… or is it?
There seems to be this feud going on between the two disciplines. Yoga practitioners think that contortion is unsafe and dangerous, while contortionists turn their noses up at the “basic” movements of yoga. I also hear people strictly defining yoga as a spiritual practice and contortion as an unnecessary bending of the body. As a person who studies, practices, and teaches both movements, I want to discuss the similarities between the two. I personally think (in this modern day and age) both the mindset and movements of each practice are very similar. People who practice yoga and contortion often do it for the challenge of the physical exercise. Both disciplines challenge the body to improve strength, flexibility, awareness, and control. Both disciplines practice with the mindset of improving these areas. And both disciplines have levels that advance from one to another.
One big difference between the two is that anyone can do yoga at any level because it starts from the most basic form of movement, which is just breathing. The next levels ask you to start gently moving to open up your range. Eventually you are looking at classes that work on holding postures with a specific form. From there, you work your way up to moving from poses into balances. More advanced levels challenge your stamina with quicker paced movements, postures, balances and breathing techniques. Finally, we hit the most advanced level, which is primarily all contortion poses, balances and transitions. This level of yoga is practiced by the most serious of yoga practitioners and demonstrated at yoga competitions all over the world!
Contortion, on the other hand, begins at a higher level. The very basic contortion skills are a demonstration of splits, bridges, chest stands, elbow stands and handstands. The next level would be to blend poses together to make more dramatic shapes like fully back bending in a split to grab your ankle, balancing and grabbing your ankles in bridge, and lowering down to bridge from a handstand with control. Eventually, this advances to blending the poses together with creative transitions, entrances, and exits as though you were performing a dance. The most extreme level of contortion consists of using props like a mouthpiece where you are molding yourself around an apparatus while creating shapes, playing an instrument, and spinning rugs on your hands and feet, etc.
The second thing that separates yoga from contortion is the warm up, preparation and sequencing. Since yoga classes are generally open to anyone, many classes end up with a variety of levels of students from first-time participants to advanced contortion-level individuals. Warming up in yoga doesn’t exist. There are no muscle- specific warm ups or isolated exercises. Yoga generally moves from one pose to the next without putting detailed focus on building up to one specific advanced pose. If you happen to be strong and flexible enough for the advanced postures in class, then consider yourself lucky. Most styles of yoga are open to interpretation based on what the instructor decides to teach that day. Those students who practice yoga privately usually get more structured sequences that help advance them towards more specific-level goals.
Contortion classes, however, require a minimal level of skills so there are less- dramatic differences between the ability levels of participants. Contortion follows no structured sequence of movements. The warm ups all prepare you for the next stretch or exercise. And that stretch or exercise prepares you for the next one. This build-up repeats over and over until you are working on your final hardest skill. Contortion training mostly repeats the same poses and balances continually until they become better. As the basic skills improve, more advanced variations of those skills get altered throughout the training journey. The variations are small adjustments that eventually lead up to performance level tricks and intricate transitions.
This leads us to our final comparison of performance levels. Yoga is a performance art, just as much as contortion is. Yoga competitions are held all over the world, where practitioners come together to demonstrate their skills. The skills most praised and awarded in these competitions are ALL contortion level poses and movements. The more flexible, strong, and controlled you are, the more recognition you will receive. However, there are some rules to follow. Creativity is absolutely allowed with entrances and exits of positions, but coming back to a neutral position before demonstrating the next skill is highly emphasized.
Conversely, contortion is pure creative performance art. In circus competitions and performances, the creativity of new and unexpected transitions is just as important
(if not more so) than the poses and balances. Contortion has no limitation on from which direction you enter or exit your tricks or through what plane you move in your transitions. Like yoga, coming back to a neutral potion before moving onto the next trick is a very basic contortion skill, but the performance level of contortion is a constantly moving dance. You want to move through as many planes as you can, as creatively as possible, while trying to limit or eliminate any neutral positions.
As we see, both disciplines have differences but also many similarities. Yoga has many more levels and is more accepting of all levels of people, whereas contortion requires specific high-level skills as a baseline. However, many poses, balances, transitions, entrances and exits are similar between the two disciplines at the advanced level. Contortion simply turns training into a dance-like performance rather than just demonstrating poses like a bodybuilder. However, no matter what level a person is at in either discipline, the mindset is the same. What challenges the body challenges the mind to focus deeply and carefully in order to improve the motion or posture. In the end, everyone practices to become better regardless of whether they want to compete, perform, or just practice these super human movements for themselves.