Yoga – Heal or Harm?

“Tuck your tailbone”, “Pull your belly in”, “Lift your chest”, “Pull your shoulders back”. All Sound familiar?

For as long as I am in Yoga practice, I understood the above to be the alignment principles that are commonly heard in every Yoga classes. Such instructions immediately put people in harden and tensed up body condition. I hold such “tuck and pull” principles to be the “must be right” alignment pri‧nciple before I came upon a body education and movement technique developed by Gert Van Leeuwen, called Critical Alignment Therapy (CAT) and Critical Alignment Yoga (CAY).

The main emphasis of CAT/CAY is on relearning how to align our bones and activate our deepest core of support. When I first met Gert, I was a Yoga teacher with a regular practice and I will look for the feel good feeling each time I practice. In spite of the fact that for a number of years I had taught students how to relax in yoga postures, I held on to certain amount of tension in my body myself. I was generally unaware at the fact that my practice does accumulate muscles tension and cause strain to my body yet changes nothing in term of my skeleton structure. I started with a little hunch back habit and I was still seen as a hunch-back person after years of practice. To be practical, it’s a wasting time activity, not only mine but my students’ too.

I also did not realise that I was addicted to the feel good feeling out of the stretching and working out in a full blown yoga Asana practice. After all, what is wrong with doing what other people is doing, practicing Asanas to stay fit. Stretching and sweating body tension away makes me and my students feels so good and energized that it keeps me happy when students were addicted to such a tension relief routine that they kept coming to my class for more of that stretching and sweating affairs on daily basis in order to keep the feel good feeling.

Today, a increasingly growing numbers of yoga teachers are teaching Yoga to enhance that “feel good” feeling that I was talking about and what Gert refers to as “Yoga practice based on your body preference and it changes nothing, even you practice for years”. Meaning, like me, I carried my rounded back position to my headstand or I am likely to hide it or compensate it by raising my ribs up in backbends, thus creating tension by compressing my lower back. And when I look in the yoga instruction books which are popular all over the world I see the same. It made me realize that modern yoga doesn’t originate from a “true” tradition but is developed through the opinon of a few people in the past century. They had their preferences and we are all copying them.

Gert’s technique is a rare field of study or a body of research that has grown out of the principle of the body original natural alignment. We have probably forgotten how to live our bodies in a natural aligned way, the way children are. Children are naturally able to teach themselves how to turn over, push the head up, sit up, crawl, stand and walk by applying the most basic principle of body’s instinctive engineering. While maintaining balance, children never hold muscular tension in their bodies because their spine is in balance.

Although first inspired by the teaching of B.K.S Iyengar with whom he discovered the basic category of Yoga Asanas, the techniques of alignment in CAY are aiming at totally different purpose. Gert’s techniques provide a real valuable insight into how our natural body is designed to stay aligned for comfort and for ease of movement in our daily activities and not to perform superhuman Yoga postures even though that is also possible after the body structures are originally aligned.

CAT and CAY, different from all other Yoga techniques that I know, solidly based on the natural human alignments whereas all over the world as far as I know the actual emphasis on how to align our skeleton is overlooked and misunderstood and that is why for many people practicing Yoga can lead to pain and injury. This is almost always the case when people are having misaligned bones when doing postures that are based on techniques attaching rather more importance in achieving the end pose.

Some years ago, I had a conversation with a senior yoga teacher who decided to go for Atlas Profilax treatment, a treatment that involve a doctor using a thrusting instrument on the upper neck area in an attempt to move a person’s atlas into its original anatomical position. The treatment often guarantees that atlas will stay in its correct position for as long as the person’s life. So, it’s a short cut solution to pain free living.

He had suffered from years of tremendous pain in the shoulders and he reluctantly revealed that it was undoubtedly due to “overstretched during Yoga practice”. He has been looking for a solution to his injury for a long time but could not find a healing tool in Yoga practice. Yoga, to him Yoga Asana is not meant to cure, it can only harm.
His true story is just one of the many cases of injury occurred out of the practice of yoga Asana which supposedly seems to portray an image of health and not harm. He is not the only one who has lost faith in Yoga as a means to heal.

Yoga has become tremendously popular in the recent years due to large publicity and trend because of the benefits that many yoga teachers claim to offer. Many have created schools of thought in the name of yoga but the ground of which the styles of such Yoga are created have actually got nothing to do with Yoga as a way of health. The state of Yoga industry today is in full blown crisis because many people practice Yoga with “disconnected” bodies, aiming to achieve advance superhuman end positions. Therefore, I often hear people said, “Whoever can do handstand and perform beautiful Asana is the king and queen of Yoga” and in most cases they too become the “king and queen of yoga injury”.

The good news now is that there is a perfect way to practice Yoga in a way that conforms to the most natural human skeleton design. By unlearning the body preferences and relearning new habits that allow flexibility and strength to manifest itself by creating condition that encourage relaxation. To quote Gert’s words “Do not create strength, based on willpower. You receive strength through the release and transformation of the preferences of your spine, especially the upper back, which can be called the source of all our tensions. Only when the shape of the spine is structurally changed, relaxation exists and strength comes in a natural effortless way”. This can occur when underlying structural support is in order place and Asanas practice can start from there. From this, a more authentic and lasting strength and flexibility result from such a practice. It becomes effortless and feels absolutely natural.

And from there, people experience a more efficient moving pattern and reinforce it in the body when performing daily activities such as standing, walking, sitting etc. This is totally different from practicing with the body’s current habitual preferences which only temporarily provide ease through repetitive stretching at the surface over and over again.

CAT/CAY aimed at achieving natural strength and flexibility and is enhanced with a strong internal core that stabilises an elongated spine. Gert once joked “I am a spine man”. He indeed is because CAT/CAY is about your spine. Remarkably, there is no research or study that I am aware of in the field of yoga Asanas practice examining aspect of Yoga that is based on such specific detailed, thorough and profound of natural skeleton alignment of the spine. This shows a serious oversight in the world’s most leading schools of thought on Yoga today and unavoidably causing the whole list of issues of pain and injury among many yoga practitioners.

Nobody understands that most common cause of tension that leads to pain in the body is a practice based on postural misalignment. It turns out that our widely accepted beliefs about what constitutes a good yoga practice is based on wrong information that lead to many of the pain yoga practitioners experienced today. So, it is not surprising that my course mates from Japan said that “CAT is a Yoga revolution”.

In short, our belief about good Yoga practice is being able to travel from point B to C.
B : Where we are now, with our current tensed preferences
C : the end posture, headstand, handstand etc

No one is at the fault for this. This mistaken view is so widespread in our yoga society and our belief is so thoroughly entrenched in our bodies that it pervades almost every leading school of Yoga practice nowadays. Such is the way of Yoga culture. That is why Yoga excludes many people who are not interested to travel the journey from B to C especially when the relationship between C and health have only little or no correlation at all. Not everyone is interested in performing final yoga postures. Many just want to practice for health purposes but most Yoga schools are not trained that way.

May be people would come to Yoga with a promise to have “a body you have always wanted” but soon found out that through building muscular strength and the six pack abs, coming along is another set of pain and injury.
CAT /CAY recognised that for practical people, Yoga is practiced for health. CAT/CAY is about the journey to A.

A : Original Human Structure
B :Where we are now, with our current habitual preferences
C : normal yoga end postures

Gert said, “my theory is a practice of health” and what postures you do is not important. It makes perfect sense that alignment for the whole spine and a solid deep core are necessary ingredients for being truly healthy. That’s really “True Fitness” for everyone.

To journey from B to A, Gert has so intelligently designed what he called “exercises” or “connections” (he did not mention “Yoga”) by using specific props designed for that purpose. Having completed training with Gert, I had been privileged to work with a few people who have really chronic pains who have tried a long list of other solutions in the world before (some has even travelled to China, US…). Then by using specific CAT skills and techniques and the required props many of them experience recovery from long standing problems.

In Gert’s word, “teaching people to do a pose is easy but teaching them to break their habits while doing the postures is the most difficult part”. That’s what CAY aims to achieve in Yoga practice. That is the journey from A to C. It learns you, on an anatomical level, how to reconnect your body which is pulled apart by strain. It also learns you to reconnect yourself to your emotional self which is pulled apart by the demands of the societies we life in. Universal feelings which need a free body structure to experience them from inside. Feelings like rest, relief, lightness and ease which are the opposite of willpower and ambition. Words which can only be used to direct your movement once the body is free of its tensed preferences. Like Gert said “true meditation for me must be related to body activity, otherwise – when our preferences keep dominating our actions – it is not possible to integrate the experience in our daily life activities.

People are living in different cultures, areas, religions but not physical. People speak different languages and have different traditions. We eat different food and have different religious beliefs and practices but in body, we are designed the same way, we have the same spine, same bones regardless of where we are, we inherently meant to sit, walk, stand, bend and move in a way that match the human design.

Critical Alignment is about unlearning what make us lost and relearning how to be a natural human for as long as we live and then truly feel connected as a whole human.

CAT explain