Interview Gert

Living in two different worlds

To read the book is to learn what Critical Alignment Yoga (CAY) is all about. But to experience it, you have to take a class. And if you want to know the history and the man behind Critical Alignment, you have to talk to him personally. Journalist en yogi Ellen Kleverlaan did just that, only to discover that yoga is like life itself: it may get less difficult as the years go by, but every time you think you have an answer, new questions arise.

When 16-year old Gert van Leeuwen worked as the receptionist for a nursing home, he found himself wondering if crooked bodies were an unavoidable consequence of aging. 40 years later, his question has been answered time and again by students young and old, their bodies increasingly supple, and their attitudes to life becoming more open and positive. Van Leeuwen started his research about 30 years ago. Two years after opening his own yoga studio in 1982 (see ‘perpetually seeking’), one of his students brought Norman Sjoman and H.V. Dattatreya to the Netherlands. “The yoga they taught had a rational basis. I was sold”.  Sjoman and Dattatreya were involved in physical movement research within the field of medicine. “They took a scientific approach to yoga without losing sight of tradition. Sjoman had gotten his PhD in the study of Sanskrit and traditional yoga texts. What he did was to connect yoga tradition to the scientific insights of the time.” Up until that point, van Leeuwen’s practice had been based on  ‘Light on yoga’ by B.K.S. Iyengar’–one of the authorities on yoga at the time. Practicing intensively for hours, van Leeuwen was reminded of similarly intense years he had spent studying and practicing South Indian dance.  But ultimately, all that practice yielded more questions than answers (see ‘perpetually seeking’). Until Sjoman and Dattatreya arrived in the Netherlands. Their 8-month stay signified a new direction in Van Leeuwen’s relationship with yoga.

Structural breakthrough

“The most important thing is that yoga changed from just doing what feels good, to practice that effects structural change. Yoga is still often practiced with the goal of feeling relaxed and not exceeding your boundaries. But that’s not the way to reduce structural tension: you may feel relaxed for a bit, but then daily life starts up again and the same tensions are there.” However, van Leeuwen does not share Sjoman and Dattatreya’ teaching style. Instead, he noticed while following in their footsteps that doing the opposite—seeking out these tension patterns and using willpower to change them, was equally ineffective. He realized that something fundamental needed to change in his approach to teaching. “I decided to stop talking and look more carefully at how my students were practicing. After a lot of observation, I began to understand what I was seeing. That was probably the best thing I could have done. By shutting my mouth and paying more attention, the insights began to flow.  I believed in Sjoman and Dattatreya’s approach, but now I had to move on.” What he discovered was that while these teachers used manual corrections to change their students negative patterns of holding tension, the students were by no means always able to maintain these corrections on their own. Rather, van Leeuwen noticed that students often built up more tension precisely in the places they were trying to reduce it. “I saw with my advanced students that a 20 minute headstand could create more stress than relaxation. So my quest began there: I wanted to find out, how can I create the circumstances in which people will independently break through their tensions?’

In search of tradition

Van Leeuwen proceeded to do what so many before him had done: he delved into a study of ancient yoga traditions, or at least, what was still known about them. The results were disappointing. “Not much is actually known about the centuries-old yoga traditions. And what is known is not particularly coherent or clearly described. Sjoman knew this from his research as well. What we see in the last century in the way of yoga traditions, are all the interpretations of specific individuals and not the traditions themselves.” Iyengar for example, claims to be the carrier of a centuries-old yoga tradition. But that claim is unfounded, says Van Leeuwen. “Iyengar’s interpretation of yoga is excellent. But it is and always will be an interpretation. I am against claims on the Truth.’ Surviving descriptions of yoga practice from traditional texts were of limited help in van Leeuwen’s search. The Sutra’s of Patanjali offered inspiration for the meditative elements of yoga and these did provide part of the answer. “Yoga exercises are not just meant to make you fitter, but are also intended as a way for you to experience yourself through the body. The body makes an objective experience of yourself possible in which body and mind can be experienced as one, unified and balanced (see ‘perpetually seeking’).”

‘You must relax!’

An important Sutra on the practice of yoga is: ‘relax all effort and meditate on infinity’. Van Leeuwen asserts that the first part of this Sutra always gets explained incorrectly. “People interpret this to mean that relaxation should be sought only after moving into each position. In other words, effort precedes relaxation. This effectively bases movement and practice on willpower and then yoga becomes a kind of sport. ‘You must relax!’ I disagree, because relaxation isn’t something that happens from force or pressure. Willpower, negative motivations and ambitions are exactly what form the basis for building up structural tension! Just when we wanted to reduce the stress in our behavior and the tension in our bodies, by doing yoga… ” The Sutra’s and their interpretation continued to grip Van Leeuwen. Despite all of his appreciation for their work, he saw how the use of willpower dominated the teachings of Sjoman, Dattatreya and BKS Iyengar. And so Van Leeuwen’s quest came to focus on finding a way to initiate movement from a state of relaxation rather than willpower. Here, insights from the science of movement, would prove key.

New tools

By now it was the late 1990’s. Van Leeuwen began to read about the difference between movement muscles and postural muscles. The first are closer to the surface and tend to hold onto tension as a reaction to stress. “Yoga based on willpower inevitably focuses on the use of these muscles because they can be controlled by the will. But these are exactly the muscle groups that I wanted to relax! If, however, you initiate movement from a state of relaxation, you will instead find yourself using the more deeply located postural muscles. This enables structural layers of muscle tension to be released, and shows us that we can initiate and carry out movements in a deep state of relaxation.” Van Leeuwen realized that the solution must lie in this distinction between postural and movement muscles. Only, to be able to get at these deeper postural muscles, required more than the usual yoga techniques. The quest was not over. “Someone with a crooked and stiff upper back, brings this stiffness into the exercise. There is no way around that. That is how I came up with the idea of developing new props or physical tools to facilitate a deeper access to the body.”

Averse to commercialism

Van Leeuwen first developed a length of rubber called a ‘strip’ to relax the upper back, and a headstand frame to further mobilize and strengthen it. These inventions were followed by a rounded wooden arch, a rolled-up felt mat, and a wide rubber block. All of them were tools to assist with relaxation and to strengthen the postural muscles. It was the use of these props, combined with movement, that gave rise to the Critical Alignment protocol. “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.’ The unique props of Critical Alignment Yoga have received international attention. A hamburger chain once made a commercial using the Van Leeuwen’s headstand frames. Not really his frames, he is quick to add, as he is averse to such commercialism: “As if the goal were to stand with your shoulders on that frame, but that’s not the goal. The point is that the frame helps you do something that you couldn’t manage using your own coordination.’ People become more crooked the older they get, says Van Leeuwen. “If you can break through that process, then you become a much different person.”

“You don’t have to travel to go to new places”

We live in two worlds, says Van Leeuwen. The world around us that we experience as reality, and the inner world of emotions. Both worlds play a role in our life, whether we like it or not. “The outside world is important, after all we are not solitary beings. But it’s in that world that we build up stress and where we are driven to make our mark and build up our ego. We need the inner world as a counterbalance. Yoga is one of the ways you can come into your inner world and let go of stress and tension. There is nothing wrong with stress and tension, by the way, they keep us alert and keep us functioning in the outer world. But they should not, and there is no need for them to have a damaging impact.”
The inner and outer worlds ought to be balanced, he says. Otherwise, we allow our inner world to be overwhelmed by the merciless achievement orientation of the outer world, and thereby lose a warmly felt contact with ourselves, not to mention our positive outlook. By positive outlook, van Leeuwen means an inner sense of spaciousness along with relaxation, lightness and ease.

The problem can also be the other way around: the inner world, and one’s own individual experience, may play too big a role. “That is something that often happens in my line of work. The teaching and the language are vague and filled with exotic references to Indian culture and tradition. Whereby they lose contact with the reality here and now.” With this approach, Van Leeuwen asserts, you lose contact with the outside world and all that it asks of us in terms of societal roles and contact with other people.

Going back to the first problem, what exactly do people do when they lose contact with their inner world? The centers of emotion are in the belly and the chest, says Van Leeuwen. These are located in the front of the body, which is directly connected to the spinal column and the back of the body. “You can see the effect of this loss of contact on people’s posture, and on vertebrae that lose their mobility. When the upper back is stiff, it can no longer support the area around the heart. This leads to a sort of ‘caving in’ or loss of spaciousness in this area, along with a loss of happiness and positive feelings in life. And if the lower back is stiff, the belly can’t relax, which inhibits our ability to experience feelings of comfort, acceptance and relaxation. If this area gets blocked, we become structurally tense.” When tension leads to blockages in these large centers of emotional experience, we slowly become alienated from our bodies. “We go travelling to find new places, to seek the inner spaciousness we crave. Or we seek relaxation through alcohol, food and drugs. Or we keep buying things to make us feel better.” It’s not that a new car doesn’t make him happy, notes van Leeuwen, “there is nothing wrong with that. But my goal is not to be dependent on these external sources of happiness. Everyone knows how that works, you have to keep buying things to fill a bottomless emotional pit. It’s fantastic to be able to get that satisfaction from a meditative contact with your body. Then you don’t have to travel to get there, you always have that inner space with you. People lose their feelings of relaxation, lightness and inner space through the stressful situations they find themselves in. That happens everywhere, all the time. But I don’t think it has to be like that. That chain of cause and effect can be broken. You can learn through yoga to feel that spaciousness even in stressful circumstances.”



Perpetually seeking

Who is Gert van Leeuwen?

Together with his older brother and sister, Gert van Leeuwen (1954) was raised in a religious family in a small suburb to the east of Amsterdam.  The family’s approach to their religion, far from being dogmatic, valued curiosity and independent thought, and at home there were often long discussions. When he turned 18, and had just finished high school, Van Leeuwen was on vacation on in France where he witnessed a man in floating, in lotus posture, in the sea. He turned out to be an artist whose tales about yoga made quite an impression on the young Van Leeuwen. A new world opened for him. After his mother gave him a book on yoga and he began to practice at home. This was the start of the 1970’s, the time of flower power and later punk; a time when established order was under fire. Although yoga promised an endless journey into new worlds and he was ripe for completely new ideas, these worlds proved illusory and provided no answers, leaving van Leeuwen’s curiosity unquenched. His yoga teacher at the time introduced him to South Indian dance and music. To learn this dance required a quasi mathematical precision and enormous discipline. Van Leeuwen practiced for hours on end, ultimately achieving the sensation of literally being able to translate by giving physical form to the mythological and philosophical foundation behind the dance. Surely this same experience could be achieved through yoga, which, after all, had also originated in India? It would take him until 1984–a number of years after Van Leeuwen had opened his own dance and yoga studio named ‘Bharata’—before he began to find the answers he sought.
Gert van Leeuwen lives on an island in Amsterdam. In addition to his yoga studio ( he spends time with his girlfriend, his boat, and his Volvo, and spends 20 minutes a day in a headstand. He teaches people of all different ages and levels, from all walks of life, both in the Netherlands and internationally. In 2010 his book ‘Critical Alignment Yoga’ was published, and has since been translated into other languages.