Review of Lastics: A Stretch Workout Like No Other

One of my biggest challenges since starting to take ballet has been flexibility. This is odd: I’ve never been a particularly inflexible person. But ballet shows you your limits fast. So I have been on the search for programs that are focused on increasing flexibility. Yoga is great, of course, but sometimes I don’t feel like it, and it’s not necessarily aimed at the kind of flexibility one needs in dance.

Enter Lastics. It’s the creation of Donna Flagg, a former dancer, and advertised as “A Stretch Workout Like No Other.” I bought the DVD bundled with the book, since I wanted to know as much as possible about what made Lastics different. There are quite a few stretch DVDs out there, and many of them seem just to offer the same stretches most active people already know.

I’m happy to report that Lastics is quite different from all other stretch programs I’ve done. One major difference is that Donna Flagg has you extend muscles, then stretch them. I’m not a physician, and can’t tell if she’s right that it’s pointless to work on flexibility on an unextended muscle, but I do know that doing that hasn’t brought me much. Another aspect of Flagg’s program is using, as much as possible, internal force to stretch muscles, rather than external objects or devices.

The DVD itself has an intro on Common Stretching Mistakes, and then moves on to four sections:

Stretch in Motion (15 min)
Get into Your Body (19 min)
Feel the Rush (14 min)
Body Meets Mind (9 min)

The idea is that any one segment will stretch all of your body, but that you can do more if you want. This is true, but the names of the sections have no real relationship to what’s covered. I’ve done the program twice all the way through, and I think it works well that way, but I do like the option of doing a smaller program if I have less time.

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Donna Flagg demonstrates Lastics stretch with a modification

Donna’s instruction is excellent. Every single breath and move is cued, directions are clear, and every move is done equally on both sides. As good instructors do, she often anticipates your mistakes and corrects you. She also often shows adjustments for people with less flexibility.

So does it work? And is the DVD worth it? Well, I’m not sure if it works. I haven’t seen any increase in my flexibility in the days after using the program, though it’s probably expecting too much for one hour to make a noticeable difference. I think it would be more effective to do this program after some other kind of movement or warmup, instead of stretching cold — which is what I did both times.

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Donna Flagg demonstrating a Lastics psoas stretch

I am, however, very happy with the purchase. There are a number of stretches in this program I haven’t seen elsewhere, and still others that I haven’t seen directed quite in this way. Lastics targets certain areas that other programs don’t, like the psoas muscle, and its in intense focus on stretching hamstrings with a straight leg, it’s particularly useful for students of dance or ballet. Dancers might wish for more stretches that aim towards turnout or straddle splits, but the program stands on its own as it is.

And while I can’t tell if the program really improves flexibility, it certainly is a delicious and deep way to stretch, one that I suspect prevents quite a bit of pain. I think Lastics is particularly great after travel or long days of sitting at a desk, as it works on the quads, neck, and arm muscles. Lastics offers a deep stretch comparable to a yin yoga practice, one that is perfect if you don’t want to do yoga,

Miranda Esmonde-White doing Classical Stretch

Review of Classical Stretch – The Esmonde Technique: Complete Season 10 – Strength and Flexibility

I only recently found out about Classical Stretch. Why? I don’t have a television set, that’s why. But a very nice woman I know only from the internet had sent me a copy of Oxford American’s Southern Music Issue internationally, and she refused payment, and so I managed to convince her to accept an Amazon gift certificate, and then she announced on Facebook that she had bought a Classical Stretch DVD with it. So of course, I was curious.

Miranda Esmonde-White doing Classical Stretch barre work

Essentrics kindly hooked me up with a review copy of Classical Stretch Season 10 – Strength and Flexibility. This was in the spring. I really had no idea what to expect, even after reading descriptions on the website and various reviews online. It seems that the Essentrics DVDs are for younger, fitter people, while Classical Stretch runs on PBS and is more geared towards stopping aging. Would I be bored?

The answer was a resounding no! In fact, I’ve fallen a bit in love with Classical Stretch.

Here are the basics, for those of you who, like me, don’t go to PBS for your workouts. Classical Stretch workouts are led by Miranda Esmonde-White, a Canadian dancer and fitness trainer. Each one is about 22 minutes long, filmed in a gorgeous place, and consists mainly of flowing movements that get your muscles warm and flexible, use and extend your range of motion, and encourage you to stretch in all sorts of directions.

The movements are inspired by ballet, tai chi, and physiotherapy. They are surprisingly intense and dynamic. What you don’t have are twenty repetitions of the same exercise. Instead, you’ll be reaching down low with strong, sweeping stretches, then to the side, then up. You’ll spiral. You’ll be doing something with your arms while your legs are in a plie. Some movements are large, but then Esmonde-White will introduce a tiny variation that gives you a different feeling or a deeper stretch.

Imagine yoga, but with a thousand more directions.

Or modern dance, with less moving around.

Or pilates, with more stretching.

Miranda Esmonde--White doing Classical Stretch standing moves

In short, the movements are intensely pleasurable, and I tend to break a sweat. Which is funny, because Esmonde-White talks encouragingly about how you can maintain or improve flexibility even in old age, and the entire time I am thinking: “Who are these eighty-year-olds doing Classical Stretch? I’m thirty-four and dripping wet here!”

The other thing to know is that there is a lot of variety. Classical Stretch Season 10 – Strength and Flexibility contains four DVDs, with a total of thirty episodes. (About eleven hours of programming.) I haven’t done every last one of them, but over the last months I’ve tried to work with a range. Some are barre-oriented, either with a chair or simply balancing. Some are all on the floor, with combinations of strength training and stretching. And my favourite, because they’re the newest to me, are the standing segments with all their flowing, challenging moves. All in all, there are many, many exercises I found myself doing for the first time with these DVDs.

Also cool is that the back of the DVD case tells you the goal of each program. You can choose to work on “Back Pain Relief” or “Full Body Strengthening” or “Waist Slenderizing.” (A full list of the contents is here.) My one beef here is that it’s not always clear which episodes are on which DVD. That aside, it’s great to have a workout dedicated to whatever it is you need on a particular day. And all of the episodes I’ve tried have some kind of full body stretch, so all the particularly tight bits get loosened up.

But what I love the most about Classical Stretch Season 10 – Strength and Flexibility is that this is a workout designed to get me doing it. I can almost always fit in twenty minutes. If I’m about to go to bed, but really want to get in some movement, or have some back pain, I pick one episode, do it, and go to bed happy. If I wake up in the morning, and I want to exercise just a bit, I do an episode.

Miranda Esmonde-White does standing work Classical Stretch

The other thing that makes it really easy to do these workouts, and that I wish more DVD producers would keep in mind, is this: you need so little space. You need no special equipment. Not even a mat. You can use a chair for a barre, and books instead of yoga blocks. I’ve found this set of DVDs to be the perfect travel companion, because I can do them anywhere, and because they help me stretch everything out after sitting in planes or trains for a long time.

While Classical Stretch is aimed at anyone, really, I think it’s particularly great for dancers. I’ve been working, haltingly, on establishing my own dance practice, and I find that I can use an episode as the day’s warmup. The workouts get me properly warm, more flexible, and ready to move into a variety of directions. Then I can either do a dance DVD or just practice on my own.

I have just one criticism of some of the programs. While I find most of the workouts highly accessible and very careful about bodily safety (knee alignment is cued, etc), I think some of the barre work is really hard to follow along in proper form. In fact, in one case even the instructor has trouble keeping the hips even while she shoots her leg up. A modification should have been offered for this.

Miranda Esmonde-White does Classical Stretch barre work

That said, Classical Stretch Season 10 – Strength and Flexibility has become, in the past months, my go-to for moving, stretching, getting warm, getting relaxed, toning my waist, soothing my back, and working my quads. I’m still not quite sure I understand what it is, but for me, it hits the spot.

You can find out more about Classical Stretch and Essentrics at www.essentrics.com.

Desk exercises — a playlist

So, I have a problem. The problem that arises from a good situation: I have been writing a lot lately. Why should that be bad? Well, it’s doing a number on my body. My shoulders are stiff, my lower back hurts, and I seem to have developed a nasty little case of tendinitis in my wrist.

So, all the writing is making it difficult for me to keep writing. And this comes in a period of my life when I have not only many deadlines, but also a ton of inspiration and ideas.

I need to see a doctor, obviously.And my ballet classes are back in session, which already helps a lot. But until then, I’m taking frequent breaks. So I put together A little playlist on YouTube of workouts around five minutes, most of which you can do while sitting in a desk chair. Please check it out, and let me know if you have any favorite videos or exercises.

The whole list: Desk Exercises playlist.

Or watch it here:

Yogalates with Ines Vogel

Quickie Review of Yogalates with Ines Vogel

If you had told me a year or two ago that my son would one day sleep till 7:30 am, I would have called you a liar. If you had told me that I would get up at 5:45 am so that I could exercise before the kiddo woke up, I would’ve called you a maniac. But that’s exactly what I did today.

The previous day I had picked up Ines Vogel‘s Yogalates DVD at my local Rossmann drugstore. (Word to the wise: Germany has the best drug stores.) And I was determined to try it.

Yogalates exercises with Ines Vogel

Yogalates sounds like something that shouldn’t exist. On the other hand, it’s also sort of great. Vogel notes at the beginning that yoga and pilates have different forms of breathing, and she instructs you to do the pilates-style breathing, into the chest. Otherwise, the hour-long workout is a neat flow of yoga and pilates moves. And in fact, they work great together. She cues almost every breath, and combines flowing movements, static stretches, and strength work from both disciplines. Vogel also gives lots of tips on correct form, but frankly, I know enough to know that more are necessary. (There were lots of situations where a live instructor would have told me to square my hips, for example.) The DVD itself is shot in a bright studio. Ines Vogel demonstrates the moves along with an assistant, and one or the other will do an easier variation of a move — but the variations are not guided in words.

Yogalates exercises with Ines Vogel

What I love about this is that I have to divide my precious exercise time among too many things: bellydance, ballet, yoga, pilates, and even a bit of cardio. If I can feel like I touched two bases with one practice, then I’m a bit happier. And the workout was good, letting me sweat a little, but also giving me ample time to stretch various body parts. Lower back pain that was there yesterday is no longer there today, for example. Upper back pain is still there, but way better. But although there are no crazy difficult moves, you do need to be beyond beginner to know how to do them right, or at least be working towards correct form.

The DVD is in German. But for those of you who understand German, or are happy to follow along with the screen, it’s a great (and quite cheap) buy!

Yogalates exercises with Ines Vogel

Kristina Nekya does splits

Review of Kristina Nekyia’s Get Bent: Circus Style Flexibility Training

Alright, admit it: I cannot be the only person to look around during the cool-down part of dance class and compare my flexibility to the dancers near me. It’s not that I’m much competition to anyone, not counting a few joints in my arms that allow me to perform East European circus tricks to the horror of all around. And it’s not that I’m planning on doing the splits in the foreseeable future. But there are so many times I come up against the limits of my flexibility — a back bend here, a plie there — and I wish those limits were a little further.

This is why when I heard about Get Bent – Circus Style Flexibility Training with Kristina Nekyia, I was dying to try it. I didn’t know if I could dream of splits, but I did want to know what tools were out there to help. I received a review copy from Kristina, and have worked with it a number of times over the last while.

Kristina Nekya does dancer stretches

The first thing to say is that this video is definitely not for people who have not moved around in a while, or for the overambitious who cannot pay attention to what their body is telling them. Get Bent is an intense program, you go into stretches for relatively long periods of time, and it plays on the edge of discomfort. As Kristina explains in the introduction, you need to differentiate between good and bad pain, and she describes how to recognize which is which.

To be perfectly honest, the first time I worked with the video I wasn’t sure if I had pushed myself too far, and was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to move the next day. In fact, I felt fantastic the next day, all kinds of aches and pains were gone. This has been true every time I have done the video — for me, it works like a really good yin yoga session. But I would still say that you need to be smart, careful, and aware using this DVD, as you will not have a live coach to watch over you.

The first section is a Warmup, which is more of a joint-loosening warmup than one to get your heart up very much. You systematically move all the joints of your body, from the wrists to the ankles, and start to practice some squats and leg raises. I was very glad to have this, as I would not have wanted to stretch cold, but I imagine that doing the video after a long workout would be even better.

Part 2 is Splits Preparation, which consists of forward and sideways lunges held for a good long time, followed by a series of yoga postures designed to relax the hamstrings. While some of the moves are yoga, the instruction isn’t. Kristina carefully guides you through dynamic stretches, using gentle movement and tensing and releasing of muscles to attain a deeper stretch. Everything is done equally on both sides. I find the little “tricks”, especially with tensing and releasing muscles, incredibly helpful.

Kristina Nekya does yoga

Part 3 is Splits. This was the hardest section for me, mainly because I can’t do anywhere near the splits. As much as it was difficult for me to levitate in the position that was as close as I could get, I did feel that I was stretching in a way that was beyond the lunges in Part 2. However, the middle splits are something one can practice even without too much of a range of motion. In this section, as through the video, Kristina gives you quiet encouragement and tips on saying nice things to your body. This sounds sort of funny at first, until you realize it works. So yes, I’ll admit it, I now say nice things to my body in my head when I’m stretching! The Splits section would be particularly valuable to people who can already do the splits, since there are also exercises for going beyond a 180-degree stretch.

Next comes the Shoulder Warm Up & Stretch. This was one of my favourite sections of the DVD, and perhaps the most generally useful. I sit at my computer a lot, for both work and fun, and it is not good for my shoulders and upper back. Kristina’s exercises really loosen the shoulders, and she also has some gorgeous stretches for the front of the shoulders and the chest. Again, this section would be worth doing as a break at the office, but would also be worth incorporating into a dance warmup. Really delicious.

The Backbends section will probably be most interesting to bellydancers. Kristina uses a mirror/wall to bend towards, but she also guides you to move from the upper back only, keeping the lower abdominals still. Again, this is one of those exercises I worry about when I’m doing, because I don’t want to hurt my lower back. But I’ve always been careful only to go as far as I could while still following Kristina’s instructions, and I’ve felt fine.

Finally, you get a short but satisfying yoga-based Cool Down. You have earned it. Heck, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably shaking at this point.

Throughout the DVD, Kristina is encouraging and funny. While she is clearly very fit, she is also curvy, and frankly, it made me very happy to see someone on the screen with a body similar to mine, but doing really cool things with it.

So the big question: does it work? I haven’t done the video the recommended three times a week, nowhere near it, so I can’t speak to the effects it would have if you really did it religiously. That said, when I did work with it, I noticed a difference in my classes afterwards. My muscles were remarkably looser, I felt more flexible, and I felt like I knew how to stretch better. I have to imagine that doing the video regularly would increase my flexibility even more.

You will like Get Bent – Circus Style Flexibility Training with Kristina Nekyia if you have some experience with stretching or yoga, are aware of your body and can respect its limits, and are craving really deep, long stretches. If you can already do splits, you will probably use the video as a maintenance and extension program. All of the program is useful for dancers, but there are parts, like the upper body and shoulder stretches, that bellydancers will particularly enjoy. I also think you’ll like it if you want the feeling of having done a great yoga session — you know, that sensation of everything in your body having been pulled apart and put back together loosely — without all the yogic tralala.

On the other hand, you will probably be frustrated with the DVD if you are very inflexible; in that case, you might be better off with a gentle yoga program. You also should not expect contortionist circus tricks, despite the title. These are very straightforward, well-known stretches, guided well, and with some extra techniques thrown in to make them feel better. But don’t expect to be pretzeling your legs around your neck or anything.

Kristina’s website is The Nekyia. You can get Get Bent – Circus Style Flexibility Training with Kristina Nekyia at Amazon by clicking the photo below.

Some tried and tested free yoga for your back and legs – David Procyshyn’s Deep Release

I knew I’d have hard decisions to make as a mother: breast or bottle, organic cotton nappies or disposable, constant ravaging guilt or just occasional intense bouts of it…. no, seriously, most of these were pretty easy. But what has been hard is this decision:

It’s late.

I’m tired.

But I also lugged around a toddler today and my back hurts.

If I go to bed now, I’ll get much-needed sleep.

But then my back might be worse tomorrow.

Yoga/stretching or sleep?

Usually I choose sleep, it’s just the most basic necessity, possibly even a little more important than air. But yesterday I chose yoga, and man was I glad I did. What I found was a one-hour program for the back and hamstrings that I thought would be just the thing for my tense lower back:

So, the first thing I loved about this is that it’s all sitting. I wanted something relaxing, and I was too tired to get up. I really just wanted to sit and stretch. The other thing is that other calming yoga programs I do often have pretty expected and easy asanas, so I tend to think that I could have just done the practice on my own. This program had a number of positions I’m not so familiar with, and with some measure of challenge. It gave me really deep, delicious stretches, exactly where I needed it to stop the pain in its tracks. Twists, forward bends, more twists, all done slowly and gently and with breath.

The other thing I really liked? David Procyshyn gives an instruction a few moments before doing it on screen, not at the same time. So you have time to process what he says, prepare to do it, and then do it along with him. It took me a bit to figure this out, but once I did I loved it — I wish all yoga instructors would do this. I never had the feeling I had to catch up to what was going on on screen.

Anyway, it’s free, go do it if you have back pain like me — it’s just an hour of your life. I for one loved it so much I will be checking out David’s other online videos.

Review of Azhia’s The Dancer’s Companion: Preparation, Drills & Cool Down

I’m about to do something awful.

I’m about to review a DVD you can’t get.

Well, I’m sure you could try. Someone on Bhuz probably has it. But when I got the video Azhia was selling off her last batch. In fact, as far as I can tell, she’s retired as a dancer and focusing on her career as a makeup artist.

Which is a shame, because not only is she a beautiful dancer with great technique and a modern feel, but she has some cool ideas about how to put together a bellydance practice DVD.

Azhia doing lower abdominal work as preparation for bellydance

The Dancer’s Companion: Preparation, Drills & Cool Down is a modular program composed of a brief introduction, a 16-minute “Preparation” for dance, 24 minutes of drills, a “Beyond Basics” section that suggests ways to vary the drills, and a brief cool down. Ah yes, and two studio performances.

The Preparation is not so much a warmup as a series of yoga-inspired stretches and targeted muscle work. It won’t get your heart up, but it includes some good things, like grand plies to work on thigh strength and exercises to strengthen the foot muscles. This section could be used on its own to prepare for doing another program — in fact, this was the main reason I bought this DVD.

The drills begin with arm positions layered on an ongoing shimmy. These are a little like some of the exercises I loved in Aziza’s arms DVD. Then we get hip eights, vertical and horizontal, performed in both directions and varied. Azhia has you do them both with heels on the ground and bent knees, and with heels up and straighter legs. There are undulations, up and down, and the three basic hip circles — large, small, and omi/afro. The neatest part of the drill section is right at the end, when Azhia has you work on a combo of all of the movements practiced, at different speeds, with different foot work, in order to get the transitions smooth. This is most definitely the kind of thing I need.

Azhia demonstrates how to change bellydance movements with level change

There are a few things that are difficult about following. Not every movement is cued, though most are, and she doesn’t mirror. So eventually I found it easier just to mirror what she was doing rather than listening to her say “left” and “right.”

That said, there are really some neat things about this video. It’s designed for you to grow into. For example, at various points she gives you tips on how to change up the movements. You might take a different arm position, or work at a different speed. The little “Beyond Basics” section is a mini-tutorial on more things you can do to get even more nuanced movements, like adding a twist to the lower body while doing vertical figure eights, or doing an omi with one heel up, or adding a level change. The result, as it looks on Azhia, is delicious, and it’s worth working towards.

Finally, the neatest thing is that the entire instructional part of the video is filmed in three angles: front, side, and back. You can either choose an angle at the beginning of a section, or flip between angles if you have magical DVD remote control powers. I do not, alas, have the latter, but I did find that watching the DVD on my Mac’s DVD Player, I could go to the Features menu and choose “Angle” to pick my angle, and it would switch right in the middle of the video. This seems like it would be particularly good if you’re interested in seeing how those horizontal figure eights look from the side, or if you want to follow Azhia from behind as if she were a live teacher.

Azhia demonstrates the side view of a bellydance horizontal figure eight

This is explicitly not a beginner video — you need to know your basics. But Azhia still gives you a lot of tools to check up on how you’re doing even when you don’t have a teacher in the room, as well as ways to grow beyond the basics of what she demonstrates in the video.