At San Francisco Pole and Dance and Oakland Pole and Dance, one our most popular classes has historically been called “Flexibility”. We recently decided to change the class name and rebrand this class because flexibility itself has quickly become specialized into different modules for different flexibility goals and we’ve found that the “Flexibility” naming convention often leads to confusion about what the class actually entails.
For instance, students who don’t have an aerial or pole background often think that they’re signing up for a yoga flow and are surprised to find themselves sweating and doing significant strength and core work throughout our flexibility classes because many, especially those whose familiarity with flexibility is limited to yoga, thinking of flexibility and yoga as synonymous, something akin to a vinyasa approach to moving fluidly from pose to pose. Others expect that we will smush them into ‘flexible’ poses and that their ability to withstand and endure the pain in passive movement is what will make them more flexible.
Neither is the case.
We’ve decided to rebrand our Flexibility class as “Active Flexibility”, a name that more appropriately focuses on the flexibility work that I have found to be most useful while upside down, sideways and moving through the air as a professional pole dancer and aerial instructor. Active Flexibility is a type of flexibility instruction that requires using strength in opposing muscles to put one’s body into different positions and then hold those poses safely at the end of one’s range of motion. For instance, active flexibility through the hips would require strengthening the glute muscles to safely support the body as it pushes deeper into hip flexor stretches. This allows students to build strength and mobility that can support the body through it’s full range of motion and allows dancers and aerialists to use that strength as they move through poses in the air such as splits variations, and backbends using an active musculoskeletal engagement without the use of gravity.
An active approach to flexibility has also helped me to avoid injury through joints, keeping students healthy.
Of course, not all the stretching we do in our active flexibility classes is active. While passive flexibility on it’s own can be a way of stretching that leads to injury, it too is helpful for increasing range of motion but must be supported and paired with active flexibility programming.
However, even in the passive poses students are encouraged to focus on tiny details. In splits training, for instance, I encourage my students to focus on pulling back the front hip, keeping the lower core engaged and lifted, pushing down through the back of the knee. What can be confusing is that active and passive flexibility work can often look like the exact same thing to an untrained eye!
Here are a few examples of poses we may work on in our Active Flexibility classes with notes on what engagement students are instructed to focus on in each one.
Tucked Tail Lunge.
In this tucked tail position, students should be using their glute strength to tuck the tailbone down and forward rather than keeping the tailbone in its default state, slightly tilted behind. This helps isolate the stretch in the hip flexor and build strength in the underbutt, which supports the stretch. Importantly, it also takes the mobility out of your lower back so you can focus the stretch into the hips even extra.
Lunge Reach back.
In this pose, we start in a lunge, pushing the back foot into a wall. Both hands should reach straight up above the shoulders (like your riding a rollercoaster), as students lift the back knee off the floor and try to keep the back hip tucked under and hips square while pushing the foot into the wall. The front foot should be directly under the front knee. The goal of this pose is to be able to reach hands back to the wall and then walk the hands down the wall while opening through the chest to open through the upper back. This one’s a double whammy because students are opening through the back hip and the upper back at the same time. Try it for a 30 second hold!
For leg lifts, stack one to two blocks arms length away from the body. Lift the same arm as the leg that’s lifting and put it behind your back (so that you don’t lean into it too much). Lift the leg up and over the block and back using your side butt muscle. Aim for 1-3 sets of 10 on each leg.
This backbend may look passive but there’s actually a lot of work happening, including:
– Tucking the tailbone under to push the hips up to the ceiling
– Pushing heels into the floor to get the hamstrings involved in lifting the butt
– Pushing straight through the elbows to get more mobility out of the shoulders and upper back
– For a bit of an extra stretch through the upper back, try sitting your butt down towards the floor and then pushing the hips back up to the ceiling three times for a five second hold each time.
Heel to Butt Yoga Block Squeeze.
This one is killer! You may cramp quickly and that’s normal. In this movement, we’re working the mobility of the heel reaching back to butt by strengthening the hamstring. Put a yoga block between your heel and your butt cheek, then perform 10 pulses and a 10 second static hold. Repeat 3 times on each side, alternating sides. If lengthwise is too easy, try squeezing the block sideways.