The word “alignment” is showing up in yoga workshops and classes across Alberta. It’s become fashionable to be concerned about the functionality of the bone, muscles, joints and connective tissue in a person’s yoga practice. Online anatomy classes are popping up everywhere, and it’s not uncommon to hear anatomical language spewed out in all types of yoga classes all over the province. But where did this all originate? Who made alignment desirable? And why are yoga students so interested?
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, one of them being Critical Alignment Yoga & Therapy, founded by Gert van Leeuwen from Amsterdam. Gert has been travelling to Calgary for over 10 years 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. Some of the first teachers trained in Calgary have become highly sought after by longtime yoga practitioners, athletes, and persons with debilitating back pain for whom conventional treatments didn’t have a lasting effect.
The technique of Critical Alignment Therapy is unique, in that 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.
Over the years many yoga teachers have graduated from Critical Alignment training and created classes all over the province and beyond, with names like Yoga for Backs, Bodhi Alignment and simply Critical Alignment Therapy. Students have filled the studios featuring those teachers, knowing that they will experience classes focused on alignment, relaxation, conscious breathing and intelligent movement—classes in which they can create sustainable and healthy movement patterns that will affect their overall happiness. Teachers are overjoyed to have heard feedback like: “After being in a car accident six years ago, I became increasingly inactive because of neck and back pain. Chiropractic and massage therapy were my only relief, but the cost of comfort wasn't sustainable. After a few months of Critical Alignment Therapy I feel a noticeable difference, and I'm confident that the knowledge and body awareness I have developed will enable me to return to a healthy and active lifestyle.” Also heard from a Critical Alignment student that had been practicing yoga for many years, “I've gained a deeper awareness of habitual patterns which were counterintuitive to my physical practice of yoga. I gave myself time and permission to slow down and explore. I learned techniques to release shoulder tension which remained residual despite years of yoga practice. I have discovered what it means to move from the centre line with stability and ease, and the impact on my daily life is beyond measure.”
Students use this newfound body intelligence to help them realize the ancient instructions for practicing yoga asanas as taught by Patanjali: Relax the effort and meditate on the endless. 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......During performance of the asanas, Critical Alignment emphasizes the development of total attention...(making) it possible to view stiffness in the movement chains objectively for what it really is: tension from psychological and social pressures that lead(s) to stagnation of energy and limit(s) free movement...it allows us to release tension and return to...free and open feeling effortless, with no trace of muscular tension state of moving....We can experience a total awareness during asana practice that gives us an acute feeling of being in the here and now.”
Because Critical Alignment training in North America is highly concentrated in Alberta, the philosophy of that practice has trickled into many yoga teacher’s classes in the province. As a yoga teacher and a graduate of van Leeuwen’s certification training, I am happy to be able to incorporate elements of Critical Alignment into my classes. My semiprivate classes in Calgary at Jennifer Strukoff Yoga are full with waiting lists, and the fall retreats offered by my company, Calgary Yoga Therapy, sell out every year. 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.