[Esther Myers on Vanda Scaravelli]
Still strong and supple at 88, Vanda Scaravelli continues to practise using gravity and the breath to ride the body’s own wave.
I’ve watched Vanda Scaravelli do backbends for over 10 years, and each time I felt I was seeing a backbend for the first time. I watched and listened as this powerful, slight woman in her mid-80s planted her enormous feet on the floor and spoke about growing roots. Then, with a rhythmical, waving motion she would arch over and back, all the while talking about growing wings and birds soaring and love. Up she would come, then drop back again. Up and back, as if she could do it forever.
As I prepared a video about Vanda and her unique yoga practice, I spent a couple of days with her at her daughter’s home in Toronto, listening to her reflect on her life and her love of yoga. Looking back, those two days remind me again what an extraordinary gift she has been in my life.
Vanda Scaravelli was born in Florence, Italy in 1908. Her father, a successful businessman and music lover, created the Orchestra Stabile, enabling Florence to have its own orchestra. Her mother, Clara Corsi, a teacher, was one of the first women from Italy to graduate from the university. Together they created a salon for some of the century’s greatest artists: Arturo Toscanini, Arthur Schnabel, Federico Fellini, Bronislaw Hubermann, and Herman Serkin, to name only a few, often visited the family’s villa, Il Leccio. Vanda herself trained as a concert pianist under the tutelage of Ernesto Consolo.
She describes the family music room as one of her favorite places to be, light-filled with yellow walls where people gathered to listen to intimate concerts given by such performers and family friends as cellist Pablo Casals or guitarist Andres Segovia. Across an ocean, nearly a century later, such a youth seems luminous, almost magical. Vanda speaks of those days with bright, unaffected pleasure.
The life of the everyday for Vanda was filled with music, with the talk of lively intellectuals, with open, exploring spirits. As a young girl, she accompanied her family to Holland in search of spirituality and healing.It was there, in Ommen, that she first met Krishnamurti. Vanda describes sitting around an enormous campfire singing Indian songs and watching Krishnamurti talk with her sister. The family remained friends with Krishnamurti, who stayed at their villa each year on his travels between India and America. They offered him a place to rest, a place “of peace and tranquility,” where he wasn’t expected to be a guru, where he could write and think. Vanda often walked with him, and she recollects how they went for drives together, in her Flaminia or in his Mercedes. “He liked to drive, but he didn’t like it when people drove too fast,” Vanda remembers. “He said, ‘I have this body and I must look after it.’ We were both interested in what we saw- nature, the fields and cows, and mountains full of snow.”
Vanda married Luigi Scaravelli, a philosophy professor and scholar; they had two children. After World War II ended, and her husband died unexpectedly, violinist Yehudi Menuhin introduced her to B.K.S. lyengar, whom he had invited to Gstaad, Switzerland, where Vanda rented a chalet each year. lyengar taught daily classes to Krishnamurti, who spent his summers there, giving his annual talks. As Vanda explains,. Iyengar “was so kind as to give me a lesson in life each day as well.” And so it was, in the middle of her life, that Vanda Scaravelli discovered yoga.
Several years later, at Krishnamurti’s invitation, T.K.V. Desikachar visited the Gstaad chalet, where he taught both Krishnamurti and Vanda the importance of the breath. Vanda continued to study privately with both lyengar and Desikachar for many years. After they stopped their regular visits to Gstaad, Vanda worked alone, developing a unique method of yoga that endures to this day. She discusses this method in her 1991 book, Awakening the Spine.
Following are excerpts from our two-day talk together. All through our conversation she emphasizes the importance of making yoga practice and all of our attitudes in life simple and open.
Yoga Journal: How did you begin your practice of yoga?
Vanda Scaravelli: I met Mr. lyengar, and he kindly agreed to teach me. I went each morning. I didn’t resist, and I liked it. Mr. Iyengar is a powerful man, but he was also very gentle. He let me enter my body and understand my body. It was a sad period, because I had lost my husband and I was very run down. With yoga I could survive. With Iyengar and Krishnamurti there was possibility. It is such a shock when someone near to you dies.
Yoga helped me. I didn’t know it would help, because I did it like I did tennis or a game-it was fun for me. But it went much deeper than I could understand at that moment. I saw this later on.
How did it feel at the beginning?
I was so happy. My body was enjoying, like a plant, like a flower. I started around 40, 45, and a new life came into my body. In nature the flowers blossom in the spring and then again in the autumn. I felt this.
Did it affect other parts of your life?
Other things came much better. I was playing the piano, and I felt that playing with the body relaxed, with the mind attentive, how my technique came like a wave. First I memorized the notes in my brain, and then I went to the piano. It was not the melody that taught the brain but the brain that taught the hands. It was a collaboration between body and mind.
You continued your study with Mr. Iyengar and later with Krishnamacharya’s son Desikachar for several years. I believe it was then that you became interested in the breath and how it works with the postures?
What yoga does particularly is through the breath. I want to talk about the breath, because there is no yoga if there is no breathing. We start with breathing and we end with breathing and every movement we make is with the breath.
You inhale and you exhale. When you inhale, there is that energy, that strength, that comes like a wave and the body follows. It’s a relaxing feeling. Each movement is done with the wave and with the breathing inhale, exhale-you are following the wave, and you become very supple and very elastic, and there are no difficulties. This is important to have in mind when you are doing any sort of exercise and also in life-that you go with instead of against. It’s so simple, too simple to understand. You must only undo. The more you undo, the more you are and the more things come to you. Don’t try to become; you are.
Do we risk “tryng to become” when we try to do a pose?
If you are with the body, you don’t become, you are. Slowly the body adjusts and it comes to you. You center yourself, you follow your breath. Following is an act of attention or of interest. If you are interested in the breathing, in the body, you discover many things. There is no teacher, no pupil, you are your own teacher, your own pupil.
When your teachers left, you were on your own. What happened then?
When lyengar left and Desikachar left, I tried to make things easy, or find a way without effort.
And what was the way?
The way was to do it relaxing, without effort, with the wave, with movement, with breathing. All of this makes the practice of yoga very agreeable. You can reach the same things without strain, with allegrezza, and then that took over.
Would you explain allegrezza?
This means the ‘intelligent heart.’ You are relaxed, you are not a slave to ideas. You become intelligent and at the same time you are happy. The poses come better. In our education we are trained to become. You try to become. You have examples, and the examples kill all possibility of being, because you have a model, and you want to copy that model. This is all imitation, and this takes you away from the possibility of being. When you are, you are what you are. You don’t become. You are. The becoming is like a ladder. You want to climb a ladder up to an ideal, to a form that society has created. This is the wheel of education.
You have spoken about finding gravity. Can you explain more about this?
Gravity is a part of nature. It holds the world together. We are all linked by it. We are linked to the earth. The earth is linked to the sun. When we are upright, the pull of gravity is from the waist down. You feel a pull. The earth pulls you down. If you are relaxed and if you are attentive with the body, you feel it. You let the body be sucked by the earth and this is gravity. At the same time the upper part becomes light, open, aware, relaxed.
And how is gravity connected to the wave? Can you talk about the wave?
It’s about the way the spine moves from the heels to the top of the head with gravity. You let the body sink, sink, sink, and the upper part becomes light. The more you sink, the more the upper part becomes light and there is a beautiful wave in the body, and the body moves with the wave. The wave to the ground allows the gravity in the spine and through the spine, and energy goes through the top of the head. The body is pulled down, and from the waist up there is a wonderful way of feeling, of behaving, of moving. It gives a sense of authority, of freedom, of beauty.
What would you suggest to someone who has problems with daily practice?
You must never use anything. If you use something, it is finished. But if you do it for the fun of it, then it’s all right. I practice because it is natural for me to practice. There is no other reason. My body asks me to do it.
You have taught for many years. Can you talk about teaching?
I was blessed to have wonderful teachers. Teaching is the highest work anyone can do in life. If you are teaching, you help people. The teacher must help you to understand yourself, and you yourself must do the same. But if the body doesn’t accept or the mind doesn’t accept, see why, leave a space, and come back differently. It starts from freedom and it ends in freedom.
I wanted to teach, but the aim was not for me. I wanted to give it to others. I saw many people struggling and injuring themselves. It is like seeing a child falling. You help the child, take it from the ground. I wanted to give it to others because, like a beautiful thing you have, you can’t hide it or keep it in your hands, you have to give it to others. I was pulled to help, and in order to help I developed my attention. It came more and more, and by teaching I discovered so many things, but only by looking into myself.
What have you found?
Ah! It’s health, it’s understanding, it’s creation, it’s love especially. When you are open, love comes. It is only when you are defensive or afraid that you close the doors. When you are open, you can communicate with the person next to you, with nature, with the world, and you are one with whatever is around you. You don’t need to do it, it comes.
How does yoga bring the mind and the body together?
This is the beauty of yoga. It is the meeting of the brain with the body. When you are attentive, concentrated, when you feel what you are doing, there is energy. The binding of the two becomes energy. It is important to understand this. When they are together there is great energy, which gives the body freedom and makes the mind more supple.
Can anyone do yoga, at any age?
There is no age for yoga. You can start at 70, 80, because if it’s done with gravity, with the breath, you receive and you don’t go against, and you will never damage the body. The first thing is not to fight yourself. Be ready to receive energy. Energy helps, breathing helps. There is no age.
In your poses there is so much movement that they look different from standard poses.
The feeling is more interior, because the motion is inside, the feeling is inside. It’s a feeling of well-being while you do the poses not to achieve. You must never have in mind what you want to do but what the body can accept.
When I see you do the backbend, I can see the wave in you and it makes the backbend look full of movement, freer.
Yes, this you can see. So, it shows that even a difficult movement can be a movement of happiness, of undoing, of pleasure. (She laughs.) It’s like dancing, it’s an inside dance, the dance of the body itself inside itself, full of mystery and adventure.
If you practice yoga, does it change the way you age, how you feel about your age?
No. Yoga can’t change your age, age is there. Doing yoga keeps the body in better health. There is no old age. Very often old people protect themselves and other people around try to protect them, and they find themselves closed in a shell. They withdraw from life. They use less and less of their memories, their arms, their legs, the faculties they have.
But if they are there use them! Don’t put them aside to use them tomorrow. Don’t withdraw, don’t lose contact with people and with life which gives you so much. Don’t lose contact with beauty. If there are things you like, go, do! People like to put you aside, don’t accept that. It’s not necessary. As long as you are alive, live! Give your energy, give your wisdom, give what you have, physically, mentally, emotionally. Don’t over-give. Be healthy. For once, be simple. That is so healthy.
Esther Myers teaches yoga in Toronto and is currently writing a book on yoga. Kim Echlin is a freelance documentary producer and yoga student.
Applying Vanda’s Ideas in Your Practice
By Esther Myers
One of the wonderful gifts of Vanda Scaravelli’s work is its simplicity. The three basic principles-the breath, gravity, and wave-remain the same throughout practice, no matter what your level. Once you clearly understand these principles, myriad details of alignment and correct action fall into place easily. Questions like: ‘What do I do in this pose?” simply dissolve as the principles become clearer and clearer. “What do I need to do to get into this pose?” changes to “What do I need to undo?”
To integrate this approach into your practice, start with poses you feel comfortable with. Take the time you need to find these inner connections so you can keep your practice easy and pleasant. It takes a while to let go of tension and effort and the need to strive for results. But this approach opens the door for all of us to discover, blossom, and flower as Vanda has.
Any time you feel confused or find yourself struggling in a pose, come back to your breath, to the contact of your body with the ground and the sense of being supported by the ground, until your body relaxes and your breathing steadies. This principle holds true even in poses that are generally considered demanding and strenuous. Ultimately, with each breath, you will reestablish your connection to the earth and to gravity. With each exhalation, allow yourself to be pulled into the ground, and with each inhalation allow yourself to open, receive, and expand.
Once you are quiet and centered, find the axis of your spine. Poses fall into place as the body aligns itself around this axis. The spine is the mechanical, neurological, and energy core of the body. As we find the connection to this core, tension and effort drop away from the outer musculature, creating the fluidity necessary to experience the “wave” Vanda describes. The release of the spine takes place in a wave-like movement as the wave of the breath meets the wave of the spine. You can feel this movement relatively easily in any forward bend in which you can relax and let go.
The essential movement of the spine with the breath is the same in all of the poses, and once this movement is clear in one pose, you can gradually transfer it to others. Once you are familiar with the positions, set aside the details and focus simply on the ground and the movement of your spine as you breathe.
All action and movement in the poses takes place on the out breath, and the in breath remains completely passive. This means that the poses have an internal rhythm or pulse of relaxation and extension. The release that comes with the breath can be reinforced through active extension. We do not create release or the wave, but we can learn to “ride” it as surfers do.
The following instructions will help you apply the three principles – breath, gravity, and wave – in some of the key yoga postures. The instructions assume that you are familiar with the positions and are already practicing them.
Savasana (Deep Relaxation)
Begin with relaxation and surrender, a willingness to follow the body and allow its wisdom to guide you. To experience this, start in Savasana.
Lie down. Listen to your breathing. Drop your weight on the ground. Slowly be aware of your body, your muscles, and this state of relaxation. Let the wave of the breath, inhalation, and exhalation pass through you.
The experience of Savasana, is a baseline for all the postures. With time, you will become increasingly tuned in to any unnecessary effort or strain in the poses, by paying attention to the sound, texture, and rhythm of your breathing and to any tension in your muscles. One question that you can always ask in your practice is: How can I do this pose with less effort? The answer is always the same: through the release, unwinding, and of letting go of Savasana.
In Savasana, you are completely supported from the back. The more you release into the pose, the greater the feeling of being supported.
Deepening Your Exhalation
Lying in Savasana, bend your knees so your feet are on the floor. Feel the contact of the back of your waist with the floor. Focus your attention on the rise and fall of your belly as you breathe. Gradually deepen your exhalation by gently drawing your abdomen back as you breath out, going with the natural movement of your breath. Practice deepening your exhalation for as long as you are relaxed and comfortable with it, and then return to normal breathing.
This movement of your abdomen is soft and wide and fluid. There is no feeling of tension or contraction. The abdominal muscle gently massages the internal organs, and this massage gradually penetrates to the front of the spine, enabling the spine to release and lengthen.
The intentional deepening of the exhalation that releases and lengthens the spine also supports it when we are upright. Use this deepening action in any pose to give more support to the spine, to intensify the release of the pose, or to encourage the “wave” of release and lengthening through your spine.
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Gravity is so much a part of our experience that we tend to take it for granted or fight it. And
yet when we align ourselves with gravity, it actually supports us. A connection with gravity is both an experience or sensation and the foundation for the concept of alignment that is essential in the postures. We learn to align ourselves with gravity from within and from without.
Vanda often uses metaphors to help us experience gravity. Vanda blossomed through her practice, and therefore one of her favorite metaphors is the image of a plant. If we were plants, ground level would be waist high, our legs would be the roots, our spine the stem, and our heads like the flower growing upward. The essence of the experience is that we are being pulled into the earth, without effort or action on our part. “Don’t ask the flower to push,” Vanda says, “The sun brings it out, and the roots are pulling it down in the same movement. The body is pulled up by the sun, but only if the roots are down. The deeper the roots, the higher the flower goes.” Through this gravity connection we experience the elongation of the spine, which comes with the wave of the breath.
Finding the ground-the pull of gravity underneath us-and the awareness that our legs, pelvis, and spine are what support us, allows our upper body to relax and release. We then begin to know, at a cellular level, that our shoulders and upper body are not supporting us upright. This realization is often accompanied by a prolonged exhalation and a sigh of relief as our shoulders relax and tension drops away. As our bodies release, they naturally lengthen, since a relaxed muscle is longer than a tight one. As the neck and shoulders and upper body relax, the head releases upward like a tortoise coming out of its shell.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Feel your heels in contact with the floor. Let gravity pull your heels down. Let the back of your pelvis drop. Relax your arms, shoulders, and shoulder blades. Focus your attention on the movement of your belly as you breathe. As you exhale, gently draw your abdominal muscle back to release and support the back of your waist. Let this action support your upper spine so your neck lengthens and your head feels light and free.
To make the pose more dynamic, press your heels down, stretch your knees from your heels as you exhale, and lift your arms over your head, fingertips together. Lift up and over into a gentle backbend. Relax and soften your knees on the inhalation.
In inverted poses the principle remains the same, but it usually takes longer to get the feeling of the action. In Headstand the image of the flowering plant is inverted: The elbows become the roots, the forearms the base, and the soles of the feet the ‘flower.” It is a common mistake to think that we need strength to do Headstand. When you are rooted, aligned, and lengthening in Headstand, the pose is light, free, and effortless.
Start by kneeling, placing your arms in Headstand position. As you breathe, feel gravity pull your elbows into the ground. When your forearms are relaxed and stable and your elbows rooted, your shoulders will open and broaden, your shoulder blades lift, and your neck lengthen.
Begin to lift your legs. Exhale deeply to lengthen your spine, and your sitting bones away from your shoulders. Let the lift of your pelvis carry your legs straight up into Headstand. Be sure that your arms remain steady and rooted as you come up into the pose.
In the pose, continue to focus on your elbows, pressing them down as you exhale. Exhale deeply to bring your lower front ribs back and open your armpits. This same deep exhalation lengthens the spine and supports the pelvis away from the lower back. Stretch your legs as you feel them being carried upward on the wave of the breath. Relax on the inhalation.
Stay in the pose as long as you are comfortable, then come down slowly, continuing to lengthen your spine with the action of your breath.
Paschimottanasana (Sitting Forward Bend)
In forward bends your sitting bones become the roots or anchoring points. Both the spine and the legs lengthen away from these points. It can be difficult to keep the focus back and down when you are trying to go forward. If you can already do forward bends easily, you will find it beneficial to simply focus on your breath and let your body release into the pose.
Sit on the floor with both legs straight in front of you. Catch your feet or place your hands on your legs wherever you can comfortably reach. Focus your attention on your sitting bones, letting the back of your pelvis drop as you exhale. When you feel the movement of your breath penetrate to the back of your waist and the back of your pelvis, down into your sitting bones and the pelvic floor, you’ll feel a release of the pelvic muscles and hamstrings, which allows you to go forward.
As always, use the action of your breathing to release and support your spine. Let your arms and shoulders remain light and passive. As your spine and legs lengthen with your breath, your upper body is released forward in a wave movement.
Stay in the pose as long as you can continue to breathe and release, and then come up on an exhale.