Awakening the Spine

[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.

Vanda Scaravelli on Yoga DVD, Esther Myers Yoga Studio (1991)
(*available in DVD or file download from Esther Myers Yoga Studio. (www.estheryoga.com/products/dvds)
Description: Vanda’s student Esther Myers interviews the famous teacher in Toronto. Interviews, conversation, and practical demonstrations.

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