What is Critical Alignment Yoga and Therapy

An innovative approach to yoga, based in 40 years of research and didactic practice Gert van Leeuwen, School of Critical Alignment Amsterdam, The Netherlands

A good life starts in the spine

The primary goal of Critical Alignment Yoga (CAY) is to mobilize and align the spinal column, restoring crucial mobility, balance and spaciousness to the rest of the body while freeing emotions and introducing a lighter, more meditative consciousness into daily life.

Over time, we all become increasingly crooked, as residual tensions slowly push and pull heads, necks and backs out of alignment. We take these tensions with us to work, and they are there when we socialize, sleep, or exercise. Our back and neck accompany us everywhere and their unconscious patterns of holding ensure that we continuously operate in a state of tension, regardless of what we may be doing. Even when we are doing yoga.

Through Critical Alignment Yoga, students discover how stiffness and a lack of stability in the back influence body and behaviour, in yoga and daily life. The precision with which CAY isolates and identifies the physical source of problems, in turn, brings students to face to face with the ambitions and negative emotional patterns underlying their pain and tension.

When the spinal vertebrae are in alignment, the deeper muscle layers (postural muscles) are activated. These small muscles connect vertebrae and keep them mobile. They are the strongest muscles in our body and they never get tired. On the contrary, they supply the body with energy. Without this alignment, we use the superficial muscles (movement muscles), which are designed for short bursts of activity, to hold our posture. Unlike postural muscles, movement muscles fatigue, and the constant load causes them to become strained, limiting our freedom of movement. 

There are two strength systems in our bodies. One becomes active through relaxation, the other through will power. When they interact during the practice of yoga, sport and daily movements, we prevent injury and, in therapy classes, the healing process begins. There is one 'but': it only works well when we organise our movements in the right order. Our postural strength must be activated before we add our will power strength to it. Then we are safe. 

Stress is the primary cause of the gradual build-up of tension. Stress begins as a psychological phenomenon. The moment the brain detects stressful circumstances (regardless of whether they are true or false), survival strategies take over. We fight, flee or freeze. These strategies may also appear during yoga practise because we feel pain when we stretch stiff muscles or release tension in our spine and joints. Many people fight with their shoulders, lower back or hamstrings during a yoga class. Despite the effort and good intentions, this stressful behaviour blocks the process towards the deep release of tension. 

 Stress, and, therefore, our survival strategies, increases muscle tension and makes us physically numb. We dissociate more and more from our bodies. The resulting tension makes parts of our bodies become immobile. The absence of movement makes us lose the sensory connection with these parts of the body. 
 This tension and lack of connection have an enormous influence on our emotional lives. We become blocked from our internal feelings, our inner world. Connective feelings like space, rest, lightness, energy and strength can only be experienced in a sensitive body through breathing in our chest and belly. The tension in our spine interacts with the belly and chest and those sensitive areas become suppressed, as well.

In his book, Yoga: Critical Alignment in 2012. Gert van Leeuwen explains how the consequences of structural stress form a serious threat to our health.

  • On a physical level, stress causes a range of problems related to an increasingly rigid spinal column. Not only back problems, but also other seemingly unrelated parts of the body can end up with symptoms whose origin lies in the spine.
  • On an energetic level, important emotional centres (heart & abdomen) can become so blocked as to restrict our ability to experience relaxation or a sense of inner spaciousness. With the gradual loss of a warm and positive connection to the body, emotional lives become increasingly dominated by anxiety, stress and depression.

 Van Leeuwen has developed an innovative model of teaching, a new form of yoga therapy, and a range of technical tools to help restore strength and mobility to the spinal column, with far-reaching consequences.

 The CAY didactic model and therapeutic approach are comprehensive and thorough methods for achieving results in the complex mind-body problem of stress and its multiple layers of impact, starting with the lack of mobility and alignment in the spine. Van Leeuwen’s method features a structured, sequential approach to releasing stress and tension from the body’s more superficially located movement muscles while building strength and increasing mobility in the deeper postural muscles. Lessons are structured around a theme – for example a particular asana – and then carefully sequenced using the movement ‘chains’ or sequences that Van Leeuwen developed to bring the body steadily deeper into the posture.

This process is further enabled by the innovative range of tools that Van Leeuwen has created that help to penetrate complex body structures where deep residual tensions are situated. These include a rubber ‘strip’, a wooden arch, a headstand frame, a rectangular rubber ‘block’ and a felt mat. Around the world, Van Leeuwen’s tools are received with great enthusiasm by students for whom they make an essential and welcome point: it is truly possible to restore movement and space, even to the hard to reach spots!

 The result? Profound and sustained release in patterns of tension along with an unparalleled development of core strength.

Finally, the meditative approach of CAY aims to restore a positive connection between mind and body and to bring this into daily life. This is achieved by connecting a meditative consciousness and relaxation to the more active asana practice. Van Leeuwen believes that willpower is associated with tense behaviour and that movement initiated by willpower actually tenses the very muscles that we want to learn to relax. By relaxing these muscles and instead of activating the deeper postural muscles, students are able to release tension and build strength at the same time, literally learning to relax through movement, and bringing a meditative quality to the asana practice.

What is new about CAT-Y

 1. Based on tradition and science
 ▪ CAT/Y has been developed through intensive study of yogic traditions, movement science and modern psychology, and the method uses a novel combination of these disciplines.
 ▪ In his book of 400+ pages, Gert van Leeuwen provides the philosophical, psychological and scientific background of the method, along with comprehensive, illustrated descriptions of human movement patterns and the exercises and poses themselves.
 2. New insight into the body

▪ CAT/Y uses a system of 11 movement chains, based on connections between the bones. By following these sequences in the body, any asana can be constructed in alignment.
▪ The method is based on the notion that the upper back should be straight, rather than curved. The benefits of a straight upper back cascade to the neck, lower back and extremities.
▪ CAT/Y reconnects movement and relaxation through the distinction and differential use of the muscles used to hold our posture and the muscles used for movement.

3. New insight into stress- and trauma release 
▪ The root of all tension is in the way we behave in social interactions. Our negative actions and behaviours are directed by old fears, trauma and stress and from the suppression of needs. Suppressed and damaged feelings tighten the body and block the relationship between our bodies and our inner worlds, expressed through connective feelings that are produced by the body: space, rest, relief and so on. 
▪ Words cannot replace the experience of suppressed feelings. Therefore, whenever we want to make structural and emotional changes possible, we need to start from the body. 

 4. New insight into teaching
 ▪ CAT/Y uses a new, comprehensive, 'problem-oriented' teaching model.
 ▪ Effective teaching methods create a strong link between active yoga and meditation and support integrating practice with daily life.
 ▪ The method uses a specific style of language based on relaxation in action.
 ▪ Classes are built on a systematic and structural approach, in which each element of a lesson forms a coherent part of a larger plan.
 5. New tools
 Unique and ingenious tools enable mobilisation of inaccessible parts of the body, for example, by releasing tight upper and lower back muscles.
 6. New therapy
 CAT/Y is a logical extension of yoga, in which students make a radical decision about their practices and their lives. This transformation is based on the fact that it is not the teacher or the method that is responsible for the process of healing. Clients themselves are the only ones who can go through their personal, deeper layers of tension that form barriers to relaxation and healing. 



* I am very grateful to Gert van Leeuwen for his teaching and facilitating the text in this page.  


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