Flexibility: Gains is more than muscle

I am not naturally flexible. Every millimetre of gains I’ve had to work for, usually sweaty and miserable. But the way the pole industry is going, and certainly for circus, flexibility is a must for more advanced moves. And so here I am.

The problem with stretching is it takes SO LONG. For me, stiff as a board sitting in front of a desk all day, it takes me a long time just to loosen up. If I’m working on legs, I usually do this by yogic sun salutations, some squats, high knee jogging on the spot and leg raises. As a real killer, it’s leg circles to finish the warm up. Hold your leg out in front of you as high as you can – now draw small circles in the air without putting your foot down. I usually do this to a song I love and do it to two lines of music. Then you draw circles the other way. Then you repeat but this time holding your leg out to one side, then the other side, then behind. Then repeat on the other leg. Pray for mercy.

By this time, I’m feeling warm, and I’ve spent a solid 15-20 minutes on this. Then the gentle stretches and loosening up begins. I sit in lunges, tilting my hips forward, sit in pigeon sit, in straddle, in frog pose. Everything on both sides, breathing in, then trying to relax on the out breath. I use my home pole to push and pull on. Eventually I ease into my version of splits. And we haven’t even started on our backs and shoulders yet. Although splitty legs is what makes a lot of moves look better when performing (jade, allegra, extended butterfly…) my real problem area is my shoulders, which is what most of the before and after pictures on this page show. But considering the amount of time it takes, I’ve been bad at committing to these stretch sessions regularly.

And ‘regularity’ is the problem. Real flexibility gains come from practising every day (or from doing gymnastics as a kid. Bastards.) Although I embrace every tiny improvement (oh, the glee when I started to pull my foot to my head in pole and silks), I resent the pace of progress. Strength builds up a lot quicker. Flex isn’t just about your muscles’ physical capability, it’s about your mental trust in yourself. Many people will tell you how much bendier they are after a glass of wine: most of the time our brains kick in and tell ourselves not to push too far, trying to protect our bodies even when we’re pushing as hard as we can. The only way to overcome this is by repeating each stretch, multiple times each session, and as frequently as possible, teaching your brain it’s ok, it’s safe, now can we relax a little further?

Seahorse 2016 (left) and 2015 (right) – all in the shoulders.

When I started thinking about fitness, I started with nothing. I couldn’t do a bridge at all, my splits were non existent. I could just about touch my toes on a good day. I don’t have many ‘before’ pictures because I never really believed in myself that I’d have anything to show in an ‘after’ picture. And that type of disbelief is exactly why this little anxious brain of mine needs so much convincing to drop a little lower, a little deeper.

Yoga has helped. Yoga is about control and relaxation, being fully aware of your body. Warrior poses are great for building up strength and stability in your inner thighs, and giving you the control and trust to feel more confident in splits training. Forward bends are amazing for hamstrings.

When you look at Instagram, it’s easy to believe that everyone else dropped out the womb into a perfect split. We don’t see the hours of effort that goes in. That’s one reason why I love Emma Nicholson, who documented her daily training over a month towards one single (horrendously bendy) move – the spatchcock. She could have easily just posted the final picture, but she didn’t. She proved she’s human like everyone else and worked her ass of for it. She’s also really fit 😍.

My Instagram is curated, yes, to show the best angles and the individuals milestones of progress. But it also makes it obvious I’ve started from nothing: not every toe is pointed, not every face is a calm, poignant pout.

I know I’ll never be able to fold into a suitcase like the cirque du soleil contortionists. But a bit of flexibility improves the lines of so many moves, and opens up doors to so many others. And so I’m sticking at it. I’m excited by the progress I’ve made, because I know how much it has taken to get here. But MAN it’s a slow journey.


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