Where did Critical Alignment originate and how does it work?
The concept of right alignment has long been an important part of asana practice, but the word “alignment” has been showing up more and more in yoga workshops and classes across Alberta in the last few years. It’s become fashionable to be specifically concerned about the functionality of the bone, muscles, joints and connective tissue in a person’s yoga practice.
B.K.S. Iyengar uniquely approached the practice of yoga asana with great attention to alignment and long holds that would affect all the layers of the body. Many disciplines have branched out from his initial teachings, including Critical Alignment Yoga & Therapy, founded by Gert van Leeuwen from Amsterdam. Gert, originally learning from an early student of B.K.S. Iyengar, has been teaching for over 35 years. He travels internationally to train teachers the importance of alignment, how to identify repetitive movement patterns in students that could lead to pain and injury, and how to teach precise exercises to connect critical points in the body.
In Critical Alignment Therapy, the exercises are approached with relaxation instead of effort. Using specialized props, the practitioner’s spine is placed in a more natural alignment, and then the student is encouraged by the teacher to relax fully and deeply. At times this can be the most difficult part as the physical “story” of the tissues and bones can be quite distracting and considered painful. First the superficial movement muscles, where most of the tension from repetitive strain or poor posture is stored, are relaxed by using the weight of the body on the props. With deep and conscious breath, we can work through the strong sensations and start to add small movements which help stimulate the deeper postural and stability muscles, closer to the bones. Students become more familiar with their bodies, finding exactly where the tension, stiffness and poor alignment is located. This awareness can then transfer into their daily lives and activities. For example, while performing exercises on a thickly rolled blanket or felt pad in the low back, the student may experience more discomfort on the right side of the body than the left. With deeper awareness, they may be able to connect that discomfort to a habitual postural pattern they hold (for example, while sitting at their desk at work), and naturally they will then discontinue the pattern resulting in less pain and a better alignment story every day.
Applying this new-found body intelligence to a traditional yoga practice will help practitioners realize the ancient instructions for yoga asanas as stated in the Yoga Sutras. Such as in verse 47 of Book 2: “asanas are perfected over time by relaxation of effort with meditation on the infinite.” As explained by Gert van Leeuwen in his book Yoga: Critical Alignment (2013), “Rather than forcing movement through willpower, relaxation is associated with terms like relaxed breathing, pressure, right balance and total awareness.”
Critical Alignment Therapy & Yoga is an attempt to bridge the study of alignment and biomechanics and the philosophy of yoga laid out in the Yoga Sutras. When Gert van Leeuwen brought these elements together, he created a system of movement exercises that would bring students to a greater awareness of how they tend to move in habitual, thoughtless patterns, and would help them break out of those patterns by learning to move more thoughtfully and purposefully. Students want smooth movement without pain, and Critical Alignment Yoga & Therapy is an excellent method for working toward that goal.
Jennifer has helped countless students move out of pain using the Critical Alignment method. She would like students to walk away from her classes with a smile on their faces and a new awareness in their bodies. She hopes that they feel a strong connection to the Light in their heart and have created stillness of the mind.