“Working with gravity, the breath, and the spine”

This is how yoga inspired by the work of Vanda Scaravelli is most commonly described. The first of these, gravity, has been the single most important revelation in my personal practice. The feeling of being pulled into the earth – the sensation of grounding – never fails to bring me back into the practice, to provide fresh inspiration and a deeper level of understanding and commitment.

We can work with the concept of gravity in a couple of ways:

Physically, the forces of gravity are clearly important. Gravity has shaped our physical development. Our fluid systems (blood, lymph etc) are affected by it; our bones and muscles have developed under the pull exerted by its forces. Whether or not we are aware of it, all our movements are made under its influence. It is a constant, and necessary, force in our lives, condensing and strengthening our bones, and creating the conditions necessary for musculo-skeletal strength and stability. Astronauts who spend long periods of time in space loose bone density, because they float in micro-gravity rather than working against the tug of Earth’s gravity each day.

Psychologically, too, gravity plays a part in our existence. When the body is grounded, there is a sensation of rootedness, a sense of being connected to and supported by the earth. This provides a pathway for unnecessary tension to fall away, leaving us feeling supported, stable, safe and secure. Accompanying this is an impression of lightness and space. Unrestricted by the resistance created by doubt and tension, a weightlessness and buoyancy rise up through the structures of the body. We experience calm, the freedom of effortless movement. This leads to spaciousness within the mind, and the body, that develops a sense of deep inner quiet and peace. Becoming grounded settles us within ourselves. It helps us to become content.

Understanding that these conditions may be elusive, how can we develop our ability to experience this?

  • Tension (physical and psychological) is held in the muscles
  • Tension is conducted away from the body through the bones

When muscles work they are in a state of tension. This tension is necessary in order to move the bones. However, many of us exhibit patterns of unnecessary tension or “holding”. These holding patterns develop in response to a whole range of triggers: postural issues caused by bad habits, poor workstation set up, slumping, repetitive tasks, emotional issues, trauma – physical or psychological – stress, injury. We may also be influenced by the poor habits of our parents and other role models who we observe and unconsciously mimic. The resultant unnecessary tension lodges in key areas of the body – typically the pelvis, shoulder girdle and neck – manifesting in unnatural and unnecessary movement patterns. The outcome is that when we carry out simple tasks (such as forward bending), we may simultaneously display completely unnecessary parasitic movements – e.g. lifting of the head (shortening the neck), gripping the toes, pulling up the quadriceps, and so on.

This unnecessary tension uproots the body – it literally pulls our bodies away from the ground and resists the downward tug of gravity – with the result that we find certain postures difficult. If we can learn to release unnecessary tension, we feel more in touch with the physical weight of our bodies, the skeletal structure becomes more apparent, and we are gradually able to sink into ourselves and become more grounded. This sensation of feeling more grounded physically may also work back through the nervous system via the vagus nerve (ParaSympathetic Nervous System – PSNS) into the psychological, so that we may ultimately become more balanced human beings.

We can begin to approach this question working purely with the physical by applying the following suggestions which may help us to let go of unnecessary tension.

Choose a few simple positions and, in each one:

  • Imagine the base of the body imprinting into the floor
  • Examine which actions may help to encourage a stable base
  • Allow the bones to act as columns of support
  • Visualise tension passing through the bones
  • Work out which point the body pivots around
  • Experiment to discover if there are other routes through which you could allow the tension to fall away from the body
  • Ask yourself what you are really feeling in this position. Stay in the position and meditate on this question. If you have a yoga buddy, someone who you practice with regularly, describe in detail your experience here. How could it be improved or made easier for you?