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Critical Alignment Therapy... What is it?

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

You've likely seen my posts about how much I use that weird looking black strap and wondered... What in the world do you do with that?

I started learning about Critical Alignment Therapy (CAT) in 2004. I took a workshop with Gert van Leeuwen

at The Yoga Studio over a weekend because I was referred to him for a problem I was having with my shoulder and lower back after finishing my racing stint in Skeleton. I was hooked after the first weekend and finished my certification in 2006.

Why was I hooked? What was it about laying on the floor with props under me that had me blend this practice into everything; ashtanga yoga, cycling, downhill skiing, mountain biking, walking, skate skiing, and now treating chronic pain?

First, it starts out easy. All you need to do is lay down and breathe. I've worked with clients who can't lay down very well so we recline in a chair... but everyone can breathe. This starting point makes it accessible and also challenging enough for some.

So we start out bringing attention to the breath and taking awareness inside the body. It allows you to focus on you, how you feel, and what you are thinking in a safe setting. Rationally we know that just laying down is not going to cause us tissue damage, so taking the time to bring awareness to your breath and allow yourself to notice the sensations in your body, you know you are safe. This allows you to consciously, not with willpower, but with patience and your exhale to feel tension release from your body. Your lower back, upper back, shoulders, neck, forehead, sinuses, jaw, and more. This heaviness brings in a sense of feeling grounded.

We don't just focus on the exhale, we also bring awareness to our inhale. This is often more challenging as we are starting with a belly breath and physically working on expanding our rib cage, usually in a different way then our anxious lives allow us to practice. Our inhale, though having a bio-mechanical focus at the beginning, brings awareness that connects us to experiencing the space and lightness in the body. This can be a challenging one as well with chronic pain as the nervous system is so used to tension & protection, the idea of lightness is scary.

So we practice. Laying on the floor, breathing, using props in different configurations. Each different set up allows for a different area of focus. In CAT we call these connections and they are seen structurally as the bony connections of how our skeleton moves with ease. Looking at how the upper body, shoulders, neck, thoracic space (rib cage) move in relation to each other; as well as how the lower body, pelvis, legs, lumbar spine (lower back) moves. And of course how the upper body moves in relation to the lower body. It is all quite fascinating.

The next step, once we have a decent experience with our breath and finding the sense of heaviness/release and lightness & space is to create movement in the body that has a sense of ease to it. So remaining on the floor, using the props, we start to move. Slowly, listening for whisper edges of sensation. We are so used to reaching for the end points of our movement range and hearing the screaming edges... we slow this down and allow the body to move while listening for the whispers.

This is where CAT can go in multiple directions, if you are an active person you start bringing in the bigger props, the headstander & backbender, creating more movement and challenging yourself. If you are working with the right instructor and you have an activity that you need help in; tennis, cycling, running, skiing, anything where you are moving your body, this CAT practice brings more awareness, connection, and ease of movement to your life.

Now I could go off on a tangent here and talk about so many aspects of how this benefits treating chronic pain, but the one that is the most important is this: Now, with slower, quieter movements that are connected to your breath and awareness, you are in a place of safety where your nervous system can remain calm. If you've read any of my previous posts on chronic pain, you know that calming your nervous system is a key aspect of treating chronic pain.

So after you experience the ease of movement, your nervous system tends to allow you more effective range of motion and it is from this point we begin to build strength & coordination into the body. This can go in many directions and is all based on the goals and desired activities of each client.

Now, this isn't a one class fix. This is practice. You'll find that the more you practice, the more awareness you have in the present moment throughout your day and the more awareness, the more ease in your movement. That comes with stability, release of tension, and lower pain levels.

All of this starts with laying down and breathing while you lay on a black strap. Want to experience this? Yes, if you have a black strip, that is awesome. You can start with two bath towels, while they do limit the exercises that you can do, it will get you started. Then you can head to CAT Yoga Props and order your black strap & maybe a felt pad.

Interested in learning more? Check out the On Demand page!


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