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.
Yoga Journal, May/June 1996
By Esther Myers and Kim Echlin
Vanda Scaravelli on Yoga DVD with Esther Myers, Esther Myers Yoga Studio (1991) is available in DVD or file download from the Studio. (estheryoga.wpengine.com/products/dvds)
Description: Vanda’s student Esther Myers interviews the famous teacher in Toronto. Interviews, conversation, and practical demonstrations.
2 thoughts on “Applying Vanda’s Ideas in Your Practice”
“stretch your knees from your heels as you exhale,”
Hello, I am fascinated by this article, but I just can’t comprehend what is meant by this phrase? Please would you explain.
I was a student of Vanda for 12 years, mostly in Toronto, Canada, where she lived five months of the year, every year. It’s true, some of her instructions seemed cryptic upon first hearing, but because she used repetition of short, direct phrases as one of her main teaching methods, along with touch, one began to understand her ideas on many levels simultaneously. The lessons were always one-on-one, which helped enormously to hasten the learning.
Vanda taught three basic principles, although it was Esther Myers who named them so succinctly: grounding, breathing and elongating the spine, meaning release in both directions, tail away from head and head away from tail. As we ground the heels on an outbreath when standing – and grounding is an action in this case, not only an experience – the bottom of the spine moves down toward the earth, the legs stretch, including the knees, and a wave-like release rolls upward through the spine and head. This two-way movement is invigourating, healthy and positive. Vanda often used the knees as a focal point for energizing the spine.
Usually I suggest to begin by grounding the feet in whatever way you can: rolling, rocking, walking, stomping, even jumping. Then add the breathing and press the heels into the ground on your exhalation. The combination of earthing the feet and breathing out stimulates elongation in the spine which at first may be imperceptible, then subtly felt but still nameless, and eventually obvious and deeply enjoyable.
You’ll notice that grounding the heels and bending and stretching the knees are what we humans do during locomotion of any kind. Vanda taught to the spine as the main “organ” of movement. Here, she is encouraging us to access and enhance spinal vitality with every breath and every step.
I welcome your comments.