The author calls the whole of his ways by the name of Critical Alignment Yoga (CAY), and rightly does so. His ways do deserve a name to go by. Gert van Leeuwen gives grounding to a level of detail in the practice of yoga that puts his work one step further from the work of his (non-immediate, but almost) predecessor BKS Iyengar; the father of detail in contemporary asana practice. (Note that I’m a beginner; take my words in this review with a pinch of salt.)
A step back.
Eight months ago I started yoga with a CAY class in Amsterdam, taught by a student of Gert van Leeuwen. We would spend a good deal of the start of the class laying our mid or lower backs on a roll (something like a rolled up towel), or laying our upper spines on a (thick) rubber strip. This first part of the class is very important because it brings awareness to the parts of your body on which you are going to work along the rest of the class. Awareness is the first, if not most important, step in yoga; it is necessary, for example, in order to establish a feedback with our muscles so that they can tell us their state and so that we can tell them how to function.
This comes in connection with a recurring theme in CAY. Yoga is very technical (so involved that the practitioner needs to have a meditative approach in order to tackle it properly, as the author points out), so good will is not enough sometimes. There is a lot of room to better our technique, and subsequently our lives, by getting a deeper understanding of the process. Gert van Leeuwen seems to have had a similar outlook when roughly 30 years he decided to study yoga in India and try to reach to the essence of the practice. Why does it work, and what parts of it exactly work, and how?
It is common for long traditions, as yoga, to carry immense amounts of knowledge but the non-scientific outlook has brought to our current age mainly the methods and not the whys. The whys, though, are implicit in the method, and finding those is what the author set out to do. This amazing book is a result of this process and I cannot thank him enough for making this available to me. I have came a long way through chronic fatigue, chronic pain, psychological obstacles and more. Every new low would force me to new precious a-ha moments. This book is full of such insight and I drain his words trying to get us much of the wisdom of this man.
All in all, the book is a manual on the technique of yoga, starting with basics and finding its way into remarkably detailed descriptions of the asanas; for example, he has an 24-page description on the technique and some variations of the headstand (headstand is a very important exercise in CAY because of the focus that CAY puts on the health of the spine and surrounding structures). Having a lot of experience with students, he also tells us about the various perks of the asanas; for example, how one can miss the shoulder-arm connection and break the control of the Half-Handstand just by having their head hanging down, instead of extending their neck to bring awareness to the upper back.
(Let me note that the following paragraph is to a certain extent a personal assessment and not everything that follows I read in the book, which I’ve had only for a few weeks now.) As for the basics of CAY, it is there where he lays the essence of his understandings. One of his most illuminating notions is that of the movement chains. Movement chains have to do with how muscles that are close by affect each other and brings a great understanding to what is frequently referred to as the flow of prana or chi, and to the blockages and pathways of the latter. For me the notion has been implicit when I noticed (with insight from Trigger Point Therapy–before being introduced to CAY) that for pain in my arms I shouldn’t spend any time working on the arms themselves but I should go instead directly to the shoulders (where the “source” of the problem lied). Gert van Leeuwen makes this notion more formal and goes through all the (important) movement chains of the body and describes them so that we can better understand them and be aware of them while practising. Similarly to the example with my arms above, there is a tendency for musculoskeletal issues to originate closer to the trunk than close to the extremities. This, I reckon, is also an extremely important insight of CAY and it is mirrored to its focus on the health of the spine. Pain in the knees, irritated iliotibial bands, flat feet, all these may be results of a tight midback, or to put it better, it probably is; or if not a tight midback, at least some issue at the core.
An interesting distinction that the author makes is one between movement and postural muscles. The former have a strong correlation with superficial muscles and as their name hints are mostly used for movement, and are the ones that commonly tense up initially and slowly draw all surrounding structures to a downward spiral of tension. While the postural muscles are used mostly to maintain posture, and can normally endure contraction for longer periods of time without tensing up. The idea in the author’s regimen is to release the tension, starting from the movement muscles and reaching the postural ones, and then relearning how to use the latter and free up your movement. This is mirrored in his own words: ‘By starting a movement from a state of relaxation (of the movement muscles), and then working the postural muscles, the stiff parts of the body recover freedom of movement. It’s not enough just to relax, it’s critical that you develop a new (movement) structure through strength and coordination.’
It’s not easy to summarise the content of this book. Insightful psychological connections (e.g., instruction on consciousness and attention), breakdowns of processes, endless advice on wise practice, from the details of asanas, to the connections between asanas and wise sequencing. Gert van Leeuwen feels like your teacher, not like an author of a book.
Words are very limited here; this book has to be experienced. If you’re a yogi that has a bit of a handle on your restlessness and don’t mind reading some, I think this book can be the result of many smiles on your face. May the effortless winds of wisdom carry us all to peace.
Please write your own review on Amazon: Review page Yoga: Critical Alignment
English spoken classes start October 6th, 2013
Every sunday from 12.00 – 13.30 hrs
The English version of Gert van Leeuwen’s book is published August 14th, 2013 by Shambhala Publications (Boston & London).
ISBN: 978-1-61180-063-0 / Pages: 412
Yoga: Critical Alignment is an innovative, illustrated guide to new practices that release the tension held in the body to create a new balanced alignment. In yoga, even seasoned practitioners have the habit of working the body from the surface layers of muscle. The muscles are linked to will power and discipline, and working hard on the mat can create unhealthy strain in the body. Author Gert van Leeuwen teaches his unique sequences of standing postures, inversions, forward bends, backbends, twists, and pranayama to get you to optimal alignment and ease. Each thoughtfully sequenced practice is meticulously illustrated so that you can keep this book at your side while you practice.
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