Yoga and Contortionism

A student once asked me about the contortionists from Cirque du Soleil doing a pose called Scorpion. The question was whether anyone’s back should be capable of doing this pose, or do the contortionists have some different joint in their spine that allows them to do this?

Contortionism is different from yoga–in contortionism, the aim is the posture, while in yoga, the aim is the effect that the posture has on our mind and nervous system to effect a deeper connection with our spirit. I encourage you to be completely unconcerned with attainment of postures, for that concern is not about yoga, it is about the ego.

Having said that, yes, practically all healthy backs should be able to do deep backbends such as the Scorpion. Cirque du Soleil performers often come to my classes, so I know their bodies well. Their spines are strong and healthy (with no different joints), except for the occasional contortionist who may have pushed too hard and had hairline fractures in the spine. In fact, my own teacher, the great B.K.S. Iyengar was extremely stiff in the spine when he started the practice of yoga.

Having worked with tens of thousands of students, I can safely say that, with practice, even the stiffest spines can change and become more supple. Please do note that it requires hard work under the trained eye of an expert teacher, but it can be done. Also remember that there is no need to do the advanced poses unless the body leads you to them. The reason to try advanced poses is that, as the body gets more supple with the practice, it needs deeper and deeper work to get results. You and your teacher will begin to sense the cues about when to go deeper as your practice progresses.

My suggestion is to “go for the pose” only if you are ready, your teacher is extremely knowledgeable, and your teacher has done the pose personally. If your teacher has practiced and refined the pose, she is more likely to know the ins and outs of the methodology. Please also realize that some spines may not be ready to do advanced backbends such as Scorpion despite years of preparation. Again, patience and detachment must be cultivated as part of the yoga practice, rather than setting goals of “getting there.”

©2008 Aadil Palkhivala

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