By Walter Sangree - NY, USA
(Regular readers of SKILL will have read before of the amazing contortionist success of our postal pupil, Walter Sangree, of New York. Whenever his photographs have appeared in SKILL, readers have asked for more! It is a pleasure, in this issue, to hand over these pages to Walter himself, and we are happy to be able to publish Walter's own training routine, together with a further selection of his photographs).
Occasionally I get requests for a description of how I have achieved and maintained my limberness. The following, although it by no means tells the whole story, outlines the technique I have regularly followed for the past 18 months prior to any performance or work-out in acro-contortion. It will be seen to be in itself a preliminary work-out of sorts. During this period I have followed this preliminary work-out procedure on the average of about four times a week, generally two times a week prior to and in conjunction with a regular acrobatic or acro-adagio workout session, and two times a week by itself simply as a conditioner. It involves my own blend of techniques used in Yoga, and acrobatic and modern dance warmups.
(1.) Sitting on floor or firm mat, legs straight and together, toes pointed, exhale and reach forward with the hands to grasp ankles, or as far down the lower legs as comfortable. Hold and breathe normally, in and out, five times (to be indicated in future by "breathe 5"). Exhale deeply, rolling head and neck forward as tightly as possible, and contracting and pulling in with stomach muscles as tightly as possible, reach forward to clasp-interlock-fingers across instep. Hold and breathe 5. Exhale, contracting muscles as above, and press elbows to floor besides knees, fingers as above. This will bring forehead hard to legs below knees. Hold and breathe 5. Release hold around feet, spread feet about 18in. and with knees still straight, exhale hard, contract muscles as above, and bring forehead to floor between knees, at the same time bringing straightened arms, which have just been extended behind back, straight at elbows with fingers interlocked, up and over head, and down towards toes as far as possible. Hold and breathe 5. Release and return to sitting position. Interlock legs in lotus posture, and exhaling, contract with arms as in previous move, and bring forehead to the floor. Hold and breathe 5. Return to sitting position, re-assume lotus posture with legs interlocked in the opposite sequence and repeat the preceding move. Sit up, assume a sitting position where soles of feet are together, with heels hard up against crotch, and knees down to the floor or as near as possible to the floor, with hands holding feet together. Exhale and contract and lean forward to bring forehead to floor just in front of toes with nose to feet. (Hopefully, the feet are washed--if not, dispense with the 5 breaths!) Release, sit up and relax.
(2.) Go down towards a stride (fore and aft) splits, arms extended on either side of legs to floor, carrying weight of body. Keep forward leg straight, toe pointed; backward extended leg touching floor at knee as well as foot. Slowly straighten back leg, as muscles stretch out, until (for me usually a minute or two) legs can be stretched without discomfort into a full splits flat out on floor. Then lean forward to touch chin to knee of forward leg. Then (if right leg is forward), slowly twist to the right to place right hand on the outside of the thigh of the rearward leg, and hold several seconds. Release, and repeat the same technique with the opposite foot forward. Breathe normally throughout.
(3.) Sitting on floor, spread legs, knees straight and toes pointed, as far apart as possible. Tense muscles on the inside of the thighs as though to push the lower legs and feet as far apart as possible. Continuing like this, slowly lean forward slowly lowering chest to floor and forcing legs apart into full straddle splits (this, for me, usually takes a minute or two). Holding full straddle splits, place right hand palm down comfortably on the floor in front of you and with left arm extended overhead slowly, breathing evenly, bend sideways, finally to bring right shoulder in front of right leg, the right side of the head resting on right leg near the knee, and the left hand grasping the right ankle. Straighten up, and repeat to left. This usually takes me a minute or two for each side. Sometimes I do part (3) before doing part (2).
(4.) Lying on back on thin mat, push up to a neck stand. Hold until breathing and blood flow regular, and slowly bend in back and waist until jack-knifed with knees to forehead, legs still straight and together. Spread legs slightly and slowly lower knees to floor on either side of head. (Yoga plow posture.) Hold for a minute or so, and then lift knees and lower both knees to floor on right side of head and hold. Repeat same on left side and hold. Return to the plow posture. Cross feet behind head, clasp hands together behind waist. Hold an instant and then roll forward on to lower back. Release hands, readjust lower legs more firmly behind shoulders, re-cross feet behind head. Reclasp hands behind waist. Exhale, contract and pull with arms to bring head as close to buttocks as possible. Hold 5, and release.
TOTAL TIME FOR PARTS 1-4: 15 MINUTES
(5.) Lie face down on floor or firm mat, legs together and crossed at ankles. (It might be best not to have to cross legs at ankles, but I haven't yet developed the necessary control and strength in the buttocks to keep my legs tight in this position when bending back as far as possible). Knees straight. Palms on floor besides shoulders. Inhale fully and while bending head back as far as possible, push up with arms a bit to bend back at waist and upper lumbar region. Hold, and breathe 5. Usually on this first bend, I don't bend back much; just high enough to prop my hands under my chin and rest on my elbows. Keep back muscles and buttocks contracted during these five breaths. Then take deep breath, hold, and bend back more - as far as comfortable - pushing with arms. Again contract back muscles hard, and buttocks muscles hard, and throw head back as far as possible when pushing back with breath held and chest expanded. Hold, breathe 5, deeply and slowly, keeping buttocks and back muscles contracted hard throughout. Take deep breath, hold, and push back farther, as above. Hold and breathe 5. By this time one should feel considerable stretch from bottom of the rib cage, down across the front to the abdomen, especially on the stomach muscles. Also, one should feel the back begin to 'open', not only at the waist and lower lumbar region, but also at the upper lumbar area at the base of the rib cage. Whilst breathing 5, tense and release the back and buttock muscles slightly, and wiggle chest a bit from side to side. Keep head hard back throughout, however, except to release once or twice for an instant to relax and swallow. Take deep breath, hold, and push hard back further - as above. Hold, and breathe 5, etc., as above. Test degree of bend by kicking first one foot and then the other to head (holding arch, buttocks contracted, legs together as much as possible). If toes easily touch top of head, move on to next step; otherwise repeat above until this is possible.
Still holding arch as above, but with legs no longer crossed at ankles, inhale, hold breath, and bending right leg at knee to bring foot to head, simultaneously reach up and over with left hand to grasp right foot. The arch is being maintained during this maneuver by the right arm pressing and forcing the shoulder back, and by the hard contraction of the back and buttocks muscles. Hold and breathe 5. Take deep breath and shift grasp of left hand from right foot to right ankle, and draw sole of foot up tightly against top of head. Hold and breathe 5. Take deep breath, maintaining grasp as above, and briefly for one or two seconds, lift right hand from floor, so entire strain of holding arch is being taken by left arm and by contracted back and buttocks muscles. If head and shoulders are properly thrown back, and left leg is still extended straight behind, center of gravity will be far enough back so that the bodyweight will be centered over the upper thighs, and you will not roll or fall forward. Release, bring left hand to floor and straighten out right leg. Holding arch, take a few breaths by way of resting and relaxing. Then take deep breath, hold, and repeat above sequence with right arm and left leg.
Holding arch, legs extended on floor, and together, as near together as possible, arms still taking weight of upper body, take breath, hold, bend back as far as possible, bend both knees, to cradle top of head with soles of both feet. Hold, breathe 5, and again release to above previous position (usually called sphinx position). Hold this position, take a few breaths to relax, inhale, hold, push back hard, and then bending right leg at knee, reach up and back with right arm to grasp right ankle with right hand, and then left ankle with left hand. Hold, and breathe 5. Head is thrown back, with heels on top of head. Center of gravity is far enough back so that it is over the upper thighs and it is possible to balance in that position without rolling forward on chest. Take deep breath, hold and change grasp so that lower arms are crossed, left hand holding right ankle, right hand holding left ankle (you may want to drop one hand to the floor when making this change). Hold, and breathe 5. Shift back to right hand to right ankle, left hand to left, hold and breathe 5, or as many as you wish, varying the pose by tilting head forward. Hold until breathing is more regular. Release first one ankle and then the next, and holding hard arch with only back and buttocks muscles, arms outstretched, lower body to mat as slowly as possible, releasing arch first in lower back, and then up the entire length of the spine, finally to bring chin and face to mat. The arms are outstretched from side to side in this procedure, not overhead. It is possible to go slowly down to mat like this - first lower abdomen, then lower chest, then upper chest, then shoulders, then face. But use the arms to help if necessary.
TOTAL TIME FOR PART 5:
USUALLY ABOUT 10 MIN.