So you may or not be aware of the dismissal of yoga training from the contortionist community. It is evident in the widely circulated hashtag #contortionnotyoga.
Being a yoga and contortion teacher I have a love of both arts and I can see where the lines start to blur. Newly founded yoga poses that are not part of the traditional yoga asanas are beginning to take on the form of beginner level contortion and gymnastics.
There are lot of blog posts on the net about this subject although none of them address the most important factor which is the postural differences in contortion training.
So let’s dive in!
Real Yoga vs Pseudo Yoga
I bet that most of the yoga poses you know are not part of the orginal and traditional yoga practice.
The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali is a widely respected book and is considered as the authoritative text on Yoga. The sutras of Patanjali is estimated to be written in India between the 500 BCE and 400 CE.
Patanjali defines yoga as:
sthira sukham asanam
Translation 1: An asana is what is steady and pleasant.
Translation 2: Motionless and Agreeable form (of staying) is Asana (yoga posture).— Yoga Sutras II.46
The Yoga Sutras outlines twelve seated meditation asanas which does not resemble our traditional yoga practice today. They are mainly an embodiment of meditation positions:
Padmasana (lotus), Virasana (hero), Bhadrasana (glorious), Svastikasana (lucky mark), Dandasana (staff), Sopasrayasana (supported), Paryankasana (bedstead), Krauncha-nishadasana (seated heron), Hastanishadasana (seated elephant), Ushtranishadasana (seated camel), Samasansthanasana (evenly balanced) and Sthirasukhasana.
Where did this new pseudo yoga come from?
In the 1920’s 20th-century Danish system of dynamic exercise called Primitive Gymnastics began making its way across Europe and India.
It is in these roots of gymnastics that we begin to see the blend of practices and an extension of the original asanas.
Postural differences between Yoga & Contortion training
When I first started my training as a contortionist I noticed some differences in the alignment of the same pose. At first I thought the teacher was not educated very well in kinesiology/body mechanics. Boy was I wrong!
I began to notice that other well respected were teaching this way too. I began to think these training practices are going to give me aliments. Then I remembered that yoga is about alignment while contortion pushes the boundaries of natural limitations there fore the poses are unaligned.
Bridge Pose AKA Wheel pose
Bridge pose in yoga is all about softening the glutes and keeping them disengaged. Contortionists practice bridge pose with an active glute. What’s the verdict?
I engage my glutes when I am training contortion, although not to their full potential. If I engage them to the maximum I find it pinches me in the spine and hyper extends my back.
Secondly the end goal of bridge pose is different, in contortion students aim to bring the foot to meet the hand, while no yoga text states that you should be closing in your wheel.
The orientation of the shoulders are very different. In yoga we are to reach the hands high and roll the shoulder blades down your back.
In contortion we exetend the arms up and out of the body, with a rotation of your armpits facing your cheeks.
The verdict: I have never had any shoulder issues when training contortion although I did get bursitis when training vynyassa.
C Drop Back On Knees vs Camel Pose
Contortionists work to bring their hips forward and over the knees to keep opening the hip flexors for increased range of motion for a wide range of poses.
While yoga does want you to keep the hips forward when entering camel pose, the goal is not to have the hips in front of the knees. It is to keep them in alignment with the knees.
In contortion one makes a c back in order to start the formation of a drop back. This means that there shoulders and chest draw out in front of you. Consequently the hips drop.
The aim of the drop back is to take the chest back while the hips push forward in a singular motion.
When you are dropping back in yoga whether it is for wheel or camel the method is very different. The chest and heart opens continually extending and peeling back along the spine. The hips are in line with the feet and knees.
Bow pose in yoga starts with a backwards grip. Contortionists work towards an over hand grip. Legs remain together for yoga which is different to apart in contortion, and lastly the glutes are disengaged while they are engaged in contortion.
Contortionists train on different principles of body mechanics.
Yoga always balances the agonist and antagonist lines of the body for harmony after each asana is taken. For instance in yoga when one takes a back bend a front bend is also taken to balance both sides of the body.
Secondly Hatha yoga involves all the fascial lines in the body within each practice being the:
- Superficial Front Line
- Superficial Back Line
- Lateral Line (2 sides)
- Spiral Line
- Arm Lines (4)
- Functional Lines (2–front and back)
- Deep Front Line
Contortionists Use Area Focused Training
When contortionists train it is generally muscle or joint specific isolated training. Similar to how body builders train, focusing on one area of the body with a high volume of reps and drills.
Back day, legs day, shoulders and they continue to alternate. With that being said some do train the whole body in one session there is no hard and fast rule here.
I personally do sometimes because I aim to just do legs and then I get so into it I don’t want to stop. Next think I know it’s three hours later and I am left wondering where did my day go?
I guess the old saying is true “time flies when your having fun.”
Different tools for different results
Contortion training is heavily strength based as well as increasing the range of motion of the muscles tissues and joints. While yoga also implements active flexibility like contortion they do not incorporate weights, bands or other apparatuses.
Yoga sticks with straps and blocks which is also adopted by contortionists as part of their box of tools.
Contortionists Train Extended Areas Of The Body
Contortionists work on areas of the body that are neglected in yoga. Neck extensions and stretches are common in contortion training. This is in order to sit comfortably in a chest stand and to advance back bending postures you need the added extension and flexibility of the neck.
Stretching and gliding nerves, is a common practice in contortion to lengthen and extend them, while yin yoga works on the nervous system.
When you are working through your yoga practice each movement and transition has a focus and direction on the breath. For instance the commentary for a seated forward fold would be:
Inhale bring your arms above your head, exhale fold forward. Inhale open the heart, exhale fold deeper.
Contortion does have breath principals although they are very different to yoga. Contortionists learn to breath through uncomfortable movements and body positions.
In fact sometimes they must learn that it is ok to not breathe in some postures such as a chest stand.
Contortion and Yoga has different aims and goals.
The two major conflicting goals between contortionists and yogis is that contortion is about making unusual beautiful shapes that a highly skilled contortionist can only perform.
While we are always alined in our bodies and correctly staking our weight and strength, when it comes to contortion there is also a facet that is almost misaligned to the naked eye that enhances the poses drama.
Yoga on the other hand is a spiritual practice that takes on the form of asanas now blended with gymnastics to achieve spiritual enlightenment.
Yoga is always about the alignment of the spine and keeping the muscles in harmony so that they do not pull on the skeletal system.
Contortionists & Yogis Share Some Poses
B.K.S Iyengar the forefather of Hatha yoga, which is more common in this day and age does have a few poses that do cross over with contortion at a very absolute beginner level.
With that being said it is the new phase of yoga that was influenced by early gymnastics that was discussed earlier.
The poses are: Bridge, Cobra, Bow & Splits. They can be found in his book: The light of yoga as seen below.
Contortion Is A Performing Art
Contortion in modern circus has been around for over 250 years. It was in 1768 that Philip Astley began his circus entertainment in Waterloo in London. Although its roots go further back to the early Roman circus and Mongolia.
Contortion from the very beginning was always a performing art. Mongolian women would contort their bodies in order to show their beauty.
Yoga A Spiritual Practice
Each yoga pose holds esoteric meaning and esoteric healing attached to them.
Hindus have revered the sun, which they call Surya, as both the physical and spiritual heart of our world and the creator of all life itself. Hence sun-salutations are developed as a spiritual practice with the Sun ‘god.’ It was this very purpose that misaligned with Christians hence the development of Christian Yoga.
The stages of yoga are:
- YAMA – Restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows.
- NIYAMA – Positive duties or observances.
- ASANA – Posture.
- PRANAYAMA – Breathing techniques.
- PRATYAHARA – Sense withdrawal.
- DHARANA – Focused concentration.
- DHYANA – Meditative absorption.
- SAMADHI – Bliss or enlightenment.
One of the main aims of yoga is to provide inner peace through breath work and meditation. The modern asanas are a defined as a moving meditation similar to other eastern practices like Tai Chi.
Coming from the early Hindu roots yoga encourages a vegetarian lifestyle as many of their gods are in animal form such as divine bovine-divine bovine-goddess described in Hinduism as Gou Mata, the mother of all cows.
Ganesha, is more commonly seen in the western world being the elephant-headed Hindu god of beginnings.
There is also a common theme of one world one love when it comes to yoga, with individuals seeking a deeper connection with one and other.
In conclusion I love both practices although my flexibility goals are different today then what they were 5 years ago. I practice contortion training every week and might slide a yin class in there for 1 session.
All you need to do to know what is right for you is to ask yourself what your goal is and that will simply give you the answer.
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