I discovered Nadia on instagram and immediately started following her based on her impressive contortion skills, authenticity, and intriguing reflections. To my delight, Nadia agreed to answer some questions for this blog. Please enjoy reading her perspectives on contortion and martial arts!
Sara: How did you get into martial arts and contortion? Which came first? Did one lead to the other?
Nadia: When I was a child I was always doing contortion without even knowing what it was. Contortion was definitely first since I was doing splits in diapers. But my mom started teaching me various martial arts techniques at the age of two. I took my first official taekwondo class at age 7, but I made it to yellow belt and had to stop. I didn’t start training contortion seriously until I was twelve. But I wouldn’t recommend self-training. Many things can go wrong.
Sara: Do you find that martial arts supports you in your contortion practice or vice versa?
Nadia: Yes, they do complement each other very well. Martial arts has provided me with great balance and core strength. Which are very essential to contortionists for different skills like the needle. And the core has to be engaged in every pose. Contortion has provided me the flexibility needed to throw a high kick and kick my opponent in the head.
Sara: What do you love about martial arts? Contortion?
Nadia: The thing that I love about contortion is the hard work that goes into it. I have done a lot
of things and contortion is the only one that has kept me engaged. No matter how good you get there is always that next level. Martial arts gives you discipline and it’s also good to take classes because you never know when you might need to defend yourself.
Sara: What is the number one challenge for you in martial arts/contortion?
Nadia: My number one challenge for martial arts is not holding back. I hate hurting people so I always hold my kicks and punches. Even though you are supposed hit hard. For contortion conditioning for handstands is the hardest part. Also breathing and holding the pose.
Sara: What are your goals/dreams/visions?
Nadia: My dream is to be happy, but I also want to become a professional contortionist. And maybe a stunt double too. I really want to be able to do one arm handstands one day and own a contortion school.
Sara: What have you observed about the culture of/modern stereotypes and interpretations of martial arts and/or contortion?
Nadia: For contortion, once you get to that next level of flexibility everyone thinks you aren’t human. And of course there is also this idiotic idea that you have to be born flexible to be able to do contortion. That is not the case at all. I’m not sure if there are any for martial arts.
Sara: What did it feel emotionally like when you started to achieve really deep poses in contortion?
Nadia: For me contortion always feels normal, no matter how deep I get. But I’m always elated when I nail a new move.
Sara: What is it like to be a woman participating in the discipline of martial arts?
Nadia: To be a woman in martial arts is just like living life as a woman in general. Male peers will think that you are weak and underestimate you. If you show exceptional talent as a martial artist with a male instructor your talents will be wasted due to your gender. Male students will always be upheld and applauded more than female students, even if you have superior ability. Also, in the martial arts community they fetishize female martial artists. I don’t see the allure, but they are obsessed with feet and being kicked. Just like any other sport or activity the female practitioner will be fetishized.
Sara: Anything else you'd like to add?
Nadia: Thank you very much, Sara for letting me share my experiences on your platform. Happy stretching!
Follow Nadia on Instagram: contortedmartialartist
General Silks Skills & Capacities, why they are important, and how you can cultivate them (crash-course turbo-speed ultra-condensed version!).
Visit this page for aerial instructional videos.
Visit this page for meditation that supports body awareness.
Why: Supports intuitive, efficient movement, safe practice, innovation.
How: Yoga, meditation, visualization of skills, repetition of skills.
Why: Prerequisite for climbs and any intermediate/advanced silks skills.
How: Coffin hang sit-ups, hammock knot crunches, pull-ups, inversions, climbs, shoulder shrugs, anything core-related, hip flexors.
Why: Allows for a more diverse portfolio of tricks, increases comfort in poses, aesthetics.
How: Splits training, backbends, shoulders/hips/hamstrings/spine.
Why: Supports execution of drops and complex wraps. Reduces chance of slipping/mistakes that lead to injury.
How: Slowing down movements when training, being conscious of what exactly you are doing. Think about getting your muscle groups to work together to create an action—notice when you might be literally working against yourself.
Why: Saves energy, aesthetics.
How: Find out how to allow the fabric to support you (where can you lean into it?) Learn to work with gravity. Become aware of what doesn’t look smooth (video yourself) watch lots of videos of professional, skilled aerialists. Find out where you are wasting energy and revise. Identify your weaknesses. Embrace them. Forgive them. Let them deepen your understanding of your body. Then see what you can do about them!
Why: Saves energy, creates better-looking poses, prevents you from losing height.
How: Focus on keeping all wraps close to your body. Avoid creating slack unless the trick specifically calls for it. Minimize hand placements/grip switches. Remember Occam’s Razor—the simplest way is the correct way.
Aesthetics (pointed toes, hands, lines)
Why: Demonstrates professionalism, connects you with your music and your audience in its deliberateness and visual intrigue.
How: Stretch ankles when standing around day-to-day. Practice hand and leg shapes in front of the mirror at home. Watch professional aerialists, dancers, and yogis. Dance intuitively at home to different types of music. Practice flowing to a song on your apparatus when training at the gym/studio. Video yourself training and critique it later.
Why: Prevent mistakes/injuries.
How: Be deliberate in your actions when training. Notice if you become more sloppy as your energy declines. Be careful not to overtrain.
Theoretical/visual understanding of wraps
Why: Contributes to a holistic appreciation of aerial silks and dramatically reduces chance of injury.
How: Look at what your wrap looks like while you are in it as well as from an outsider’s perspective. Take pictures of peers’ wraps if you are a visual learner. Retrace your steps mentally, figure out how exactly you got from point A to point B.
Connection/relationship with the fabric
Why: Supports happiness, enthusiasm, and peace in the silks journey.
How: Intentional hand placement/touch/presence before and after training. Breathe when moving in the fabric. Acknowledge achievements and growth. Be aware of perfectionism and intervene if it is interfering with your enjoyment of aerial arts. Periodically reflect on your aerial journey and what it means to you. Set tangible, specific goals nested into larger principles. E.g. my goal is to perform for an audience by April 2020 – while having fun and not losing sight of how much I love training just for what it is.
Click play to listen to this blog post. Apologies for sound quality, had a technical difficulty.
The bird calls of this desert evening are delicate and the air has a hint of a nip to it--fall is coming. We are shifting from heat and dessication to visible breaths and the smell of soil lifted into the air by rainfall.
As we complete another seasonal cycle, earth continues her pattern of healthy change, liberating us from summer into autumn. As nature continues to weave beautiful ecologies, humanity finds itself suddenly a little bit more aware of an ugly, frenetic, desperate pattern that has been repeating for a long long time.
The Kavanaugh hearing signals nothing new, nothing novel, and nothing unfamiliar. This event simply hyperfocuses our attention on the inequality that has been disrupting our collective growth. I would like to take rape culture and patriarchy into the contexts of body awareness, emotional intelligence, and creative action. Warning: I'm going to do this in a rather analytical and heady way. There are many other ways to explore this, and I intend to. This is only a starting point. And before I proceed, I want to acknowledge everybody who does not identify as a woman or a man, or who identifies as both and apologize for being limited in my ability to say what I would like to say while being inclusive of all. I am very open to alternate perspectives, phrasing, and foci; please reach out to bring your voice to this platform and fill in what I am missing.
One of humankind's exciting but unfulfilled journeys is that of embodiment--of familiarizing with and being present in the body; of learning how to move well and become attuned to the spectra of emotions and sensations that unfold within this body. Body awareness is both awareness of one's own and other's bodies. In the context of rape culture and patriarchy, our body awareness deficiency is many-faceted. The following list of considerations is not exhaustive.
1. A failure to critically read the signs of one's own body and an inability to recognize and transform potentially abusive physical inclinations. Of course, assault and rape are also mental and emotional, but body awareness is an important foundation for choosing how to act. Being deeply attuned to one's body helps one distinguish between surface urge and deeper need. Morality, of course, plays a role too.
2. A failure of empathy; a failure to draw from one's own physical experience in life to imagine what one's actions will do to another person's body and mind. There is not a pervasive awareness that the actions we engage affect other people's nervous systems. Anxiety, panic, insomnia, depression, substance abuse, and PTSD can be and are outcomes of the so-dismissed "10 minutes of action." The duration of abuse is not the point. The fact of abuse is the point. Attentiveness to the body makes clear to us when things are out of order and why they have come to be that way. Attentiveness to the body motivates us to support healthy functioning in ourselves and others.
3. A failure to understand or arrive in physical power. Power has nothing to do with overwhelming anybody or anything. Power in the body means awareness that supports intelligent, creative, connective action, just like power in nature comes from many features of the environment working together to give rise to a diversity of thriving creatures. Power can be enhanced when two bodies mutually integrate. Whatever high or ego-gratification comes from physically overpowering another is profoundly dwarfed by the body's real capacity for power. But we do not talk about this healthy power that both men and women have equal access to. What if we lived in a world where we prided ourselves on high standards for body awareness and sought after that greater, peaceful power? If we did, rape would theoretically be less interesting to those seeking power.
Another of humankind's exciting and promising journeys is that of emotional intelligence; familiarizing and skillfully engaging with the vast and nuanced spectrum of what we feel. This journey is relevant whether one is highly sensitive or not. Emotional intelligence applies both to oneself and to others. In the context of rape culture and patriarchy, the failures of emotional intelligence are many. The following list is not exhaustive.
1. Self-knowledge. Emotions run deep within us, but if we remain on the surface of our consciousness, we are not able to see their complexity, their layers, and the ways they infiltrate our thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Anyone who looks closely at their own feelings and rests with them long enough to see how they unfold will have certain characteristics, including humility, confidence, empathy, and patience. They know that if they follow the initial feeling through they will find its roots. This awareness and insight can also arise spontaneously/involuntarily through trauma. Once you've dived deep, it is extremely easy to tell whether somebody has also taken this exploration. I suggest Kavanaugh has not. If he had, we would be witnessing a very different scene. People who have taken the journey are generally safer to trust.
2. Empathy. Many people will repress and pivot away from emotional experience--because it's hard stuff and also because there is little guidance available in our culture to work with our inner content. When we confront the profound depth of what we feel, from love to grief, the ways we engage with others change in accordance with this awareness. Knowing that another's experience is profound, rich, deep, nuanced, and personal is then more than enough to take a decidedly mindful approach to our interactions. In an effort not to cause further suffering (there is plenty already), and in an effort not to disrupt joyfulness, especially knowing it is rather rare these days, there is a clear path not to engage violence. There is no need to "take power" because no power worth having can be wrested from another. The problem is, instead of meaningfully acknowledging our own inner experience, we reside at the surface of the pain and search for who we might be able to blame for our suffering, or who we can direct that anguish through violence to get a sense of control back.
For an actual meaningful change and not just a repetition of the same pattern in a different color or octave, we need to be creative. That is, we need to do something we haven't done before. Yes, we need to keep working on the projects that have raised awareness and triggered real progress but clearly the work is not done. There are always so many approaches, and they are all important. Right now I urge creative action for three reasons:
1. It helps us process the highly emotional content we are all encountering these days.
2. It changes the way we perceive.
3. It changes the way others perceive.
And we need to be perceiving things differently, clearly, to be able to move into a new, more beautiful, more intelligent paradigm.
Girls and women: If you don't have a creative outlet, choose any, today. If you have grown distant from your creative outlet, reconnect with it, today. If you are actively creative, tell us what you are working on. Tell boys and men what you are working on. See how they respond.
Boys and men: Start/keep asking questions. Start/keep listening. Many of you have supported us without undermining our identity or power. Thank you. We notice you.
Now night has fallen, and I've retreated from my porch to my bed. I hear the wind in the leaves and a trickle in the pipes. A storm is coming soon, and the desert basin will receive the welcome reprieve of rainfall. My mind is cluttered by the frantic news and my body wound with tension and anticipation. Soon I will go out there, and listen to the mountains, to clear the contents of my interior and to find out what to do next.
Additional resources and ideas:
Body Connect Meditation Program
Journey of the Self Meditation Program
Body Narratives Project
Ever wonder why you're not becoming more flexible even though you stretch? Did you know there is mechanism in your body that detects stretching and tells the muscles to resist the stretch?
The muscle spindle stretch receptor is a cell in the heart of every skeletal muscle (i.e., NOT smooth muscle such as in your stomach). Its job is to detect stretching in the muscle. When it does, it sends a message through the spinal cord--it doesn't even reach the brain. The message reads "Hey, we're stretching now!" Upon receiving the message the spine sends instructions back to the muscle to contract.
Wait, I thought we were stretching. Why on EARTH would the muscle contract?
The purpose of this automated feedback loop, called the spinal reflex arc, is to protect you. It's a default setting to prevent injuries if something were to happen unexpectedly. If you were to fall and you braced yourself with your left hand, your shoulder may be pushed back really far really fast. The muscle of concern, which would likely be the anterior deltoid in this case, immediately receives a message of stretching and before you even know it, that muscle is resisting the stretch and pulling the shoulder forward again. Injury is mitigated, but of course not necessarily avoided. The body does its best to keep us safe.
This is really important for us when we're stretching. If your stress levels are very high or you are being too aggressive, this feedback loop is going to be harder to disarm. The muscle spindle stretch receptor can also become oversensitive and overreact, but as far as it is concerned it's responding appropriately (YES that is a life metaphor!). This can cause increased stiffness in the body and makes stretching less effective and more likely to cause injury.
The autonomic nervous system needs to believe that you are in a safe setting or it's going to be reluctant to let you stretch. But it's the autonomic nervous system--it's unconscious. We have to work through the somatic nervous system (voluntary action) to communicate with the autonomic nervous system. Buckle up buttercup!
So how do you get the nervous system to cooperate?
1. Proper warmup. A systematic warmup tells the body that we are doing intentional training. The more times you do this, the more quickly the body sets itself for the activity.
2. Massage tools. Tools like the peanut communicate with your nervous system (more on that another time). They can be used to prepare muscles for stretching.
3. Stress reduction. Whether through breathing, meditation, massage, spending time with animals, or being outside, frequently, intentionally reducing stress is going to be helpful for disarming this feedback loop when you want to stretch. This is part of what makes flexibility a holistic practice. It feeds into and draws from many different areas of your life.
4. PNF. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation is the practice of gently contracting and then relaxing the muscle you want to stretch. This helps dissolve the block created by the muscle spindle stretch receptor.
5. Breathing while stretching. Lengthening and deepening the breath triggers a cascade of messages through the body and also increases blood flow and oxygen levels. It helps muscles reduce their contractile states.
6. Be intentional. Flinging your foot into your hand for 5 seconds after you run is not enough to give your quads and psoas the care they need.
I am able to do a no-handed splits on aerial silks because I have developed this pose in a healthy, holistic way. I have developed strength in the position at the same rate as flexibility, so that I can be stable here. Balance is important too! Brad captured this moment of intense focus this summer in Santa Cruz CA.
Splits is a fundamental and signature skill in so many athletic disciplines and movement arts. This pose is also a popular flexibility goal for those who don't specifically need it in their movement practices. But splits is more than a visual delight and expression of physical prowess; training splits can help us to attune to the body, correct imbalances, and support nervous system regulation.
Note: you do not have to achieve splits to receive the following benefits. You just have to train them. If your hips are very tight, you will benefit primarily from the intention you bring to your practice and your preparatory poses.
It is totally okay not to be able to do the splits.
Splits as a personal-cultural counterbalance
Therapeutic benefit: training splits corrects strength/weakness imbalances in the hips and legs and addresses muscular tension.
Tight and weak hip flexors, glutes, and hamstrings are hallmarks of a sitting society. Our legs begin to freeze up into our sitting positions, resulting in weakness and tightness, and therefore injuries and chronic pain. Splits can be a great practice for addressing some of these imbalances and health risk factors in our world today.
How we practice matters so much. Only practicing forward/back hip opening postures will result in further imbalances in the body. Only stretching passively (relaxing in the pose) will result in instability, increasing risk of injury. Addressing the hips holistically in flexibility training, meaning involving their full range of motion and incorporating strength, supports steady and healthy progress in the splits. It allows you to have a highly functional splits, as in the no-handed splits in aerial silks.
Splits for nervous system training
Therapeutic benefit: training splits while observing the nervous system helps us to learn whether our nervous systems are accurate, underreporting, or overreacting. This allows us to enhance body awareness through careful study, and begin to notice when this is happening in other situations. This is huge for anxiety management!
In splits we approach muscle groups that are typically out of balance, and the process of developing strength and flexibility can feel very intense. The nervous system will detect this intensity and is liable to flag an injury threat. When this happens, pay careful attention to every sensation to make sure there is no risk of injury. At the same time, critically examine the nervous system's signals. Is the nervous system sending an important message, or overreacting to strong sensation? The opposite can happen too, when the nervous system signals are dull or unclear, and you end up pushing too far as a result. Watch, listen, feel. What's taking place?
The beauty of flexibility training is that nobody outside of you can tell you if what you feel is safe or not. You have to learn to understand the body's signals, distinguishing valid warnings from any anxiety that comes from the intensity. Always err on the side of caution, but take care to examine whether that line of caution has been drawn in the right place. If the nervous system is overreacting, slow down the breath and soften the face. If it has a valid point, ease out of the stretch a bit. Learning the difference is incredibly rewarding and accelerates the process of developing body awareness. Developing body awareness is a beautiful way to build confidence, but that's a whole nother blog post!
What's happening in splits?
Balancing poses: pigeon, butterfly (baddha konasana), twists
Here is a guide for leading up to, into, and out of splits. It must be preceded by a warmup to be practiced safely!
For additional guidance in holistic, healthy flexibility, have a look at the personalized flexibility program I offer. Send an inquiry through the contact form for a discount code.
What pose do you want to see broken down? Let me know!
Sara Kaiser is a certified, experienced yoga teacher. She brings a holistic approach to teaching yoga, aerial silks, meditation, and flexibility.
Photo by BVD Photography
Limited Body Perceptions
Perceptions of the body differ across cultures and change over time. Today, in many societies, we've drifted away from sacred relationship with the body. We don't integrate deep listening and compassionate body awareness into the structures and systems of our everyday lives.
Instead of nurturing a beautiful and happy relationship with ourselves, much of today's messaging about the body plays off of the human craving for validation, making judgments about appearance, putting pressure on individuals to look good in the eyes of others, and focusing on external means of change (beauty products, for example) that can be purchased to achieve beauty.
Being surrounded by narrow, judgmental messages about the body tilts us into unhealthy fixations and mind-body dissonance. This condition distracts us from the journey of cultivating and practicing connective, compassionate body presence (although this dissonance can be a powerful starting point for that journey).
We're not doing everything we can to restore heart-body-mind-world connection and body love--we do not have sufficiently accessible and effective educational frameworks, practices, and role models for lovingly exploring and cultivating a healthy relationship with the body, and seeing this body as continuous with the ever-unfolding processes of nature. It's not obvious to most of us that the ocean and the forests are in fact our own organs--lungs that, though they may be outside the distinctive human body, we need to be healthy to be able to breathe.
The combination of negative messaging and an absence of adequate alternative perspective and guidance culminates in an ethical problem: the common sense ways we talk about and engage with our own and others' bodies holds us back from an important source of happiness, and has a role in alienation, suffering, environmental degradation, and violence.
The key to moving through this challenge is recognizing that it is not our bodies that are the problem--it's the messages about our bodies that require reconsideration.
It is important to note at this point that, contrary to some common discussions, this situation does not exclusively or even predominantly affect women and girls. The problems of repressed body and ecological awareness, inhibited body-world intuition, and narrow self-perception constitute a shared human and non-human problem.
Discussion about the connection between emotional and physical experience is limited. Focus on how inner inquiry can facilitate inner awareness and well-being is missing. Even basic physiology education is inadequate. At the same time we have the vast majority of people turning to destructive activities and substances to get away from painful and uncomfortable sensations, emotions, memories, and anticipations. Practices for mind-heart-body-nature inquiry and resolution are not considered "basic education," yet if we knew how to confront and engage with the contents of our bodies, hearts, and minds, a variety of wonderful pathways would unfold before us.
Controlling, repressing, and running away from the expressions of the body are strategies supported by our institutions, sometimes purposefully and systematically, and often out of pure and simple ignorance. Students are told not to fidget in class and might even be considered in need of medication if they do. But wait a second; is it comfortable and healthy for children or adults to sit in one position for 7 hours a day? Who is in their right mind--the slumped over, sedentary white collar who sits at a desk 40+ hours a week, or the child who can't sit still at school who becomes disruptive?
Students in college pull all-nighters to study for finals (and maybe that doesn't even strike many people as problematic), and some universities open their libraries 24/7 to support this prioritization of grades over rest (mental achievement over health). Is studying between 2am and 6am going to make us more intelligent? More compassionate? More healthy? More effective members of society? Or is it going to aggravate stress and burnout? We value the conventional knowledge systems of math, science, English, and so on, but we don't consider body awareness to be on par with these disciplines--so body intuition and intelligence is not included in core curricula, and we don't even think a thing of its absence. If we prioritized body awareness along with emotional, physical, and spiritual intelligence in schools, we would see change in mental health across the board.
In P.E. classes I observed teachers pressuring students to keep up and try harder without asking how they are feeling in their bodies first. Nobody ever offered me the option to inquire into what my body was telling me, they just told me how many jumping jacks to do. I had lots of enjoyable experiences in P.E. and I liked my teachers, but if I hadn't taken up meditation, yoga, and acrobatics, I would not have the beautiful, happy, healthy relationship with my body I have today, and I wouldn't know what to do with feelings of pain, anxiety, and so on. P.E., at least in the United States, is a missed opportunity. Think of the hours upon hours that could be spent cultivating deep awareness, encouraging compassion, and actually learning about critically important features of inner experience, such as the connections between respiration and the nervous system.
When I listen carefully to the conversations around me, I notice that people almost only talk about the body in the context of pain or discomfort. I rarely hear anybody talk about how they experience pleasure in their body beyond food or drink tasting good. Abuse of pain relief medications is rampant. Healthcare facilities are overburdened, with far too little time spent on cultivating the doctor-patient relationship, an important feature for the mental aspects of healing, due to such a high demand for care. Discussion about the body's intrinsic resources for healing is emerging, but integration into our institutions and culture is yet to come.
If I expressed that forests and oceans are part of our bodies, requiring our awareness and care just like our muscles, organs, bones, and joints, I'd be saying something strange according to most people and get quickly categorized and dismissed as a tree-loving hippie. Yet, in my three years of supporting a science-based conservation organization, over and over and over again, the data said: living beings are connected with one another and their abiotic environment. To skeptics of a unified body-earth metaphysics, go ahead: imagine trying to maintain physical health without biodiversity, oceans, and clean air.
There are exceptions to these trends. There are people all around the world teaching and modeling body awareness and love in powerful, responsible, and creative ways. Growing popularity of yoga and meditation are hints of this that I am familiar with, though these are frequently compromised by capitalistic agendas and have severe socio-economic oversights.
We can't confidently say that in general, throughout our collective societal dialogues and institutions, the body is viewed and treated with respect and love, or regarded as continuous with the soil, birds, and rivers. When you recognize that the forests and oceans are essentially lungs that are outside the body you normally identify with, it ceases to be controversial that we need to care for the natural world.
The Reason for Hope
We need to learn how to listen to, nurture peace within, and explore the body in compassionate ways. Once we begin to do this, we can immediately take the next steps to break free from the limiting and defective narratives we've been drawn into. Then, ignorance can swiftly give way to insight and understanding, and we will see a revolution in the ways we live in, talk about, and relate to our bodies.
As I encounter so many people who have never been told they can regulate their nervous system through breathing, or quell anxiety with mindful awareness, or don't realize that depression can arise merely from being sedentary, or have come to believe that their body's worth comes from other people's judgments, I feel a responsibility to speak up--to point to something far better than what we've become accustomed to. It's time to inquire deeper into this pattern of heart-body-mind-world disconnect and anxiety that is repressing our greatest human qualities. It's time to create a shift. We have the choice to liberate ourselves from the rigid narratives that silence the body's subtle language and loving presence. We have the opportunity to reject the status quo and restore our relationship with this sacred ground--and recognize this body is sacred ground without distinction from the sacred ground that is nature.
We start by looking within without attachment. We begin to believe in the possibility of understanding our bodies well, and we support ourselves and others in that journey. We discover dismantle the destructive body narratives that distract us from the wonder and joy of physicality and our inner resources for pleasure and pain-relief. We create opportunities and platforms for individuals and groups to create and share a diversity of body narratives that acknowledge the diversity of bodies, and nurture connection, exploration, and peace. Schools, media, and everyday conversation support healthy body connection. Body love becomes a familiar and celebrated feature of life--not a radical thing that the rare individual here and there enjoys. People know how to engage in ethical, compassionate, curious exploration of what it is to be human, free of judgment. We choose to see, feel, and express the beauty of being alive in our own ways. We surprise one another with our creative, compassionate ideas and actions. We recognize that our body extends beyond the skin.
When we come into true peaceful connection with and acceptance of the body, healing takes place. There is so much potential for change, because we are not already doing everything we can to get in touch with ourselves, and ultimately, nothing stands in the way of that journey. There are many resources and opportunities that society's self-serving power structures will ensure you never have in life. But nothing and nobody can stop you from listening in and connecting with yourself. Distract you? Yes. Discourage you? Yes. But ultimately get in your way? No. Absolutely not. You have the option to inquire within right here and right now.
The Call to Action
One by one, we can reject the narratives we know well and redefine our relationships with our bodies. Collectively, we can shift the predominant body narratives toward connection, dignity, love, and delight.
Below you will find my first creative project to encourage us toward a loving, resonant union of body, heart, and mind. I hope my work (and play!) inspires you to construct your own project. Together we can learn more about ourselves and one another than we ever thought possible, and we can create an interwoven narrative unimaginably better than what we have now.
What you can do:
The body speaks a wordless language. As the writers of this narrative, it is time for all of us to get quiet and listen.
Read and view my take on the Body Narrative project, begins September 2nd.
Lewis Carroll's caterpillar famously asked Alice, "Who are you?" This question turned out to be not very simple, but incredibly meaningful.
What is the Self?
Human identity is often based in a very limited concept of the “self,” and as a result, our efforts to change are often like a grinding away at something—a “rearranging” or “assembling” which is not quite the same as transformation. Change is the natural course of all materials and living things, but by attaching the narrow self's agendas to our actions, we get in our own way and come out of accord with the patterns that support connection and life. Thus it is important to ask, what is the self?
Photo: Mike Monaghan
Flexibility involves more than stretching muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Hydration, stress, and inflammation are some of many factors that play into your limits and potential for developing flexibility--on the scale of a day as well as a decade. This blog post focuses on stress.
Check in with intentions
Before we dive in, I want to reinforce an important point in my philosophy of flexibility: the point is not to achieve a particular depth in a particular pose. Training flexibility is a way to deepen body awareness and stimulate healing processes within the body. Training flexibility is a universally available course of action for correcting imbalances in the body, clearing the mind, and grounding. I say this because popular attitudes toward flexibility over-emphasize physical achievement, glossing over the deeper, subtler values and benefits of this intimate practice.
Okay, now that we've oriented ourselves in a healthy and open way toward flexibility, what does stress have to do with how much we can bend?
Long story short and stripped of the anatomical details, when we perceive a threat, the body engages our muscles in preparation for self-defense. When we strengthen our muscles, we protect our vulnerable organs and tissues--this is not a time to be bendy! For the nervous system to allow muscle length, we need to believe that we are safe. Your outer environment (social, weather, airflow, temperature, sensory input, etc.) and inner environment (emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, etc.) are both contributors to your nervous system state and therefore muscle state.
If you are under constant stress, whether inner, outer, or both, the nervous system instructs your musculature to remain permanently contracted just a bit. Then as you become more stiff from that perma-contraction, that stiffness makes you uncomfortable and leads to more stress. Thus is born a perpetual cycle of increasingly tight muscles. Sounds exhausting doesn't it? And I'm not even touching the adrenals in this article!
In this self-protective state, you are likely to find limited results from attempts to stretch. When dealing with chronically tight muscles, it is helpful to approach flexibility through the nervous system before approaching the muscles.
Nervous system intervention
To interrupt the cycle of muscle tightness, we need to regularly calm the nervous system. This is simply re-training your body. The more frequently you practice calming the nervous system, the more accessible relaxation will become. Intentional relaxation exercises are more effective when practiced consistently over time.
Do not make peace conditional
Why are you stressed in the first place? This could be a question that has a practical solution or launches you on a spiritual quest. But important to note is that you do not have to resolve all of your stressors to abide in a relaxed state. If you tell yourself you can never be at peace unless x, y, z, you will never be at peace. It can seem absurd to abide in perfect calm when we know all the things wrong with ourselves and the world, but it's essential to reach beyond this mentally constructed limitation. Being at peace is not a logical matter--it arises as a result of a transformation of consciousness. We can embody peace without resolving or denying our problems, confusions, and fears.
Meditation teaches us that we do not need to muscularly react to our inner stressors, or to most of our outer stressors. Meditation helps us to be present with everything that would normally make us tense up. Remaining at ease in the midst of stressors is a skill. Anyone can train this skill.
Slow, deep breathing is one of the clearest signs the nervous system recognizes to mean: safe. Initiating intentional breathing patterns can redirect a fight-or-flight response, bringing greater clarity and calm in just minutes.
Yoga systematically challenges the stress response and then returns the nervous system to calm. Moving through a variety of postures, some challenging and some relaxing, is helpful for familiarizing with the nervous system response and becoming more skillful in directing inner energy.
Practice relaxing when already relaxed
As you become more familiar with nervous system regulation, you will start to recognize when you are being triggered into tension. You will remember techniques to calm the nervous system. This is great, but will be more effective if you also practice calming the nervous system when you are already at ease. Not only does consistency in this practice help you shift states more easily, but it also makes it more difficult for you to be triggered in the future. Many people will not feel motivated to practice calm when already calm, missing the point that it is a powerful form of prevention. Prevention may not feel as explicitly rewarding as resolving an anxiety spike, but it is exactly what will empower you to be able to do just that.
Work with Sara on a personalized integrative flexibility program.
The following is an excerpt from the Ebook "Shaping a New Body Narrative." You can access the full ebook and participate in the Body Connect meditation program that goes along with it.
Cultivating body awareness is different from training or conditioning; it brings mind, body, and spirit together in moments of focused, deliberate, open perception.
To have breakthrough in body awareness, it helps to be open to the possibility that your present idea about your body is incomplete and contains mistakes. There's nothing unusual about or wrong with that. Your brain works hard to simplify and condense information, and you can more or less get away with generalized and limited perceptions of the body as you go about life. But there is always something new to learn about the body, and always a new way to experience body presence.
Suspend your beliefs about your body
Let go of what you think you know about the body. Shifting awareness fully into the experience of what you feel allows you to gently and gradually deepen the mind-body connection. Approach the things you do as if you’re not exactly sure how it will feel. Over time this practice can generate a fun, ongoing storyline to your life, one that you get to build on each and every day as you come to notice the body’s patterns in more detail and with more context over time. An open mindset gets you connected with yourself, and it brings wordless coherence to everyday life. It can be a familiar, steadying feature that’s there when you’re not quite sure where your life is headed next.
A “relationship” mindset is key for training proprioception
When you think of the body parts in segments, for example “arms,” “legs,” “back,” you may inadvertently limit the kinds of movements you can engage. On the other hand, when you start to experience the various “parts” of the body in relationship to one another, something important happens.
For example, reach your right arm over your head and leftward. Lean to the left a bit for a sidebend, reaching as much as you can through your fingers. Even if you reach far, you may not get much stretch. You need to anchor down through the right side of your pelvis and ribcage, pulling the opposite direction. Ah, see? When you move like this, what is an almost imperceptible difference from an outside perspective can feel like a dramatic change on the inside.
Rest & Reflect
Practice without rest is like eating without digesting. To deeply internalize the lessons from your practice it is important to allow the body and mind to rest and recovery. I regularly find that after spending a bit of time away from one of my physical practices I actually come back noticeably more competent and skilled. By leaving space for my mind and body to process and work together during that down-time, I get to return to my practice with deeper understanding of my own body how it connects with my equipment. As a philosopher friend of mine put it, it allows us to return “more in relationship.” This seems to be supported by practicing meditation, which provides a baseline reference for how the body is feeling and functioning.
By providing expert touch and instruction, a teacher can orient your awareness to parts of the body that you previously hadn’t been aware of, and can show you how that muscle or joint is supporting your action, among other things. Cultivating body awareness is different from training or conditioning; it brings mind, body, and spirit together in moments of focused, deliberate, open perception. Working with a qualified teacher is a wonderful way to enhance body-awareness and support your explorations of movement and sensation.
Can flexibility training provide a counterbalance for our culture and offer a pathway for developing body awareness? Would there be a benefit to adjusting our perspectives on flexibility?
Are we an inflexible culture? Students and professionals sit for 6-8 hours a day. The former are often punished for fidgeting. Why on earth would a youthful creature not perfectly comply with being still for eight hours a day?
Considering our sit-at-a-desk-for-forty-hours-a-week culture, training flexibility can be a really helpful way to counteract stiffness from daily life and prevent injury. Training flexibility is a rewarding way to develop body awareness and strength, and offers a wide variety of benefits, including enhanced oxygen flow to muscles and improved circulation. (Interestingly, because training flexibility can awaken us to our body's needs, we would become less likely to tolerate such work conditions as we proceed in practice.) Flexibility training can help us correct some of our lifestyle imbalances.
I became powerfully drawn to contortion right about the time I started doing full-time work sitting at a desk. Once or twice a week I would power home on my bike after work, lay out the yoga mat, and bend as deeply as I could. The relief was immense. All the pent up energy found a place to go.
Watching the progress was exhilarating. I astonished myself with what I could achieve, and my mind began to open along with spaciousness in my body. And excitingly, I began to open to my body in unprecedented ways. Even though I had been an athlete my whole life and had been practicing yoga for years, contortion significantly deepened my body awareness. Because it brings on very powerful sensations, I could start to feel expressions in parts of my body I was usually dead to. Studying this wordless language became a deeply personal journey within the four walls of my room. There was an emotional side to it--the freeing of locked up energy. I backbended through love and heartbreak. The practice was always there to help me refocus my mind and feel centered again.
About the same time that I was getting into contortion, I was developing my personal meditation practice. The combination was powerful. Rather swiftly, I went from being one of the headiest people I knew to actually being...present in my body. And it felt so good--so meaningful. And suddenly, I had a reliable pathway into clarity and calm. When I curve my spine deeply, the clutter blocking my way to my soul clears out. I feel present and spacious. The release is gratifying.
Of course I love sharing my deepest poses on social media. I fell in love with the crazy deep arcs of beautiful backs, serene countenances, and artfully poised legs I saw in my feed. I longed to express my spine the way contortionists did. I felt a little conflicted about sharing; as a yoga teacher I insisted that the depth of the pose is NOT equivalent to the depth of practice. I didn't want to get anyone on the path for the wrong reasons. But I couldn't resist sharing, as mindfully as I could. I was so inspired. I struggle still with depicting flexibility and contortion without triggering everyone's automatic reactions: "this is impressive;" "this is sexy;" "this is dangerous." I hope to convey a bit of the intimate side of it, the subtlety within the extreme.
I've attracted much applause...and some concern. Contortion freaks people out--you will pinch a nerve, or pull a muscle...right? Or maybe break your neck? We are so very afraid of our spines, I have learned. Those things can happen (well I don't know about breaking your neck), but they didn't. I don't always train perfectly, and sometimes I have to take breaks (true in every sport I've ever practiced). But mostly, contortion makes me feel good, and as I became more flexible, I also became stronger; flexibility is NOT patiently laying in a position until you become like taffy. With the exception of a few passive stretches, you need to HOLD yourself in the position with your own strength! This is why I do not support assisted passive stretching as a primary way to train flexibility, ESPECIALLY in children. When you train active flexibility, you have a self-corrective, holistic practice: as you become more mobile, you also become more stable. Your joints don't become too loose--they are packed snug with muscle.
I started to think more critically about the alarm I generated with my extreme flexibility training. Why are we not alarmed when someone sits for forty hours a week at school and work? Why do we blindly accept that? Contortion MIGHT lead to injury (as with American Football, running, basketball, or other culturally accepted activities). Sitting for forty hours a week WILL lead to injury, and it will also put you at higher risk of depression and other health troubles. The body wants to move, and our muscles want to breathe. Stretching delivers more oxygen into your muscles--that's partly why it feels so so good. Stretching is like deep breathing. Plus, the quality of awareness is critically important. Because risk does rise at your end range, you have to be so so careful. So present. When I train contortion, I am fully with every sensation, and I have learned how to adjust and respond to the sensations that unfold at my flexibility boundaries. I have to keep my ego at bay, understanding that the deepest I can go is not always the deepest I should go.
When we sit for hours, we stop listening to the body. If we listened, we would have to get up too much for most employers' liking. But the body-aware must settle down. Sitting for forty hours a week is justified in our culture because we-must-work (imagine that in a robot voice) and because generally it is difficult for us to recognize the danger of slow-onset injury and disease. We are also biased toward mental development, systematically and institutionally neglecting care for the body for the sake of doing-work (robot voice) and cultivating brain skills. We accept sitting and rationalize the unease it brings us, just as we accept driving and rationalize the trauma and death it brings us. Contortion, of course, is on the fringe. People who do it often highlight its eccentricity, which is fine, but that comes with a lot of false perceptions.
To me, contortion is almost exclusively a personal, private practice. To me, contortion is an intimate ecology of self-study, challenging boundaries of mind and body, discernment, and discipline. Even though it's extreme, it's oh-so-subtle. What I feel in my body from one practice to the next is so slight, yet sometimes so profound. Fundamentally, and to me most excitingly, the practice is an exploration--which means it offers the thrill of new discovery.
Also, I find that deep flexibility can be mysterious, and therefore intriguing. Someone once told me that deep stretching simulates the feeling of somebody touching you--that the brain interprets those sensations in the same way. Sometimes I wonder if this is why I so often associate deep stretching with love. Somehow I feel there is emotional processing during deep stretching. Is something happening on another level? Sometimes I feel like a light or bright energy is patterning through my body, showing me where and how to move next, showing me when my back and my hands begin to communicate noticeably for the first time ever. What is that? Why is it sometimes there and other times not? I also love the feeling of new contact between parts of my body. I get a lot out of feeling my toes against the back of my head, or my elbow on my foot, and I adore the feeling of taking my feet into my hands when I am in cheststand. Is it the novelty? Is it like when we were first encountering the world? I'm enchanted with the questions offered by my practice of flexibility.
Our personal lives and our culture as a whole need corrective practices, rituals, and works of art and literature to help us out of the narrow patterns we slide into. As we carry into the 21st century with a continuing bias toward mental development, we need pathways into body awareness. We need practices to help us draw our shoulders back, strengthen our hamstrings, and lengthen our hip flexors. We need to prioritize proprioception and interoception. We need expansion at the throat and the heart center, and we need to move our joints in all the ways they can move. Flexibility training could be a promising counterbalance, not only because it will work, but because it is attractive enough to generate interest and is tangibly rewarding enough to motivate disciplined practice.
As a woman training contortion, I represent the extreme end of the spectrum. You don't need to go there. But what would happen if you asked your body what mobility it would like? Would you like to be able to comfortably touch your toes? Stop slouching? Reduce back pain? Flexibility training can support you in counterbalancing the habits of movement that, left unchecked, lock you into an ever-shrinking range.
Challenging cultural perceptions of flexibility
Just as we need high-quality, careful, discerning awareness when we practice flexibility in order to train safely, we need to apply a high-quality awareness to our perceptions of and attitudes toward flexibility. Flexibility is a total temptress--it is SUPER easy to just say "I want to be able to do the splits" and in maintaining that narrow mindset, the practitioner bars herself from the true depth and offerings of the process and gets cozy with her ego. To touch into the essence of the practice, I encourage a soft, curious mental approach to training flexibility. I would discourage using it as a way to show off, or pushing too hard to get to some depth before your body is ready. Flexibility training truly tests our self-awareness and restraint. Let's highlight and make honorable these aspects of flexibility, rather than splashing in the shallow waters of vanity and dominance. This isn't about showing off, although sharing learned skills and the joys of the practice is a potentially connective and beautiful thing. We don't need to exclude sexual appeal or sheer impressive athleticism from our cultural perceptions--but wouldn't it be so much more interesting if we placed those legitimate aspects of flexibility in the broader context of the practice, including inner-personal exploration and self-care?
To support an intimate, meaningful practice, I encourage anyone training flexibility to bring meditation into the picture. It doesn't need to be a perfect integration of meditating while stretching, but having a consistent meditation practice greatly supports the practice. Not only does meditation support us in applying quality awareness to the present moment, but it also actually accelerates flexibility training, because as the nervous system learns to relax, our muscles begin to let go, and we gently ease out of our rigid holding patterns.
And finally, can we reconsider the 40-hour sitting-standing workweek? Can we be more creative than that, and systematically implement stretch/movement breaks into our schools and workplaces?
Let us please, please have the wisdom to hold body awareness in the same esteem we hold intellectual acuity--after all, isn't it intelligent to know what's going on within our bodies, and to be able to take action that supports our best health and happiness?
Do you want to get in touch with yourself while encouraging a cultural shift through your own personal process? Get started training flexibility safely and mindfully.
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