There’s no question about it — contortionist Jonathan Nosan has flexibility in spades. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Nosan)
When you think of contortionists, images of circus performers (perhaps a la Cirque du Soleil) likely come to mind. The bending, twisting, and stretching seem impossible — and never fail to mesmerize.
Professional contortionist Jonathan Nosan has made these amazing maneuvers his livelihood. While studying the design of sacred space as a PhD student in Japan, he stumbled upon a Tokyo circus and was mesmerized by the contortionists. “It blew me away and I knew that this needed to be the next 20 years of my life,” Jonathan tells Yahoo Health. From there, he moved to London to train at a circus school before heading to the Circus Centre in San Francisco, where he studied for three years. “By the end of that time I could touch toes forwards and backwards, when I used to not be able to touch my toes,” Jonathan says.
Now able to lie on his stomach and bring his toes by his ears, Jonathan has taken his expertise and created a workout class called ”Contorture“ to help the rest of us become real-life Stretch Armstrongs. "I saw a need to put out a safe, methodical way to train deep flexibility from a contortionist’s perspective,” Jonathan explains. “The program creates a strong, supple spine and a balanced body connecting movement through breath.”
Jonathan demonstrating a move that requires both strength and flexibility. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Nosan)
So, what exactly is involved in a contortionist-themed class? For 75 minutes, you will strengthen and stretch through isometric holds, which help increase flexibility through moves such as lunges, splits, and hanging back-bends. Then, you incorporate that flexibility into inversions and variations of headstands, forearm-stands, and other more advanced contortionist moves. Jonathan uses a rod to help make sure your hips are level and spine is straight as you dive into lifted square lunges, splits, and engaged squats. “The rod is a measuring and extension device,” says Jonathan. “It’s used to engrain in the body a squareness and alignment much like a ballerina. It’s so you can see the straight and the bend in your body against the straight.”
For example, with a lunge, a person would typically throw the front foot forward and try to get the groin to the ground, regardless of the position of the hips. In Contorture, you would do the lunge, but place the rod in front of the hips to make sure they’re square. Then you’d place it behind your spine to make sure it was straight and there’s no gap in the lower back, meaning your core is engaged. “It’s like using a level when you’re building,” he explains. “We want your body to be level and aligned to create the strength and connection that will help you explore deeper layers of flexibility.”
While you may not be able to throw your feet behind your head after one class, Jonathan says you will be able to get an inch further in a particular stretch. “You’ll walk away with a new understanding [of] how to carry your body and conquer your fear of being able to bend further,” Jonathan says. And “in five to six classes, you’ll start to feel and notice your flexibility significantly improving along with your strength and alignment in everyday life.” It could take longer — up to a year — to learn how to do more advanced moves, like a full handstand, depending on your starting point.
Not your average handstand! (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Nosan)
So maybe you don’t have the desire to do a crazy backbend, but you do wish you were able to touch your toes. Jonathan breaks down five ways anyone can become a little more flexible.
Make everything a stretch
Even daily chores and actions can be an opportunity to stretch. “Catch moments throughout your day when you can steal five seconds or two deep breaths to find a lengthening,” he says. “From tying your shoes to doing the laundry, engage your core, extend one inch further.” These subtle daily movements may not seem like much, but over time, they can help make you progressively more flexible and bring you more in tune with your body.
Squatting is not only great for toning your legs — it’s actually one of the best ways to improve your flexibility. “The squat fires up the hip flexors, which are tight for most people because they sit a lot,” Jonathan explains. Tight hip flexors make it hard to bend and touch your toes. "Squatting is the target, or bull’s eye, of where to attack to get the hip flexors open, and will make everything from crossing your legs to tying your shoes feel easier and better.”
The “Contorture Squat.” (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Nosan)
Here’s how to do what Jonathan calls the “Contorture Squat”:
Standing with feet slightly turned out, at a stance just a little wider than your hips, plant your ankles into the ground. While doing this, suck in your gut and “tuck” your tailbone.
Drill your elbows directly into the spot where your calf meets your thigh, and make fists with your hands.
Round your back, all while engaging your core, and then push with your shoulders to open your hip flexors.
Return to standing without collapsing in the lower back, but instead by lengthening from your engaged core and tucked tailbone.
Jonathan recommends working up to five reps using easy breaths to build better mobility and balance.
Every hour, take a one-minute break for a front bend
While Jonathan is able to do handstands and full-on splits, it’s perpetual slight movements in major muscle groups that will make touching your toes much easier. “A front bend stretches and lengthens your hamstrings, neck, and back — all things that tend to be tight and prevent us [from] bending over easily,” he adds. Do this move enough times, “and you’ll be able to tie your shoes without bending your knees.“
Here’s how to do a front bend:
Start from standing, with your feet parallel and hip width apart, your arms by your sides.
Exhale, and bend your waist, letting your chin drop to your chest and your forehead pull toward the ground.
Let your arms and head dangle down. Hold this position for five easy breaths. With each exhale, let gravity take you a bit deeper down.
To finish, slowly roll back up to standing, with your head being the last part of your body to come up.
While this move might sound like something out of a children’s cartoon, Jonathan says this move stretches and strengthens your lower back, paraspinal muscles, and multifidus muscle, and improves your lower back flexibility. “It’s a small engaged exercise that packs a wallop,” he says.
The “Buddup.” (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Nosan)
Here’s how to do a "Buddup-Buddown”:
Lying on the floor or mat with your belly down, bring your elbows directly under your shoulders with your hands flat in front.
Broaden your chest by bringing your shoulder blades together, and drop your shoulders away from your ears.
Drill your belly button into the floor and rotate your pelvis/hip bones to bring your butt into the air. This very small movement is your Buddup.
Then, relax the butt, with the belly button staying down. This movement is your Buddown.
The “Buddown.” (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Nosan)
Stand up regularly from your chair
Unfortunately, many of us are forced to sit at a desk all day, leading to tight hip flexors that prevent us from bending forward or backward easily. “Think about picking up a laundry basket or your kids from the floor; each of those moves requires frontward mobility and a lot of us use our lower backs, leading to injury,” says Jonathan. “Open strong hip flexors are the key to any sort of flexibility, and you can begin to open them by simply standing with targeted core engagement.”
Here’s how to get the most out of standing:
Get up from your chair and stand with feet hip-width apart, toes pointed out 20 degrees.
Tense your abs (as if someone was about to punch you).
Pull your butt cheeks together, tighten the glutes, all while engaging your abs. Feel your hip flexors start to open.
Hold this position for five seconds and then relax. Do five reps and gradually increase the length of gluteal engagement with each rep.
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