building a foundation. You would work on basic drills that are designed to teach your body how to move in specific ways, and do loads of conditioning until you are strong/coordinated enough to progress to harder skills.
So why treat contortion any differently? Why immediately try a chest stand without properly preparing your body?
Because not only do you need to be flexible enough, but you need to be strong enough, AND have the control and coordination needed, AND be able to remember/know how to breathe in extreme backbends.
So basically, yes they are two different things that require different mindsets and coaching.
I actually wrote a long blog about this topic.
Here are some highlights from my blog that summarize my answer:
‘Flexibility training’ isn’t what most people view it as. Flexibility is not stretching. Flexibility is Flexion. It is the ability to flex one part of our body to lengthen the opposing side. For instance, think of back-bending strength similar to performing hamstring curls while in a lunge position. We engage the hamstring to bend at the knee and bring the heel toward our glute. This lengthens the quad and hips flexors. If the hamstrings are weak and the quads and hips are tight, getting our heel to actually touch the glute muscle will be very difficult at first.
After training this motion for some time (weeks, months, years) the hamstring will get stronger and the flexion will increase when bringing the heel closer to the glute. Back bending is the same idea. The stronger the OVERALL flexion of the muscles along the spine (from neck to tailbone) becomes, the stronger and more dramatic a backbend can be achieved.
So, flexibility training is not pure passive stretching. Do not cringe at the thought of flexibility stretching. Change your perspective. Flexibility is Flexion. It is the ability to flex and curl up one part of our body, which just so happens to lengthen the opposing side. Flexibility is still an exercise for parts of our body that are not usually exercised. Strength of flexion varies based on how much muscular development a specific muscle or group of muscles has for that action. Bridges, needle scales and cheststands require you to use flexion of the entire back side of your body to elongate the front side of your body. Middle splits require you to engage the outside of your thighs to pull open and lengthen the inside of your thighs. Rather than focusing on the passive lengthening, we should actually be focusing on building strength in our opposing muscles.
Photo: Catie Brier
Do you have tips for anyone who is inflexible but wants to become flexible?
Consistency and practice are really important, because at the end of the day, it all comes to how many hours are logged. But, ultimately your process depends on your goals…
Every body is different, with different strengths, weaknesses, and flexibility limits. I feel that the best way to figure out what your body is capable of is with proper diagnosis by a coach.
Creating or finding a habitual routine that you can repeat on your own will strengthen your ability to integrate stretching in your day, and guard against injury.
Don’t rush it. Focus on building your strength in conjunction with your flexibility, not just stretching.
I talk to people quite often who tell me they stretch all the time and don’t get better. The secret is to stay active in your stretches and focus on building strength in your range of motion.
With that said, I highly recommend finding a coach to work with (online or in-person) who can guide you in the right direction!
If you are new to flexibility training, be aware that the journey is long. There is no short cuts or magic potions that make it easier. You really have to want it and be willing to stick to it and do your homework.
Maximize your training by really staying committed to your intentions. Be aware of your level and what you can achieve safely on your own versus knowing when it’s time to use a coach or spotter. Always make sure you do a thorough warm up before more advanced exercises and stretches. Never skip cooling down after a session, this will help keep your body balanced in the long run.
If you train safe and smart from the start, you will most likely never need to waste time or money recovering from strains and injuries. Also, having a knowledgeable coach to help make sure you are practicing with good technique goes a long way.
I have many students that come to me crooked because their past coach either didn’t care enough or know to help them train evenly with awareness to their alignment. I have also had students come to me injured because their coach saw how flexible they were and physically stretched them to a dangerous zone, which nearly left these students crippled.
So, make sure you always do your research and do not be afraid to ask questions. Flexibility training is incredibly uncomfortable, but it should never be painful. So stay aware and don’t be afraid to speak up if something feels wrong.
Lastly, do you have anything else you would like to add or talk about?
Regarding my show, Acrobatrix: Find me @acrobatrix on IG, DMs are always open!
Regarding Flexibility and Contortion:
I don’t feel educated enough in online coaching work, but I’ve come up with a solution!
I’ve been working on over the 2019 year, to release a workout video series online, called the ABCs of Fitness.
It’s a three-part series, A is Active Flexibility, B is Bodyweight, and C is Cardio.
It’s an all-inclusive, habit forming, fitness program, and the Active Flexibility routine is specifically designed to be a great warmup for anyone that’s doing pole, dancing, or aerials!
With each of the three workouts, comes a memory technique system. I call them Memlinks, and it’s a story that helps you remember which exercise comes next and what those exercises are.
Ideally, you can do the whole program without the video and without me. Independent exercise is a big motivation for my work, and I believe should be accessible to all!
Our website is not live yet, but the Instagram page (@abcsoffitness) is up, so I can communicate with those interested, leading up to our January 1st 2020 release.
Also: get Catie Brier’s Contortion Strong programs.
I have worked with a lot of pole dancers, some recreational, some celebrities in the field (Marion Crampe, Jenyne Butterfly). Something that I see often is pole artists getting injured trying tricks that are too hard for them, because they go for extreme flexibility tricks that they aren’t yet flexible enough for.
A lot of really good pole artists are very flexible already, and are able to use their extreme flexibility on the pole. But what I think a lot of people don’t understand is that those artists have more flexibility than is needed for the tricks (like rainbow marchenko, eagle, bird of paradise, etc.), so they are not pushing to their absolute max in their flexibility to do these really beautiful poses.
I would love for all pole artists, whatever level, to think about the long-term, because injuries happen so often and can be a huge setback. Focusing on safely building flexibility, with a heavy emphasis on building strength in your maximum range is one of the keys to progressing safely to all those beautiful elusive tricks!
I have a series of conditioning programs called Contortion Strong designed specifically for this purpose. There are warm-up conditioning programs for legs and back (to be done before stretching) and one for post-backbending to ensure you’re building the strength needed to safely increase your back flexibility (and as a bonus, the post-back usually eliminates that debilitating soreness you may feel for days after working on your back flexibility!)
For anyone needing some extra guidance or just want to know where to start, I do offer tutorials on my website bendyanya.com of a large variety of skills and exercises. These exercises are some of my favorites for beginners and also those already practicing and wanting to ADD to their own existing routines.
With repetition the movements will get more familiar, easier and stronger over time. And remember that really matters is the time and effort you put into your warm-ups, exercises and stretch drills that make or break your training sessions.
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