Vanda Scaravelli has inspired many teachers and students of yoga, and she continues to do so even to this day. Herself a student of BKS Iyengar and Desikachar she is considered to be one of the yoga luminaries of our time. Her approach to yoga was pioneering, and many yoga teachers today base their practice on what is referred to as ‘Scaravelli Inspired Yoga’.
Her book is available on Amazon:
Awakening the Spine: Yoga for Health, Vitality and Energy
A revolutionary new method of yoga for overall fitness that teaches "if it hurts, it's wrong." Forward by BKS Iyengar.
"Vanda’s idea of effortless yoga was born of her training with two of this generation’s yoga luminaries, B. K. S. Iyengar and T. K. V. Desikachar. She was introduced to yoga when her friend J. Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher, and the violinist Yehudi Menhuin invited T. Krishnamacharya from India to teach them yoga at her summer home in Switzerland. Krishnamacharya did not travel, so he sent two of his own students, Iyengar and Desikachar, in his place. Vanda, nearly 50 years old at the time, received daily private lessons along with her guests and found through practice that “a different life begins and the body expresses a happiness never felt before.” She continued studying with Iyengar and Desikachar for several summers and then began to work on her own in her native Italy; she was fond of saying that yoga eventually pulled her up “by the hair” and made her do it.
From her training in the anatomical precision of Iyengar Yoga and the emphasis on breath and ease in Desikachar’s Viniyoga, Vanda developed her own distinctive way of working with breath and gravity to free the spine. She distilled movement to a few essential principles: the surrender of the lower part of the body to gravity gives back a lightness that liberates the upper part of the body. Like flowers, she said, we send down roots and grow up toward the sun to blossom. The division between the lower and upper parts of the spine is in an area she called the “back of the waist” or the “middle of the spine,” around the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae. The release of the spine is not something the practitioner does, she maintained, but something that is given when the body coalesces into a harmony and wholeness of movement that comes in response to deep resting into the earth. At bottom, the work of every pose is the same–allowing gravity to rest the body so the spine’s suppleness is engaged.
Vanda believed that poses required “undoing,” having no goal, and going with the body rather than pushing or telling the body what to do in a linear fashion (which causes movement to be fragmented). Although Vanda’s principles may appear simple, she insisted that they could not be structured as a method; the practitioner must always find a new way to begin again.
As I have learned by studying with Diane, Vanda’s practice requires a different kind of hard work from the careful attention to the details of asanas that was the focus of the yoga classes I had previously taken. Undoing tension is an intense process; letting go of old patterns of holding and effort requires a tremendously strong release. “Relaxation” in Vanda’s vocabulary does not mean collapsing; undoing is not passive but alert and attentive. There is a great sense of resolve in the body’s invitation to gravity, and there is always more to let go. As tension is released and joints become free, new, deep muscles awaken; the feet, especially the heels, come alive and make strong contact with the earth in an almost prehensile way. Increasingly, movement takes place on the spine rather than in the large superficial muscles that are accustomed to working (such as the quadriceps). And even as so many things are changing on a fine motor level in the body, attention must always focus on the wholeness of the movement.
The Heart of Vanda’s Teaching
Vanda taught Diane not to focus on executing the poses, but instead to cultivate a set of conditions that allow the body’s natural intelligence to awaken; in addition to “rest” and “undoing,” these conditions include a sense of rhythm, which has a coaxing quality. When Diane teaches, she often repeats invitations to certain parts of the student’s body to drop and to others to lighten or widen again and again, always starting over or moving to a new way of engaging the whole body until release, however small or subtle, comes through the spine. She stresses that it is important not to try to hold onto this sensation or push it farther, but instead to begin again with an attitude of receiving. Although there is rhythm, there is no formula, and the attention should never be allowed to become dull.
As the body undoes tension, the practitioner discovers a movement of extension along the spine that is sometimes referred to as “the wave” because of Vanda’s repeated descriptions of it as a wave-like motion. Vanda used many natural images in her teaching; in addition to waves, she spoke of whirlwinds and volcanoes, trees whose roots grow deeply down as their trunks and branches grow up, waterfalls that drop powerfully and rebound into clouds of increasingly light spray, flowers that blossom without striving. In an article published in Viniyoga in Italia in 2000, one of Vanda’s students, Elizabeth Pauncz, recalls lessons in which she and Vanda “studied how birds used their feet in taking off into flight or landing and then practiced that same technique in Tadasana [mountain] which would lead to Urdhva Dhanurasana [upward bow].” Diane remembers lessons in which Vanda had her stand “on a stick, like a bird standing on a limb” or gently rock back and forth like a little boat on the water.
These are only a few of the creative means Vanda used as she found a unique way to teach each student. “She was a very unorthodox teacher,” at times very forceful and at other times very gentle, Diane says. Lessons might involve breathing with the arms draped over a broomstick, studying a photocopied image of the lungs before practicing breathing, or examining photographs of Krishnamacharya with a magnifying glass. Diane remembers a student being told to run around the house twice, apparently to “wake the body up.” Elizabeth tells the story of a friend who once came from Rome for a lesson and “was invited to stretch out in Shavasana [corpse pose] where she remained for an hour and a half.” Vanda was delighted that the friend had slept so well and told her, “It is the best lesson you ever had!”
Diane says the heart of Vanda’s teaching is “not about making people conform to the pose” or imposing a “philosophy or a technique on someone”; instead, it is about “bringing into play the relationship between the earth and the body’s aliveness.” How this is accomplished is highly individual: “Some bodies need to be brought to rest more. Others need to be awakened,” Diane says. “You must be very simple,” and teaching must be “playful. It’s almost as if you have to trick someone into having more ease with their body. You have to watch how they are implementing your suggestions so that it’s not linear.”
This approach can result, as I have experienced during my own lessons and observed when Diane teaches others, in enigmatic instructions. I recently heard a student say after doing a twist, “So the use of feet and knees is to find release?!” Diane’s reply: “You have to bring awareness of the ground into what you’re doing. But movement is round, so it takes time for the ground to bring aliveness to different parts of the body.” Diane reports that her own questions would often be brushed away with a “light gesture of the hand,” by which Vanda would indicate that “it wasn’t important.” Vanda believed that yoga requires always going beyond whatever we think we understand.
Vanda’s breathing practice begins with developing a relationship to the breath as it is and letting go of any effort involved, rather than imposing formal exercises on top of pre-existing patterns of tension. As tension is released, the breath can deepen and strengthen so that the spine grows with each exhalation. “I’m given the inhalation,” Diane says, teaching breathing to a class. “It wants to come, it wants that state of reception. In breath, you discover what letting go can be; that’s what the exhalation is.” In time, Diane explains, breath naturally meets the poses rather than being employed in a prescribed way or deliberately coordinated with movement. Vanda’s student Sandra Sabatini, who was particularly interested in this aspect of the practice, wrote Breath: The Essence of Yoga, a collection of poetic sketches that express the simplicity of Vanda’s approach to breathing. The book is threaded with images of waiting, listening, letting the breath blossom, and coming to a quietness that allows movement to be inside, on the spine. "
by Nan Wishner
Excerpt from the article which originally appeared on the Yoga International web site, November 2003.