This Contortionist Class Might Be New York’s Scariest Workout

I tipped my body backward so far, I thought my head might pop out between my knees.

Just a typical Contorture class. (Photo: YouTube)
Just a typical Contorture class. (Photo: YouTube)

In a semi-private fitness class at Manhattan’s Mercedes Club, a classmate and I eyed each other with apprehension. We were deciding which of us would attempt the backbend first.

This was no relaxing yoga class—no “lean back slowly, in a way that feels right for your mind and body today.” This was Contorture, an extreme flexibility workout taught by 20-year contortionist Jonathan Nosan. Somehow selected to try the backbend first, I stood up, took a deep breath and, with Mr. Nosan’s assistance, tipped my body backward so far, I thought my head might pop out between my knees.

I felt sharp twitches of panic as my body bent in far more extreme ways than it ever had before, and I instinctively tried to unfold myself and straighten back up. But with a hand on my chest, Mr. Nosan, to my alarm, gently pushed me back further into the bend. Those panicky spasms were good for my abs, apparently.

The terrifying backbend in question. (Photo: Shana Scala)
The terrifying backbend in question. (Photo: Shana Scala)

“I call it the tremble,” Mr. Nosan explained over the phone a few days later. He likes when clients get to the “tremble,” he said, because “that’s when you’re approaching that dark place where you want to set you foot into—that’s really where the work starts happening.”

“You never want to get too comfortable,” he continued. “You always want to keep pushing your comfort zone a little further.”

Mr. Nosan developed the Contorture workout with the goal of helping clients push their bodies to the extremes of their flexibility—just as Mr. Nosan was trained to do, starting back in 1996. He regularly leads the workshop in NYC spots like Broadway Dance Center, and Body & Pole, in addition to offering private sessions and a series of instructional videos launching this summer, available for pre-order online.

“The greatest thing,” Mr. Nosan said, “is giving everybody the opportunity to get to where they know and believe they can go—to their extreme.”

Thankfully, not all of the exercises I tried in the Contorture Chamber (yes, that’s what Mr. Nosan calls his workout studios, and rightfully so) were as terrifying as the aforementioned backbend—though all were equally effective at loosening my joints and—an additional benefit of Contorture—working my muscles, particularly my core.

In my lunge pose, Mr. Nosan guided me through tiny, extremely specific adjustments that shocked me with their power to open my hips and engage my abs all at once. There was also a “flying frog” pose, where I somehow managed to grip my elbows with my knees and balance my entire body on the palms of my hands, and a deep squat, where I used my elbows to push my knees as far apart as they could humanly stretch. The performative Mr. Nosan frequently relayed his adjustments by lightly swatting us a thin wooden stick—this was a torture chamber of sorts, remember. I felt like a Russian gymnast in training for the Olympics.

I certainly expected to feel more flexible after my Contorture workout, but I was pleasantly surprised by how sore my muscles were the next day, too. Turns out, a deep lunge performed with engaged abs and a perfectly-straight spine was as good for building strength as it was for increasing my flexibility.

“You want to feel a good hit into the muslces,” Mr. Nosan said. “You don’t want to be completely debilitated, but you definitely want to feel like you got a good workout.”

I’m not sure I could handle the physically-demanding workout on a daily basis, but every so often, I’m certain I could work up the courage. This Contortionist Class Might Be New York’s Scariest Workout