Yoga guru Gert van Leeuwen isn’t afraid to question tradition. The Dutchman doesn’t take things lying down. He needs answers.
While most teachers and students have been practising yoga diligently for decades without questioning tradition, Leeuwen’s practise left him with more questions than answers. He was perpetually seeking: Why, why and why not?
“Many yoga poses have limitations or bring tension to the surface. Instead of poses intended to relax you, certain poses are causing more stress to the body.
“So I started looking into bony connections and noticed that by isolating certain connections, one can find release and relief,” he recalls during a recent interview at the Journey Within yoga studio in Kota Damansara, Selangor.
For Leeuwen, who was here to conduct a teacher’s training workshop, the area between the shoulder blade, i.e. the upper thoracic, holds a lot of tension though it’s an area that is hardly addressed.
“When the body starts to deform, it starts from the bony structure. The joints need pressure to be able to move so that you can get access to hidden areas. We can change strain into strength. A change of skeleton is possible. I think the spine should be a J-shaped instead of an S-curve, which is a medical dogma!” he opines.
When he was 16, Leeuwen worked as a receptionist at a nursing home. He wondered if the “crooked” bodies of the inmates were a result of ageing. That, and a flip through a yoga book his mother had bought, led him to take yoga classes with different instructors. Eventually, he began to teach.
While he initially enjoyed learning, practising and teaching, structure and repetitive work began to bore Leeuwen.
“I didn’t enjoy teaching the same things over and over again. I didn’t like the repetitive tradition. I wondered what yoga was really all about.”
That prompted his journey into discovering how to alter the limitations of the human body.
When he met Norman Sjoman and H.V. Dattatrey, who taught yoga from a scientific approach and were involved in physical movement research within the field of medicine, Leeuwen began seeing the matter from a different perspective.
After experimenting with a variety of techniques and studying the skeleton more deeply, he discovered he was able to make adjustments in new areas.
“One day, I went silent and told the students I wanted to observe,” he says. “I felt responsible for the students as everyone had become a victim of ‘psychological’ life. I became a controversial teacher because I went against the norm. What I saw was increasingly supple bodies and attitudes becoming more positive. People seem to be afraid to enter space internally because we feel vulnerable.”
In 2013, the Dutchman published Yoga: Critical Alignment, 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 willpower and discipline, and working hard on the mat can create unhealthy strain on the body.
Leeuwen teaches his unique sequences of standing postures, inversions, forward bends, backbends, twists and pranayama (breathing) to get the practitioner to optimal alignment and ease.
According to Leeuwen, the centres of emotion are in the belly and the chest, which are located in the front of the body, and are 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,” he was quoted as saying in an interview with journalist Ellen Kleverlaan published in www.criticalalignment.nl.
Over time, he designed specifically engineered props to give precise support and pressure to the areas that are stiff so they can be “felt” again, allowing contact to be made.
“The props function, in a way, as the suppliers of body weight so the postural muscles and the skeletal parts they serve can be reached. It is intended to alleviate tension in the body without disturbing balance and coordination. This serves to increase the mobility of specific body parts,” explains Leeuwen.
These props include the headstand bench, the back bender to mobilise the upper back, the roll and spinal strips, and a large felt, black mat.
With the help of a certified and experienced teacher, the student is guided through a series of postures and movements that emphasise the skeleton.
These days, Leeuwen, who founded the Bharata Yoga studio in Amsterdam, travels all over the world to conduct workshops to re-educate teachers from different yoga traditions.
He says, “My approach is in bony connections and mobilising techniques. There is no ego involved. I’m a researcher. When you don’t repeat tradition, you need to become creative.”
Tan Sri Yong Poh Kon, managing director of Royal Selangor International, can attest to Leeuwen’s work.
He had been suffering from sciatica for months and had tried numerous therapies to find relief, but to no avail. The pain would subside temporarily after treatment but would return, especially when he got out of the car.
An MRI revealed some herniation of the disc near the lumbar and sacrum area.
“I was already doing yoga for about six years, but it didn’t help with the pain, until I went for an assessment with Gert. He got me into the headstand bench and adjusted my position, pushing my upper spine into a deep curve.
“It was a different feeling from the normal headstand. I began to hear popping sounds and I was really sore afterwards,” recalls Yong.
He had additional follow-up sessions with his regular yoga teacher, and voila! the sciatic pain disappeared. A subsequent MRI also showed no more herniation.
“It was liberating! I’m normally very sceptical and cynical about these things, but it worked. Now, I can maintain about seven minutes on the bench,” says a delighted Yong, who also bikes and plays golf to stay trim.
For Lily Siew, who was diagnosed as having adult-onset Still’s disease, a rare type of arthritis that features sore throat, chronic joint pain, a salmon-coloured rash and a high fever, Leeuwen’s method has enabled her to be pain-free and off medication.
“I wasn’t able to walk for many months. My legs were swollen and my body became stiff,” reveals Siew, who works in advertising.
“The steroids pumped in caused me to put on over 30kg. I tried to go for yoga classes, but many teachers and schools turned me down.”
It was a struggle, but slowly, Siew started shedding weight and her inflamed joints improved. “Now, I’m able to walk with a cane and I can also sit on the floor.”