critical alignment yoga

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.

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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. 

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 more in-depth into the posture.

The innovative range of tools that Van Leeuwen has created empowered this process help to penetrate complex body structures where deep residual tensions are situated. These tools are a rubber ‘strip’, a backbender (wooden arch), a headstand bench, a rectangular rubber ‘block’ and a felt mat. Around the world, Van Leeuwen’s tools are with great enthusiasm received by students whom they expressed an essential and appreciated viewpoint: it is genuinely possible to restore movement and space, even to the difficult 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. A reflective consciousness and relaxation achieve this positive connection to the more active asana practice. Van Leeuwen believes that willpower is associated with tense behaviour and that movement initiated by willpower tenses the very muscles that we want to learn to relax. By relaxing these muscles and instead of activating the deeper postural muscles, students can release tension and build strength at the same time, literally learning to relax through movement, and bringing a meditative quality to the asana practice.

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