Backbends: Yoga vs Flexibility/Contortion

If you’re looking to deepen your backbend, what is the most efficient and effective way to practice? 

My flexibility journey started with yoga classes. Yoga provided me with a very good foundation for strength, flexibility, balance, body awareness, and knowledge of anatomy/physiology, not to mention the self-knowledge, personal peace, nervous system regulation, and spiritual benefits that come with the practice. It removed pain from behind my knees so I could sit fully in a straddle. It introduced me to headstand and handstand. I was so moved by the practice that in 2014 I completed a 9-month certification program complete with apprenticeship and have been teaching ever since. I love and respect yoga as a philosophical and physical discipline.

But at a certain point, if you have a next-level flexibility goal, such as oversplits or a very deep wheel (yoga) or bridge (contortion), yoga is not the best method in terms of efficiency or efficacy. It can be a great supplement to keep you practicing flexibility on rest-days, but it definitely wouldn’t be my recommendation for pursuing advanced flexibility.

The reason that yoga is not an ideal method for developing extreme flexibility is that the value of yoga is the diversity of movement. You rotate, fold, and bend in every possible direction, occasionally moving into any end range flexibility, but mostly staying at mid-range. 

If you have a specific goal like an oversplits, you need to spend an hour or more on oversplits. There is not enough time in a yoga class to prep you for, bring you into, and warm you down from an oversplits. It stops looking and feeling like yoga if you attempt to do this. Likewise,  wheel/bridge requires a long warmup, repetitive, targeted exercises, progressions, core exercises, and a thorough warm-down. That takes at minimum one hour and it’s extremely goal-oriented–it isn’t yoga. 

You can see in these images that I can achieve significantly greater flexibility with a contortion (or think of it as targeted flexibility) training session than in a yoga session.

In the top photo, my shoulders are stacked over my hands, my chest is pushing through my shoulders, and my legs are less bent. 

In the bottom photo, my shoulders are stacked over my fingertips, I couldn’t push my chest any further through my shoulders, and my knees are more bent. It still FELT good and it is definitely valuable for me to go into a shallower backbend.

A common misconception about flexibility is that it just requires that you “stretch out” a lot. Not at all. Think of it more like weight lifting. Advanced flexibility requires incredible strength, and you need to do repetitive drills to develop that strength. When your back folds towards your legs or vice versa, you are activated your posterior chain to make that shape. At the same time, the core is stabilizing. I can only do a few reps of contortion bridges before I can’t do it anymore. Why? Because my shoulders are DYING. They have to work so hard to support the position. 

Yoga can’t accomodate all of that. Yoga has to attend to every muscle group, and in a greater variety of ways. In contortion or advanced flexibility, we need to repeat targeted drills, choosing a small selection of poses or muscle groups to focus on in a given session. 

Yoga can still be part of your training, but it will not be the time to go deep–at least not physically. It’s excellent for physical maintenance and restoration. And what it does better than contortion/advanced flexibility is bring you to a full-body state of peace. Advanced flexibility is like a hard workout. It can definitely help reduce stress and promote a better mood.

But when practiced with the right attitude, yoga will be much more efficient and effective in the areas of peace, nervous system regulation, ethical engagement, and emotional growth. 

Have questions about yoga or flexibility? Leave a comment below.