The teaching of Vanda Scaravelli, friend and pupil of Krishnamurti, Iyengar and Desikachar
by Emina Cevro Vukovic
If a film director wanted to make a historic film on the fascinating first steps of European yoga, I would suggest to tell the story of Vanda Scaravelli. The first scene would show Vanda, young and very beautiful, driving her Lancia Flaminia in the Tuscan hills around Florence next to the handsome J. K. Krishnamurti, an afficionado of automobiles. I imagine they do not talk much, rather, they surround themselves by the silence that unites two people in their frienship, as they admire with gratitude the beauty of nature.
Krishnamurti, born near Madras in India in 1895 to a Brahmin family, lost his mother when he was very young. When he was still a child, a group of Theosophists saw him on a beach in India. He was subsequently brought up and educated by them to become “the Buddha Miatreya”, the new world teacher. Vanda was born in Florence in 1908, the daughter of Alberto Passigli, business man, musician and founder of the “Maggio Musicale Fiorentino”, and of Clara Passigli, an excellent pianist as well as one of the first Italian women to graduate from university. In the luminous music room in their villa “Il Leccio”, Vanda met well known musicians and thinkers among them Arturo Toscanini, Arthur Schnabel, Bronislaw Huberman, etc. In 1929 she met Krishnamurti for the first time when, as a young woman she attended a Theosophical meeting in Ommen, Holland with her family. It was on that occasion, in front of three thousand followers, Krishnamurti pronounced his famous speech, “…truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it through any track, any religion, or any sect…”. After dissolving the Order of the Star that the Theosophists had founded in his honour, Krishnamurti started to spread the message of internal freedom that would make him one of the greatest spiritual teachers of his era. Vanda got a degree in piano from the music conservatory, and later studied composition in Paris. She married Luigi Scaravelli, Professor of Philosophy, with whom she had two children, and also led an active social and cultural life. Her friendship with Krishnamurti was a lasting one, and it was thanks to him that she started to study yoga.
Vanda’s family was very friendly with Krishnamurti. Each year during his travels between India and America, he would spend time in their villa outside Florence, where no one expected him to be a guru and where he could think and write in peace. During the summers they hosted him in the Chalet Tanneg in Gstaad, Switzerland. There, every morning from seven to eight, the master B.K.S. Iyenger gave him yoga lessons, and after that he would also give a lesson to Vanda. And so, for a few years she had the privilege of studying privately with one of the world’s most famous (yoga) teachers. When she started she was almost 50 years old and going through a difficult emotional period due to sudden death of her husband in May 1957. Yoga, to which she committed herself without expectations or prejudice, proved helpful. “I did not know that it would help me”, declared Vanda in an interview with Yoga Journal (American edition), “because I practised it like tennis or any other game, for me it was fun. But it acted on me much more profoundly than I could understand at the time. A new life entered my body. In nature flowers bloom in spring and then again in autumn. This is what I felt was happening to me”.
Later, still in Switzerland, Vanda Scaravelli refined the study of breath with Desikachar, the son of Krishnamacharya, who was invited by Krishnamurti. Without searching for it, she studied with two of the most important Indian teachers, with whom she kept up a true friendship. Later when Desikachar passed through Florence, he always visited her and chanted for her. But, as Vanda wrote in her book Awakening the Spine, it was when she stopped having lessons and became her own pupil that yoga revealed itself to her in all its beauty. Once again, Krishnamurti was indirectly responsible. While practising yoga he would exert himself too much and would get tired, so Vanda tried to find a way to help him. She discovered that, by following the wave of the breath, the body would become supple and elastic. She discovered that the secret, so simple that it becomes mysterious, is in the “not doing”, that the less one does, the more one arrives, that one must work “with” not “against” (the body). It is not about proving something, but about “being” without effort. It is about remaining in the wave of the breath with joy, with an intelligent heart, without becoming a slave of ideas. It is about rooting oneself to the ground and allowing the force of gravity to be the base of support, in order to be able to extend the upper part of the body.
The clarity of the writing
Vanda explained her revolutionary approach to yoga in a book, written in limpid, elegant prose, that she wrote when she was 83. The photos in Awakening the Spine show her in challenging and demanding poses that alternate with images of nature chosen by her to illustrate liberty, love, the knowledge of bodies, all fundamental ingredients of her yoga. Here are a few phrases from her book:
“Yoga must not be practised to control the body: it is the opposite, it must bring freedom to the body, all the freedom it needs.”
“There is nothing that must be done. It is not a state of passivity, but on the contrary, it is a state of observation. We must be most active inside ourselves to go “with” and not “against” our body and our emotions. There is beauty in the acceptance of what is.”
“Breathing and yoga exercises bring energy and transform the body from matter to energy.”
“It is not possible to teach how to breathe. But one can discover a lot by attentively following inhalation and exhalation while looking and listening to the heart beat and to the way the lungs move.”
Breath sculpts the physique
Vanda thought that one can start practising yoga at any age, even at 70 or 80, if one follows the breath, if one works “with” the body and not “against” it, and if one is ready to receive the energy. “Yoga”, she said, “does not modify age, but the body becomes healthier. If we do not retire from life, if we do not close ourselves in a shell, old age does not exist.” In the video “Vanda Scaravelli on Yoga” (Esther Myers Yoga Studio) one can see her at 88 while she teaches in Toronto, and, with elegance and naturalness, demonstrates Urdhva Dhanurasana (the archer pose starting by standing). “I have seen Vanda Scaravelli”, writes Esther Myers, one of her few pupils, “execute Urdhva Dhanurasana for more than ten years, and every time it was as if I saw the arching of her body for the first time. I looked and listened to this powerful woman in her mid 80’s, plant her large foot on the ground and talk of sprouting roots. Then, with a rhythmic movement like a wave, she would arch to the ground and then become erect again, all the while talking about sprouting wings, the freedom of birds, and of love. She would go up and down like this as though she could do it for ever”. Technically (if one can use that work with her), she talked about listening to the body. She explained that if we allow gravity to pull us down, and if from the waist down we send ‘roots’ deep through the ground to help us be grounded, and if we are open and keep relaxed to this thrust towards the earth, the upper part of the body will become light, open, receptive and relaxed. The more the lower part of the body sinks down, the more the upper part lengthens and relaxes. A wave is then produced inside the spinal column and, if one follows it, the body will be able to move with agility.
An unusual teacher
Vanda started teaching when she was 60. She has had very few students (less than 10). Rossella Baroncini has been one of her youngest followers and the only one who was not already a yoga teacher. Rosella started to study with her when she was 26 and continued for almost 20 years until Vanda’s death at 91 in 1999. “We worked three consecutive hours”, states Rossella, “She taught in her house, a small living room that also held her piano. A pleasant, normal room with a beautiful view of the Tuscan hills. She lived alone, but at least once a month she would invite friends, artists, and musicians. I was there when she received the phone call announcing the death of Krishnamurti in ’86. No one knew it yet. They had always remained friends. While he was deeply rooted in Indian tradition, Vanda integrated with her yoga the knowledge she shared with her philosopher husband, the art which she breathed in her family home, Western culture and her feminine sensibilities. She never spoke to me about Patanjali or the Bhagavad Gita,” continues Baroncini, “instead she put me in touch with her profound path through her incredible inner freedom. She never asked me to do anything for her in exchange for her teaching. Rather it was the opposite: it was she who, after class would invite me to lunch. Vanda avoided all kinds of manipulations. She had already lived all the phases of her life. As her children were adults, she was a free woman. Our reciprocal commitment was communication. Between us there was not only a simple friendship but also a great affection. She was my teacher and she is still that. She had a lot of patience, a great faith, and great trust. Although she did not impose anything, having lessons with her was hard work. It was a difficult three hours under her eyes and her strong hands that were never distracted. She wanted yoga to be fruit of a deep internal listening, and technique had to be an individual discovery”. She never wanted to set up a school, a tradition that creates limits. “Teaching”, she said, “starts with freedom and ends with freedom… comprehension brings one to independence and liberty.” In an interview given to the Yoga Journal (American edition), she explained what yoga meant for her. “It is health, it is comprehension, it is creation, and it is above all love. When you are open, love comes in. It is when you are defensive and fearful that you close the doors. When you are open, you can communicate with the person that is near you, with nature, with the world, and you become one with everything that surrounds you”.
by Emina Cevro Vukovic
Emina Cevro Vukovic
Translated by Paola Scaravelli, from the Italian Yoga Journal, June 2008.
Vanda Scaravelli, Awakening the Spine, Harper Collins, San Francisco (1991) Awakening the Spine
In this book, written when she was 83, the teacher explains her revolutionary approach to yoga.
Can be purchased through Esther Myers Yoga Studio (estheryoga.wpengine.com/products/book).
Vanda Scaravelli on Yoga DVD, Esther Myers Yoga Studio (1991)
(*available in DVD or file download from Esther Myers Yoga Studio, estheryoga.wpengine.com/products/dvds)
Description: Vanda’s student Esther Myers interviews the famous teacher in Toronto. Interviews, conversation, and practical demonstrations.
In her footprints
The teaching of Vanda Scaravelli continues today in Italy with Rossella Baroncini (www.rossellabaroncini.com), Diane Long (www.dianelongyoga.com), Sandra Sabatini (www.sandrasabatini.info) and Elizabeth Paunz (www.florencescaravelli.com). In Toronto (where she visited her daughter), Esther Myers (1947-2004) (estheryoga.wpengine.com/classes) was the founder of a school, Esther Myers Yoga Studio, that has trained many teachers and has spread Vanda’s approach to yoga in Canada and the United States. Monica Voss (also a student of Vanda) and Tama Soble now own, direct and teach at Esther Myers Yoga Studio.