Kayla Johnston-Mitchell '17: 
5 Steps to Do the Splits

Kayla Johnston-Mitchell is the 2017-2019 Shansi Fellow at J.F. Oberlin. This is her second year narrative.

I have always wanted to do the splits! It seemed like a useless skill to have before coming to Japan, but after taking pole dance classes for over a year now I desperately want to become more flexible. My studio just recently started offering contortion classes from the beautiful (and mildly terrifying) Eri-sensei, and so I began my journey to the splits. I’m still about two inches from achieving a left/right leg split, and a good eight inches from achieving front splits, but hopefully if I follow my own advice I can achieve the splits before I leave Japan in the summer. Here are some tips for the splits, and generally for life.


Things you need to do the splits:


  1. Motivation


You cannot start something you have no intention to finish. Well, you can, but that’s just wasted effort. I’m incredibly conservative with my efforts, and when I invest the time and effort into something I see it to the end. Flexibility is one of those things you have to invest a lot of effort into, but also doesn’t take that much time. Ten to fifteen minutes a day isn’t much, but after a few months you’ll be splittin’ all over the place. Living alone for the past year and a half has taught me a lot about motivation. Kayla, you’re living room will still be dirty if you don’t get up to clean it. Kayla, you’ve wanted to do that thing for weeks now. Kayla, did you stretch today? As Shia LaBeouf once said, “Just Do It.” Convincing myself into doing tasks has always been, well, a task, but if I don’t start, how will I finish?


   2. Perseverance


I started contortion on February 2, 2019. I remember the exact day because I’ve never been so sore after back to back contortion and pole classes. After a few weeks of stretching every day I saw no progress, and according to my contortion teacher I have stubborn hips, which makes it even harder to do the splits. So I should give up on the splits. No! A few weeks is nothing in the grand scheme of my split journey. Contortion and flexibility hurt, but stopping at any point can push you back to zero, invalidating all the effort put in until that point. My stubborn hips just mean I have to work even harder to reach my goal. Which leads me to tip #3.

   3. A friend to push you till you cry


Now. I don’t mean a friend who keeps pushing after you start crying. That’s what safe words are for. What you need is a friend who believes in you and has knowledge of the topic at hand. My teacher Eri makes me cry at least once a week, but she’s never pushed too far. A yank here, a push there, and a stern look and my body usually folds like a wet noodle. My progress so far is mostly thanks to Eri and the 1000° room we stretch in. She knows when to push harder, when to give you practice time and when to let you curl up and cry. Sometimes change is a little, or a lot, painful and a friend who can push, yank and glare you into completing your goal is a good friend in my book. Just breathe out into the stretch, drop your shoulders and relax.


   4. A friend to cry with you


This is the moral support friend. My moral support friend is Audrey, the lovely Canadian girl in my contortion class. She unfortunately doesn’t speak any Japanese, so I’m her translator/stretch partner. Without me, she probably wouldn’t be able to take the class, and without her I’d be a lonely lonesome loner. She’s much more flexible than I am, which means she gets put into even more wild and crazy poses. I’m still in the corner trying to not bend my knees in a stretch, while Audrey is bend over backwards on her elbows trying to touch her toes. But in the end, we both limp home sore and hungry. Without Audrey, class wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Becoming more flexible is incredibly painful sometimes, but when you’re giggling it hurts a bit less.


   5. A good playlist


I love music. So much so that I have a playlist for almost everything: hair washing, studying, slow jams, skincare, and now contortion. Most of our poses for contortion need to be held for three minutes, which is an eternity if you’re sitting silently, and an eternity of holding a half split is torture. Thankfully most songs are about three minutes and change, and when I’m listening to a bop I can hold a half split for as long as Lizzo needs me to. “I been sweating, doing calisthenics.” Music helps me get into my ideal mindset. I’m usually hyper aware of what goes on around me at any given time and music helps me block it out. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, Eri has figured out my love for music and has adapted her playlist accordingly. I hardly notice the stretch when I’m singing, and according to Eri, “if you have enough energy to talk/sing you can deepen your stretch.”


Flexibility is difficult to achieve, and even more difficult to maintain. You have to keep pushing yourself further to maintain the progress you worked hard to achieve. It will hurt, you will be uncomfortable, and you might cry, but if the goal is worth it to you, what’s a few tears along the way? Pout, scream, cry all you want, but when your breaking point comes, take a deep breath and lean into the stretch.

Eri helping me push my toes to the floor.

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